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?
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.
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?
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.
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.