Third Foundation

I finally caved and subscribed to yet another streaming service, Apple TV+.  I couldn’t resist the need to see what the new TV series would make of Isaac Asimov’s classic SF Foundation stories.

Although the book series is on the order of eighty years old, the TV series is just getting started, so I need to issue a

Spoiler Alert!

Asimov’s Appeal

I grew up reading the Foundation series; it was always a favorite of mine.  Asimov took his premise from Gibbon’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789), with a science-fictional twist.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, cover

A twelve thousand-year-old empire rules the galaxy; but Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse.  Thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism will follow.  But, while Seldon concludes the fall cannot be stopped, he does see a way to shorten the period of darkness.  He establishes two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years.  Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability.

A few years ago I discussed the Seldon Plan in a post on “Prophecy and the Plan” (2018).  For a more detailed description, and one reader’s take on the novels, see Ben Gierhart’s 10/6/2021 article on Tor.

The original three books consist of a series of short stories taking place over about four hundred years.  There are some overlapping characters, but no character persists through the whole time period.  Part of the attraction of the series is the sweep of history over many lifetimes, giving a sense of scope and gravity to the combined stories.  Some of it comes from the age-old appeal of the fated outcome:  we know the Plan will prevail, but how?  And from the midpoint of the series on, a different question takes over:  if through a low-probability turn of events the Plan is in danger of failing, can it be preserved?

We do want it to be preserved, even though the (First) Foundation is composed of fallible and all-too-human people; because the great overarching goal of the Plan is the preservation of civilization in the face of barbarism.  I’ve noted before that this is a compelling theme.

Second Foundation cover

Most of the original stories were first published individually in the SF magazines, and later collected into the aforementioned three volumes—Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation (1951-1953).  Then things got complicated.  In 1981, Asimov “was persuaded by his publishers” (according to Wikipedia) to add a fourth book, Foundation’s Edge.  Several more followed, in the course of which Asimov tied in the Foundation series with his other great series, the positronic robot stories.  The new additions in some ways sought to resolve issues in the original trilogy, and in others tended to undermine the originals.  After Asimov’s death, three other celebrated authors—Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin—were recruited to write three more Foundation books.  In the last volume of this new trilogy, Brin manages to pull off a brilliant resolution of the whole series.  But even that conclusion didn’t stop the flow of further related tales.

And now, as if things weren’t already confusing enough . . .

Apple’s Augmentation

A screen adaptation of the series was announced in 2017, and Apple picked it up in 2018.  Asimov’s daughter, Robyn Asimov, serves as one of the executive producers.  The principal writer, David S. Goyer, foresees eighty episodes—none too many for such a vast saga.

The trailers (such as this one) made it clear that the look and feel of the TV series would be rather different from those of Asimov’s cerebral books.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The original tales have become dated in both content and style.  The question is, can Apple preserve what’s appealing in the original stories, while bringing them to life for a modern audience?

We’ve now seen three episodes (the fourth premieres tomorrow).  That’s not enough to allow for a full evaluation of the series, of course.  But it’s fun to try and guess where it’s going and report on how it’s doing, even at this early stage.  If nothing else, there’s the entertainment value, later on, of seeing how wildly inaccurate my take on the story may turn out to be.  So let’s see how the adaptation stands as of the third Foundation episode.

Emperors Demand Attention

Gaal Dornick, reimagined for Apple, with the Prime Radiant

As of Episode 2, I was favorably impressed.  Scores of details had been changed from the books, but often in interesting ways.  For example, Asimov’s cast of characters tended to be almost all-male—although the latter half of the series did include two distinctive female characters with strong agency, Bayta Darell and her descendant Arkady Darell.  The TV series diversifies the cast considerably.  Seldon’s protegé Gaal Dornick is now a black woman.  So is Salvor Hardin, the first Mayor of Terminus and leader of the Foundation.  The technology and culture of the Empire looks pretty convincing on-screen, though it doesn’t exactly track Asimov’s descriptions.  Goyer & co. introduce some up-to-date speculative ideas, such as the notion that the succession of Galactic Emperors at this time is a series of clones—though there’s no obvious reason for that last, other than to modernize the hypothetical science a bit.

