Wednesday, March 21, 2012

As Time Goes By

How does a writer make time pass in a fantasy world?

That might seem a strange question.  After all, fantasy epics can often sprawl over many years, and they almost always have vast quantities of history behind them.  Sword & sorcery series will frequently follow a hero through his/her life – even Conan grew from a footloose youngster to a married man.

Still, the vast majority of fantasy authors seem to impose a kind of artificial present onto their world.  Take Earthsea as an example.  The books certainly cover Ged’s lifespan, and LeGuin has written stories that cover events from history, such as the founding of Roke, but everything is done from the point of view of a “present” that seems to be vaguely at the end of Ged’s life.  It’s unthinkable that we should ever find out what happened to Earthsea after this, while the older stories are cast as more like legends than in-the-moment tales.

The most obvious exceptions seem to be cases where the author has a fixed reference point outside their world.  Tolkien moved easily enough from the First Age to the quest of the Lonely Mountain to the War of the Ring – but he was “translating ancient texts” from a contemporary viewpoint.  Lewis showed us Narnia from start to finish, but from the viewpoint of visitors from our world, whose experience was that the whole thing took place within a single lifetime.

Star Trek does it well (and I think we can agree that’s as near as makes no difference a fantasy world) showing the “present” as being variously the 22nd, 23rd or 24th centuries.  Both DS9 and Voyager look back to the Original Series, while Enterprise foreshadows aspects of all the later-set shows.  That too, though, has a link to our present, though it’s projected into the future, not the past.

In a fantasy world that has no obvious point of contact with our own reality, though, why does there need to be any fixed point of the “present”, beyond the perspective of each individual story?  The kind of model I described using Earthsea as an example (and I want to make it clear that, in every other way, this is a series I absolutely adore) is like a picture.  We have a foreground, where the action is taking place; we have landscape and people in the distance – history and legend – which can never be anything other than background; and we have the plane of the picture (the “present”) beyond which nothing exists.

OK, that can work perfectly well, especially if there’s a large enough story to tell in the “present”, but it’s not the only way of approaching a fantasy world.  Instead of a picture, I like to create something more like one of those computer-generated virtual tours, where the background in one view can become foreground in another, and you can look back at where you were a moment before.

In my stories, I show different periods, as well as locations, of the same world over a ten-thousand-year span, although most of the stories are from the last four-to-five thousand years.  Several stories contrast different eras, including one that’s set partly right at the end of the ten thousand years, at a stage when the culture has planes and computers, and partly in a primeval city ten thousand years before.  The influence of time doesn’t always go one way only.

This raises another issue: why do fantasy stories always have to be set in an iron-age/mediaeval era?  It’s very tempting, of course – it’s such an inviting age to set fantasy in – and I’ve fallen to a certain extent into the Eternal Iron Age Syndrome – though with some excuse.  Nevertheless, I’ve also looked at this particular world’s neolithic, bronze-age, early gunpowder, industrial and high-tech eras, and I fully intend to explore these periods a lot more.

So how far can this process extend?  It seems to me that, unless your world is very vividly different from our own, there’s not a lot of point trying to extend it back before there were cities, or forward into a culture significantly more advanced than ours.  Either way, there’ll be little that marks the story out as belonging to that world rather than this.  I’ve written one story, for instance, that’s supposed to be set in my world’s paleolithic hunter-gatherer era, but there’s actually nothing that prevents it from being this world, or any other.  If my world had three purple moons, of course, I could illustrate where we were, but even that would only be cosmetic.  A big, scary forest is pretty much just a big, scary forest.

Similarly, events in a future-tech, spacefaring version of my world could refer back to places and events I’ve covered in earlier stories, but there’d be no great advantage to doing that, rather than creating the same things on a future earth.  And, once they get out among the stars – well, that’s even less distinguishable than a big, scary forest.

Still, this gives me a timescale to play with that stretches from urban neolithic to the computer age: plenty of room to have fun in.

I’m not, I should stress, trying to claim that I’m unique, and that no other author is approaching their world in the same way.  For one thing, I’m simply not well enough read in modern fantasy to make this claim.  I’m not aware of anyone else who’s using the virtual tour approach, though – but, if there is, I’d love to read them.

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