CANON: It’s Not What You Think It Is

One of the very first articles I wrote At Boundary’s Edge was entitled CANON, CONTINUITY & CONTROVERSY. With a focus on the role of expanded universes in the realms of science fiction, that article was essentially written as a response to people who complain about new entries in a series ‘not being canon.’ Here’s the the thing though: Canon doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means. Without falling back on Princess Bride quotes, this new article will untangle some of the Gordian Knot that is the nature of canon.

Definitions

Going to Dictionary.com, you’ll find a lot of different definitions for the word canon. The first reads as follows: an ecclesiastical rule or law enacted by a council or other competent authority and, in the Roman Catholic Church, approved by the pope. The sixth definition reads: the books of the Bible recognized by any Christian church as genuine and inspired. It’s the latter of these that starts us down the line to wear canon now stands. You see, way back in the day, the early Catholic Church decided it would be a good idea to bring together the writing of all the saints. Those that were of suitable providence were assembled into what the Christian world now recognises as the Bible. But, there were more writings examined than made their way into the Bible. Those which did not make the cut were declared Apocryphal. In other words non-canon. Now, I’m not a religious scholar, so I won’t go deeper into this particular field, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Definition 8 reads: any comprehensive list of books within a field, while 10 reads: established or agreed-upon constraints governing the background narrative, setting, storyline, characters, etc., in a particular fictional world. These are the definitions I’ll be focusing on in this article. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to Definition 8 as canon(8), and Definition 10 as canon(10). Bear with me on that.

How People (Mis)Use Canon

If you spend any amount of time in fan communities, you’ll hear the word canon be thrown around a lot. In Star Trek fandom, the canonicity of various shows is hotly disputed. The Animated Series is often considered to be non-canon, while the less-than-stellar continuity of The Original Series makes it tricky to put the canon of those stories in any sort of order. At the less wholesome end of the spectrum, there are certain rather grumpy individuals who will insist that the first series of Discovery can’t be canon, and must be an alternative universe. More on them at a later date.

Switching to Star Wars, we have a famous situation in which two decades of canon(10) was swept under the carpet in favour of new storytelling. The Expanded Universe was relabelled the Legends canon, and the world was never the same again. Unsurprisingly, there are grumpy individuals in this fandom too. In the past week, I have seen someone refer to the sequel trilogy (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker) as ‘fanfiction.’ More generally, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people say something to the effect of ‘the Expanded Universe is still canon to me.’

There’s a lot to unpack in all of this. Because while all of this is a misuse of the word canon, some of these people are also right. Just not in the way they think they are.

The Voice of Authority

Just as the canon of the Bible was assembled by expert priests, so too do modern canons(10) have an authority behind them. The canon(10) of Star Wars is determined by Lucasfilm. Back in the days of the Expanded Universe, there were layers of canon. The (then six) films were the highest level of canon, with books written to fit what occurred on screen rathe rather than the other way around, and comics a step below that. Thus the situation arose in which the prequels ran counter to the version of the Clone Wars established in earlier novels, while later novels twisted themselves in knots to work the new version into the same continuity. When Disney took ownership of the franchise, they declared all former stories (aside from the films and TV shows) non-canon. Now a new canon(10) is being built. Sometimes elements of the older canon are used (Thrwan, for example), but generally the new canon(10) is free to do whatever it wants. Though we are already seeing books take a lower precedence to films and TV shows.

The authority behind a canon(10) is almost always the holder of the commercial rights. Thus CBS determines the canonicity of various Star Trek media. The BBC holds sway over Doctor Who. The Frank Herbert Estate is the only authority on what Dune books are canon(10), regardless of who may be writing them. While some of his work has lapsed into the public domain, the estate of H.G. Wells is still in a position to declare books like Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind an authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds.

There is physically nothing stopping you saying ‘The Force Awakens is fanfiction,’ but you are factually wrong to do so. Fanfiction is, by definition, unauthorised. Yes, JJ Abrams is a self-professed fan, but The Force Awakens is an authorised continuation of the Skywalker Saga. Authorised by the only people who have a legal right to make such a declaration.

People are entitled to have their own headcanons (the version of events they choose to accept as their favourites, and unofficial interpretations of the same), but that does not make it canon(10). Only the rights holder can do that.

Everything is Canon, Actually

However, canon(8) has arrived to throw a spanner in the works. Let’s remind ourselves of what this definition is: any comprehensive list of books within a field. Look again at that second word. Comprehensive. To be comprehensive, you must take into account as much as possible. A comprehensive canon(8) would include all available material, regardless of any internal continuity.

Taking this into account, the Expanded Universe and The Force Awakens are both equally part of canon(10). Why? Because both exist. They cannot co-exist within the same story universe, but in the real universe you can easily slot them beside one another on a shelf. If the canon(8) of Star Wars is simply a collection of all the stories that have ever existed, then both versions of Thrawn are equally valid. Both are totally fictitious, but both stem from the same mythology.

Likewise, though it can be hard to put Lower Decks and Deep Space Nine in an internally consistent narrative, both are important parts of the Star Trek canon(8). By the same token, the fanfiction of Trek and other franchises is not canon(10), but it is canon(8). Because it exists. Because, especially in the case of Star Trek, it forms a part of that franchise’s history.

Conclusion

Canon(8) is too broad to be helpful in most situations. Canon(10) takes creative control away from those who pour their hearts into storytelling. But they are not mutually exclusive. If there is a point to all of this, then it’s a simple suggestion.

Before you talk about canon, do some research. I mean, we’re nerds, aren’t we? We can at least get our terminology straight.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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