Future History and Happy Endings

Stories and Endings

We talked last time about SF writers’ fictional histories of the future.  There’s another feature of such backgrounds that must be taken into account.  One of the downsides about a future history is that it blunts the effect of a happy ending.

Those of us who enjoy traditionally constructed stories like to see a happy ending.  It won’t be unreservedly happy, of course.  A story is better if, as TV Tropes puts it, the main characters earn their happy ending—which means they will have gone through a lot of trials and tribulations first.  And there are likely to be losses along the way:  people who die, possibilities that are lost.  But it’s more satisfying if some good is achieved, or at least preserved, in the course of a story.

Even those who scorn the happy ending as naïve generally aim for some sort of closure or conclusion.  It’s pretty generally unsatisfying to read a tale in which nothing at all is accomplished or resolved, even in part.  Such stories exist, but I suspect they appeal mainly to readers so convinced of the meaningless of life that they perceive a pointless story as an affirmation.  For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that one of the elements we look for in a good story is at least some degree of favorable outcome.

Of course, defining the ending of a story is always somewhat arbitrary.  We decide to stop narrating at a certain point, even though life goes on.  (Even in James Blish’s The Triumph of Time, which concludes with the destruction of the universe, new universes are going to be spawned from the death of this one.)

Lakeshore, sunset, coupleThis is particularly true of love stories.  Alasdair MacIntyre once remarked that in Jane Austen’s novels, marriage occupies the place that death occupies in real life.  It brings events to a conclusion.  So it is with many or most love stories, which focus on the formation of a relationship and how it reaches some watershed moment—frequently the commitment of marriage.  Stories about how a healthy marriage proceeds, though exceedingly interesting and valuable, are much more rare—and much harder to write.

And this reflection begins to illuminate our problem.  If we go on telling the story after the high point of the marriage, we run the risk that subsequent events won’t live up to that peak of expectation.  For example, I’ve seen several sequels to Pride and Prejudice that pick up after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage; but they don’t tend to be nearly as interesting as the original.

This is true not only of love stories, but of all stories.  At the end of Star Wars IV:  A New Hope, victory is declared, the Empire’s plot is foiled, we exit on cheers and applause.  But at the beginning of the next episode, the rebels are on the run—again—and by the following installment, even the Death Star is being rebuilt.

Early Mr. IncredibleThis sort of thing can rather take the bloom off the original victory.  Aaron Leitko’s December 2015 article on Star Wars VII makes this point about “franchises” that don’t end:  “the galaxy can never truly be saved. It is always in peril. With each victory, a new and greater threat amasses over the horizon. Our childhood heroes are destined to struggle onward until they get old, run out of luck, or are conveniently written out of the script following an unsuccessful contract renegotiation.”  One is reminded of Mr. Incredible’s fretful remark at the opening of The Incredibles:  “Sometimes I just want [the world] to stay saved.”  Don’t we all?

Endings and History

A future history, in effect, equips every story in the sequence (except for the last one) with long-range sequels. This means the problem of stabilizing the happy ending applies not only to the individual characters, but to the story’s large-scale outcome as well, like the struggle against the Empire in Star Wars.

Empire (Piper) coverI mentioned last time that H. Beam Piper’s cyclical future history would ultimately have been thrown out of whack by the happy-ending-inducing Fuzzies.  In its original conception, a certain sort of gloom spread over Piper’s future history.  As John F. Carr observes in his introduction to the Piper collection Empire (Ace paperback, 1981), each book seems to offer the prospect of a brighter future, but the books that follow never show that result.  Rather, the promise of each earlier ending is vitiated by later developments.  “At the end of each of these stories it appears as though the self-reliant man has won; however in future stories we learn that while the battle may have been won, the war was lost.”  (p. 9)

Not every imagined history has to embrace a deterministic or cyclical theory like Piper’s.  But any realistic history has to recognize that things don’t always get continuously better in this life.  There are setbacks, reversals, and recrudescences of attitudes and problems we thought we’d disposed of.  We can legitimately hope that our favorite characters’ victories will make things better at least for a while—but the betterment will not last forever.

