Prequels and the New Year

Happy 2014 to you all, with a special nod to my Thursday Tangents collaborator, Alan Robson, and his wife Robin, who did me the kindness of reassuring me that the 2014 would indeed arrive, since it already had in New Zealand.

The New Year is both a time for thinking forward and – as that perennial favorite “Auld Lang Syne” reminds us – to look back.  That, combined with the novel I finished reading just a few days ago, started me thinking about prequels.

A Couple Prequels

A Couple Prequels

I’m not certain when the word first appeared.  “Prequel” isn’t in that standard reference Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary, but, then again, my copy has a copyright date of 1971.   Nonetheless,  as recently as forty years ago, the term “prequel” was not in common use.  “Sequel,”  by contrast, has roots going back to Middle English.

A prequel is different from a flashback in that a flashback is set within what, in the context of the work, is the “present.”  Flashbacks provide information to help the reader (or viewer) understand present action.  This is true even if they  make up the majority of the work.  A great example of this is Roger Zelazny’s novel Lord of Light, which is, effectively, a series of flashbacks.  These both provide a context for present action and serve to create a considerable amount of suspense since, despite his many attempts, the main character’s carefully crafted rebellions have always ended in failure.  Dare the reader hope that the present attempt has any better chance?

By contrast, a prequel is a work that is set in the past of already available works.  The prequel I just finished reading is Starhawk by Jack McDevitt.  Starhawk is set when Jack’s recurring character, Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins, is a newly minted interstellar spaceship pilot.   It’s a good read.  McDevitt cannot be accused of overwriting.  Indeed, sometimes his prose is so spare I want more.  Despite this, he does a great job of creating a living, breathing universe.  Most chapters end with something that fills out the larger picture.  News headlines are popular, but sometimes the reader gets to eavesdrop on chatroom conversations.  Also included are excerpts from Hutch’s personal journal.   Starhawk is a successful prequel because it works for people like me who have read all the other “Hutch” books, yet could also be a good introduction to the series for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure.

Prequels aren’t easy to write because the writer must be careful not to violate what has gone before.  Starhawk works because by the time in her life when McDevitt introduced Hutch, she was already a skilled pilot with many flights behind her.  It’s reasonable that she isn’t obsessed with these events, dramatic as they are.  They’re part of the larger context of her life.

The Stephanie Harrington novels that I’ve written with David Weber (Fire Season and Treecat Wars) are a different sort of prequel.  They aren’t prequels to Stephanie’s life – indeed A Beautiful Friendship starts when Stephanie is only eleven.  We couldn’t go much further back without writing books like “Stephie Learns to Read” or “Stephie Gets Her First Pet.”

Nonetheless, the Stephanie Harrington books are prequels to the events in the mainline Honorverse novels.  (Stephanie is Honor’s ancestor, a several times great-grandmother.)  One of the biggest challenges we faced was keeping both technology and human/treecat elements in line with what had been presented in Weber’s other works.  Sometimes this was easy.  Other times we had to put in a lot of thought as to why some development or another wouldn’t have been discovered in Stephanie’s time, but had to wait for Honor’s time.  Given that there are several hundred years between, we had quite a challenge in front of us.  Still, I think the stories worked pretty well.

Another challenge was that Weber had already mentioned certain events in Stephanie’s life in the Honor novels.  An aficionado of the Honorverse will already have a sense of some of the major events coming up in Stephanie’s life.  However, when we wrote about her, we had to “forget” what we knew and have Stephanie pursue her various goals with no idea that she would be someone remembered and respected in the far future.

Sometimes a work that wasn’t created as a prequel can be presented as such.  That’s what has happened with Peter Jackson’s movies built around the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, The HobbitThe Hobbit was actually written before the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  However, the movies, with their inclusion of all the extra material taken from other of Tolkien’s works, transform the slender novel into a massive prequel to the grand events that will come.  Is this a good idea?  I haven’t seen the movies, so I can’t say.  However, I will admit that I probably would have seen the movie if it had just been one movie telling the relatively compact story of when a certain hobbit went “there and back again.”

