The Dirtiest Word in Fantasy or Science Fiction

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If you're one of those who gets attacks of the vapors, look away now.

I'm serious. Last chance. Abort now or be prepared to deal with it.

The dirtiest word in science fiction and fantasy is 'retcon'.

Short for 'retroactive continuity', it means going back and altering previously published events.

Let's be clear on what retconning is and is not. It's not a different point of view or different opinion from a different character. It's not fixing typos or spelling errors or genuinely ambiguous conflicts between events or character viewpoint. It's not even new information that changes how the reader views the event (aka 'gutpunch'). It's an unambiguous change to a major event or consequence of a previous point in the story line. Comics are notorious for 'retconning', which is one reason I rarely read comics.

Let's consider one of the best known retcons to a major media property. It's decades old, so if I'm spoiling it for you, you have only yourself to blame. In Star Wars (The original movie) after Luke and Obi-Wan leave the cantina, Han Solo is accosted by a bounty hunter who's got the drop on him, pointing a blaster at Han from a such a distance even a toddler who's never seen a pistol before would have difficulty missing at. Han sits down, distracts the bounty hunter with a line of patter, draws his weapon under the table, and calmly shoots the bounty hunter.

When Lucas was gussy-ing up the original trilogy, he added a completely unbelievable prelude of the bounty hunter shooting first - and missing across the small table before Han shoots. Which is completely unbelievable, unless Han is a member of some weird mystical order with the power to bend light ("Beware! I'm one of the authorprotectedcharacters"). The bounty hunter is a professional, and guns are a tool he has to have some ability with in order to survive in the profession more than a day or two. But for some reason a bounty hunter with a gun pointed at you, wanting to force you to go to a mob boss who's going to kill you isn't enough 'self-defense' for the later George Lucas. It also short-circuits our understanding of the character of Han Solo. It was a perfect Han moment - until it was retconned.

I've never seen retconning be justified. Frankly, I don't think it can be. It's a tool for a lazy writer who can't handle the corner they've written themselves into. You got the benefit of whatever reader or viewer emotion was when you wrote that scene. Now suck it up and deal with the consequences. If you can't make it make sense, go write something new instead.

P.S. In comics, it is to be admitted the writers are doing everything by direction, so it can be laid of the feet of greedy and often lazy executives with the comic company. In their defense, however, comics fans keep letting them get away with it. When the fans stop letting them get away with it, retconning will stop.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on October 8, 2019 7:00 AM.

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