The third episode, though, seems to veer away from Asimov’s basic underlying concepts.  However interesting Goyer’s repeating Emperors might be, I expected us to shift away from them as the Foundation itself took center stage.  But Episode 3 continued to focus a great deal of attention on the Emperors.  This seems to run counter to the underlying theme that the Empire fades away as other players become ascendant on the galactic scene.  I don’t know why we’re still spending so much time on the Emperors, unless they’re going to play a larger continuing role than the books would suggest—which makes me wonder what else is happening to the plotline.

The world-city of Trantor

Science and Mysticism

Asimov’s story, while engrossing, was essentially rationalistic.  Historical events had logical explanations (generally laid out explicitly by the characters after the crisis had passed).  Science, whether technological or psychological, was a dominant theme.  And the key to the whole Seldon Plan concept was that the course of history is determined by economic, cultural, and sociological forces, rather than by any individual’s actions.  One might agree or disagree with that premise, but it was the (I can’t believe I’m saying this) foundation of the whole original series—even though Asimov himself found a way around what might have become a stultifying predictability with the unforeseen character of the Mule.

The video adaptation points up a number of elements with a more mystical quality.  The Time Vault, which in the books is merely a recording of speeches about historical crisis points by the long-dead Seldon, in the TV series is an ominous pointed object hovering unsupported over the landscape of Terminus; we haven’t yet seen what it does.  The “Prime Radiant,” a sort of holographic projector containing the details of the Plan, is presented as a unique and numinous object—though that is, to be sure, a genuine Asimov detail, albeit in a different context.

Salvor Hardin, a la Apple

More significantly, Salvor Hardin, a likeable if devious political schemer in the original stories, here appears to be the “Warden” of the Vault, a sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi figure who lurks in the desert.  In Episode 3 we see her set apart even as a child; as an adult, she’s the only person who can pass through the protective field around the Vault that repels all others.  One character even suggests that she may have been somehow included in the Plan.

Now, this invocation of the “Chosen One” trope is directly antithetical to the notion that history is shaped by statistical aggregates and social forces.  Seldon’s Plan, by its nature, cannot depend on the unique actions of individuals.  Even when Asimov introduces the Mule as a mutant with mental powers that can change the large-scale behavior of human populations, that’s presented as disrupting the Plan, ruining Seldon’s statistical predictions.  To have personal qualities written into the Plan itself would undercut the whole idea.  Thus, at the end of Episode 3, I’m wondering whether the TV series is going to carry through the basic Asimovian premise at all.

The Expanded Universe

The sequels to the original trilogy, first by Asimov himself and then by others, took the book series off in somewhat different directions.  I’d been wondering whether the TV series would incorporate the whole “Robots and Empire” connection, or stick to the earlier structure.  To that question, at least, we seem to have an answer.

Eto Demerzel (Daneel Olivaw)

A recurring character in the first three episodes is a woman, an advisor to the Emperors, who turns out in one scene to be a robot.  I hadn’t caught her name at first, and had to look it up in the cast list.  She turns out to be Eto Demerzel (male in the books), who is really the very long-lived robot R. Daneel Olivaw, operating under an alias.  Daneel is one of my favorite characters in the early robot novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun.  In Asimov’s later stories he assumes a much greater importance in shaping the whole course of galactic history.

So it appears that Goyer’s version of the Empire’s history does incorporate Asimov’s later expansion of the Foundation universe, at least to that extent.  It will be fascinating to see how far the writers take that connection—in particular, whether the “second trilogy” contributions of the “Killer Bs” (Benford, Bear, Brin) also figure into the plot.  We’re not likely to see those ultimate developments for years (in real time), though, if the eighty-episode prediction is accurate.

Not A Conclusion

We’re still very early in the development of the Foundation video series.  Tomorrow’s episode might overturn half my speculations here and send us off in an entirely different direction.  But in the meantime, it’s fun to go over what we’ve seen so far and where it seems to be going—even if the secret plans of the screenwriters are as mysterious to us as the Seldon Plan is to the Foundation itself.

Song as Story: The Music Video

The Story of a Song

A song—especially a love song—often implies a story.

