Reboot? No, Re-imagine. (a guest post by J Tullos Hennig)

Reboot? No, Re-imagine.
a guest post by J Tullos Hennig

Has anyone else noticed the trend? Fairy tales retold. Yet another blockbuster comic remake. Well-loved franchises trotted out, either to success or despair—or both. Book covers featuring the same tropes (often involving someone with their head chopped off at the upper lip, or some silhouetted dude or chick in leather).

Always a factor, lately it’s beyond pervasive. Be it book or movie, its practically required to be tied-in, redone, revamped, or jumpstarted from extant (often overused) material. Forgive my sounding like a crotchety old fart, but there are entirely too many reboots these days.

Now, before you take me to task for a strange—even arsy—statement from an author who’s publishing a series based on the legends of Robin Hood... well, let’s consider the whys. (And I do hope you’ll allow me a teensy pass in the fact that I first wrote ‘my’ Robin over 30 years ago.)

One could argue everything is a reboot; after all, there are only so many plots/ narratives/ what-have-you within the realm of Story. Yet it follows, almost exponentially, (and yes, yours truly had a mathematician friend check me on this because, well, math) how an infinite number of ways exist in which that finite number of plots can be duplicated, mashed-up, and expounded upon. Especially considering that each artist has their own experiences, their own lens through which to consider the infinite.

So it seems to me this reboot thing can be winnowed down to a basic comparison: does said reboot qualify as what as come to be known as ‘fanservice’, or is it devoirs?

Devoirs is a word and concept from the Old English (kindly indulge the word-nerd ) and has roots in ‘to give’; not only an act of obligation and courtesy, but one of homage and duty. It stresses sincere recognition of what has come before, with strong implications of renewal, remittance, and possession: What has come before now comes through me and I, in turn, pass it along.

Fanservice... well, it’s nice to be in on the joke. (Particularly for those who didn’t grow up being in on the joke very often; and even more particularly for those of us who were SF “geeks” back when we didn’t use the word, since it meant “to bite the heads off small animals, as in a sideshow act”.) I like to say “I grok it”, or call it being “of the body” (and yup, following fanservice rules, if you know those phrases, you get extra points!) A wonderfully inclusive feeling, to know someone is talking to you, you’re in the know, and you don’t have to work that hard to slide yourself into the adventure—hey, they already speak your language!

Except when they don’t.

So. While fanservice and devoirs can meet in the middle to great effect, there more often a stark difference between the two. The former is often little more than a device; a high-five or side-wink to an already invested audience; it costs little and unfortunately, often ends up meaning just as little. Usually dictated by marketing—which, to (very) roughly paraphrase LeGuin, might be deedy at selling deodorant, but shouldn’t be the dominant factor in the making and freedom of art—it has many regrettable limitations. To use a farm metaphor from my childhood, “you’ll milk a cow dry if you don’t have her freshened”. On the other hand, a bit of the second concept used in an meaningful fashion isn’t so, well, easy. It requires deliberation and regularly challenges renewed investment, not only from the creator but the audience.

Damn, but I miss that investment.

I keep looking for it. The question I ask myself, as author and reader: does a familiar situation carry its own meaning, instead of relying upon familiarity to provide it? Is it merely one of context, or can it carry its own import and subtext?

Let’s talk examples. As my present immersion therapy at this moment in time concerns the legends of Robin Hood....

  • Fanservice is putting in the archery tournament just because, well, Robin Hood. Just have him shoot at a target and rescue the girl, fercripesake!
    • Devoirs is putting in the archery tournament because, well, yes, Robin Hood... but you craft it into mindful necessity, not instant device. What if the prize arrow is a Saxon artefact captured by the Sheriff, and Robin has to get it back?
  • Fanservice is changing a screenplay away from the Sheriff’s PoV because it might not market well without Robin as hero.
    • Devoirs is writing an excellent book from the Sheriff’s PoV, making him a tough man in a tougher spot.
  • Fanservice is making Marion the ‘hero’ in a seeming sop to feminism... except that strength is reliant upon making the male heroes ineffectual.
    • Devoirs means Marion has agency outside involvement with the lads, her own journey and her own role.

