[This is not a political blog. I promise.]
The summer I was twelve, I watched Richard Nixon resign from office. That’s a strange thing for a twelve-year-old girl to do during a summer. I’m not sure I particularly knew who Richard Nixon was before those long hot months, but there I was, planted in front of a big wooden box encasing a color TV (we got three channels, though the NBC affiliate was kinda fuzzy reception-wise). And there was this thing called “Watergate” which, I am ashamed to say, I thought was some sort of lake for the longest time, until I realized it was a hotel, and then I couldn’t quite fathom why it was such a big deal that people from one group were at the hotel of people from another group. Didn’t people go visit each other in hotels?
(Yes, I was a naive kid.)
We’d just moved into the brand new house my mom and dad had worked so hard to buy and it had everything spanky and shiny and perfect… and carpet… thick, comfortable carpet, all in front of a color TV. And it was out in the country. Way out. Miles out. Light years away from the known universe. I had a grand total of one sibling, a younger brother whose sole purpose in life was to drive me batshit by drumming on my head, so I pretty much exhiled him from my presence. There were no girls anywhere near my age anywhere close by and my parents worked long hours. They were also fond of this thing called “gardening” which, in translation into teenager language meant “dirty grubby work so I could eat vegetables, yeah, right, like that was gonna happen.” I, on the other hand, was fond of this thing called “air conditioning” and at the wise age of twelve, had perfected the snail’s pace that any teenager would be proud to copy today. You could set a glacial clock by my movements. I spent a lot of time in that living room.
I remember the moment when I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, just a few feet in front of the screen and realized, oh. This is bad. I mean, I had known there was a lot of fuss over something and, having not really paid attention in the beginning of the summer as to why, was trying to make sense of the long, protracted discussions. I didn’t understand the soap operas, either, but this, I grasped, was real and historic and I knew, bone deep, that it was important. And then I caught on: people broke in to eavesdrop or spy on other people. And the President might’ve known and authorized it. The President.
I can’t adequately explain to you what that meant to me; it was like finding out that ice cream might be bad for you (yeah, that was a depressing discovery), or that boys might lie and say they loved you when they didn’t (or didn’t love you when they did, which was, let’s just have this for the record, entirely fucked up and confusing, thank you ninth grade), or that someone could look you straight in the eye and still steal your money, except all rolled into one.
That was the summer that shaped me. That twelve-year-old naive girl became a cynic. I also read a lot, and in the worlds I read about, there were often happy endings; it’s probably the only thing that kept me from being a complete nihilist and gave me hope. And here I am today, a hopeful cynic, one whose hope has been mangled enough times over the years to now look a lot more like something that should be in the recycle scrap heap. Still, the hope endures that somewhere, some time, the good guys will win.
Watershed moments. Watergate was that for me. I went on to do a senior thesis about it and I became disenfranchised and certain my vote meant nothing. It would take another decade after that before I’d set foot in the polls.
There are a lot of watershed moments in our recent history, if by recent, we go on the dawn-of-mankind scale. Just the last fifty years has seen such radical changes–far faster and far more than the previous fifty. The last five years, if you include technology, probably doubled or tripled the watershed moments from the decade before it. Just think about where the internet, for example, was five years ago, vs. now. Personal computers. Politics.
This is the problem facing writers of contemporary fiction. The ‘now’ we’re setting our stories in? Will change by the time the book is published. It will change radically, in some cases. I remember reading a favorite author’s backlist and there was a moment when the FBI agent had to go find a pay phone to call into HQ and it was almost as if the writer had started speaking Martian. Then I (having definitely been around before the advent of the cell phone) (I know, ancient, shut up)… remembered all of those times I got into trouble because I wasn’t where I was supposed to be and had not tried to find a pay phone to call my parents. (First one of you who asks, “What’s a pay phone?” gets smacked.) That book was definitely set in the “then.” It was no longer contemporary, and I had to mentally cut it some slack, because it’s not like the author–any author, any of us–can write a non-sf/f type of book set in the ‘now’ and make it so generic that it won’t ever be dated.
But we don’t want to never reference anything cultural or current, because then we’re too bland. Unmemorable.
Characters have to be born in a certain time-frame. Give or take a few years, and if it’s a series character, we might need to anticipate that the “now” of the character will be progressing over the years, maybe faster than the character is actually aging, and keep the cultural references very general (in a national sense) or so personal as to be rendered a watershed moment for that person, but not something that will “date” it in the natural progression of culture.
Tuesday night changed history. No matter who you voted for, history was going to be changed.
There are moments in our characters lives which affected them. Created who they were. They are of a certain culture, because we are of a culture, and if you’re writing contemporary, do you reflect it? Or do you write more progressively than what’s actually happening around you?
[For example, long before there was a black American President, there have been fictional black American Presidents on TV and in film–possibly books, but I can’t remember any specifically.]
It’s a conundrum. Do you risk tossing people out of the story because you’re writing about something that hasn’t yet happened as if it has (as in my above example), hoping that culture will follow someday and you’ll seem timely? Do you mention specific technology (cell phone, computer), knowing that you’ll be dated in five years? Do you notice these things when you read? If it’s dated, does it bother you? Matter at all?
What do you think?