Some songs, it’s true, just express a state of things:  say, being in love.  The Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywheretalks about things that happen (“Someone is speaking, but she doesn’t know he’s there”)—but nothing actually changes in the song.  It’s a snapshot of a relationship.

But frequently the song refers to a sequence of events, and this sequence is at least a fragment of a story.  “She Loves You,” after the refrain, starts out “You think you lost your love” (addressing someone who had been in love, but they seem to have broken up).  The lyric continues:  “Well, I saw her yesterday” (the singer/friend brings new information)—and eventually looks to the future (“Apologize to her”).  The song describes a progression in a relationship.

The Story of the Video

When the modern music video came into vogue in the 1960s, and picked up steam with the advent of MTV in 1981, a new factor was added.  If the video simply showed the band performing the song, then the story implied by the song didn’t change.  But if the video began to incorporate other elements, such as actors or band members acting out things that occurred in the song, then new possibilities opened up.  Is the story we hear always the same as the story we see?

Steven Curtis Chapman, from The Great Adventure music video
“The Great Adventure”

The pure performance video represents what we might call the null case—just the song, illustrated by imagery of the band.  The next step is represented by a video that provides a sort of impressionistic imagery the illustrates themes or ideas in the song, without altering the storyline.  For example, the video of Peter Cetera’s “One Good Woman” shows clips of Cetera singing the song, interspersed with roses and bottles on tables, kisses and embraces, the faces of women who might be the one referred to in the title, plus other images whose relevance is less clear (clocks, hats, a metronome, abstract shapes).  The concept video for “The Great Adventure” riffs on the lyrics (“Saddle up your horses / We’ve got a trail to blaze”) with Western ranch scenery, as well as images of walls falling that express the movement of the song.  For similar examples, check out “True Believers” and “Once in a Lifetime.”

Showing the Story

“Austin”

In the most literal sense, the video can amplify the impact of a song by simply depicting the events described in the lyrics.  For example, Blake Shelton’s song “Austin” tells a rather charming tale in which a woman has gone off to Austin, but realizes from the answering-machine messages of the man she left behind that he still loves her.  The video actually shows us clips of the events the song is talking about, interspersed with shots of Shelton singing, making the story more vivid.

Such a visual rendition in effect replaces our imagination of the story with a particular interpretation, in the same way that a movie makes visible in a particular way the action of the book it was based on.  Of course, this runs the risk of disrupting the viewer’s appreciation, if the filmmaker’s idea is distinctly different from the viewer’s:  “I didn’t picture it like that at all.”  But it can also bring out the story more forcefully by providing lifelike imagery where our imaginations might not have been so vivid.

The video can also intensify the effect of a song by providing a visual mini-story that doesn’t exactly correlate with what the song is about, but reinforces it thematically.  Take, for instance, Martina McBride’s “Ride,” which is about an overall attitude toward life.  The video gives us a sequence about young people stuck in a traffic jam, who (watching a projection of McBride’s performance on a billboard) start having fun with each other in the spirit of the music.  There’s nothing specific about traffic jams in the song, but the video sequence does add a further element of enjoyment to the effect of the song alone.  Or take a look at the video of Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins,” which very effectively underlines the song’s message through images of people making their way to a celebration.

Expanding the Story

“Mine”

The video can also take a slightly different direction by sticking to the original storyline, but adding elements.  For example, in “Mine,” Taylor Swift describes her character as “a flight risk with a fear of falling,” and her boyfriend tells her that “we’ll never make my parents’ mistakes”—but the actual backstory isn’t specific.  In the video, we see footage of her parents quarreling while Swift’s character as a child looks on, and this adds weight to the fight described in the song’s bridge—and thus to the uplift of her lover’s refusal to give up:  we actually see them marrying and having a baby at the end.  The story has expanded.

Similarly, in the video of Gloriana’s “(Kissed You) Good Night,” we get some opening dialogue adding context that may not have been contemplated in the song itself:  the boy is in the Army and leaving the next day.  The titular kiss goodnight is a more definitive farewell than we could have guessed from the lyrics alone.  In Dierks Bentley’s reflective “Home,” the variety of the faces of America appearing in the video add depth to the song.  The music video of Brad Paisley’s “Welcome to the Future” actually incorporates brief clips of children explaining what they want to be when they grow up—reinforcing the sense of possibility and achievement that makes the song compelling.

