This weekend I’m reading a Doctor Who novel (why do I admit these things?), featuring the eighth doctor (my favourite one, sadly underappreciated) which is, as too many of the recent adventures are, set on Earth in the year it was released (in this case 2004). I would never expect a Doctor Who novel to be a literary classic, but the way the contemporary references are shoehorned in to this one is quite annoying. I was in Britain, in my mid-twenties, in 2004 and yet I still don’t get some of the references – TV programs I’ve heard of, but never seen (haven’t had a TV since March 2002, if I remember correctly), pop stars I know the name of but don’t know enough about to fill in the background.
In general I find this kind of writing lazy (that’s not to say I never do it myself); using a currently well-known person, song or film as a shorthand for some attitude you can’t be bothered to describe. Assume for a moment that the story in question isn’t a passing fad, and someone reads it in twenty years’ time – they might have heard of Damon Albarn or Jamie Oliver or David Beckham, but will they know there was anything more to them in the public perception than a pop singer, a chef or a footballer? I find this kind of thing crops up a lot in comic fantasy (or maybe I just read too much comic fantasy), and if it was written in 1985, well I remember 1985, but I remember it in terms of what I did at school, my burgundy corduroy jacket with the hood, and the terrified dog we adopted, not in terms of popular culture and world events, and a lot of the passing jokes pass me by.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s all about trying to look cool, sprinkling hints throughout the text that, despite the fact the author is a middle-aged man who writes lightly humorous fantasy novels for a living, he has an intimate knowledge of chart music, vacuous celebrities and late-night TV. How that counts for cool I’m not sure, but it would also partly explain the habit of sci-fi authors picking up on cutting-edge technology, destined to fade away within a few years, and extrapolating fifty years into the future with it. The first example that springs to mind is the Philip K Dick novel (sorry, can’t remember which one) written in the 50s and set around 2000, where owning a tape-recorder is the ultimate in cool; not only is it a tape-recorder, but it’s about as genuinely portable as the old 14-inch portable TVs that were anything but.
Which is one of the many reasons why I like Robert Rankin. Sort of comic fantasy, in the sense that it’s funny and not hugely realistic (or maybe it is, I’ve never been to Brentford to find out), but even when it’s set in 1997, the pub still closes for the afternoon, payments involve shillings more often than not, and his best loved characters are a pair of 1960s likely lads that could have had bit-parts in half a dozen classic British films. It’s so clearly not trying to stick to a particular time-frame that you forgive any anachronism he throws at you.
I’m hoping the non-specific setting might save a short story of mine which is doing the rounds at the moment. It’s what you might call (if you were into this sub-genre labelling lark) slipstream, but one of the actions that sets off the main chain of events is a character having a shower to cover up the fact that he’s been to the pub while his girlfriend was out at keep-fit. The only reason he needs a shower is the smoke, but I started writing the story a few weeks before the smoking ban for England was announced, and by the time I had a reasonable version ready to show anyone, the ban had been in force for a while. Without the shower, there is no story, and (I think) it flows naturally from the trip to the pub whereas any other situation would seem contrived. I don’t think there’s anything in it that ties the story down to any particular point between the mid-80s and 2007, but without anything definite to the contrary it makes sense to read it as though it’s happening now. With luck, an American magazine will pick it up, and unless they’re unusually immersed in British culture, the lack of smoke in pubs these days won’t be the first thing they’ll think of.