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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Spinning A New Story Within The 'Verses of Sword Art Online and Attack on Titan

I am, for whatever reason, utterly fascinated by the choices some authors make when they decide to write spin-offs for their main (and very popular series). In particular, I've been reading Reki Kawahara's SAO light novel spin-off along with the Attack on Titan spin-off from Hajime Isayama and Ryo Kawakami. It might be comparing apples to oranges in a way, since Isayama is actually not the primary author of this particular spin-off, but ultimately the franchise origin writer chooses what stories are told in the spin-offs. And that choice is what is worth examining, especially when one spin-off explicitly marks itself as 'progressive'.

Sword Art Online Progressive (books 1-2): Kirito and Asuna are two very different people, but they both desire to fight alone. Nonetheless, they find themselves drawn together to face challenges from both within and without. Given that the entire virtual world they now live in has been created as a deathtrap, the surviving players of Sword Art Online are starting to get desperate, and desperation makes them dangerous to loners like Kirito and Asuna. As it becomes clear that solitude equals suicide, will the two be able to overcome their differences to find the strength to believe in each other, and in so doing survive?

Attack on Titan - The Harsh Mistress of the City (book 1): With Wall Maria breeched, communities within the Quinta district have been cut off from each other creating famine and chaos. A young field commander named Rita is tasked with a mission to reconnect transit across the massive district while putting her troops and residence right in the vanguard as Titans descend on her town.

The path that leads the original Sword Art Online light novel series to the newer Progressive series is an interesting one. The first SAO book was written under massive time restraints and for a contest, and yet still managed to be over the expected word count, doubtlessly irritating Reki Kawahara's editor at the time. Lost in the shuffle went detail and nuance, specifically the exact horrors of being forced to live in a virtual world where cartoonish creatures can kill you in real life. Also, it focused on Kirito above everything; I think the guy is hella amusing but the guy is a Gary Stu and lacks depth in the first two arcs.

Progressive throws everything away and focuses on Asuna and the world building. This is something that Kawahara does consciously and as a consequence the Aincrad arc becomes stronger. Longer, yes, but now that two levels out of one hundred took up one book instead of one chapter, the story gets to meander through the characters that live and breath the game, the relationship between Asuna and Kirito, and all the technical aspects of ALO that get lost in the shuffle otherwise. There are some new characters, and existing characters are fleshed out, but Asuna and Kirito remain the heart of the story.

In contrast, the Harsh Mistress Of The City spin-off has zero original Attack on Titan characters. It focuses on original characters Rita, a young member of the Survey Corp, and Mathias, a young man who grows up in relative wealth. These two friends have their worlds shaken by the violent breach of Wall Maria by the Titan attack, and Rita finds herself stranded in Kunita District among riots and looting while Mathias confronts his own privilege, his father's secrecy, and his feelings for his childhood friend.

At least in the first book of Harsh Mistress there is no sign of any familiar faces from the Survey Corp or the Military Police, but the world that Rita and Mathias struggle to live in is a very familiar one to long-term Attack on Titan readers. The omnipresent fear of death and destruction at the Titans, the class struggle between the merchants and military and the workers, the position of the Survey Corp in society --- all of these things are markers of AoT and are heavily entrenched in the spin-off series. In this, Hajime Isayama chooses not to re-imagine a world already made but expand and refocus onto situations that only exist in the peripheral of the original story.

Both of these are marketed as spin-offs. Are they really? They are, yes, but in fundamentally different and wonderful ways. Sword Art Online rewrites a major narrative - the Aincrad arc upon which the entire series is based on - and turns what was once a brief telling of a story into a multi-dimensional, much longer version in which people trump plot twists. Attack on Titan's Harsh Mistress of the City expands the scope on a well-known canon event - the siege on Wall Maria - and tells the stories of the city folk and the Survey Corp underlings and young citizens who were not part of Eren and Mikasa's story. Both stories add another layer of meaning to the original canon and both serve to add, not to detract, from the OC.

Could either work function successfully as a stand-alone work if completely divorced from that canon? Sword Art Online Progressive could easily make that jump; Harsh Mistress of the City would have a much harder time, since it is firmly enfolded in the mythology of the greater 'verse. But what they bring to the table are things the original canon, either for the sake of brevity or because of restraints beyond the authors' control, could never do by themselves.

Now, whether or not SD/high school AU spin-offs count as truly transformative and essential additions to a fictional canon . . . well, someone else can take on that bomb of a question. I'm looking at you, Attack on Titan: Junior High, the literal embodiment of every schoolyard AoT Tumblr roleplay ever put to paper.