Changing the Story

Sometimes, however, the video seems to take off in a different direction from that of the original song.

“I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”

I’m fond of the late Moody Blues song “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” (1988).  (In fact, I have a sketch for a novel partly inspired by the song, but that’s another story.)  As the title suggests, the lyrics depict a man searching for the girl he once loved.  The video isn’t entirely inconsistent with that idea:  the singer is clearly looking back to a love affair in the ’60s.  But the singer is depicted in his actual persona, as a budding rock star, hustled away from her by the demands of the music business.  As a result, we see much more of her longing for him than of him longing for her.  The regret is mutual, but the emphasis is different.

Taking the discrepancy further, Céline Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” evokes a pair of lovers who had broken up but are now getting back together.  At least, that’s what the lyric sounds like to me.  But in the video it appears that Céline’s lover rode off on a motorcycle and died in an accident.  Unless she’s being visited by a very substantial ghost—which would actually fit the rather Gothic tone of the video—they don’t actually seem to be reunited at all.  (It gets weirder:  according to the notes at the bottom of the lyrics page, the song was actually written for a play based on the Peter Pan story, and the lyrics were inspired by Wuthering Heights.  As for the motorcycle, who knows where that came from.)

Gary Allan’s “Every Storm Runs Out of Rain” appears to be addressed to someone who’s lost their love, encouraging them to last through their pain and find someone new (“And walk out that door, go find a new rose, don’t be afraid of the thorns”).  The video features a woman who’s clearly suffering (in a rainstorm), but at the end her soldier husband comes back.  They were separated, true, but she’s not finding a “new rose,” just watering (as it were) one that was drooping.

Adding a Comic Note

The temptation to make the music video more of a humorous riff on the original song—a spoof of itself—must be strong.  In a number of cases, the video makers seem to have decided just to have fun with the concept.

“Heaven is a Place on Earth”

We started with the Beatles; their movies A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) consist largely of song performances, but the accompanying video clip often has little to do with the subject of the song; sometimes it’s simply surreal.  There’s a similar feel to the video of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” which opens with a bunch of masked children carrying lighted globes.  We see these globes, apparently inspired by the mention of “Earth” in the title, splashing into water, or lying on a dark reflective surface.  There are also shots of Carlisle singing and embracing a lover, but we keep coming back to these kids and their globes.  Often they appear to be running in place.  If that means something deep, I’m missing it.

“Shadows of the Night,” best known for a Pat Benatar recording in 1982, is one of those songs in which a pair of lovers is escaping into the darkness from some unspecified amorous angst.  Might be an interesting story, though the lyric doesn’t provide much detail.  Apparently it was actually composed for a movie about two young runaways in New York City, as discussed here, here, and here, and what seem to be the original lyrics were distinctly different.  None of them, however, refer to anything like what we see in Benatar’s wacky music video, in which she seems to be playing the part of a World War II aviator/spy—or perhaps Rosie the Riveter, daydreaming.

“I Got You”

The filmmakers for Thompson Square’s “I Got You” decided to take off on the fact that the song has almost the same title as, and develops the same theme as, Sonny & Cher’s iconic hit “I Got You Babe.”  The duo is performing the song on a TV variety show hosted by themselves dressed up like Sonny & Cher.  The video has fun with the gap between the two time periods:  the pair hands “Sonny & Cher” their CD, but since that format didn’t exist in the ’60s, the hosts have no idea what to do with it, biting it like a donut, using it as a mirror, finally employing it as a coaster.

The video of “Take On Me,” by a-ha, starts with drawings of a motorcycle race, apparently part of a graphic book a girl sitting in a diner is reading.  When the boy in the drawing reaches out a three-dimensional sketched hand to her, she takes it, and is literally pulled into the story as a line drawing.  As far as I can see, the video has nothing to do with the song, but it is good wacky fun.

