- “This Makes No Sense At All”Heterarchy in Fictional Universes
On June 1, 2012, one day after the premiere of the film Prometheus in London, the bbc conducted a radio interview with the film’s director, Ridley Scott. In the course of the interview, the host asked Scott if the film, although clearly being “in the same constellation, the same galaxy,” was a prequel to Scott’s 1979 film Alien, to which Scott replied, “absolutely not” (qtd. in Mayo and Kermode 2012: n. pag.). The comment prompted a lively debate in numerous fanzines, magazines, and newspapers (e.g., The Guardian, New York Post, Scientific American, Huffington Post). Whether or not one considers Prometheus a prequel to Alien wholly depends, of course, on one’s definition of “prequel”: a general definition of “prequel” as a fictional storyworld1 that is chronologically prior to, but in the same fictional universe as, another fictional storyworld would make Prometheus a prequel; a specified definition of “prequel” that additionally requires fairly close temporal proximity between the storyworlds, a (logical/causal) connection [End Page 75] of plots, and the inclusion of some key characters at an earlier age or stage would make Prometheus indeed part of “the same constellation, the same galaxy” as Alien, but not a prequel.
As inconsequential as it is, this little quibble illustrates a number of interesting points (authorial intention not being chief among them). For one, by adding storyworld upon storyworld, franchises inevitably create fictional universes. These, it appears, are contested territory in terms of their particular constitution and the meaningfulness and ascendancy of their various elements (characters/creatures, locations, story lines, events, etc.) both within and across the various storyworlds that make up this universe. Moreover, the very fact that fictional universes can reasonably be contested in the first place points to what I would argue is a defining and inevitable characteristic of fictional universes that consist of multiple storyworlds, rather than an unwelcome side effect best left to chatrooms and fanzines: they are open, dynamic, flexible, and heterogeneous, much more so than is frequently acknowledged. One likely reason for this lacuna is the vastness and temporal and transmedial complexity of most franchises; another, I suspect, is that most critical ventures are more interested in how such fictional universes cohere rather than how they do not. I argue that in the case of fictional universes, one is not to be had without the other, and that this can best be come to terms with by conceiving of them as heterarchical.
In this essay, accordingly, I will use the fictional universe of the Alien franchise as an example to make a fundamental argument about the dynamics—that is, the constitution, the extension, the modification, and so forth—of fictional universes and the storyworlds they consist of.
The Heterarchy of Fictional Universes
As is indicated in the opening paragraph, the first heuristic distinction I am making is between “fictional universe” and “storyworld” in order to account for the fact that franchises usually consist of numerous products and/or storyworlds (more on the difference below) that all make a more or less extensive deictic shift to the same fictional universe. Each Alien film, novel, comic, computer game, and so on constitutes one distinct storyworld within the universe of the Alien franchise, even if the [End Page 76] particular storyworld in question is an adaptation of another one in another medium, for example, the novelization of the first Alien film. As Carlos Scolari points out, transmedia storytelling is never “just an adaptation from one media to another. The story that the comics tell is not the same as that told on television or in cinema; the different media and languages participate and contribute to the construction of the transmedia narrative world” (2009: 587).
I am following Clare Parody’s definition of “franchise storytelling” as “the creation of narratives, characters, and settings that can be used both to generate and give identity to vast quantities of interlinked media products and merchandise, resulting in a prolonged, multitextual, multimedial fictional experience” (2011: 211). A franchise thus constitutes what Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana P. Tosca call a “transmedial world”:
Transmedial worlds are abstract content...