Sunday, 7 October 2012

The glue of enduring SFF: having a past, present and future

A rich tale encompasses all three time dimensions: the past, present and future.  Is a story just suddenly over after the last sentence, or are there questions that linger in the reader’s mind?  Is the reader thinking about what will happen next after the last scene? Has a sense of time and grandeur been conveyed?  This ‘lasting impression’ is a feature which makes some stories stand out more than others.

It is often difficult to include all three components in one story.  Most good books offer at least two of the three, present and past.  I believe using all three provides maximum interest.

The ‘past’ is used quite effectively in many of the best fantasies, as in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.  Each spotlight character seems to have a past that is developed throughout; the dialog is rich, tales of deeds and past goings on abound.  Whereas every story contains a ‘present’, ie some immediate action and conflict, not all stories are enriched by a past history or legends leading up to the conflict.  Fewer even contain a glimpse of what is to come.  Exceptional stories contain all three.

The Matrix for example, encompasses all.  We are given haunting glimpses into the long tragic past of humans versus machine throughout the film, until finally the bomb drops as the horrifying truth of ‘the human world’ is exposed.  The immediate conflict is established early on, with the introduction of ‘Mr. Anderson’ and his nemesis, ‘the man in black’, and ultimately progresses to the quest of a few edgy rebels defying the all-powerful ‘collective machine’.  Finally, we are left wondering: what are the ends of Neo’s supernormal powers?—as he flies up in the sky, like an exalted superhero.

The Mad Max film, The Road Warrior, encompasses similar scope.  As viewers, we experience the main character, a cynical drifter flashing back on his sad past when unexpected violence took his wife.  From the desolate setting, thuggish characters and lunar ambience, we get a sense of a world that has slowly degenerated to a hostile dystopia. The present conflict in the petrol rich band engages us totally with the ongoing battles.  The reprobates on wheels are wholly horrid.  The viewer is left ultimately with a poignant look at the future when the bandits are destroyed and we are left asking “where are Max and the gang to go”?

The Planet of the Apes develops well in both books and films the past, present and future.  The story arc entails a major conflict of humankind versus apes: featuring a reversal of fortunes, sometimes apes winning, sometimes humans.  Glimpses too emerge of a long-spanning history and the stirring vision of a stark future of a continual conflict between these two groups.  The saga continues.  Even more than the sense of primal conflict presented by the author, is felt the ever-present sense of impending tragedy, moved along by the setting and the mood.

As SF author Theodore Sturgeon demonstrates in his incomparable Microcosmic God, a good SF premise can be taken to extreme heights.  This short tale is rich with implication and grandeur and well worth the read. The fantastic tale deals with technology and knowledge gleaned by homespun creatures—workhorses, ‘Neoterics’, enslaved by a mastermind in a hermetically sealed environment, left to dig for knowledge. Amazingly, the bizarreness is complemented by the richness of science, featuring electric transmitters, nano-chemistry, eugenics, artificial synthesis, and other stuff.  A snapshot of the final commentary is chilling:

“Some day the Neoterics, after innumerable generations of inconceivable advancement, will take down their shield and come forth.  When I think of that, I feel frightened...”

The reader is left for a long time pondering the ramifications of Sturgeon’s musings.  Years after reading this story, I still think about ‘what could happen’ when the Neoterics are unleashed.  It is the author’s genius that created this lasting impression.

Some well-written stories tend to rely wholly on the immediate present to make their statement—yet still leave a lasting impression.  This is evident in the classic ‘life and death’ situation faced by the protagonist where every excruciating detail of the scene is given—a crash landing in Andes (I am Alive), falling down a steep mountain and bleeding to death, trapped in a cave, mine, underground grotto, or life in a prison (The Shawshank Redemption).

Whereas some stories tend to focus on the immediate present, others tend to make use of past and future to create depth.  The film AI, based on the book Super-Toys All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss, encompasses a massive time span.  The main conflict comprises a robot boy wishing to become human. The viewer is left with a sense of awe, wondering what is to become of the ‘brave new world’ of man and machine, as evolution of human and computer spans millennia upon millennia.

Across A Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg, is a fine work crafted to leave a lasting impression. The civilization of the ‘High Ones’, an ancient alien race, has reached the plateau of achievement, such that that there is nowhere else for them to go.  They become sterile and static. Yet the knowledge that these beings accumulated is astounding—their machines still amass data, yet no one is there to look.  A purposeless task, and the reader tries to fathom the scope of what they have achieved and what Silverberg is suggesting. The story is recklessly playful—albeit, it leaves the reader attempting unsuccessfully to imagine the age and scope of the universe that Silverberg is describing—even too, the potential beings that inhabit it, and the infinity to come.  Where will it go from here?

“What is going to happen” even after the immediate conflict is resolved is a significant question. This question is a natural offshoot of apocalyptic fiction, such as zombie horror and end of world scenarios.  The highly-popular Resident Evil offers a peek into a savage past, with a computer narrative describing the brief history of the underground turmoil in a laboratory complex far below the surface of the earth that went awry.  Not only is present conflict featured, with the kickass heroine hurtling to knock down zombies and manufactured freaks, but a disturbing vision of the future lingers—the masses of infected beings congregating on the doomed complex.  Such lingering questions are somewhat reminiscent of the hanging doom left at the end of the first Walking Dead series.

From my own specfic writings is Phane which incorporates similar devices: past, present, future.  The derelict past is reflected through the weary eyes of the character Simil, an eccentric inventor, a recluse, who expounds upon the past technology of humanity that went warlike, to the curiosity-smitten Kolbe, a youth who listens only with quizzical wonder to his prospective role model.  He learns how humanity came to colonize the galaxy, and then unwittingly brought about its ultimate decline.  Kolbe’s present-day challenge is to stand up against his bullying peer group and their uneducated conditioning, in order to embrace his personal passion for science and to devote himself to the task of learning.  A far-reaching future chord is left lingering . . . the boy may be the future . . .

Likewise, the Jisil-ou-az-lar, a dystopian SF, features an increasingly chilling outlook on the human fate.  In this far future world, oceans cover the major land masses as the polar ice has melted.  The reader experiences a vertigo, a ‘brave new world’ of a new kind: seafarers struggling against extreme climactic conditions, braced for a harsh existence in a sunlight-killing world.  The implications of the protagonist’s struggle against numerous opportunistic rogues, and the images left in the reader’s mind of a bleak future for earth, leave an imprint of melancholic speculation.

Similarly, in the heroic fantasy, The Temple of Vitus, Risgan the roguish adventurer must embrace his potential fatherhood after all his many harrowing escapades against sea pirates, villains, weird creatures of land, sea and air and a questionable cult leader installed on the coast.  What is left lingering, is the rogue’s gloomy prospect of wandering hostile lands in exile for eternity.  Yet of all of these plights, his fatherhood seems the most imminently worrisome.

These lasting chords resonate in the reader’s mind for good or bad and create a dimension above a tale’s main story line.  The ‘cause and effect’ that naturally emanates from use of a past history serves as a vehicle to promote more introspective thought, and in the case of dystopias, a dire warning.  For all writers and readers, I am curious if you feel similar sentiments.  I am interested in your views . . .

1 comment:

  1. I agree. Even if a story has a resolution there has to be questions left dangling for the reader to ruminate. This of course necessarily involves at least the present and the future, but good stories make effective use of the past. In science fiction and fantasy the past is often linked physically with the future by several devices (e.g. time travel).