At times it isn’t clear whether the humor is intended or inadvertent.  Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is a fine song, but the video takes the Gothic further than Céline and the random further than Carlisle.  We see stained-glass windows, doves fluttering, Tyler looking out at the moon.  A man walks in, and, apparently because Tyler’s backup singer refers to her as “Bright Eyes,” the man has literally glowing eyes.  Boys sit in a classroom and toast around a table.  Dancers with wings cavort around the singer.  There’s literally an invasion of ninjas; at least, I think that’s what they are.  The effect is so surreal that someone called “dascottjr” did a “literal video” version, having a woman sing lyrics that actually describe what’s happening on-camera.  It’s hilarious.

Conclusion

The music video is a distinct art form, building on music but adding a new dimension.  The two aspects may cohere, collide, or simply spin off in different directions.  The result is a combination that we can enjoy on its own merits.

Like Ships Need the Sea

As a brief corollary to the theme of my last post, I wanted to say a few words about Emily Hearn’s song “Like Ships Need the Sea.”  (The complete lyrics are here and here.)

The song is built around a pair of somewhat unusual metaphors.  Verse 1 has “Darling, I need you like ships need the sea.”  Verse 2 gives us “Darling, I need you like birds need the sky.”  Of course, images of birds and sea and sky are familiar.  But exactly what she’s doing with them struck me as novel.

Often we speak and sing of love in terms of attachment—someone to hold onto, someone to cling to.  Our lover supports us, providing solidity and reliability.  They might be called an anchor, in nautical terms.

And this isn’t wrong.  One of the great virtues of love is to give us something to keep us steady and secure; someone to fall back on, someone who stands by us.  I need only mention another excellent Emily Hearn song, “Not Walkin’ Away”:  “Oh, you’re a pain to be around / Oh, but you’re my solid ground.”

At the same time, it’s also familiar to see love as lifting us up, enabling us to soar.  The support we’ve just talked about can be a launching pad, stimulating us to be our best selves—as innumerable songs tell us.  Of course, that kind of support requires a good deal of generosity and selflessness in the lover.  It is by no means a sure thing; our relationships are frequently imperfect, and there are also plenty of devastating depictions of relationships that hold us back and confine us.  But love at its best is an enabler and not a constraint.

Emily Hearn and Michael Harrison sing Like Ships Need the Sea

“Like Ships Need the Sea,” however, goes even further.  The singer’s lover is to her as the sea is to a ship.  It’s as if the beloved himself is a kind of endless field for exploration and discovery.  The sea not only supports the ship afloat, but carries her to new horizons; the sea is the vast expanse through which wonderful journeys are made.

If this aspect weren’t clear enough, the same relationship is expressed again in a different analogy, birds and the sky.  We might say that the air upholds birds (“the wind beneath my wings”) as the sea upholds the ship; but “sky” is a more intangible concept than “air.”  We see it less as support than as aspiration.  The open sky is the very paradigm, for humans, of limitless expanse.  We have the image of launching ourself into an endless range that can carry us anywhere.  The lover is the very universe in which we can live and move and have our being.

To my mind, it’s a very effective pair of metaphors.

We talked last time about the openness of the F&SF fan to endless possibility:  anything can happen.  Hearn’s song speaks of love in the same way.  It is, we might say, a F&SF fan’s kind of love.

Thus, in chapter 6 of Time Signature, it’s natural for Trina to make an oblique reference to “Like Ships Need the Sea.”  She wants the kind of love that opens her out, not closes her in.  It’s crucial to her that love lead to new horizons.  And that’s the peculiar challenge she faces in the story.  Is what she’s being offered that kind of love?

Anything Can Happen

The More Things Change . . .

One of the things I like about reading science fiction and fantasy is that you never know how things might turn out.

Of course certain genres of stories come with expectations.  In an adventure epic, we can be pretty sure the good guys will win.  In a traditional romance, the couple generally gets together at the end.  But what’s different about F&SF, as opposed to what we might call mainstream or mundane stories, is that the worldwide situation at the end can be radically different from the one at the beginning.

I’m talking here about big-picture changes.  Of course things can and do change for the people in the story.  But in a mainstream story, the world around the characters is pretty much fixed.  Our main character may win a million dollars, but the overall distribution of wealth doesn’t change.  Our hero and heroine may fall in love and marry, but it won’t be front-page news.  In a TV hospital drama, the imperiled patient won’t be cured because aliens suddenly arrive with a universal regeneration technique that makes illness obsolete; the cure will come on a more individual scale.

