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We are all products of our time

Everyone here at MGC is thrilled to welcome Rowena Cory Daniells back for this guest post!

No matter how much we try to avoid it, we see the world through the lens of our upbringing and current events.

As writers of speculative fiction we make a point of being able to conduct the mental gymnastics that allows us to step into the shoes (or tentacles) of an alien species. But you only have to look at SF written in the 50s and 60s to see how much the attitudes of the characters have dated.  After re-watching Bladerunner, I bought a copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, only to find that the story felt quaint.

Then I came across a site called The Art of Manliness. Kay and Brett McKay were going through old photos to illustrate their site and put this collection together.  What I find interesting is that these photos were considered perfectly normal. Two men could be friends and they could love their male friends.  To our modern sensibilities we find these photographs unusual.

When I was a child women were paid less than men for the same work. I grew up on the Gold Coast, where young women wore gold bikinis and put coins in meters so that the tourists didn’t receive parking tickets. TV game shows had a male host who read the questions to the contestants and one or more female hostesses whose job it was to wear nice clothes and point to the prizes while smiling.


This looks quaint and dated to us now. So we can take it that the books we are currently reading like Joe Abercrombie’s gritty fantasies, will look ‘quaint’ to us in fifty years.

When I set out to write The Outcast Chronicles, I tried to put myself in the position of characters who lived in a stratified society, where their lives were constricted by birth and gender. I wanted to immerse the reader in a world that felt rich and evocative, alien and different yet was still accessible through the characters.

To do this I created the characters of Sorne and Imoshen. I call this the 13th Warrior device. (For anyone who knows the movie it is about a southerner going off on a quest with twelve northmen. We come to understand their culture through him). Sorne is the half-blood son of the king. His father disowns him and sends him away to be reared as a spy. We see how the ordinary people live through his eyes and why they resent the gifted. Imoshen is the secret daughter of a brotherhood leader. We see how the gifted people live and why the males and females lead separate lives.

I was trying to do a lot of things with this trilogy. It was challenging technically and a bit of gamble. So it was with great relief that I’ve read the reviews so far. (Disclaimer here, I am sure there will be bad reviews). Elloise Hopkins at the British Fantasy Society web site says: ‘Once the intricacies of the relationships between the different races and genders have been explained sufficiently, however, we are left with a book that becomes addictive and really ups the ante towards the end, building to a conclusion that has set this up to be an expansive and fulfilling trilogy. If you like epic fantasy it does not disappoint.’

Maybe in fifty years, if my books are still being read, they will appear quaint and dated. Who knows?

Rowena has a copy of Besieged to give away to one lucky commenter (open world-wide).

Give-away question: I was watching the first season of the West Wing recently and it made me realise how much the world has changed in the last ten years. What have you read or seen recently that made you do mental gymnastics?

Follow Rowena on Twitter:  @rcdaniells

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You can find a trailer for Rowena's latest here.
  1. Wayne Blackburn #

    Reading Lucifer’s Hammer really puts a point on how much race relations have changed, when you read the interactions of the black astronaut, and Meteor, the book rendition of the movie, really feels almost like a different world, with the tensions and distrusts between the US and the USSR on display.

    Having lived through those times, I can remember them, but they’re not real to me any more, so I almost got whiplash of the brain when I reread them recently.

    September 30, 2012
    • Good point, Wayne. I grew up in this era, so I can recognise the situations, but they do feel dated.

      September 30, 2012
  2. ppaulshoward #

    C. S. Lewis had an article on reading old books. From what I remember, he commented that they have value because they were written in a “foreign time” and because of that the reader had to think more about what the books say.

    September 30, 2012
    • True, Paul. Old books, like old movies are like time capsules.

      September 30, 2012
  3. One of the advantages, for a writer, is growing old. I’m a product of several decades of drastic changes in the world’s politics, technology, race relations, etc. Whatever the drawbacks of old age, I have one hell of a perspective to write from.

    September 30, 2012
    • Was just thinking something along the same lines the other day, Catana.

      September 30, 2012
  4. Re-reading an old Rex Stout novel, I came across a chapter in which Nero Wolfe’s leg-man Archie Goodwin discovers that a suspect in the case has beaten his wife. Archie is plainly unimpressed, but there is no hint that anybody feels he should intervene or inform the authorities. A modern reader is likely to be surprised at such a scene.

    September 30, 2012
  5. It’s been maybe a decade since I listened to the radio even casually — just got tired of the dreck and the commercials. The other day the workmen next door had on some top-40-type station, and the music was…the same stuff the radio was playing ten years ago. It felt for a couple minutes as if time hadn’t actually passed.
    Maybe I should watch the West Wing.

    On the other hand, gas prices from ten years ago sound quaint. My car has had sub-$2 gas? Really?

    September 30, 2012
    • Dustmouse, it is funny how music can take you back in time. You just have to hear a phrase…
      To be swept away.

      October 2, 2012
  6. Laine #

    I remember listening to Journey into Space on the Radio in the 60s. Then some of it frightened me. Now it’s more of a comedy.

    October 1, 2012
    • Laine, my mum wouldn’t let us watch Dr Who because she thought it was too scary. So we’d visit a friend and watch it there.

      October 2, 2012
  7. TXRed #

    I spend so much time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that what usually makes me do double-takes are 21st century things. That said, cultural attitudes tend to cause blinking and confusion. The casual assumption that ‘Western Civilization is the best there is and that once the “poor benighted ‘eathen” see reason they will settle down and join polite society’ makes me shake my head. Because the author has no doubt that he’s absolutely correct and that none of his readers would differ, except perhaps in degree. It is 1875, the sun never sets on the Empire, and thus will it always be. Or so the writer of this particular collection of letters believes.

    October 1, 2012
    • I know the feeling, TXRed. I interviewed my great aunt about her time as a prisoner in China during the second WW and her attitudes were so out of touch with modern attitudes, you couldn’t have used them in a story without turning off your readers.

      October 2, 2012

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