Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Worldbuilding and the Hazards of Canon Fire

The Moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

-- Omar Khayyam

The moving finger can even, as in this case, return after an indecently long interval to write more.

But most to the point, the moving finger, by hitting the publish button, establishes canon. What previously were tentative, fluid possibilities are transformed into either fixed facts or equally fixed nullities. Even the digital era has not, so far, changed this in essentials - ebook editions, at least from commercial publishers, are as fixed as their print counterparts.

Thus, in the course of the spring, Catherine of Lyonesse has taken on its final, official form, the text gradually setting like concrete. Events and details that previously were fluid, contingent, subject to revision, are now fixed in place beyond the reach of piety or wit. Now they are canonical, or will be come the official publication date - August 14 - and the release of the book.

This effect of canonicity does not depend on the technology of print: Omar Khayyam wrote long before the printing press. But print - generating numerous identical copies of a text - surely amplifies this effect. Getting the first couple of copies of C of L off the print run was a wondefully solid experience.

Even more wonderfully the copies smell like books.

And the canonical version is right there in cold print.

In Catherine of Lyonesse I did little worldbuilding of the classic SF/F sort. The world of the book is meant to be evocative of our own, similar enough that the mechanics did not need to be worked out and tested for fit. The population and technology of Renaissance France were sufficient to support the French royal court; given a comparable kingdom, the royal court of Aquitaine did not need to be explained, only invented.

As a result, I nearly got caught by a stray round of canon fire. At some point in writing the manuscript I needed to mention a former king of Lyonesse, one of Catherine's ancestors, and made him Edmund II. The name was intended simply to evoke the Edwards of Plantagenet England.

Much later in the process I drew up a family tree, and merely listing successive kings hinted at a background arc: a failed king; a son who conciliates his subjects; a grandson who takes advantage of the revitalized monarchy to beat up on the neighbors. And so it turned out that the Agincourt-esque battle mentioned in the book would fit better with Edmund III.

By then I'd long forgotten that the manuscript itself still said Edmund II. I didn't catch the mistake until the very end of the proofing process.

Did it even matter? Within the book itself, not at all. Nothing in the text would tell the reader that Edmund le Conquérant should refer to Edmund III, not his father, "Good King" Edmund II - who is not mentioned in the book at all, not even indirectly.

But if I had not caught the discrepancy, I would have been put in a slightly odd quandary going forward. If there is a sequel, it probably will mention Good King Edmund. But then, which Edmund would he be? Would I keep the history arc I inferred from the genealogy, and ignore the regnal number given in the first book? Or accept the printed text as canon, and mentally reconstruct the dynastic history to fit?

Since I did catch the discrepancy before the book went to cold hard print, I was spared that sort of reconning. At least in this case. No doubt further journeys in sequel-land will reveal things I'll wish I had done differently in the first book, but that is a different matter.

More elaborately constructed worlds give their authors a better chance to catch mistakes - but also expand the universe of possible mistakes, so the tradeoff is probably a wash. And canonicity itself is arguably a geek obsession. Major sloppiness in a setting can break the spell - the willing suspension of disbelief - especially if readers can't be sure what merely factual matters in the story they can rely on. But most concerns about canon are just pedantry fuel. Which won't keep me from fretting about them.


The image, via Wikipedia, shows modern reproductions of 16th century naval guns from the wreck of Henry VIII's Mary Rose.