The World At Stake?

Independence Day movie poster

In a science fiction story, however, world-changing events may occur.  The movie Independence Day depicts an alien invasion after which, as I pointed out in a previous post, things will never be the same.  A nifty new invention may change the world.  Discovering people with strange powers among us may affect our whole history, for good or for ill.  A revolution may succeed in overthrowing the oppressive tyranny.  Things will not always reset to their “Gilligan’s Island” starting point.

Not all F&SF stories involve such events.  A perfectly good fantastic tale may result in changes only for the central characters—in Jo Walton’s Among Others, for example, or Becky Chambers’ latest, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (2021).  But the potential is there.  The set of possible outcomes has a wider range:  the resolution does not have to confine itself to the resolutely mundane.

Even mainstream thrillers where it appears The Fate of the World Is At Stake—James Bond, say—usually don’t take that step.  The world-changing fate is averted, the status quo is restored.  Even the possibility of radical change is usually hidden from the general public; there’s no sense that Bond’s exploits are a nine-day wonder in the press.  On the contrary, we have the sense that the people at large never know how close they came to nuclear destruction or whatever the menace-of-the-week is.  When such a thriller actually does postulate a major change for the world—as in, say, Tom Clancy’s now-outdated Red Storm Rising (1986), or the more recent book by Elliot Ackerman & James Stavridis, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (excerpted in the February 2021 issue of Wired)—I’m inclined to think of it as science fiction for exactly that reason.

Hope and Unease

This open-endedness is an effective counter to both complacency and despair. 

Logo from Web page of NASA's Asteroid Watch

When stories teach us that even big overarching parts of our life can change, we are less inclined to rest in the comfortable assumption that the status quo will always remain.  This is a good thing, because it keeps us from taking things for granted.  America could become a dictatorship; it behooves us to make sure it doesn’t.  The world could suffer an ecological catastrophe.  An asteroid could strike the Earth again; that’s why we track near-Earth objects.

But it’s equally important to recognize that the big world-picture could also get better.  It is easy, especially in a cynical age like our own, to assume that current evils will always be with us; things will continue to get darker and more depressing.  But that’s merely taking the status quo for granted again.  We cannot assume that there will always be racial discrimination, that some people will always go hungry, that Earth’s ecology will degrade.  Not knowing what is going to happen means we can hope for better things as well as fear worse things.

We can thus take comfort, as well as warning, in the open-endedness of the future.

Had she really thought the world didn’t change?  She was a fool.  The world was made of miracles, unexpected earthquakes, storms that came from nowhere and might reshape a continent.  The boy beside her.  The future before her.  Anything was possible.  (Inej’s thoughts, in Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom (NY:  Henry Holt and Company, 2016), ch. 44, p. 529.)

F&SF fans, then, are encouraged to be both cautious and expectant about the future.  That doesn’t prevent them from being either naïve or discouraged—we see plenty of both.  But they are a little more likely to look toward the future with interest and curiosity.

The Knowing Time Traveler

That attitude is tenable as long as we’re living in the present.  We don’t know what’s going to happen next.  But what if we did?  Suppose we had the ability to travel in time back to an earlier era—permanently.  What would it be like to live one’s life knowing, as settled history, what the future holds?

Outlander book cover

There’s an entire subgenre of time travel romance that deals with contemporary people going back in time to live with a lover in the past.  The most well-known story of this sort is probably Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (1991), first of a lengthy series, which was in turn developed into a TV series.  Here Claire Randall, a mid-twentieth-century nurse, is magically transported back to the eighteenth century to fall in love with Scotsman Jamie Fraser.  While I’ve only read the first novel, and the tale evidently gets a good deal more complicated later, Claire seems happy to give up her twentieth-century life to reside somewhere in the past.

Of course one could always look forward to the unknown personal events of one’s own life, which presumably wouldn’t be enshrined in the historical record—unless one’s presence itself changes the overall course of history, which sets up an entirely different kind of story.  When we go back and change the past, as in L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (1939), or (in a notably more complex fashion) Angela Quarles’s Must Love Breeches (2014), we’ve rewritten history, and we no longer know what’s going to happen.  (I’ve commented on some aspects of changing history in a previous post.)

