The Danger of Answers

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(WARNING: this article contains spoilers for Bladerunner. If you haven’t seen it then oh my god what the hell are you doing reading a blog? Go and watch Bladerunner!)

Patrick Rothfuss wrote a very interesting review of Rama II (and subsequent blog post) in which he discussed “the danger of sequels”. In short, he felt that Rama II, though itself not a bad book, was so different stylistically and thematically from the first that he did not enjoy it. Worse, in the introduction it mentioned that Clarke had always intended Rendezvous with Rama to be a standalone novel. This retroactively ruined the first book for Pat. That, in a nutshell was his problem with sequels.

In his own words

It turns out Clarke wrote Rendezvous with Rama as a stand-alone novel

I’d assumed he was teasing us with a mystery. I’d assumed he had answers he was going to give us eventually.

But he didn’t. And that is a betrayal of trust.

He believes that Rendezvous with Rama is now a lesser story for knowing that fact; that there was never going to be an explanation for where Rama came from or what it’s purpose was; that it was an unfinished story – a cheat; that we deserve more respect as readers, deserve to know more.

I agree that there is, most definitely, a “Danger Of Sequels”, but I believe in fact that it is part of a greater, Grand Unified Danger – The Danger Of Answers

Mystery is the essence of story telling. The writer creates questions. The anticipation that we will learn the answer to these questions on the next page, or in the next chapter, or the next book, is the very thing that drives us to keep reading / watching / playing through a story. Neil Gaiman, when asked how he would decorate a Library wall, suggested the simple question “and then what happened?”. This feeling, this desire to know the outcome is the key to a good story. If there is no alluring mystery, no drive to know what happens next, then the story has failed.

But questions need answers, right? A story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. We must learn what happens to our protagonist. Does he get the girl? Does he destroy the death star? Does she win her big dancing competition? We need to know these things or we’ll leave the cinema / throw the book across the room in anger.

However – big caveat coming – not ALL questions are supposed to have answers. There is such a thing as a beautiful mystery – a mystery in which the question is better left unanswered. Why? Because sometimes, we should be left wondering. There is a real power in mystery. If Philip Marlowe doesn’t unravel the mystery by the end of the book it would be a lame Chandler novel. But likewise, if we know how long Rachel and Deckard have together, and what happens to them, it ruins the end of Blade Runner.

Just because we want to know what happens, does not mean we should.

It’s recently been announced that there is going to be a sequel to Blade Runner, and Harrison Ford is in it, and no good can come of it because it will retroactively ruin the original. We will learn what happened to Rachel and Deckard, and it will destroy the mystery. (unless he plays another character. Actually EVEN if he plays another character, because that probably makes Deckard a replicant, and we don’t want to know, lalalala I’m not listening)

Lost was a prime example of the answers failing to live up to the mystery. Season 1 and 2 were full of beautiful mysteries. Each episode brought up more questions. Who are the others? What’s the Dharma initiative? What do the numbers mean? Most of these questions should never have been answered, because no answer could be good enough. That final season tried to answer every question laid out in the previous five seasons, and it was a big fat disappointment.

Star Wars is another good example (and is perhaps the most famous example of the Danger of Sequels, if we accept that a Prequel is a type of sequel) There are mysteries in A New Hope, in the original trilogy – there are things left unspoken and stories left untold. George Lucas (unwittingly perhaps) created a beautiful mystery with Obi-Wan – with Leia’s line about serving her father in the clone wars. It hinted at this huge, epic history – this larger-than-life, bigger-than-the-galaxy story which pre-empted an old man going on one last adventure. But it should never have been told. Because even if the whole thing hadn’t been a jumped-up firework display of a toy-advert – even if the prequel trilogy were the three greatest movies ever made – they retroactively stepped on the mystery created in A New Hope. They broke it. Nothing in Menace / Attack / Revenge could ever live up to our collective imaginations.

We are not meant to know all that Obi-Wan has been through. Just like we are not meant to know what is in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or what Bill Murray whispers to Scarlett Johanssen. (Sorry my examples are all movies, I can’t think of any literary examples just now).

Pat called what Arthur C Clarke did “A betrayal of trust”.

Clarke meant for Rama to be a standalone novel. And as a standalone work, perhaps it lacks punch, but there are questions it poses which are better left unanswered. The beautiful weirdness of Rama itself is a mystery, and the answers will never live up to that mystery.

The real betrayal of trust is not that Clarke was never going to give us the answers. The betrayal of trust is that he did – that he created a beautiful mystery in Rendezvous with Rama and then later allowed some other author to fill in the gaps that were left for our imagination.

He should have known better.

And Ridley Scott should know better too.