Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Apologia Pro Tie-In Fiction

Among the genres of books, there are varying degrees of respectability and prestige.  Superhero movies and Peter Jackson and MMOs might dominate pop culture, but books in the same vein don't have quite the same cachet. Romance is probably at the bottom (which is a whole other conversation, and is mostly based on sexism), but science fiction and fantasy are only a rung or two above.

Hanging off that rung, though, just about level, perhaps, with romance at the bottom of the barrel is the media tie-in books: your movie novelizations, TV series tie-ins, video game adaptations, and so forth.  And though they are not unique to the science fiction/fantasy genre, they are perhaps most common within its confines, with the "shared worlds" and "expanded universes" of role-playing games and science-fiction franchises being the most prominent of the whole tie-in category.

However, I declare here and now, without shame or denial, that I am a devoted reader and advocate of tie-ins. Indeed, some of my favorite books come from the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Forgotten Realms book lines.

But why?  Why do tie-ins get such a bad rap?  And if that bad rap is undeserved, what are the attractions of tie-in fiction?  Well, to answer the latter question, it mostly comes down to one word: freedom.

Evil Skywalkers. Gay Starfleet officers. Tie-ins have the freedom to do things that blockbuster movies and TV shows, desperate to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and thus averse to offending anyone's sensibilities or expectations, at least too much, simply cannot.  These books are aimed at a fairly niche, and almost by definition intensely attached, audience that is more forgiving than others.  In other words: we're such nerds we won't whine if there's a touch of TEH GHEYS or whatever, except maybe on message boards if you're one of those nerd assholes, but will end up buying the next one anyway.

There is also the freedom to explore.  There just isn't the time, or even the interest, to fully explore the rich history and wide world of even long-running franchise. There are six (going on 9+) Star Wars movies. There are hundreds of hours of Star Trek. There are a few dozen Forgotten Realms sourcebooks. They can only cover so much. But with tie-ins, they can explore Picard's pre-Enterprise career, the history of the Millennium Falcon, or a nature-vs.-nurture bildunsgroman with snake people.  They can explore the past and the future and all the odd little corners of the "present."  They can expand the casts beyond just the big names; sometimes they even make their own big names. (Mara Jade is probably the best example of this).  They can mix it up with other genres, too.  There is a noir gangster story about the Jedi and the Hutts.  Forgotten Realms has delved into Lovecraftian horror.  None of this could happen outside print.

Book prices are outrageous, but it's nothing compared to movies and TV series.  Books can give you epic space battles and magical duels without the need for months of CGI programming, greenscreen, or any of that pesky "cast and crew need to be paid" business.  So you can move beyond bumpy foreheads to truly alien aliens, give a space battle a hundred pages to unravel, and throw epic spells around willy-nilly, all in a cost-effective, for both producer and consumer, form.

Beyond the freedom media tie-in books give, though, is their comfortable entertainment value.  Frankly, it just feels nice sometimes to return to a beloved world you can't visit any other way. Until very recently, the prospect of further Star Wars movies looked just about nil (and we were grateful for that). There is no Star Trek dealing with the post-Voyager era in sight. Forgotten Realms has gotten only a handful of sourcebooks in the 4th edition of DnD.  There's something supremely satisfying about visiting a universe again and again, favorite characters and new situations, or in discovering new favorites in a familiar setting.

(Update per comments:  All of this just as easily applies to fanfic, which is even more "cost effective" for the fan side, being free, as well as having the added attraction of even more creative freedom.  Tie-ins have the luxury of being more creative and daring, but there still is only so far a licensee will go so as no to tarnish the "brand image" with smut like slash.  Smutty, smutty slash.  Heh.)

As to why media-ties have a bad rap in the first place, the main reason is that they're accounted as badly written hack jobs, slapdash affairs to squeeze a cheap nickel from besotted fans. And, let's be honest, there's plenty of crap in this area.  Some really, really bad crap.  And the licensees are most definitely trying to squeeze whatever stray few bucks they can from their intellectual property. But both of those things are true of almost anything, from literary fiction to Hollywood blockbusters to poetry.  The truth is there are some very talented authors doing very interesting work, including but not at all limited to, Karen Traviss, David Mack, and Richard Lee Byers, just to name three from the franchises I follow.

What Traviss did with Boba Fett was wonderful, heartbreaking work. David Mack's Sorrows of Empire made the Mirror Universe Spock a tragic hero of Shakespearean proportions.  Byers's Brotherhood of the Griffon series are rip-roaring adventure stories that also deal with friendship, trauma, and war.  Again, these are just three examples, but there are many others, and they all put paid to the notion that this type of writing is necessarily hackish and uninteresting.  

I hope I've made someone out there at least reconsider any negative opinions with regards to tie-in fiction that are based solely on general public opinion or stereotype.  Like all fiction, it's not for everyone.  We all have our own tastes and preferences.  I'm a firm believer in reading, watching, or listening to any entertainment product we wish, without shame or embarrassment.  I simply feel this one area in particular is misunderstood and deserves a little more love than it has historically gotten. 


Elizabeth said...

Well said. At this point in my life, I am way past the point of feeling shame for what I find entertaining in my fiction. (Although during the height of my Clone Wars-era expanded universe obsession, I admit to feeling a little weird searching out the YA Jedi novels at the library. No one's perfect.)

The only reason I don't read as many tie-ins now as I did when I was younger is that I satisfy that same impulse through fan fiction. For all of the same reasons you cite: desire to revisit a beloved sandbox, and to play around in it with the freedom of not necessarily being tied to official canon or commercial constraints.

And though it's true that the quality of bad fic is way worse than the worst published tie in, it's also free, so I don't feel like I've lost anything but a few minutes (or seconds, depending on how bad it is) of my time. But the really good stuff? Hits all my narrative kinks way better than a lot of published fiction these days. There's definitely something to be said for the freedom to explore without worrying about a publisher's (or canon creator's) tender sensibilities.

Frank said...

Fan fiction definitely thrives on all the same reason. And, yeah, it's free, so it's even more "cost effective," for the fan at least. I'm not really into at this moment in my life, though I was a little into Star Trek fanfic a long time ago, and even tried my hand at it. And you can definitely have even more freedom than the tie-ins. I don't see much official slash after all! Heh.

Elizabeth said...

Not even the slash (although, yes, obviously the slash,, heh) but I remember how excited I was to buy the X-Files tie-ins and then how bummed that they were just boring casefiles with little to none of the character/relationship stuff I watched for.

And then I discovered XF fanfiction on usenet and it was all over... (I think the first tie in I ever bought was a TNG novel called "Imzadi" which should tell you all you need to know about my reading preferences.)

Frank said...

Like I said, tie-ins are like anything else: there is a LOT of crap. Really, really bad crap. I just don't think it's uniquely full of that stuff, it just gets the rap for it.

Imzadi was THE SHIT! And it's one of the most popular Trek novels of all time. People like epic love. And smut.