Last night, I read The Old Funny Stuff by George Alec Effinger, a collection of four short stories and a poem published as the first volume of Author’s Choice Monthly back in 1989. I have no great liking for humourous science fiction – possibly because most of it is so bad. And the stories in The Old Funny Stuff are a case in point. But that wasn’t my only problem with them. According to the copyright page, the contents were originally published in magazines during the first half of the 1980s. Yet they read like they were written decades earlier.
The opening story, ‘The Thing from the Slush’, first appeared in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine in April 1982. It is about an editor at a science fiction magazine. There’s nothing in the story which specifically ties its setting to a particular year, but it reads like it is set in the 1930s or 1940s. And I suspect that’s not deliberate.
The second story, ‘White Hats’, first appeared in Asimov’s in April 1984. In it, a man and his wife are mugged while walking home from a restaurant. Unsatisfied with the police’s response, the man complains there’s no justice left in the world. And is promptly visited by a number of fictional detectives and vigilantes who offer to retrieve his wallet and his wife’s purse. But all the fictional characters are from much earlier decades: the Lone Ranger, Sam Spade, The Shadow, Captain Midnight… There’s no mention of Magnum PI, Columbo, Automan, the A-Team, or any other television character from the 1970s or 1980s. Why? Wouldn’t contemporary television characters be more familiar to readers of Asimov’s? Not all of them will have grown up during the 1930s and 1940s (though perhaps most of the contributors did).
I can understand a story written during the 1980s reading as though it were set during the 1980s. For example, one of my favourite science fiction novels is The House That Stood Still (AKA The Undercover Aliens) by AE van Vogt, first published in 1950. It is your typical Van Vogtian bonkers nonsense about a group of immortals who run a small town in California. But it possesses an excellent sense of time and place, and for the first half reads like late 1940s California noir. So for Effinger to write a story that evokes its place so badly it reads like it was written forty years earlier is a complete failure of craft.
I can also understand a story written during the 1980s but set during the 1940s. ‘White Hats’ clearly isn’t, by the way, as it later mentions a “computerised bank teller” (which I think means an ATM). But I do have a problem with stories ostensibly set at the time of writing – or at some nebulous Now – that feel tied to a much earlier decade. Time is as important a part of setting as place. Even those crap sf stories of yesteryear, with their slide-rules and skyscraper-sized mainframe computers, many of them at least felt as though they were set in the future. Admittedly, it now reads like some weird retro-future, but that too can have its charm (see my jetpunk posts on this blog, for example).
Of course, science fiction is not necessarily about the future – either the one we have to look forward to, however grim, or the futures of past decades. And, it has to be said, the settings of some sf stories and novels seemingly have no link whatsoever with the real world and their settings might as well be fantasy. Again, this is no bad thing. Dune has aged so well because its setting shares no common ground with the real world. This may be why space opera remains a popular subgenre of sf.
But, as John Clute has said, every sf story has three times: the time it was written, the time it is set, and the time it is about. When the latter two are not explicit, then by implication they are the same as the first. And is not unreasonable for a reader to expect that. On the other hand, science fiction is genre is notorious for its rose-tinted view of its own past. That sharp gaze forward in time gets distinctly blurry when looking backwards. Which may well explain the prevalence of nostalgia in genre stories and novels. It’s all very well science fiction being in conversation with itself, but that doesn’t mean mindlessly and uncritically repeating the insights of yesteryear, it doesn’t mean presenting the arguments of the past as if they were the arguments of today. Just because you’ve polished an antique until it’s shiny, that doesn’t make it brand new. And stories which appear to be set in some never-never land of the author’s salad days are never going to pass as current. If you don’t know when your story is set, and you cannot get that date across to the reader – either explicitly or implicitly – then you have failed.
Time to try again, then.