Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Sign of Changing Times

I began re-reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis last night. Willis writes with a wonderful blend of science fiction, fantasy, and Jodi-Picoult-esque mystery. Doomsday Book was the first book of hers that I read, back in the days when I was in junior high and couldn't afford books, so I'd sign up for book clubs under different names just to get the "8 Free Copies!" for joining.

I digress. I've loved the Doomsday Book for a long time, but I loved it in the same way I love King Lear, not the way I love The Hero and the Crown. Let me explain. I read King Lear once, knew I loved it, and loved it so deeply I never had to read it again. The love was in me, and it remained in me, and every time I look on that bookshelf, I always remember that love for the book and don't need to pick it up and re-read it. A lot of the classics and more epic fantasy books are like that for me. On the other hand, there are some books, like The Hero and the Crown that I can read over and over again and never have my fill. I read The Hero and the Crown almost every year on my birthday. When I finished the third Harry Potter book, I flipped to the front and started again. It's like the difference between fine chocolate and cheap chocolate. I can savor a single Swiss truffle, or I can gorge on a pound of Easter candy.

So I hadn't read Doomsday Book since I bought it, which might have been a decade or more ago. I still know the plot: a girl from the future is sent to the Middle Ages, witnesses the Black Plague, and has trouble getting safely back. Meanwhile, in the modern world, a whole new kind of plague has broken out.

Here's the thing. The "future" of the book is the year 2054, which seems a lot closer this side of the millenium. And within the first 50 or so pages, the sub-plot of the modern plague is just starting, and the main character keeps going around trying to find phones so he can call people. It was so disjarring I had to stop reading. When I first read the book, I didn't own a cell phone, had never seen one outside of TV. Now, my high school students all have cell phone and there's lot of technology indicating that cell phones will continue to grow. But here in this 2054 world where time travel is real, cell phones aren't.

To me, it's a sign of how difficult it is to write in sci-fi. You can imagine the future the way you want to, but there will be elements of it--simple elements, like cell phones or iPods or DVD players--that are impossible to predict. When I create a world for one of my fantasy books, I have the luxury of making my own rules. Part of sci-fi is prophetic: given the world now, how can it be in the future? It takes thought, and good thought makes a better book. In Joss Wheedon's Firefly and Serenity worlds, the characters speak a combination of Chinese and English because at the apolcalypse of Earth when the people of the world flew off to different planets to live, those were the superpowers. That's taking today's real life--China and America being so powerful--to a possible future--Chinese and English merging into one accepted language. Now it seems innovative and clever...fifty years from now, China and/or America could fall from power and it will seem laughable. Or, more likely, there will be some new form of technology that will make the whole premise laughable. Maybe Al Gore will save the world of carbon dioxide emissions, world peace will be found, and we'll be living happily ever after on a perfect planet that will never be broken apart.

Who knows? All I'm saying is, enjoy your sci-fi now, while the possibilities presented in it are still possible.
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