The Problem of Prequels

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!