Continuity has always been a concern of fiction. Creating internal consistency is important, and from the beginning writers have been fucking it up; Homer screws up his own continuity in The Iliad, having a character die in battle and yet somehow be present later in the story to see his own son die.
But it wasn’t until the rise of serialized fiction that continuity really became a thing, and even then it mostly became a thing for the fans. Authors would try and have basic internal consistency, but before the days of fandom they would mostly just try to remember as best as possible and use whatever seemed important. So The Tik Tok Man of Oz contradicts some of the stuff in The Road to Oz, and while Tarzan’s parents are said to have shipwrecked in 1888, the ape man is still young and physical in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion, where he’s fighting WWII.
Writers didn’t assume people were paying very close attention, but they were. And the readers documented and discussed the continuity errors. But what they did was something quite special, and something that laid the foundation for true fandom: they tried to explain them away. Sherlock Holmes fans will sometimes refer to Watson as “The Literary Agent,” meaning that any errors in the canon can be ascribed to his imperfect human recollection. Philip Jose Farmer took it to another level, writing fictional biographies for Tarzan and Doc Savage that attempted to smooth over inconsistencies and errors*.
Eventually this led to Marvel Comics and their famed No Prize. The path to a No Prize was easy: spot a seeming inconsistency in a Marvel Comic (say The Incredible Hulk shows up in a Spider-Man comic when his own title firmly establishes he is trapped in an alien prison at the same time) and explain it away. Your careful stewardship of the continuity would earn you an empty envelope; at one point I was the proud recipient of a No Prize.
Stewardship. That’s the word that sums up early fandom. The idea wasn’t that fans owned the property, but that they looked after it. They promoted it and loved it and helped keep it in good operating order. The No Prize is the height of this, a winking collaboration between the creators and the fans, all in service of keeping the larger fiction running smoothly.
But like the Stewards of Gondor**, fans lost sight of their larger role. Where fan fiction used to be about filling in the cracks or strengthening the foundation of the property, it slowly morphed into something weirder. First it got strangely sexual; whereas kids might have argued whether Superman could beat up Mighty Mouse, they now began wondering who would be the top in that cross-species fuckfest. Then it got possessive. Continuity wasn’t being fixed, it was being rewritten to eliminate stories or characters who weren’t well-liked.
The Stewards began to think the throne theirs. Instead of wanting to be participants in a living universe created by others, fans started becoming miserly keepers of inviolable laws and records. Where half the fun of being a fan had been the mental gymnastics of reconciling conflicting fictional information, now they started confronting creators at conventions with trivial matters of scifi semantics. Did this begin with Star Trek fans (Saturday Night Live’s “Get A Life” sketch shows these sorts of dweebs in action)? Wherever it started, it kept growing throughout the 80s and 90s, and has finally reached full flower today.
The endpoint of this fandom reared its ugly head with the release of Mass Effect 3. Not only did these fans explode with entitled whining when they didn’t like the end of the video game’s story, they proceeded to melt down about what they saw as errors in the game’s continuity (although these days it’s called ‘lore’).
At the end of the game (and yes, there are minor spoilers ahead) it’s revealed that the series of Mass Effect relays that allow instantaneous transport throughout the galaxy will be destroyed. This is a pretty big in-universe deal because it will cut off all the different races from each other, severing empires and changing the face of the galaxy for a generation. Some fans got mad at this on the most basic level (ie, destroying the Mass Effect relays is not a ‘happy ending’ and I only want a ‘happy ending’), but that’s the stupider contingent. What really got the ‘lore’ fans riled was this:
In an earlier, optional, premium-priced downloadable adventure it was established that when a Mass Effect relay explodes the power it unleashes will wipe out the neighboring star system. On the surface this surely does make it seem like the destruction of every Mass Effect relay in the galaxy will lead to a whole lot of horrifying death. Except that the end of the game doesn’t really reflect that, and if you never played that downloadable adventure you would just think “Oh shit, everybody is cut off from one another,” not “Oh shit, it seems plausible this will kill 80% of sentient life in the galaxy.”
True fandom would have probably had one of two responses to this. One would have been giving the developers the benefit of the doubt; it’s unlikely that this is the final visit to the world of Mass Effect, and the repercussions of that decision will probably play out in future adventures. Barring that, the second would have been reconciling the continuity - which is what I naturally did when I played the game. I assumed that the destruction of the relay in the downloadable adventure happened in a very different way from the destruction of the relays in the main game, meaning the results would be different***.
Continuity went from a treat for those paying attention to a stone around the neck of serialized fiction. Superhero comic books exist now only as slaves to continuity, a creepy Ourouboros who can be summed up by an impossibly muscled man forever sucking his own dick.
These aspergian nitpicks have overwhelmed fandom. The sense of entitlement that clouds fandom’s mind has turned the fun game of continuity into a pogrom for putzes.
* Farmer is a founding father of true fandom, as far as I’m concerned. Between these books and his Wold Newton family - a hypothesis that connects many of the great pulp characters into a single lineage whose origin can be traced to a real life meteor landing in 1795, Farmer was pioneering fan fiction in very cool ways.
** Nerdiest metaphor of the day? Likely.
*** I am actually convinced this is the case, not in a continuity-mending way, but in a ‘That was the intention of the developers’ kind of way.