Han Solo Shot First

The surprising significance of past tense, present tense, and everything in between on Wikipedia

Time bends on the outer rim of the Wikiverse. Visit the Luke Skywalker entry on Wikipedia, and you’ll find his adventures described in the present tense, a tacit acknowledgment that his story is a fictional one. Seek out the biographies of lesser Star Wars characters like Zax the Hutt or Darth Bandon, however, and you might catch the encyclopedia’s anonymous editors slipping into the past tense. Wikipedians discourage this style, which they refer to as “in-universe perspective,” because using the past tense suggests that imagined events really took place.

On Wikipedia, you’d face censure for writing, “In Cloud City, Darth Vader confessed that he was Luke’s father.” But if you were to instead write, “Vader confesses that he is Luke’s father,” your change would likely go unnoticed. In a small corner of Wikipedia’s edit wars, the struggle against in-universe perspective’s temporality reveals some of the larger ways people process works of fiction. These peripheral slippages into the past tense suggest that the most obscure stories may seem most real to those who know them well.

Marginality has long been a hallmark of the real. Almost 50 years ago, the French literary critic Roland Barthes noted that “every narrative, at least every Western narrative of the ordinary sort nowadays, possesses a certain number” of seemingly “useless details.” In and of themselves, he explained, these bits of insignificant description mean nothing, signifying only the material reality of the more significant information around them. When Flaubert describes an otherwise irrelevant barometer on the wall of a room, he does so to lend material weight to the imagined space. Naming this operation the “reality effect,” Barthes would go on to suggest that it has everything to do with the way we acknowledge what was or what has been. Traveling abroad, we tour ruined Roman villas not because they are inherently important, but because they stand in for the historical fact of a fallen empire. The smallest and most insignificant things, Barthes proposed, secure our faith in the larger ones.

Despite Wikipedia’s massive size, its editors are often most comfortable with the small and the insignificant. This attention to detail is what makes Wikipedia so comprehensive. Surveying the site, the journalist Eve Fairbanks observed, “Often, it’s the most arcane distinctions… that provoke the bitterest tugs-of-war.” Indeed, on Wikipedia, seemingly minor details sometimes draw the most vociferous debate. The “Caesar salad” entry, for example, has seen regular skirmishes about the presence or absence of anchovies in the dressing. On another front, one of the site’s most prolific editors has made thousands of revisions, almost all of them correcting perceived misusages of the phrase “comprised of” across the site’s millions of articles. Far from being treated as an eccentric outlier, this editor is celebrated, recognized as an exemplary WikiGnome, a class of editors committed to “tying up little loose ends and making things run more smoothly.”

A tone of bemusement often textures journalistic accounts of such efforts. The activities of Wikipedians invite attention in part because they reveal just how much passion seemingly trivial matters can elicit. (Paradoxically, the desire to be taken seriously may drive these debates. Only when Wikipedia gets every detail right, the premise goes, will it be accorded respect.) Warning new editors against deleting material unnecessarily, the site’s guidelines delineate a principle of caution: “An encyclopedia is a collection of facts… Therefore, consider each fact provided as potentially precious.” That the encyclopedia’s conflicts often elicit mockery is both its curse and the consequence of its editors’ care.

Even with regard to the pettiest editorial imperatives, the fight against in-universe perspective is marginal. It goes unmentioned in the site’s main style guide, broached only in a subsection titled “Writing about fiction.” Buried as it is, the demand to avoid in-universe perspective is seemingly taken for granted by Wikipedia’s core editors. One rarely catches them arguing over it on the talk pages of even the most contentious entries. If Wikipedia is at war and its editors are soldiers, excising in-universe perspective is like cleaning the bathrooms, a messy task that makes the barracks more livable at the expense of one’s dignity. Nonetheless, this small struggle over verb tense—the way we literally tell time—has everything to do with the site’s desire for legitimacy.

When I teach writing, I stress the immediacy of art to my students. Fiction, I tell them, plays out in the perpetual present, a story making itself anew each time we read or tell it. When we write about a work in the present tense, we focus on what it does, on the ways that it whispers and shouts as we listen to it. With the present tense, we acknowledge that the work is a thing in itself, a subject in the grammatical sense: It is one that acts, albeit one impelled to action by its encounter with the reader. In the process, we maintain the conceit that art has a degree of independent and objective reality, and that, therefore, it can be examined, argued about, and discussed.

By contrast, the past tense suggests a certain naiveté. Put simply, where the present tense lets us discuss art in its own terms, the past tense leaves us unwittingly talking about ourselves. With it, we implicitly tell a story about our experience of the work instead of the work itself, narrating the events it describes as if they had happened to us. The independent work of art dissolves here, replaced by our own subjective entanglement with it. The world of the work and the world of the reader collide, resulting in something that feels neither fully fictional nor entirely real. While there is surely a place for descriptions of artistic experience, the past tense almost inevitably inclines toward the memoiristic rather than the critical. Stylistic choices, it turns out, have philosophical consequences that go beyond the merely aesthetic play of language on the page.

Star Wars offers an apt example, in part because it has always muddled the distinction between now and then. The first film would not introduce itself as “Episode IV” until its 1981* re-release. Nevertheless, its opening words have always been “A long time ago…,” an epithet immediately challenged when two clearly futuristic starships cruise over the camera shortly thereafter. Before the action has begun, Star Wars suspends itself between past and present, yesterday and tomorrow, pulling us out of our own moment in the process.

