Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What's your RealYear(tm)?

Thursday night at ReaderCon was an open night, open to anyone who might have wandered in who might be interested. As it happened, it looked like it was mostly old-timers, people who had been coming since the first conference. They had a panel that night about something called the "real year" of a science fiction story. This idea was originated by John Clute back in 1991, or, according to his claim at the panel, 1977.

The idea of a "real year" of a science fiction story is the year in modern times that the story most clearly references back to. So the real year of any "Doc" Smith story would be 1927, the real year of most Heinlein stories would be 1957, and the real year of Neuromancer would be 1982. Depending on the writer, the real year was either the year they wrote the story, the year they first stumbled on a copy of Amazing! or the year they first got laid.

But what I couldn't get out of my head is the ad you keep seeing everywhere in the Net nowadays that asks "What's your RealAge?" It always says something like "Susan: chronological age 57, RealAge 42." Apparently, everyone they've looked at has a RealAge that is a lot younger than their real age. I keep wanting to see an ad that says "Charlie Parker: chronological age 35, RealAge 67 and dead." But I guess that wouldn't sell many cosmetics or whatever they're trying to push.

It's not surprising that Clute came up with the real year concept as part of a push to topple some of the old scifi behemoths that ruled the roost back then. Clearly the implication of the real year is that you'd like it as close to right now as possible. After all, who's going to be interested in something where the real year is already 20 years out of date? If Clute did first come up with the idea in the late '70s then he'd be looking at the real years of people like Harlan Ellison. But then Ellison hates TV, and anyone who's read "Jeffty is Five" knows his real year was the year before the glass tit was invented.

But science fiction writers, like everyone else, get old. My RealYear (sadly) is not when I first got laid, but when I formed my first complete hypothesis about what it means to be human, at about age 14. That old idea is buried now under decades of deepening understanding, but the foundation's still down there somewhere. It is informed by quarter arcade games, Van Halen I, twenty-sided dice, twenty-nine cent hamburgers and the bright green Lucida type on an Apple II+ CRT. But to Gen-Yers that time is as archaic now as the hippie '60s was to me in high school.

I can see the ad: "Jim Stewart: Novel finished: 2007. Set in: 6000 AD. RealYear: 1983."

So where do I sign up to get a new RealYear(tm)? I don't know how old Charlie Stross is, but I'll take his. I just read Glass House, and no one is going to look at that and say the guy is stuck in the '80s.

But then maybe that's been done. Maybe enough people have written a novel set five minutes in the future. Can I set my RealYear back to when Ray Bradbury wrote "R is for Rocket," which contained this, upon the launching of the first rocket to the moon (which hadn't happened yet when he wrote the story):

Tonight, he thought, even if we fail with this first, we'll send a second and a third ship and move on out to all the planets and later, all the stars. We'll just keep going until the big words like immortal and forever take on meaning. Big words, yes, that's what we want. Continuity. Since our tongues first moved inour mouhts we've asked, What does it all mean? ...Man will go on, as space goes on, forever. Individuals will die as always, but our history will reach as far as we'll ever need to see into the future, and with the knowledge of our survival for all time to come, we'll know security and thus the answer we've always searched for. Giveted with life, the least we can do is preserved and pass on the gift to infinity. That's a goal worth shooting for.

Looking in the acknowledgements, that would be 1953. Maybe he's a cranky old wingnut now, but the story belongs to all of us (and Orson Scott Card can't have the meaning of "Ender's Game" back either). I'll take it.

"Ray Bradbury, story finished: 1953, RealYear: infinity."


Kat said...

I attended a similar panel back in 2003. Clute's brilliant and the idea is fascinating... but like most ideas, it has holes one can slip through. I asked Clute later what he thought Ursula LeGuin's RealYear was, and he wriggled a bit before admitting that, whatever it was (he said probably the seventies), it wasn't particularly relevant to her writing. LeGuin brings such a unique perspective to her stuff that it doesn't particularly matter when she's working from.

We're all affected by when we grew up, but we're also affected by what we grow up around. I suspect the real trick is getting a clear line to the parts of your life that are uniquely yours and not letting yourself get drowned out by what you *think* you should be writing. It is for me, anyhow.

sdn said...

I keep wanting to see an ad that says "Charlie Parker: chronological age 35, RealAge 67 and dead."

thank you for my laugh of the day.