Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • Why is there a Verpine in Hard Contact? (A note on continuity, and understanding that it isn't real. Really. It isn't. No causality.)
    (Originally posted on my LiveJournal blog, 2005.)

    Continuity. I tried to stay away from it, but it grabbed me again. We fell to discussing this issue on the media tie-in writers mailing list, a large group of authors who cover everything from CSI, Monk, Buffy, The OC and Alias to B5, Trek and Star Wars. We juggle games, novels, comics, TV, name it. It makes your nose bleed. And it ain't easy.

    Many of us shared tales about glitches in continuity, largely beyond our control, that earned us angry letters and e-mails from fans. When you're busting a gut at the keyboard for 16 hours a day, as many of us do, then the suggestion that we don't give a damn or can't be bothered to check facts is actually pretty annoying.

    I'll stand up here and say that most fans are almost universally very laid back about the whole continuity issue and understand it exceptionally well. It's a running gag between writers and fans a lot of the time, which is fun. I'll just say the words Verpine shatter gun and I'll get a nod and a wink from fans, and more on that later.

    But for anyone who hasn't sat back and considered what continuity really means, here's my take on it, and why you can never, ever, make it perfect. My colleague Ryan Kaufman has blogged eloquently on why listening to the notes makes you unable to hear the symphony, but I'm not musical, so I have to make sense of this in my robotic way by synthesis of data.

    It's all about causality.

    In the real world, events trigger other events. Weather changes: a crop fails. A crop fails, and a civilisation falls. A civilisation falls, and another has the room to grow. And so on. Every action causes and is linked inextricably to the fabric of reality. And - as far as we can perceive - time is linear. Everything happens in order because - again, as far as we can perceive - that's the only way it can happen at all.

    Given time and technology, historians and archaeologists can look back and dig and examine and discover, and piece that chain - or rather three-dimensional web - together. And they still get it wrong, and have to revise their ideas, although they do spit and bitch about that at times. It will, eventually, make sense - because it has happened, and has only been able to happen because other events took place.

    Cut now to the artificial world of the shared universe.

    There is no causality. Even the most painstaking construction can't recreate the infinitely complex interaction of reality, and so things happen that you have to retcon - that's author-speak for retroactive continuity, i.e. adding bits to the past because something has happened in the present or future.

    And this is why I cut Dr. Who a bit of slack as a Time Lord, because it's a right bastard some days to manage a universe. And here's why.

    1. Fiction time is not linear.

    A franchise can span millennia. One day we can be writing 2000 years before a critical date, the next 40 years after. And all points in between. There is no real history to be uncovered, because it never happened - except as how we create it on the fly each day.

    2. Reality (or God) is one author working alone.

    There are hundreds of creatives building franchises every day, from comics to games to books to movies to...thousands of individual pieces of the puzzle. Despite Herculean efforts by full-time content managers, tiny glitches creep in: and there are always gaps. Events are not tied together by reality, by causality, and so there is no inevitable force that stops us doing what can't happen. We only have our memories, our brains and our databases to tie it up as logically as we can. And we have to do that every bloody hour. I might write a chapter or a script today that will send my colleagues scurrying around to knit those "facts" into something they're creating. And they don't even know I've written it yet.

    3. Mistakes happen.

    God might be omniscient and omnipotent, but we ain't. That is all.

    4. Fiction has to make sense, but reality can do as it likes.

    I bore people senseless with this. Reality can be illogical. Fiction has to have its own internal logic, and reality can get in the way of that, as any would-be writer who has tried to incorporate a real event into their work finds out very fast. The edges don't join up with the rest of the story.

    5. Retconning is not evil or weak or dishonest.

    Historians and archaeologists and even scientists ret-con all the time, and they even admit that some things are so wrong they have to be removed from the record. (Or good ones do, at least.) As new data becomes available, they revise their theories. They accept there are gaps in knowledge. And so must we grunts creating in the fiction universe, except our goalposts are always shifting. As long as we admit to it, and do our best to make it as sensible as we can, then it's part of the process of fiction every bit as much as it is the real world. Sometimes it's to correct errors, but mostly it's because there was no information about a topic at all and we had to fill the gap. Discovery, folks: just like history.

    6. Fans don't know it all either.

    Actually, there are gaps in the fictional universe, just as there are in your knowledge of the real world. Fans do have encyclopaedic knowledge, but like authors, they don't ever have the complete picture, and none of us ever can. So just because something hasn't been mentioned by a certain date in the timeline, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist before then.

    Rant over. And I'm glad I don't work on tie-ins to a weekly TV series, which is continuity plate spinning on a cosmic scale.

    So, back to the subject of Verpine shatter guns...and stop giggling. I shall have the last word on this if it kills me.

    The fact that they're first mentioned a long way down a game timeline doesn't mean they didn't exist before. And this is why we will continue to use them prior to that date.

    To build guns that good, the Verpine must have been making them for quite a while. Like any manufacturer, they make various models. Verpine is almost certainly a loose description, like 9mm or Heckler and Kock, and you know how many variations there are on those and how long they've been making them. And, as Verps are pretty rare trade secrets of some badass mercs and heavies, there ain't an Argos catalogue for them.

    So I have no problem with being allowed to use a Verp in a book decades before they're mentioned in a game timeline. Because I can explain very logically why it can be so, and their existence doesn't conflict with any other existing continuity. In fact, it makes better sense, especially to someone like me who's spent a long time reporting on defence procurement and the evolution of kit and ordnance.

    So there. I shall have my Verp. And, as it can punch a hole through anything except enhanced Katarn Mk II armour (yes, I added that, too...) then don't push me, might go off.

    © Karen Traviss 2005