So, instead of the same ol’, tired ol’ reboot, perhaps we need more re-imaginings. Less surface-scratchy retellings that don’t challenge us to think outside the box; more rich investments of time and heart-space, where familiar characters manoeuvre us unto unfamiliar territory, twist expectations and trim our sails for unexpected horizons and, always, honour old friends whilst transforming them into new ones we didn’t realise we had.

Its what I’ve done my best to accomplish with the Wode books. And let me put it out there, right now: I would love to hear some examples of well-told re-imaginings. Let’s compare lists.


About the Author

With an inveterate fascination in other worlds and times, J Tullos Hennig has managed a few professions in this world–equestrian, dancer, teacher, artist–but has never successfully managed to not be a writer. Ever.

Nomad by birth and bohemian by nature, Jen lives with her longstanding Amazing Spouse in a remote cottage on the Pacific Northwest coast. This merely encourages–nay, guarantees–already rampant hermetic and artistic tendencies, particularly in winter. Comparisons have also been made to a bridge troll. Hopefully emulating the one under the Fremont Bridge: moderately tolerant, but… you know. Bridge troll. An equally remarkable daughter and grandkids, as well as many students—human, equine, avian and canine—have taught her much of what she knows. Wild places, travel, and interlibrary loan fill the gaps in said education–

And merely encourages the boundless escapades of a press gang of invisible “friends”, who Will. Not. Be. Silenced.


About the Book

By J Tullos Hennig

The Hooded One. The one to breathe the dark and light and dusk between.... 

When an old druid foresees this harbinger of chaos, he also glimpses its future. A peasant from Loxley will wear the Hood and, with his sister, command a last, desperate bastion of Old Religion against New. Yet a devout nobleman's son could well be their destruction—Gamelyn Boundys, whom Rob and Marion have befriended. Such acquaintance challenges both duty and destiny. The old druid warns that Rob and Gamelyn will be cast as sworn enemies, locked in timeless and symbolic struggle for the greenwode's Maiden.

Instead, a defiant Rob dares his Horned God to reinterpret the ancient rites, allow Rob to take Gamelyn as lover instead of rival. But in the eyes of Gamelyn’s Church, sodomy is unthinkable... and the old pagan magics are an evil that must be vanquished.


  1. Subtle differences between the two.
    I'm an old-style geek, but I'm afraid I have no idea what those two phrases meant.

    1. Indeed, and those subtle differences are the ones which make the most difference, I find.

      Susan Matthews did a wonderful job of defining the phrases, but _not_ knowing them also makes a valid and needful point: relying solely upon the rhetoric of fanservice can fail. One needs the extra investment of subtext, not just mere context, for a truly meaningful experience.

      Of course, it means more investment and work for the creator, but no one said this was supposed to be easy. :) Thanks for commenting!

  2. To "grok" is to employ an important concept from Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," where it means (if I remember from my reading, gosh, fourty years ago) it indicates a level of understanding, empathy, sympathy for which a corresponding work in a Terran language did not exist, compared to the Martian of Heilein's creation in the novel. Old Star Trek fans may remember the t-shirt and other media format proudly proclaiming "I grok Spock." -- "Of the body" reflects a concept developed in a Star Trek episode. It has generalized (at least in my dialect) to a situation in which you recognize someone else as being of your tribe, being of your extended family in a wide sense, being someone whose values and interests you share, "old friends who've just met," "twin sibs of a different mother," "gibble gabble, we accept you, one of us, one of us." That's what I think of the two terms; your mileage may vary (i.e. your understanding of what they mean may not conform to my understanding).

  3. I do agree. Re-imaginings, original angles are most interesting than just plain re-boots.

    Majanka @ I Heart Reading.

    1. And so many ways to enrich those tales in the doing. It's what storytellers have done for ages, eh? Thanks for commenting!

  4. Many thanks for hosting my ramblings, Bob! You have a nice place here, and I hope to visit again. My apologies to all for the tardiness of these answers, but I'm sometimes a bit wobbly riding the internet waves...


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