But if our personal lives stay under the radar, so to speak, then we already know the broad outlines of our future from our erstwhile history books.  That might be useful:  Quarles’s heroine, in the epilogue, reflects that “she’d not been above using her knowledge of upcoming historical events to safeguard her family and their finances.”

On the other hand, for a science fiction fan who enjoys the open-endedness of not knowing what will happen, such a life in the past might be hard to bear.  We could no longer wonder whether extra-terrestrials might land tomorrow, or new medical breakthroughs be made, or whether unexpected political events like the fall of the Soviet Union might occur.  From this perspective, living immured in the past might seem like a prison, rather than a comfortable resting place.

Time Signature cover

This is the situation I set up in Time Signature for my heroine Trina.  She’s a lifelong F&SF fan; her eyes have always been fixed on the future.  When she begins to take seriously the notion that she might be asked to live her life in the past, how does she grapple with that?  What kind of comedy might develop from this somewhat unusual romantic obstacle?

I had a good time finding out, and I hope you may as well.

Time Signature: Writing in a Shared World

My science fiction romantic comedy novella Time Signature debuts tomorrow, May 10, available wherever fine ebooks are sold.  In honor of the occasion, I’m going to say a few words about one of the interesting aspects of writing this piece—the challenge of building a story in a world someone else has created.

Origin Story

The Wild Rose Press likes to develop series of books based on a common setting or theme.  The common element is announced, and authors are invited to submit stories to fit.  The stories may be of different kinds:  contemporary romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, and so forth.  But the common thread ties them together.

A couple of years ago, TWRP announced the Deerbourne Inn series.  The creators placed a charming old inn in a small town in Vermont.  They described the layout of the inn and the town, the surrounding landscape, a set of inhabitants, noteworthy events, and the like.  Then they turned the writers loose.  At this point, I count no fewer than twenty-six books set in the Deerbourne Inn locale.  This small town, in other words, is crawling with lovers seeking their happy endings.

In a Wild Rose chat, I asked whether, among all these varieties, a science fiction (rather than fantasy) story might also fit.  Sure, why not, was the response.  And, having raised the question, I thought of an angle:  a chance to play around with the classic time travel romance tropes and, perhaps, turn them around in unexpected ways.  I ran the concept by Nikki Andrews, who was at that time my TWRP editor.  She thought it might be fun.  And thus Time Signature was born.

The Shared World

Man-Kzin Wars 3, cover

The idea of a shared world has a long history, especially in science fiction.  Back in the 1980s, Harlan Ellison recruited a band of noted SF writers to place stories in a setting referred to as “Harlan’s World.”  Later in the ’80s, Jerry Pournelle opened up a planet in his CoDominium future history to other authors under the series title “War World.”  Larry Niven, a frequent collaborator with Pournelle, performed a similar evolution based on an event in his Known Space future history, the “Man-Kzin Wars.”  More recently, Eric Flint’s 2000 novel 1632 has spawned an extensive cottage industry of alternate-history stories in the “Ring of Fire series.”

A storyline inhabited by different authors can also develop almost accidentally.  I’ve remarked on the roles of different writers in stories about the “Fuzzies” created by H. Beam Piper.  A set of follow-up books to James Schmitz’s classic The Witches of Karres brought three additional authors into play. 

The advantage of spreading out the efforts of exotic worldbuilding make science fiction a natural venue for shared worlds.  But even in more mundane settings, there are advantages to be gained.  A standalone non-fantastic contemporary novel must still stand up a set of characters, places, companies, and the like to populate the story.  A writer who’s invented such a panoply of features for a set of tales (like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County) has to put a lot of work into developing these details.  Bringing in a whole corps of authors to help in that enterprise can create a richness of detail that would be hard for a single writer to achieve.  (We can’t all be J.R.R. Tolkien.)

Thus, before I put electrons to screen in Time Signature, I already had a range of details to draw upon.  The inn and its staff were “already there.”  If my characters wanted to have dinner at a restaurant in town, I had a selection of eateries available.  More important, my main character Trina Kellander, a musician, could perform in town at the “Mad River Garden Party,” a summertime event already defined in the Deerbourne Inn corpus.

