Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I often wonder how writers feel about their stories and books when time gives the lie, or more accurately the misjudgement, to the timing of their plotlines.

It's an odd experience to read science fiction and post-apocalyptic novels and short stories written many years ago, finding that the author has set his plot in a time-frame which now, in 2007, is in the past. Nothing remotely close to their imaginings has happened - life has gone on, albeit with changes, some discoveries, new technology and a few new traumas. The authors were storytellers, not astrologers or psychics, they were not predicting events. The fact that they set their plots in a specific time frame, though, indicates that they considered the chosen date to be realistic and believable, at the time of writing.

George Orwell's "1984", and Arthur C. Clarke's "2001 A Space Odyssey" are two of the best known examples. A lesser known book called "Down to a Sunless Sea" by David Graham is yet another. I bought a secondhand copy this week. I'd read it back when it was originally published (first in the UK then in the USA) in the late 70s/early 80s. I lent it to a friend , who lent it to another, and it was lost for ever. I was surprised when I flicked through the book again to see the date the author had specified for the action to take place - 1985. The world had exploded into nuclear war, eventually leading to a pole shift. How odd that seems now, 22 years later. Sure enough there have been flurries of war and terrorism, but nothing matching the author's vision - USA crumbling, hunger and violence everywhere, citizens trying desperately to escape from America to Europe. Perhaps what he imagined for 1985 is yet to come - or perhaps it will remain an author's imaginings for ever.

There are some examples of similar misjudgements, related to TV presentations at TV Tropes Wiki (scroll down to section on "TIME".) A remark made there highlights an interesting point:
" Writers in the 1950s and 1960s thought that placing something in "The Year 2000" was as good as placing it a million years in the future. Even today, The Future is generally 300-500 years hence, even if we've developed a vast star-faring civilization. Some of this is a product of the progress-mania of the early 20th century -- after all, if in your lifetime, you'd seen mankind go from inventing the airplane to walking on the moon, it didn't seem all that unreasonable that we'd be living on Jupiter by 1999. This sort of thing gives many shows set Twenty Minutes Into The Future a shelf-life of about fifteen minutes. "

What surprises me most is not what authors imagine, but that they risk specifying dates. This can detract from a very good tale. In spite of the fact that a story is just that - a story, many readers must find themselves wearing a slight sneer when dates now well past are specified: "Neener neener neener. It didn't happen!"

I think we can be reasonably certain that many of the thoughts we have about 2008, 2010 and 2012 will prove to be just as misjudged as some plotlines from past literature.

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