A ‘retcon’ overwrites the past; a ‘procon’ overwrites the future

“Retroactive continuity, or retcon for short,” to use Wikipedia’s definition, “is a literary device in which established facts in a fictional work are adjusted, ignored, or contradicted by a subsequently published work which breaks continuity with the former.” If the hero’s sidekick dies in Book 6, leaving fans disappointed with Book 7, and is resurrected in Book 8 (with or without explanation), that’s a retcon. Retcons can also be more subtle, as when the fictional world undergirds itself with a revised history.

Does it ever happen the other way around? Can the contradictory or problematic detail happen first, while the authoritative detail appears in a subsequently published work? Would that be a “proactive continuity,” let’s say a “procon” for short?

Rodin's statue of "The Thinker" with a thought bubble that says "Hmmm."

It seems that this is impossible. At least in fiction, the detail that happens first has to be the authoritative detail until further notice; there can’t be any contradiction until the subject is dealt with twice. Right?

Election-rigging in Azerbaijan: A chronological failure in the narrative

Ah, but let’s consider Azerbaijan’s 2013 election! This is not fiction; this is a thing that really happened. When President Ilham Aliyev ran for re-election under a dark cloud of suspicion, the Azerbaijani election board released an iPhone app to display the vote tally so the public could feel confident that the election was legitimate. The app release did not go as planned. It displayed the election results one day before anyone had cast a ballot.

This incident is described on the first episode of Power Corrupts, a new podcast written and narrated by Brian Klaas that launches today, May 2, 2019, on iTunes, Spotify, RadioPublic, and Stitcher.

“I mean, for the guy who accidentally pressed that button—you had one job, right?” Klaas says. Though Aliyev retained his presidency, he lost what little pretense to integrity he still had. “Pro tip for all the dictators listening out there: if you’re going to just make up election results, try not to release them until at least some people have voted.”

Lesson for writers

When election results are released the day before the election, they contradict the world of which they are a part. They cannot be true. They attempt to influence an uncertain future whose possible outcomes someone already rejects. They attempt to control the future proactively. As I see it, this election-rigging incident is a real-life example of proactive continuity. (I made up that term. Let me know in the comments whether you think it works.)

People do try to change facts both before and after they happen. People want to control the future sometimes more than they want to erase the past.

I imagine it can be done in fiction, too. It may be part of what we mean when we identify an “unreliable narrator.” A novelist often deliberately embeds implausibilities and contradictions; they are part of the character development. Such unreliability can confuse or distract readers who are unforgiving or otherwise not along for the ride.

Leaving aside arts and entertainment and again considering real life, it’s important to remember that, when real people are deliberately unreliable—for example, by reporting results of an election that wasn’t held—they’re gaslighting, and that’s a tool of dictators.

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