I’ve just spent a weekend away with my son and daughter-in-law, in a little coastal resort on the Fleurieu Peninsula. It was lovely, but one of the days was so hot I spent it nursing the air-conditioner. Yes, I know, very self-sacrificing of me. I’m like that.
The house – obviously a family’s holiday spot for many generations, had a selection of of books from bygone years and I ended up reading an old favorite – THE FAR COUNTRY by Neville Shute. It’s still a great story that I identify with strongly, but reading a book from 1950 today… is as a writer, interesting.
The plot hinges on a number of points that are simply quite hard for modern audiences to envisage (we may get there again, who knows?) such as the bleakness of post-WW2 England, with the rise of socialism and food-rationing — and the emigration of those who could go (which even then was biased toward those with skills and youth). Shute was particularly focused on the enormous value of food production, and farming. It’s something which I feel may just come around again. Maybe. It’s often been a case of failed distribution rather than failed food production, but there are scenarios where the latter could come into play – but to hungry cities it doesn’t matter WHY there is no food, it’s just there is no food. It is one of the areas that has had produced generations of cost deflation and increasing efficiency. There are ways this could change. The sf-writer in me thinks about it a lot.
The other key is the slowness and ineffectiveness of communication and indeed transport – from the time it takes to drive what we think of now as short distances, to sea-travel and using air-mail letters – not to mention the lack of our now ubiquitous mobile ‘phones.
The third aspect that modern audiences find alien would be social interactions and structures, with women’s roles (and not being allowed into the bar) being starkly different. It has changed a lot. Shute’s use of smoking as a ‘spacer’ in normal social interactions is odd as is the casual consumption of vast quantities of beer – while driving.
I don’t think the writer was being inaccurate about the cities, or social setup of the time. I’m old enough to remember twenty years later and, while some things had changed, not all of it had. But for modern, younger readers – kids who have no idea what life pre-internet and phone was, and to whom ‘go play outside. Be home when it gets dark/the street-lights come on’ never got said — to them this as alien as Afghanistan. It may still be interesting – but it is as alien as the lives of the upper ten thousand in a realistic regency novel.
So: assuming you want to write about a setting in that past: and you still want to connect with modern audiences… how do you work this? Well you can rewrite 1984 to feminist viewpoint… if this sounds ridiculous (and yes the anti-propaganda novel is being re-written to fall in line with the fact that we have always been at war with Oceana.) that is exactly what a lot of writers have done – with quite some sales success, it is fair to say. Regency characters with the sexual mores and attitudes of 2021, with whom many readers identify. Hey. It works. Ok, in fifty years their books will be as incomprehensible and dated as Shute – or worse, but they will sell now.
Or you could look at what makes ‘dated’ (but accurate for their time) books still read well. Character traits that were as true 20 or 200 or 2000 years ago as they are now. Repartee that is entertaining, even if the characters attitude to slavery is correct for their era (I’m writing bronze age characters at the moment – and slavery is a norm, not even thought about, it exists the way the internet or mobile ‘phones exist in a modern story. I’m not aggrandizing or supporting slavery (as an individual I am exceptionally opposed to any form of it, and there are many, some common still) – but it would have taken an exceptional situation and person to see any fault in it, if they lived in Homeric Greece. But I will bet good money that the attitude of foot-soldiers to their nobly born officers, or soldiers to sailors were pretty much then what they were 200 years ago, or 50 years ago, or last week – so that is what I use to bind my readers. Because the people are still human, and in some ways the wet-ware hasn’t changed much.