Saturday, November 22, 2014

A momentary impulse seized me ... or it will ... or it did

I was looking at Book Riot and ran across this video from books and pieces, which I'm linking to on YouTube.  Partly I was just interested in the flapping hands and the strange urgency with which she speaks -- she seems to be really afraid we'll all get bored or tell her to shut up or something, when in fact she's a good deal more interesting than most of the people you can find browsing the net and nearly all of the people you can find hanging out in the coffee house. 

The question was about the attraction of the 30-80 year -- or really, the 50 year -- future.  Why is so much SF set at about that distance in time?

She mentions most of the usual explanations: fifty years is about the right time frame to be comprehensible but still strange enough.  It's far enough away so that there is more than one likely alternative, close enough so there are not an infinite number of incomprehensible ones. It's an artifact of the limits of writerly imagination.  All that sort of thing.

Let me throw out one she didn't say that seems likeliest to me, and maybe that's just because I'm an increasingly old poop who spends more and more time these days working around young people. (I highly recommend that combination, by the way. You get to be near all that energy and interest and excitement but you're not obligated to have zits, cliques, or obsessions).

Science fiction, if we are talking about professional venues (defined as "the check would be enough to make a difference in your month or longer")  is written by youngish (usually late 20s and up) through middle-oldish (70s or so) people.  Add fifty years to their age and you get middle-oldish to dead.

But some people from our present will still be alive in fifty years, with memories of our time.  They are those short guys we call "children."  I was born in 1957; 1964 is memorable for me (though I missed a lot, too, of course), in a whole swarm of details.

Many people's idea of what the world is like is formed in childhood (and sometimes never changes, or changes only slowly); furthermore, if children are not too severely abused or neglected, and most aren't, they tend to like the world of their childhood and to think of it as normal and right.  (One of many reasons why reactionaries can find new reactionaries, I suppose). 

So, when I sit down to write about what happens in 2064, I'm imagining a world where:

1) I'm dead or close to it, and certainly out of most social circulation.
2) But kids (e.g. grandchildren) are still around (oldest grand will be sixty, an age I have no trouble imagining, and presumably 2014 will seem about as remote as 1964 now does to me).
3) And my present day existence will be remembered mainly by people seeing it in the mental golden glow of childhood.

Just to spill more amazebeans upon you: most writers love attention, and really love favorable attention, and want to be well thought of.  So when I set a story 50 years into the future, I'm picking a period when the elderly experienced characters with wisdom ("old wise guys") are people I know today, but are most apt to think I sure was swell. Or more likely awesome.  Probably sick, actually.  No matter. It is the time when I am likely to be out of accurate living memory, but still in living memory,surrounded by the glow of nostalgia.

And I'm guessing this feeling is true for a lot of writers.  Besides the video cited above, I recently had occasion to re-read Heinlein's Requiem (the story where D.D. Harriman hires a couple broken down rocket barnstormers to fly him to the moon, and dies there, leaving the RL Stevenson "home is the hunter" poem on an air tank tag as his epitaph).  Heinlein wrote it in 1940; it's set in 1990 (two years after Heinlein's actual death -- you don't get much more precise than this, do you?) 

So when Harriman tries to explain to these two spacemen why he wants to see the plain old moon even if it will kill him, he falls back on telling them about his childhood, and talks about being an 8-15 year old kid who lived and breathed ... science fiction magazines. Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Boy's Own Electrical Experimenter, all that pop science stuff that was all over the newsstand in the 20s and 30s.

Harriman is 70-something  at the time (the doctor who won't let him fly says so).  So he was born between 1910 and 1920 ... about a decade younger than Heinlein.  A rich kid, crazy about science in the late 1920s or early 1930s ...

Three guesses who D.D. Harriman's  favorite writer was, and I'm sure you'll be right all three times (though we have no way to check). Maybe Heinlein himself, but also very likely Doc Smith, Murray Leinster, H.G. Wells -- the writers Heinlein conspicuously loved.  And if that kid had somehow known the rather dashing young naval officer that Heinlein was when Harriman would have been ten years old ... well, if that's not the warm glow of memory, what would be?

Really, it's remarkable how well SF writers resist having the children they like grow into admirable, heroic adults who then remember their creators (or the characters who are surrogates for their creators) with the same glow that Disney, Thornton Wilder, or Heinlein brushed over pre-WWI smalltown America, like Thomas Kinkade the day that the store had a special on Valium and chrome yellow.


Quick note here: I felt the urge, I wrote the piece, wanted to see how long it would take to just dash something off about an idle thought.  Might do it again or not. Those of you who like the blog, hope neither too much nor too little. Those who don't, why did you read this far?