SUPERVERSIVE: The Problem of Prequels

Tuesday , 6, December 2016 10 Comments

deepness-in-the-skyI have a theory: Most prequels and side stories are doomed to be terrible. The reason for this is fairly simple if you stop to take a moment and think about it: if the content of a prequel (or side story) was interesting enough or a relevant enough to be a story, the story would have either included it to begin with or started there in the first place. Good story-telling should start with the beginning of the story. (I suppose there are some exceptions to that rule; I tend to find Peter F. Hamilton to be very satisfying, and I think it’s because he spends 400 pages renovating apartments before stuff starts blowing up. He gives us a world to lose.)

Consider The Phantom Menace: the content is so irrelevant to the actual Star Wars mythos that the creator of the Machete Order advocates skipping it altogether— and not because it’s bad (it is), but because it contributes nothing but Darth Maul, who is largely used more effectively in later cartoons. The Machete Order, in fact, works so well because it takes content that was largely irrelevant to the story older Star Wars fans grew up with and makes it relevant to the story. Watched in Episode Order, Star Wars is two separate series set in the same world, dealing with similar themes (The fall of a corrupt Republic; the fall of a corrupt Empire); watched in Release Order, the prequels are a less-cool version of what a lot of us had already imagined. Watched in the Machete Order, it’s a story about the Skywalker family, and the prequels are suddenly relevant, because HOLY CRAP DARTH VADER IS WHO? How did that happen?

“But Josh,” you say, “There are some excellent prequels out there! And some excellent side stories!”

“No,” I say, “There are not. Put down the pitchfork and torches and stop waving that copy of The Hobbit at me like a club and hear me out.”

The Hobbit isn’t a prequel, and people need to stop saying it is. It predates The Lord of the Rings by nearly twenty years; The Lord of the Rings is its sequel. That doesn’t make The Hobbit its prequel anymore than The Wrath of Khan is the prequel to The Search for Spock. Moving along….

This whole post originally started as a review of Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. It could be described in a certain light as a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, in that it takes places before A Fire Upon the Deep and involves a character from it and a culture mentioned in it. Certain background elements of Deepness make no sense without a knowledge the mechanics of the “Zones of Thought” books, elements unknown to the characters of Deepness. But Deepness isn’t “Look at the origins of Fire‘s villain!” It’s a story, more or less independent, that takes the mechanics and history of the previous book and does something new with them. Near as I can tell (It’s been a long while since I read Fire), Deepness doesn’t actually look to contribute any new info to Fire  or fill out “gaps” in the previous book’s story; it’s a work that exists for itself.

And I think that’s probably the primary issue with prequels and side stories, and also how you do them right. Prequels don’t exist for themselves; they’re not (usually) the book the author actually wanted to write, near as I can tell. They’re written because people really liked a story, and someone (maybe the author, maybe an editor, maybe an exec) sat down and said, “How can I milk this for all it’s worth?” I like capitalism (and milk products) as much as the next level-headed guy, but the vast majority of prequels don’t really seem to be made in good faith with the people that love the original story. They’re cash-ins, and while I’ll admit that that point of view is probably a little cynical, I think it’s safe to say that in seeking to add to the story that spawned them, they very rarely add anything of value because they’re too fixated on the original work.

The Magician’s Nephew seems to be the glaring exception to this; it is very definitely a prequel that fills in backstory for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’m tempted to say that it is Lewis’ overwhelming skill and imagination that made it a good book, but while those absolutely played a role in its success, Lewis was still capable of not being brilliant. I’m probably on record somewhere saying that The Horse and His Boy was a flop. In terms of story, The Magician’s Nephew shares something very specific with A Deepness in the Sky: It is so far removed from the first book in terms of its setting that it has no choice but to stand on its own two legs. (See also: Terry Brooks’ Word and Void series.)

I’m not arguing that there’s never a reason to revisit a world before its first work; The Magician’s Nephew is pretty much my favorite Narnia book. (Charn and the Wood Between the Worlds are both amazing!) But in a world where people who make entertainment seem to fixated on safe bets, prequels are the safest option outside of a reboot. Sooner or later, guys, you’re gonna run out of history to explore. Might be time to take some chances. (I’m looking at you Star Trek. Don’t talk to me about “strange new worlds” until you agree to explore your narrative forward.)

Josh Young is  a seminary student, Castalia House author (featured in God, Robot and author of the forthcoming Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep) and blogger at He can be reached on @BadgerSensei. If you enjoyed this, we’d love to have you visit our main site!

  • Anthony says:

    Glad to meet another “Magician’s Nephew” pusher (though I quite liked “The Horse and His Boy”, so hey). That one is underrated; Uncle Andrew is one of the most entertaining characters in the entire series. “She was a dem fine woman, Sir, a dem fine woman” is one of my favorite lines in the series.

