Kate and Sam Keeper discuss the semiotics of Homestuck before being interrupted by a message from an eboy. Topics: Pesterquest. Gamzee. Semiotics. Sideshow Bob. Homestuck's messiness. Andrew Hussie writes into the show about the epilogues?!
Listen to this episode at https://perfectlygenericpodcast.com/updates/episodes/52
This transcript is incomplete. You can help by expanding it.
The Homestuck Epilogues: Bridges And Off-Ramps
by Andrew Hussie
The history of printed version of The Homestuck Epilogues is also the history of The Homestuck Epilogues themselves, because I originally envisioned releasing them only as a book like this, to even further emphasize their conceptual separation from the main narrative. If you know anything about the epilogues, you probably already understand that conceptually distinguishing themselves from the story by their presentation as "fanfiction" is an important part of their nature and what they are trying to say. In the form of a book (which you can read from one side, or flip upside down and read from the other) it somewhat carries the feeling of a cursed tome. Something which maddeningly beckons, due to whatever insanity it surely contains, but also something which causes feelings of trepidation. There's an ominous aura surrounding such a work, probably for a few reasons. The sheer size of it means the nature of the content probably isn't going to be that trivial. The stark presentation of the black and white covers, its dual-narrative format, the foreboding prologue combined with an alarming list of "content warnings", and even the fact that an "epilogue" is delivered with a "prologue" first, all adds up to a piece of media that appears designed to make the reader nervous about what to expect from it. Such is the nature of a cursed tome retrieved from a place which may have best been left undisturbed. It is also the nature of any creative inclination to reopen a story which had already been laid to rest - a reader's desire to agitate and then collapse the bubble which contained the imagined projection of "happily ever after", simply by observing it. There exists inherent danger in a reader's eagerness to collapse that bubble, or to crack that tome. There is also danger in a creator's willingness to accommodate that desire. It's a risk for all involved. It should be.
Obviously, it wasn't released as a book, until now (the plans for printing it had already been made, but were just delayed until well after its release on site). We decided to just release it all on the site so everyone could read it right away if they wanted. There was a long tradition of making all content freely accessible on the site, and we just produced one utterly enormous update which we were perfectly aware would cause a massive amount of discussion and agitation in the fandom. Overall it was probably better to just get it out there, let people read it relatively quickly, form their opinions on it, and then begin discussing it critically. In other words, people were going to feel something from all this, so it seemed better to just let it out there, allow the maximum number of people feel whatever it would cause them to feel, give people time to process those feelings, and then move on to whatever comes next.
But what comes next? That's a good question. I feel like the work does a lot to suggest it's not merely following up on the lives of all the characters after a few years, but also reorganizing all narrative circumstances in a way that points forward, to a new continuity with a totally different set of stakes. In this sense, I think it's heavily implied to be a piece of bridge-media, which is clearly detached from the previous narrative, and conceptually "optional" by its presentation, which allows it to also function as an off-ramp for those inclined to believe the first seven acts of Homestuck were perfectly sufficient. But for those who continue to feel investment in these characters and this world, ironically the very elements which could be regarded as disturbing or depressing are also the main reasons to have hope that there is still more to see. Because, as certain characters go to some length to elaborate on, you can't tell new stories without reestablishing significant dramatic stakes: new problems to overcome, new injustices to correct, new questions to answer. There can be no sense of emotional gratification later without first experiencing certain periods of emotional recession. And by peeking into the imagined realm of "happily ever after" to satisfy our curiosity, we discover that our attention isn't so harmless, because the complexities and sorrows of adult life can't be ignored. Nor can the challenges of creating a civilization from scratch, when several teenagers are handed god-status. It turns out the gaze we cast from the sky of Earth C to revisit everyone isn't exactly friendly, like warm sunlight. It's more like a ravaging beam, destructive and unsettling to all that could have been safely imagined. Our continued attention is the very property which incites new problems, and the troublemakers appear to be keenly aware of this. So they spring into action, and begin repositioning all the stage props for a new implied narrative. But "implied" is all it was. There was no immediate announcement for followup content, and I'm not announcing anything here yet either. More time was always going to be necessary to figure out what to do next, including what form it takes, the timing, and all those questions. For now I think it was alright to just let things simmer for a while, and give people an extended period of time to meditate on the meaning of the epilogues and why they involved the choices they did. But regardless of anyone's conclusions about it, I can at least confirm that it WAS designed to feel like a bridge piece since its conception.
Is it this way because an epilogue SHOULD be this way? No. It is this way because I thought that was the most suitable role for an epilogue to play in the context of the weird piece of media Homestuck has always been. The story experiments a lot with the way stories are told, and in particular messes with the ways certain stretches of content get partitioned and labeled. Playing with the labeling I think has ways of bringing attention to those labels, what they actually mean, and how they affect our perception of the events covered under certain labels. It can even get us to wonder why certain labels exist at all, and can expose "flaws" in the construction of stories which include them. For instance, "intermission" is such a label. But perhaps another way of saying intermission is, "whoops, the story is getting too long, here's a break from the real story with a bunch of dumb shit that doesn't matter". It's seemingly a tacit admission to a problem. And by continuing to toy with that label as the story rolls along, you start to unpack the nature of that problem by implicitly asking questions about it. If you have one intermission because the story got long... can you have two if it gets longer? Can you have even more than that? Once you have a multitude of intermissions, don't you have two dueling threads of content, one supposedly "irrelevant", and the other important? And if that's true, then is it possible for the "irrelevant" thread to accrue more importance, throwing its entire identity as "optional content" into question retroactively? And if that can happen, is it possible the two threads can flip roles, with the intermissions becoming more important than the main acts? Then once the story goes through the motions of answering "yes" to all of this, isn't it also fair to ask, why bother with this examination at all? Was it pure horseplay and trickery? Actually, yes, sort of. There is a trick involved. The gradual realization that intermission content is nontrivial forces the reader to reevaluate their perception of the material, which was originally influenced by a label presiding over that material, and what they believed that label meant. It relies on the reader's presumption about the label's meaning to disguise certain properties of the content (like relevance), and therefore disarms the reader initially, leading to the potential for subverting expectations about the content later in surprising ways. In other words, you can use whatever it is the reader already presumes they know about stories in order to control the perception of what they are reading, just by gradually shifting the boundaries of whatever it is they've been well trained to expect from certain elements.
