Thursday, January 04, 2018

Fictional Chronology Versus Real-Life Time

How do you handle the problem when the timeline of a fictional series slides out of sync with the real passage of time? The novels in my vampire universe were written and published over a span of many years, but the characters all exist in pretty much the same time frame although the technology of each book reflects the decade when it was written. Mostly, I don't worry about this situation, since the novels and stories can each be read independently (although some characters recur), aside from the novel that's a direct sequel to DARK CHANGELING, the first one published.

Now, however, my urban fantasy/horror novel FROM THE DARK PLACES is soon to be re-released, and I'm faced with a difficulty caused by the late-1970s setting. I've written a next-generation sequel set in the not-strictly-defined present, with cell phones, electric cars, and the Internet. The heroine, born at the end of the first book, is twenty-one. If time has passed in the books as in the primary world, she'd be about forty. What changes should I make in the new edition of FROM THE DARK PLACES to reconcile this inconsistency?

Some creators avoid the problem by aging characters more or less in real time, maybe a little slower but not slowly enough for their environment to fall out of sync with the reader's world. For example, the comic strips FOR BETTER OR WORSE and GASOLINE ALLEY do this. Another strategy is to ignore the discrepancy by changing the technology and cultural references to fit the time of publication while keeping characters the same age or letting them age very slowly, sometimes only a few years over several decades. The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary does it that way. On TVTropes, this phenomenon is called Comic-Book Time:

Comic-Book Time

In the James Bond novels, Bond's background was tacitly updated over the series, as the setting advanced with dates of publication. Therefore, as one critic noted, according to his age in the later books, he would have been a teenager in the first one, CASINO ROYALE. The TV program MASH famously lasted over twice as long as the actual Korean War, and there isn't much if any attempt to maintain consistency in the internal timeline, much less factual correspondence to the historical progression of the war. For a show produced before it was expected that fans would be able to buy all the seasons and repeatedly re-watch them, the discrepancies probably weren't obvious at the time.

Diane Duane's Young Wizards series (beginning with SO YOU WANT TO BE A WIZARD) spans only a few years in the characters' lives, although the novels have been published over several decades. Duane has addressed the problem by issuing "Millennium Editions" of the earlier books, updating the years of the action and the associated technology, so that the characters now age roughly in real time.

As for my current quandary: The editor has agreed to go with my suggestion of locating FROM THE DARK PLACES in the indefinite past, by removing all explicit references to the 1970s but leaving the technology of the story pretty much as is. To avoid confusing readers, I plan to add a note stating that the book takes place before cell phones and widespread home computer ownership.

What do you do about a series whose internal chronology becomes disconnected from real time? Authors of historical fiction, futuristic SF, and secondary-world fantasy are lucky in this respect; they never need to worry about their stories becoming outdated. Although the Star Trek universe does have a peculiar problem along this line—some of the technology in the original series has been overtaken by present-day tech!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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