Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Canterbury Tales and "Future History"

Our travelers are on the last leg of their journey to Canterbury, on a modern steam train. (Much more lightweight than the old steam locos due to the use of reclaimed and salvaged materials including aluminium and magnesium alloys.) The train began its journey in what's left of Newcastle, just south of Scotland, and has worked its way south over a week or so, stopping at dozens of different places along the way, and passengers have been boarding steadily. Now, hours short of Canterbury, the train has been stopped by floodwaters from one of the megastorms, and the passengers in one particular car have begun telling stories to pass the time...

Though Canterbury 2100 might sound like the name of an episode of Mystery Science Theater, the title is in fact of a rewriting of the Canterbury Tales set in that year. The cathedral city has now become the capital of an England decimated by floods, disease, petrochemical depletion, pollution, xenophobia, governmental collapse ... pretty much the stuff we face in 2007 brought to a culminating point. Read a full description of this speculative fiction project (one that takes Chaucer's own project very seriously) here.

[thanks, Matt Chrulew of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology of Monash University. And while we're projecting burgeoning current woes into the horizon of a not too distant future, let's add antisemitism to the list.]

7 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

It's "28 Days Later" or "Children of Men" with a medieval twist and stories to pass the days of the end-time: I love it. I used to write what is called "speculative fiction" [partly because I didn't know how else to "pitch" my weird stories which weren't quite science fiction nor the more literary "magical realism," but something in between, and an advisor in my MFA program suggested I send my stories to speculative fiction anthology projects such as this one]. The final story in my thesis was similarly set in a post-apocalyptic England and concerned a miracle birth of a fish [by a woman--yes yes, I know: ridiculous] on an abandoned bullet train, which fish was then cooked and shared as a "last meal" by a group of vagrants. All I can say now is: huh? The Canterbury Tales in 2100 sounds a much better idea.

Adam Roberts said...

Eileen, I couldn't disagree more. Your 'Let's Make A Fish Supper Out Of Miracle Woman's Baby!' story sounds great. The Chaucer project ... I'm not so sure. The publisher's website doesn't fill me with hope. They're called 'Agog!', with an exclamation mark like that? Can you think of any reputable publishers who put an exclamation mark in? It's the difference between 'Harvard University Press' and the more Austin Powersy 'Harvard University PRESS!'

More substantively, the website seems a bit obsessed with a welter of rather offputting worldbuilding detail, and worlbuilding at the expense of, or as a substitute for, storytelling is the bane of good sff writing. Me, I've never been one of those people who thinks the appendices to The Lord of the Rings are better than, you know The Lord of the Rings.

Liza said...

I think this is a fascinating project. Or at least, a fascinating idea. While I agree with the notion that LoTR is more fun to read than its appendices (or maybe, fun in a different way), I don't think I entirely buy that "worldbuilding at the expense of, or as a substitute for, storytelling is the bane of good sff writing." I think world-building -- which I'm reading here is imagining in great detail other possible worlds -- is one of its greatest strengths. Take an author like Philip K Dick or Ray Bradbury, whose short-stories are beautiful works where they take an idea or possibility (or possible world) and flush out all its details and possibilities for about 10-40 pages -- and whose novels, where they took an idea for a possible world and tried to add a story to it, nearly all should have stayed stories.

I could go the other way too. One of my favorite fantasy series, which a high school friend introduced me to, is Ian Irvine's View From the Mirror series, which he started, or so the story goes, because he had a background in geology and was frustrated with the maps he found in fantasy novels with geographically impossible worlds. Then, having made three complete maps, he populated them with characters and told a story about them. His worlds are cool, but his story, and especially his characters, are so much cooler.

But maybe we've gotten into different ideas of worldbuilding at this point. Not worth bickering I suppose. I think what is great about this project is that it asks you to imagine the imaginative work of an imaginary group of people in an imagined future. I have intense admiration for that much imagination. It reminds me, ever so slightly, of Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted, where 23 people locked in a nightmare-scape house take turns telling stories; how much do you have to know about the character in Palahniuk's novel (or in this future-Chaucer collection) telling the story or the strange and twisted environment in which he's telling it to appreciate the story? How much do you have to know about Chaucer and his historical period to appreciate the Miller's Tale (or, let's say, the Prioress's Tale)? I like that it's called "Future History", because the questions you have to think about when you sit down to compose something written by someone in the future (a future whose details you have created) are the same questions important to those who think about to what extent historicism needs to direct our readings of texts of the past ...

Eileen, your story is one that I would read.

Hi! I'm back after a long, self-imposed break from this wonderful world. Dissertation in, thinking can begin! Thanks, ItM, for keeping up the intriguing writings in my time of procrastinating need.

matt chrulew said...

Surely it would be better to judge a press by the quality of their books, rather than how they choose to punctuate their name? This is an independent small-press publisher of genre fiction, nothing like a UP.

On worldbuilding, I agree with you about the Silmarillion, but the detail isn't to be published - it's guidelines for writers, to help them gauge what sort of stories people from that world would likely tell. The worldbuilding is intended to underlie and provoke the storytelling.

Otherwise, I too like the idea of eating one's piscine progeny.

srj said...

Not so directly related to this post - but you should watch this programme on Natasha Kaplinsky's family history when you get the chance - and watch it right to the very end - so moving - and I think you will find it's view of history and the future sympathetic too.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/get_started/wdytya_s4_celeb_gallery_01.shtml

Flinthart said...

Actually, the book was a hell of a challenge to edit. The concept was tricky: I was trying to get stories that weren't ABOUT the imagined future. I was after the stories OF that imagined future. Hence the notes on worldbuilding.

To be honest, the detail I gave the authors was pretty limited. I actually wanted them to provide stories that weren't alwasy easy to reconcile with a shared future history. After all, a bunch of people sitting down and telling stories for entertaiment after an incredibly turbulent period of history are hardly likely to agree on every detail are they?

It was incredibly difficult to edit, because I had to convince some of the writers NOT to supply backstory and details. Wolves, for example: I'm happy to accept that future England has wolves running around, and that those wolves are a fact of life for the people who live there. So... no less than THREE of the stories gave me several hundred words of detail explaining how and why there were wolves out there.

So -- if you told me a story set in Africa, about Africans, for other Africans... would you bother to explain elephants?

Of course not.

The project was extremely challenging, and in the end, I think it came off quite well. By the way: don't be put off by the exclamation point after 'agog'. You should go back through the last six years of SF writing in Australia, and see just how many awards and nominations and shortlistings the stories appearing in agog! press carried off...

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for that background, Flintahrt. Considering the interest this post garnered via Twitter and Facebook, I am going to predict that you've found a receptive audience.