Now and then...

or Now & Then...

Beth's post yesterday, about the importance of the setting in dystopian novels, got me to thinking about setting the time, the "now" and "then" aspects of dystopian novels.

Most dystopia is set in the future - be it near, far or ambiguously-timed future. Which would seem to be the nature of the genre. Moving the slightest bit out of dystopian and into the realm of speculative fiction, there is "then" as "past"- in works such as LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld (on my TBR list.) Which may not be strictly dystopian, but is set in an alternate history (which requires amazing world-building skills, which Mr. Westerfeld certainly has!) However, for now (tee hee) I am just going to stick with "now" & "then."

The time setting of dystopia is crucial in gaining the trust of the reader. If you set your work in a near-future time frame, you have to be convincing in that what is going on in the story would have had sufficient time to evolve in real life. Radical political gains, revolutions and government overthrows may happen in a very short period of time, but be sure that you do a bit of digging into history (both far and near past) to see just how long it took for say, Hitler, to come into power. A journey that started around the end of World War I (1918 or so) came to fruition when he became dictator in 1934. Using that model, it took 16 years (but, of course, Hitler's personal beliefs were forming long before 1918) for that kind of change to take place.

Even using the historical perspective requires a writer to take into account current technology. In Hitler's day, there was no internet and no mass media (as we know it today) to be used in turning the minds of the people into willing participants. He and his followers used print and speeches to gain followers and eventual victory in elections. Which took much more time than the instantaneous information flow we have today. So - what could happen in say... 16 months? Hmmm... what could happen in 16 months?*thinks about the possibilities, starts making notes* Oops! Back to the article!

Of course, a far and/or ambiguous future gives the writer much more leeway in what may or may not have happened to get from point A (the present) to point B (the future in the novel.) When I was writing XVI, rather than dropping it into a random future time, I plotted a timeline full of events that might have happened (such as wars, treaties and governments changing hands) prior to my world setting. So, even though my readers won't see those events happen, they did shape my world.

As far as the "now" aspect of dystopia - well... I am working on that - so, I can't talk about it - yet!

I personally love "star dates" and also the fact that 1984 seems timeless! (Published in 1949, Orwell imagined change in 35 years!) I wonder, what are some of your favorite "time" settings in speculative fiction?


Kelly Bryson said...

Leviathan was great fun, and my son loved it too. I realize that many of my favorite books are dystopia- A Handmaid's Tale, 1984, The Giver. Probably The Giver is the one I love the most and that has been the most influential on me.

Alissa Grosso said...

I've always loved stories set in a vaguely recognizable future, which I guess means it is a future that isn't too far away, sort of lurking just around the corner.

Unknown said...

I loved Jack McDevitt's Eternity Road. It was far into the future, but there were still ruins of present day cities, only the knowledge of how people lived in the cities was lost. It was like us knowing about lost Mayan cities, but only being able to guess what they were like.

Pam Pho said...

Great article. Personally I like my dystopian to be set in the future. Maybe not too far. 50 or 60 years. It's easier to imagine the time in my head as I am reading and gives insight to the paranoid fear that governments can do that, yes really they can fear.

Jen said...

Wonderful article. Leviathan is on my TBR list as well.

I really adore speculative fiction
for the simple fact it's recognizable BUT it plays with the questions "what might have been" "what could have been" and, the often frightening, "what might be".

Thanks for the great post,

The Daring Novelist said...

I'm prepping outlines for an adventure serial set in an alternate universe (not just alternate history) based on 1914-1927. I like that era, which falls between steampunk and dieselpunk.

I'm thinking of calling it "Jazzpunk" or "Flapperpunk." (Or actually, since it really fits in the height of the silent movie era - "flickerpunk.")

Lisa_Gibson said...

I liked "This Perfect Day" by Ira Levin.

Angie said...

Great post Julia. I vaguely remember reading that Orwell picked 1984 because it was the inverse of the year it was written: 1948. He's was writing about the beginnings of the cold war.

Riv Re said...

I love these 2 posts, as a dystopian fiction reader and writer. A couple of good dystopian reads:

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher takes place sometime in the future. The world has reverted back to a previous time. The book doesn't talk much about the past, but it does talk about something called the "Years of Rage" which means, I assume, these days with lots of wars and things.

I know you mentioned the Hunger Games already, but this is something else that takes place sometime in the future, in the ruins of North America. It doesn't actually say when.

An interesting book I read was by DJ MacHale. He wrote a series called Pendragon. In book 3, the MC visits "First Earth" which is basically the past. What I really liked about this book was that it took the mysterious crash of a blimp in 1938(?) and connected that to WWI, with a gangster helping the Germans make the atom bomb, leading to a different outcome to the war in which the US is destroyed...

The book that I'm writing, Eberheardt, is dystopian, but it's fantasy too. It doesn't take place in this world, but rather an ether-realm type. (Take Eragon, for example. Middle of nowhere. Literally.) So, Eberheardt takes place in a dystopian world with a corrupt, tyrannical, government. It's not finished yet, though.

Sorry for the long comment!

Julia said...

Thanks for all the comments!

Kelly - I so need to read The Giver.
Alissa - yes... that lurking-around-the-corner future - I love it!
Mary - I love the ruins, too. That totally blew me away in Planet of the Apes when they realized they were in the USA.
Pam - yes - we must be vigilant. Too much speculative fiction has already come to pass.
Jen - indeed - all the "what if's"
Daring Novelist - I like "flickerpunk," too!
Lisa - I will put that on my TBR list - thanks!
Angie - I did not know that! Tre' cool!
Riv Re - thanks for the comment (not too long) and good luck with your book!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I hope you guys all had a wonderful weekend...I don't have anything to add to the discussion, but wanted you to know I stopped by. :)

Julia said...

Thanks, Sharon! My weekend was great! Hope yours was, too!

Nishant said...

I really adore speculative fiction
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Anonymous said...

I disagree entirely with 1984 being timeless.

As I have said in my review:

"Orwell was far from a visionary, In fact he was so completely stuck in his own era that he could not imagine the future whatsoever. Perhaps the book should have stuck to its original title: The Last Man in Europe, for If it wasn’t for the title of the book I doubt many would have seen it as a version of the future but rather what it actually is; a parallel of 1940’s Russia."