The Joys and Tribulations of Consistency

The flip side of these advantages is the need for consistency.  Nothing throws a reader out of a story faster than some blatant discrepancy in the details.  If it takes 39 minutes to get from Willow Springs to Montpelier, it’s unlikely the return trip will take three hours—barring traffic jams, severe weather, or the like.  (And if Trina makes the trip in fair weather, we can’t have another character suffering a torrential downpour in the same location at the same time.)

Achieving the consistency needed for a successful suspension of disbelief is hard enough for one author.  For a whole herd of authors, it’s a major issue.  How do we maintain the coherence that makes the shared world seem real?

Beth Overmyer’s recent guest post on writing a series mentioned the notion of a “bible”—reference notes that record details, from a character’s appearance to the theory of magic.  The bible is essential to a shared universe.  It’s the only way writers can stay consistent on key details without bogging down in endless inter-author consultations.

Great Eddy Covered Bridge in Waitsfield, VT
Great Eddy Covered Bridge in Waitsfield, VT, on the way from Willow Springs to Montpelier

The Deerbourne Inn bible establishes the location of the fictional town of Willow Springs (which actually coincides with a real small town on the Vermont map—allowing me to use Google Maps to determine the travel time to Montpelier).  It lays out the structure of the inn, its history, the owner and staff, a bevy of secondary characters at the inn and in the town, the shops and facilities in Willow Springs (right down to the high school mascot), and special events.  Characters introduced in the individual stories, up to the last update to the bible, are also listed.  The bible is accompanied by a street map of the town, making it easier to visualize geographical relationships.  (We’ve not yet progressed to the level of having a GIS layer for an electronic map.  But that innovation’s probably not too far away.)

However, it’s impractical to include all possible details in the bible—especially when 26 different books are involved.  This makes it harder to be sure whether a given fact has been established somewhere, or whether one is free to invent it.  My ebook copies of the Deerbourne Inn stories I read while writing TS are festooned with blue highlights to indicate facts that I might have to take into account at some point.  And still it’s not easy to tell.

Case in point:  My characters take a hike up into the nearby hills, and stop to look back down at the inn.  What color is the façade?  I couldn’t find a reference on that particular point.  If I were writing a standalone story, I would simply have made up a color on the spot (and, of course, carefully notated it back into my background notes for later reference).  But I was reluctant to do that here; someone else might have made a passing reference to the color in a story I hadn’t read.  I dodged the issue by simply not mentioning a color—often the simplest solution to a consistency problem.

At the same time, meshing your story smoothly into an existing framework has a joy of its own.  I enjoyed doing my best to meld TS seamlessly into the continuity of the locale and the stories.

Character Camaraderie

The greatest fun, however, came in the opportunity to integrate other authors’ characters and locales into the story as it developed.

Lyrical Embrace cover

My heroine Trina needed a best-friend-forever in town—someone she could talk to as the plot developed.  It occurred to me that a secondary character in Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace, the sister of her hero, would make a fine confidante.  Like Trina, Ruby Haynes is a musician; that created a natural connection and explained a shared history.  And Ruby’s breezy good cheer made her a perfect foil.

I had a great time consulting with Amber and making sure my portrayal of Ruby was consistent with the original.  What kind of drinks would they share?  What would Ruby name a baby?  The circle was completed when the baby I’d named turned up again in Amber’s subsequent Deerbourne novel Harmony’s Embrace.  Like a volley in tennis, passing these story elements back and forth is a satisfying experience.

Mystic Maples cover

In a similar way, I found a way to make use of a specific location created by Tena Stetler for her novel Mystic Maples.  I checked with Tena to make sure my description meshed correctly with her conception of the locale, and wrote it into TS as part of the already-existing background.

The Draw of a Shared World

There’s a unique charm to finding connections and crossovers in the stories we like.  As with Easter eggs in a movie or a game, we delight in discovering an unexpected convergence.  Over and above the heightened realism of a universe in which consistent features recur, it’s just fun to see the web of connections grow.  Time Signature gave me the opportunity to weave a new layer into the tapestry of the Deerbourne Inn world; I hope that will please readers as much as it does me.