Song of Roland coverThis isn’t a modern discovery.  The eleventh-century Song of Roland, one of the legends that surround the mythical court of Charlemagne (France’s answer to the Arthurian Matter of Britain), ends with a victory, avenging the heroic death of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew.  But even this somber triumph is not final.  In the very last stanza, Charlemagne is told that he must rally his forces yet again to face a new challenge.  “Small heart had [Charlemagne] to journey and to fight; / ‘God!’ says the King, ‘how weary is my life!’”

Happiness in the Moment

We need to be willing to accept a happy ending that is not unqualified.  Something can be good without being forever.  Subsequent failures do not invalidate genuine achievements.

To enjoy a future history, we have to recognize that the uncertainties of the future do not extinguish the glory of success.  Our newly-wedded lovers, for example, will have their ups and downs, but that doesn’t keep their lives from being happy on the whole.

The same is true of civilizations—the large-scale achievements whose fate is frequently at stake in adventure stories.  The establishment of a better world can make a lot of people’s lives better for a long time, even if that achievement is eventually superseded by later events.

A Midsummer Tempest coverValeria Victrix Matuchek, from Poul Anderson’s A Midsummer Tempest (epilogue), put it this way:  “Nothing ever was forever, anyway.  Peace never came natural.  The point is, it can sometimes be won for some years, and they can be lived in.”

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Fuzzy Future History

Histories of the Future

A science fiction writer can link diverse stories by setting them in a common “history of the future”—an imagined future that might run anywhere from a dozen years to geological eras.  A new tale may not be a direct sequel or prequel, but it can appeal to us in somewhat the same way when it shares a background with a story we’ve enjoyed already.

Using a common future history has great advantages for the writer, as well.  It’s easier to continue developing an established background than to invent something entirely new.   But this approach also has pitfalls.  We may find that later stories evolve to conflict with the background we’ve already set up.  We saw off the branch we were sitting on.

SF author H. Beam Piper‘s “Fuzzy” series gives us a particularly interesting example of the perils of success.

Little Fuzzy

Piper’s intense interest in history led him to outline a vast scheme of human progress and space exploration, now referred to as his “Terro-Human Future History,” in that it deals mostly with human beings of Terran descent.

Piper believed in a cyclical theory of history, in which similar patterns of events recur in different ways.  His Terro-Human Future History is thus full of analogues to actual events:  the Sepoy Mutiny (Uller Uprising), the barbarian invasions of the European Middle Ages (Space Viking).  Piper’s historical scheme covered 6,000 years’ worth of rises and falls, empires and interregnums.

Little Fuzzy book coverLate in his career, Piper won a permanent place in the hearts of SF readers with the novel Little Fuzzy (1962).  Crusty old prospector Jack Holloway on the colony planet Zarathustra discovers a species of small, golden-furred beings, the first of whom he dubs “Little Fuzzy.”  The Fuzzies are primitive hunter-gatherers, perfectly capable of tracking down and killing their food.  But they are also smart, fun-loving, lovable, and an endangered species.

The Chartered Zarathustra Corporation, which runs most of the planet (an analogue of the historical East India Company), takes an intense interest in these little creatures—because its charter depends on the assumption that Zarathustra was an uninhabited world.  When a CZC employee kills one of the Fuzzies, and a company gunman is in turn killed by Jack, it becomes crucial in the subsequent murder trials to decide whether the Fuzzies are truly intelligent persons, or just animals.  The resolution of that issue forms the climax of the story.

Equal parts adventure story, courtroom drama, speculation on the nature of intelligence, and heartwarmer, Little Fuzzy was a hit with readers.  (And it seems likely, I’ve always figured, that the Fuzzies are one of the literary ancestors of the Ewoks.)