Writers of prequels face stumbling blocks that writers of sequels do not.  For one, the reader knows the main character is not at risk of life or limb.   Another is the danger of including too many “cute” moments explaining various quirks in the characters’ personalities.  In Starhawk, McDevitt lets us know how Priscilla Hutchins came to be known as “Hutch.”  While this never really concerned me (after all, who wouldn’t prefer “Hutch” as a nickname over, say, “Prissy”), it was sort of fun.  However, I felt that the Indiana Jones prequel/flashbacks that explained how Indie got his nickname, his hat, and his fear of snakes turned the character into a joke, rather than what he had seemed – a well-developed person with likes and dislikes.

On the other hand, a good prequel can fill in things a reader has longed to know about a character or setting that could not be put into the original novel or film without creating a dull info-dump.  For example, the Star Wars franchise has successfully produced material about the Clone Wars and other past events that has nicely fleshed out the universe.   A good prequel can even mend problems in the original story.  One of my favorite anime series, SaiYuki, had a distinctly weak ending.  This past year, three episodes titled SaiYuki Gaiden filled in the missing parts.  I have to admit, I was very pleased to have some of my guesses confirmed and to finally feel that particular story arc had been given a solid ending – this despite the fact that I knew from later events that the ending could not be a happy one.

So, how do you feel about prequels?  What are the good ones?  Which are the terrible?  Are there any that you feel are the best place to start the series, rather than the original novel or film?

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6 Responses to “Prequels and the New Year”

  1. Peter Says:

    The OED has “prequel” first appearing in print in 1958, and credits it to Anthony Boucher, writing a review of Blish’s They Shall Have Stars in The Magazine of F&SF, with the term coming into wider popularity in the late 1970s with the release of the film Butch and Sundance; the Early Years. The concept, of course, is much older (there was a prequel to the Iliad…)

    I very much enjoy non-linear storytelling (see the already-mentioned Lord of Light, or Steven Brust’s Vlad novels, or Katharine Kerr’s Deverry cycle), so I tend to also enjoy prequels. Best one I’ve read lately was probably Steven Erikson’s Forge of Darkness, which both illuminates and further confuses (in a good way) his Malazan Books of the Fallen cycle.

  2. Paul Says:

    Ah, prequels – interesting to know that Boucher originated the word (if not the concept). As a kid, one of my first SF reads was Raymond Jones’ “Planet of Light” (1953), a Christmas gift. I liked it so much that, when I found out it was a sequel to “Son of the Stars” (a 1952 precursor to “E.T.” and such-like), I just had to find that one, too. Although written first, to me “Son…” always seemed a prequel since I read the books in reverse order of their publication. Isaac Asimov was prevailed upon to continue his “Foundation” and “robots” series some 30 years after having ended them; he would often recall how hard it was to re-immerse himself in the earlier stuff so as not to make continuity goofs, but said he still made them. Sometimes prequels can be strange, as with TV’s “Enterprise,” a prequel to the original “Star Trek” series which managed to look more futuristic than its “future” version. And with the “Star Wars” movies, with three prequels to the first-released trio, everyone knew everything that had to happen in the last movie (“Chapter Three”) before it happened; it seemed like painting by number. Doing “The Hobbit” after “Lord of the Rings” seems similarly weird. I haven’t read McDevitt’s “Starhawk” books, but now I think I have to.

    • Nicholas Wells Says:

      Being a long time Trekker myself, I’m with on “Enterprise”. Don’t get me wrong. Aside from the Xindi stuff, during which I think the writers lost sight of the characters they built and their identities, it was an interesting sci-fi show on it’s own. But it wasn’t Star Trek. The feel, the setting, the mood… it just wasn’t the same. I sometimes think it was cursed because they never “passed the torch” like they did with the others. Then I think they simply tried too hard to make something old, and weren’t able to keep it in-universe. I liked the show, enjoyed it even. It just wasn’t right.

      And now with the J.J. Abrams movies, they’re REALLY messing with the universe, and pulling the “alternate time-line card”, which to me is a total cop-out. You can do better than that and still tell good tales of the early days when Kirk was a new captain.

      And don’t get me started on the tech side of things in the new Star Trek movies. *Groan*

  3. Paul Says:

    I should have mentioned that Asimov’s last “Foundation” novels, published in 1988 and 1993, were prequels to the 1950s trilogy.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Good point that a sequel can inadvertently become a prequel if you read a series out of order. My Jim read _Return of the King_ before the other two “Lord of the Rings” novels and that really shaped how he “saw” the characters and events in the series.

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