What Will Stand the Test of Time?

On the one hand I figure once you’re dead it doesn’t really matter, on an ego-level, does it? There’re only ego concerns if you’re alive enough to appreciate it and care (I’m working on the premise that there’s no after life, no self-conscious ghosties, no burdens of regret to pass onto the next generation, etc.). On the other hand I have children so if I can have books still bring in royalties, yah, that’d be awesome. Leave them a little something– if not enough to let them retire when they are 55 years old, at least enough to eat at a fancy restaurant several times a year!

When I write my novels I’m not thinking about whether or not they will Stand The Test of Time. And I am not specifically and consciously crafting stories that will try to evade or float above my historical timeline. (What I mean is we are creatures of specific times. My childhood in the 70’s has imprinted in specific ways. 80’s in the Canadian prairies has formed something else inside of my experience-scape. Etc. We bring those sensibilities to the atmosphere, if not the setting itself, in the stories we write. Some timeprint. It’s in us. We transport it. It’s one of our filters.) Some novels/stories/poems/plays etc remain as vivid, remarkable, relevant and vital even after decades, centuries have passed. Did the authors of these narratives wonder if their work would still speak to an audience three hundred years into the future?

I’ve been thinking about which SF and Fantasy stories stand the test of time and why. Not in a scholarly way, Jim, because I’m not a scholar, but in a writerly abstracted musing kind of way, like a little yarn hanging from my sweater that I like to pluck at and tug between thumb and forefinger.

Last week I reread Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy after 15+ years and was surprised to discover that it read very well, even revisiting it as an older and more experienced reader/writer, and that the subject matter and content would actually be quite fine to be released now. It’s a fantasy series with two humans from our world finding themselves in an parallel world that’s very much like what would have been a medieval culture for us. Aside from the very beginning of the narrative, there are no leaps between the locales. They are trapped in the medieval realm. So there was very little to fix the “presentness” of their lives in contrast to my reading now in the 21rst century. The only thing that stood out as time-fixed was mention of VHS videos…. (Which I still watch I’ll have you know! ^__^)

This got me to thinking about which elements may fix SF and Fantastic stories into a tighter reading time-frame. What I mean by a tight reading time-frame is stories that are best read in “the present” of when the story was first released, and, as time passes, its relevance or interest wanes. It doesn’t have a long shelf life. It is like a Beaujolais, not a bottle of brandy.

So back to Hambly’s trilogy. Fantasy, with its construction of an alternate world/setting with or without elements of the magical, may float above the tethers that would bind a narrative to a specific time because it’s often working out of an imaginary system that is actually removed from our experience of “real time” (and all the markers of reality that have a time-print). Science fiction runs a greater risk of being “dated” because of two significant elements: 1) SF will often imagine a future, and as we approach the date it can seem quite silly when what was imagined as the future is so far from the reality (Interestingly, as we catch up to the imagined timeline, the futuristic story actually becomes an interesting artifact of the past as it foregrounds the anxieties and interests of that culture’s present!). 2) Focus on technological advances/discoveries also fixes the narrative in time as technological discoveries continue onward, quickly surpass it, or veer in a different direction, etc. For instance, computers were room-sized machines but now they are becoming extremely small. What was cutting edge is swiftly surpassed. It seems to me that an SF novel based on technological discoveries would face more challenges in being current and relevant than a fantasy novel (of course I’m speaking in very broad terms, here). Steampunk seems an interesting marriage of fantasy and science fiction with a ground based upon nostalgia but that’s another little discussion for another day. Hambly’s fantasy adventure has elements of a mystery as well as following tropes of fantasy (such as fight between human survival against a strange deadly and evil force), as well as conflict between groups (church and state), conflict between individuals and groups, as well as a moderate romantic element (nicely handled, not overdone, <she nods approvingly>) and all of these things certainly recur in human history, they’ve never gone away. There’s one final element that actually affects how well it resonates as a book for current interest, but I don’t want to speak of it because I would spoiler the trilogy… >_< !! So I won’t. At any rate I suggest you read this trilogy for yourself and have a ponder about how and why it can still resonate.

As a writer is it important to consider whether or not the novel you are crafting is “timeless”? Is it important to carefully pore through the text to try to erase all timeprints that will anchor it forever in 2011?

I don’t think there’s a correct answer….

I have a feeling that trying to write “a timeless book” would be very much like trying to write “a universal story”; a fruitless endeavour, a little like trying to catch air with a butterfly net…. But who knows? Maybe there are a slough of writers out there who approach their novels in that very way??? I don’t know. And, as my father said, “Life is… <dramatic pause> Unknowable!”

Often reviewers will describe a novel as “timeless”. “Universal” is also probably close behind. Birth, death, love, heartbreak, success, failure, good and evil; these binary constructions have indeed, orbited our very short human lives since time immemorial, at least we’ve endless chronicles about them.

Of course writers write stories set in a wide spectrum of time. Their stories may be set in the distant past, the near past, the present, the future, the far future, etc. They combine multiple timelines, what have you. We are only limited by our imagination. As writers we can play with time! We can bend it, we can alter it, as long as we have the ability to have manipulate language to convey this. But none of this really clinches whether or not a story will stand the test of time.

Ultimately the story has to be very good, specific, and distinct.

In terms of my writing process my character(s) are the primary engines to my narrative. I have a broad concept, probably several pressing questions and the character(s) are dropped into the mix. Sometimes I feel very bad about the things they must endure. They are always very deeply loved….

I’m not trying to prove anything, here. <grin> I’m just kinda working out some random thoughts. Mulling. I suppose it would be good to talk about how one treats time inside a story. The seeming semblance of the passage of story time in the story world as opposed to how much time is passing for the reader…. Now THAT is a magic trick, I kid you not! But not today. ~___~

And, rather randomly, I end with a link to a recent interview for the Fall 2011 issue of The Seventh Week, Clarion West Writer’s Workshop! The most thoughtful, astute & imaginative Nisi Shawl asked me non-typical questions and it was an absolute delight to respond to them. You need to download the pdf once you’re on the site.