Fuzzies Everywhere

Golden Dream book coverThe subsequent literary history of the Fuzzies is exceedingly complex.  Piper published a sequel, Fuzzy Sapiens (or The Other Human Race), two years later.  A third Fuzzy novel had been sent to a publisher when, in November 1964, Piper committed suicide.  The manuscript of the third book was lost.  But reader interest in the Fuzzies led publishers to commission a new Fuzzy sequel by William Tuning, issued in 1981 as Fuzzy Bones.  An overlapping prequel taking off from Tuning’s development of the story, Golden Dream, was written by Ardath Mayhar and appeared the following year.

Ironically, no sooner had these continuations come out than the lost manuscript of the third Piper book was found after all.  Piper’s Fuzzies and Other People (“F&OP”) appeared in 1984.  Unsurprisingly, Piper’s continuation was not consistent with Tuning’s and Mayhar’s, leaving us with two inconsistent, but equally interesting, versions of the Fuzzy mythology.

It’s even worse than that.  At least two different reboots or reimaginings of the Fuzzy mythology have been subsequently published.  A detailed explanation of the whole mess can be found in a 2007 article by Fred Patten, with further information in a Goodreads review of Fuzzy Bones.

Irresistible Cuteness

The great charm of the Fuzzy stories lies in their mixture of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness.  “Pappy Jack” and a whole series of other tough, no-nonsense characters develop unexpected softer sides as they succumb to the irresistible cuteness of the Fuzzies.  In Tuning’s words, “Like many men who were extremely tough, he turned to goo at the sight of those wide, appealing eyes.”

But the Fuzzies aren’t just cute.  Arguably, they are better people than humans.  Fuzzies share without hesitation.  They help each other.  They tell the truth (though this particular trait gets complicated in F&OP).  They’re not competitive, but they do aspire to excellence.  This inherent virtue has its tough side too:  Fuzzies applaud the deserved punishment of evildoers.

More important, for purposes of their long-term effect on human affairs, they aren’t simply an enclave of niceness:  they influence people.  Almost every human who comes in contact with them becomes a better person as a result.  Villains in one story are converted to good guys in the next, once they acquire Fuzzy companions.

Fuzzies and Other People book coverOne character observes in chapter 12 of F&OP:  “we’re hooked.  Hooked on Fuzzies.”  The Fuzzies are making a permanent difference in the quality of human behavior on Zarathustra—not by force, not by persuasion, but simply by being lovable.  It’s not at all the kind of development one would expect from a hardheaded rationalist of Piper’s type.

It’s not what one would have expected of his future history, either.  And that’s the twist I want to point out here.

Can Piper’s Future History Survive the Fuzzies?

When the Fuzzies entered Piper’s future history, it was already well under way.  Four novels and a number of short stories were already in print, and Piper had plans for more.  Many of these stories were set later in time than the events of Little Fuzzy.  And the events of this hypothetical future, as noted above, were built on Piper’s view of cyclical history.  A fundamental change in human behavior would have thrown the whole sequence into disarray.

But the advent of the Fuzzies represented just such a change.  At the end of F&OP, there are plans to take Fuzzies off Zarathustra.  “[E]verybody on Terra will be crazy about them.”  Indeed.  One visualizes Fuzzies spreading throughout the Terran Federation, disseminating goodness and improving human beings wherever they go.

A good thing for those fortunate humans?  Undoubtedly.  But Piper hadn’t set out to write a Utopia.  His later stories depended on the assumption that humans would continue to be the same difficult, ornery creatures they always have been. The innocent-seeming Fuzzies had endangered the whole basis of the Terro-Human Future History.

Piper’s suicide has always been attributed to a certain moodiness combined with financial and personal difficulties.  But I’ve sometimes wondered whether the Fuzzy conundrum might have had something to do with it.  Piper had built a carefully planned future history.  But the more he worked out the implications of the Fuzzy stories, the harder it must have seemed to keep their influence contained in such a way as not to disrupt that careful plan.  With all those stories in print, there was no easy way to resolve the internal contradictions.

We’ll never know about Piper’s personal views.  But we can take the peculiar saga of the Fuzzies as a reminder of how tricky it can be when different types of stories—even good and well-beloved stories—inhabit the same imagined history.