In Using the Force, his study of Star Wars fandom, Kingston University professor Will Brooker shows that this temporal strangeness would ultimately become the foundation that supports the series’ true appeal. Fans were drawn to it, he proposes, in large part because of “the sense that we are glimpsing characters, technology, and cultures that have a complex history outside of the film.” Leaving its own story open, the series independently engenders the ambiguous overlap between the real and the fictional that in-universe perspective suggests.

leg0fenris/Martin Kenny/Flickr/The Atlantic

Star Wars’ ambiguous vision of future history has only grown in the decades since George Lucas concluded his first trilogy of films with 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Starting in the early 1990s, Lucas authorized the publication of novels, comics, and video games that documented further adventures of his characters. Known as the “Expanded Universe” or EU, these stories were treated as canonical tales, formally authorized and carefully maintained extensions of existing stories. Nevertheless, their reality was always secondary to that of the original films and their prequels, such that Lucas’ own output could sometimes come into conflict with that of the EU’s chroniclers. A special kind of special relativity, this mandate ensured that certain fictional timelines were truer from one perspective than they were from another.

Perhaps because its temporal fragility turns on doctrinaire principles, the EU generates a quasi-religious fervor in many fans of the series. This passion was put to the test last spring when Disney—which had purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012—announced it would be making new Star Wars films, and that these films would largely ignore the extensive lore of the EU. Hundreds of stories that had been “true” were suddenly rendered “false” by corporate fiat. When I informed a friend of this development over Thanksgiving, he slammed down his drink and stormed out of the room, grumbling that I had ruined the holiday forever. This was his destruction of Alderaan: Billions of stories had cried out in terror and then were suddenly silenced.

Star Wars fans have long expressed frustration with corporate meddling. Famously, Lucas sparked outrage when he re-edited the series’ first film to make Greedo, an alien bounty hunter, shoot before Han Solo guns him down. Unimportant as this detail may seem, many still treat it as a fundamental betrayal of the character by his creator. Here and in his other changes, Lucas believed that he was merely repairing superficial errors, but his fans disagreed. Proclaiming their discontent on shirts, stationery, and everything in between, the disgruntled insist that “Han shot first.” Significantly, they describe their hero’s actions in the past tense: They were there, saw what happened. They know the way things went down, whatever the present evidence to the contrary.

Above all else, the “Han Shot First” debacle serves as a reminder that small things matter. In such details, subjective experience coincides with objective reality, what we saw meeting that which demonstrably is. When Lucas and Disney manipulate minor features, they are unwittingly undermining the pillars of fan investment and belief. Above all else, these changes warp the weave of narrative time: Han shot first, but when we watch today he shoots second. And in the expanded universe Chewbacca was killed when a moon fell on him, but now he is alive again. The past tense belongs to the fans, the present to those who would rob them of both the thing they love and the earlier experience of loving it.

Wikipedia’s style guide singles out a handful of Star Wars pages in its list of well written articles about fictional characters. Chief among them is surely Palpatine, whom casual fans will remember as the withered emperor in Return of the Jedi. At over 6,000 words, the page is surprisingly dense, but its prose is mostly crisp, employing the present perfect to separate earlier events from later ones and otherwise clearly distinguishing fact from fiction. Click through from it to “The Great Jedi Purge,” however, and you’ll find a page in a state of conflict, marred by notes about issues that date back to 2008, many of which have been at least partially repaired. From here, it takes a single step to the brief Ki-Adi-Mundi entry to find an unflagged instance of in-universe style.

A humanoid alien with a long forehead and a scruffy white beard, Ki-Adi-Mundi apparently appeared in all three of the Star Wars prequels, though I couldn’t have told you that before I looked him up today. He mattered to someone, however, mattered enough to merit a brief mention in the largest record of human knowledge that has ever been, mattered enough to become a precious fact. This is what I learned: “He was one of the leaders of the Jedi strike force sent to rescue Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Padme Amidala on Geonosis. Killed on Mygeeto during Order 66 by Commander Bacara and his clone troopers.” Here, the past tense is the thing: Someone watched the films. Someone saw the character. Someone sketched his place in the Star Wars universe, a few brief sentences in a sea of countless millions. These were subjective experiences, products of a peculiar and entirely personal passion, and they illuminate the encyclopedia’s shadowy corners. Without them, Wikipedia would be something else altogether, probably something paler.

In a seminal 2008 New York Review of Books article, Nicholson Baker points out that Wikipedia has always been a subjective phenomenon, despite its protestations to the contrary. Intellectually ravenous, Baker writes that “it just feels good to find something there—even, or especially, when the article you find is a little clumsily written.” Tellingly, Baker himself often employs the past tense as he explains the site, implicitly describing his experience of it rather than the thing in itself. In the process, he suggests that Wikipedia, the defining monument of knowledge today, has as much to do with the ways we were—with the things we’ve felt, sensed, and done—as with the things we know.

A long time ago, at a university far, far away, I would sometimes hunt down and rewrite examples of in-universe perspective on Wikipedia. These days, I’m inclined to let the style’s diffuse remainders be. In-universe perspective is a way of seeing through the eyes of our enthusiasm. Without that fervor, we might never be compelled to press an entry’s edit button in the first place. Like a scattered rebellion against an encroaching army, like the traces of a forbidden passion, those hints of belief, however accidental, strike me as testaments to the pleasure of fiction, a pleasure that hides behind every recorded fact. Ki-Adi-Mundi may not be real, but on the dimly lit edges of the Internet he always will have been.

* This post originally misstated the year that a Star Wars theatrical re-release first featured the subtitle “Episode IV” in its introduction. It was 1981. We regret the error.