So now the label "epilogue" has been toyed with in a similar way, and also in a manner which exposes an apparent flaw with the label. Or actually, just by using the label "epilogue" at all, it seems the story is admitting to an apparent flaw. If another way of saying intermission is "whoops, story's too long, here's a break", then an alternate way of saying epilogue is "whoops, I forgot some shit, here's some more". And we know right away this label will be subject to the same kind of trickery, since there are two story paths of eight epilogues each, prefaced by a shared prologue. It's already an unhinged implementation of the label before you even read it, which means it's probably time to get nervous about whether it satisfies your expectations about what the content existing under such a label should provide. Before you read it, it's already an invitation to start questioning what an epilogue even is, and whether it's kind of a silly idea even if applied conventionally. Take a 50 chapter novel with an epilogue, for example. Why isn't the epilogue just called chapter 51? Why was the choice made to label that content differently? Should we consider it an important part of the story, or should we not? If it's not important, why are we reading it? And if it is important, why is it given a label which is almost synonymous with "afterthought"? Is it a simple parting gift to the reader, to provide minor forms of satisfaction which the core narrative wasn't built to provide? Is it actually important to deliver those minor satisfactions? If it really is important, why didn't that content appear in chapter 51? And if it isn't, why bother at all? What are we even doing here?
By going down this path of questioning, it sounds like we're assembling a case against writing epilogues altogether. But actually, there's really nothing wrong with them. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to include in any story. It's just that the more you ask questions like these, the more you are forced to think about the true nature of these storytelling constructs, the actual purposes they're meant to serve. And with something like Homestuck, where issues like this are heavily foregrounded, like what should be considered "canon" vs. "not canon", or even more esoteric concepts like "outside of canon" or "beyond canon", then the issues you uncover when you ask such questions about an epilogue can't really be ignored. My feeling is, there's almost no choice but to turn the conventional ideas associated with epilogues completely inside-out, because of the inherent contradictions involved with crossing the post-canon threshold and revealing that which was not meant to be known. Stories end where they do for certain reasons, answering the questions which were thematically important to answer, and leaving some questions unanswered for similar reasons, and the reader is left with the task of deciphering the meaning of these decisions. Under the "whoops, I forgot some shit, here's more" interpretation of an epilogue as a flawed construct, by reopening an already closed-circuit narrative, what you're really doing is introducing destabilizing forces into something which had already reached a certain equilibrium, due to all the considerations that went into which questions to answer, and which to leave ambiguous. And these destabilizing forces became the entire basis for the construction of an entirely new post-canon narrative, for better or worse.
These are the types of things the epilogues let you to think about, along with a few other ideas. Like the fact that all narratives have perspectives and biases, depending on who is telling the story, even in the case where it's unclear if the narrator has any specific identity. The suggestion that all narratives are driven by agendas, sometimes thinly disguised, other times heavily. There's also stuff to think about just due to its presentation as fanfiction, and that it's the first installment of Homestuck which included other authors (contrary to some speculation I've seen, every word of all seven acts were written by me alone). By deploying it as mock-fanfiction, and including other authors, I'm making an overt gesture that is beginning to diminish my relevance as the sole authority on the direction this story takes, what should be regarded as canon, and even introducing some ambiguity into your understanding of what canon means as the torch is being passed into a realm governed by fan desires. If the epilogues really prove to be the bridge media they were designed to feel like, then I expect this trend to continue. The fanfiction format is effectively a call to action, for another generation of creators to imagine different outcomes, to submit their own work within the universe, to extend what happens beyond the epilogues, or to pave over them with their own ideas. And I believe the direness in tone and some of the subject matter suitably contributes to the urgency of this call to action.
I also think many of the negative feelings the story creates isn't just an urgent prompt for the reader to imagine different ideas, or ways to resolve the new narrative dilemmas. It's also an opportunity for people to discuss any of the difficult content critically, and for fandom in general to continue developing the tools for processing the negative emotions art can generate. Sorting that out has to be a communal experience, and it's an important part of the cycle between creating and criticizing art. I think not only can creators develop their skills to create better things by practicing and taking certain risks, fandom is something which can develop better skills as well. Skills like critical discussion, dealing constructively with negative feelings resulting from the media they consume, interacting with each other in more meaningful ways, and trying to understand different points of view outside of the factions within fandom that can become very hardened over time. Fandoms everywhere tend to get bad reputations for various reasons, maybe justifiably. But I don't see why it can't be an objective to try to improve fandom, just as creators can improve their work. And I think this can only happen if now and then fandoms are seriously challenged, by being encouraged to think about complex ideas, and made to feel difficult emotions. I believe when art creates certain kinds of negative feelings in people, it can lead to some of the most transformative experiences art has to offer. But it helps to be receptive to this idea for these experiences to have a positive net effect on your life, and your relationship with art.
So now I'm looking to all of you on the matter of where to go next. Wherever the most conscientious and invested members of fandom want to drive this universe, as well as the standards by which we engage with media in general, that will be the direction I follow.