    Is “Fantastic Beasts” a prequel? It’s sort of a combination spin-off/prequel that leans more towards spin-off, and I liked it quite a bit.

    I know you weren’t a huge fan, but Stephen Lawhead wrote two Pendragon Cycle books that took place before part three of “Arthur”, and both were great. One of them is even one of the higher reviewed books of the series if Amazon is any indication.

    Lawhead is an interesting case though. The story with him (which he told me himself in a comment on one of my reviews, which was Way Cool) is that he didn’t originally intend to end it with the third book of the series (the original ending, the one where Arthur dies and goes to Avalon and all that jazz). His publishers decided the series wasn’t selling well enough and so told him to pull the plug on book three, so he was forced to cit short the story and cram in a rushed (but very good) ending.

    Then another publisher contacted him and expressed interest in continuing things.

    So he always had more stories planned for that series anyway, he just wasn’t able to get around to them. I think that’s the difference.

    • Josh Young says:

      I think that’s probably why they’re different, yeah. Lawhead obviously thought the material was relevant enough to include in the first place…. as compared, to “SEE THE REAL BACKSTORY OF MORDRED’S TUTOR’S HORSE!!”

      I haven’t actually seen Fantastic Beasts, but from what I’ve seen/read, it’s more spin-off: It seems very far removed from HP’s modern British setting… unless all of a sudden it turns out the Riddle clan hails from NYC or something.

      • Anthony says:

        Well, there are connections to Dumbledore and Grindelwald, a minor character from the books Dumbledore supposedly defeats in a famous duel.

  • cirsova says:

    The Phantom Menace actually works, but only because it confirms my headcanon that Obi Wan Kenobi is the overarching villain of the Star Wars saga who has set father against son out of his deep jealousy and hatred of Anakin.

    Obi Wan Kenobi is the father of lies in the Star Wars Universe. Despite his death early in the story, the chaos and tragedy his lies set in motion have many far reaching circumstances, visiting upon generation after generation of Skywalkers and now Solos.

  • cirsova says:

    Also, I kinda blame the Hobbit movies for why people use Prequel and Prelude interchangeably.

  • Jesse says:

    The Horse and His Boy would have been great for a spinoff series about just Narnians.

    Prequels succeed or fail based on the level of deference they are required to give to established work, whether or not they extend the original story curve backwards. Pham Nuwen in Fire Upon the Deep is a dashing pulp hero flung into an information-age expanse, but in Deepness he’s a wily old man who’s left all hope behind him, and it takes a lot of analysis to reconcile the two; this doesn’t matter, because they’re not stories about Pham Nuwen, they’re stories about strange aliens written in ways reminiscent of those aliens (multiple plot threads weaving in and out for Fire, a lurk-and-pounce story structure for Deepness). The Star Wars prequels, especially Phantom Menace, lost much of their power when they tried to tie every plot thread they could into the established work, made most jarring with C-3P0’s unwanted presence.

    Lewis did, in fact, violate established worldbuilding in Magician’s Nephew – the green witch is the white witch’s sister, from some family of witches in the North? All forgotten, the White Witch is from a dying H.G. Wells planet destroyed by a magical MAD violation. It works because it’s better, and because what it changed wasn’t very important – we could see Jadis becoming the White Witch, we could see Diggory becoming the old professor, there were no shoehorned Telmarines.

    • Anthony says:

      The Lady of the Green Kirtle never had any relation to the White Witch. That was a mistake the publisher made in the cast of characters they put at the beginning of the books.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Cirsova: Nah, that prelude/prequel problem was there long before Jackson’s abuse of the Hobbit was put on the screen.

    What is this blather of yours about Obi-Wan? (Cross refererences with Cirsova’s Twitter feed….)
    Wait, I…
    No, no, it can’t be!
    Oh, Great Ghu, it explains so much!!!
    Demn you, Obi-Wan! How could you!

    And gee thanks, Cirsova, for being such a helpful ray of sunshine. Now to see if Amazon will let me return that matching Ben Kenobi set of drapes and rugs.

  • Carrington Dixon says:

    Although often placed into chronological order in collections, Howard’s Conan stories were written and first published in random chronological order. Most of his Conan stories can be considered prequels to “Phoenix on the Sword”.

    All Haggard’s Allan Quatermain stories but one are prequels to King Solomon’s Mines.

    • cirsova says:

      Oooh, that’s a really good an interesting point!

      FWIW, though, Conan stories were not overly concerned with establishing a chronological canon. Howard more or less said Conan’s stories came to him as though an old veteran adventurer who’d seen the world was regaling him with his tales… “Did I ever tell you about the one time I…”

      Also, it’s like in that old Dinosaur Comic – every story ever written can be viewed as a prelude, sequel or prequel to Terminator II.

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