The past is another country

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.

23 thoughts on “The past is another country

    1. True, but not inevitable. Sailors did take part in raids, opportunistically, raiders used vessels to raid, (both the greeks and the vikings as known examples) although they were not per se ‘sailors’ but actually land-holders of some rank (albeit minor at times – but with slaves or karls back home) but there were dedicated trading vessels, from marine archaeology that would have been fairly useless as raider/warrior transport. These are fairly well-known and documented by the early Roman era, as well as some Phoenician vessels, which would have had sailors who probably were sailors rather than warriors. On the other hand by the time Alexander came along there were peasants in military ventures -slingers spring to mind who were anything but sailors.

  1. It always makes younger people (teens and twenties) twitch when I point out that the people “back then” had very good reasons for [whatever], that made perfect sense in their world view. It’s hard to wrap your mind around that idea and accept it. But that’s how it was. A different country, yes, “but not a different planet” as one of my grad-school professors hammered and hammered into us. His specialty was religious history of the Congregationalists (Separatists/Puritans/Dissenters) and early US history. Some of what he had us read was . . . very different from our world-views, and that was only 400 years or so distant, or less. But people were still people, they sued each other over property and inheritances and perceived insults (slander), and fell in love, and raised kids, and mourned when they lost half or more of their kids, and . . . And soldiers grumbled about officers, and officers sniffed about how lousy this current crop of soldiers was, and . . . 🙂

  2. Tried to re-read Plato’s Republic a few month ago an was taken aback on the first page when Socrates explains he had gone to the temple to offer a prayer. I had forgotten, and my instant response was, “You don’t think God hears you if you’re not in the temple?”
    Different culture, different mindset,and now, alien.

    1. Greeks did believe that gods could hear you outside a temple. They just doubted whether gods would take you seriously, if you weren’t a friend/medium of gods, didn’t possess special arcane knowledge, and weren’t showing your piety and generosity to the gods.

      If you were the kind of person gods showed themselves to, that could happen at home. Or in a dream at home.

  3. > Or you could look at what makes ‘dated’ (but accurate for their time) books still read well.

    Back to Shute, and “Trustee from the Toolroom.” It’s written in the British style of its time, which is slow and stodgy by modern American standards… but the story is good. Well, maybe it would only appeal to Odds nowadays, but that’s enough.

  4. I have “The Far Country” on my own bookshelf, with a good few other Shute novels. He tells a very good story, and all of them varied. He never fell into a formula, really. The picture he painted of immediate post-WWII Britain is very evocative; grim, gray, discouraged and rationed to a fair-the-well. Wartime rationing went on for another decade, which must have been quite a blight, especially for women trying to feed a family. All the “official” sources insist that rationing was a good and healthy thing and not a deprivation, but when you look at what was actually allotted, officially … a single egg per person, per week? A teeny bit of meat. Eating wasn’t a pleasure at all, I suspect, and cooking a meal was a grim culinary duty.

    Reading contemporary fiction set in the time and place of which one writes does give the scribbler of historical fiction tales a good idea of the mindset, conditions and vocabulary. So do memoirs, written after the fact, and diaries kept during it. The past may be a foreign country, but there are plenty of guidebooks to it.

    1. true. I just have problems (knowing the reality) with reading books which ignore this. It’s kind of like reading a guide book about Japan which constantly laments that food isn’t American, and the scenery isn’t either.

    2. > a single egg per person, per week?

      The Queen chose to let the Empire disintegrate, the Foreign Service had its head up its collective posterior, and Parliament wanted to run with the big dogs, throwing vast amounts of money into nuclear weapons, warships, aircraft, and even their own space program, that Britain couldn’t reasonably afford.

      Parliament didn’t just inflate their currency and enact nearly-confiscatory taxation to fund all this, there were other measures that suppressed wages to keep the labor pool cheap and available. (that became known as the “brain drain” as scientists, engineers, and other professionals emigrated to countries where their skulls were worth *much* more)

  5. Novels that were written as “contemporaries” eventually become inadvertent documentaries. I think it’s what makes them interesting, above and beyond the story itself. The past is a different country, not our own, but people remain much the same.

    Judging the past by the standards of today is a failure of imagination and a complete lack of understanding that the times make the culture and vice versa.

    1. Novels that were written as “contemporaries” eventually become inadvertent documentaries


  6. I enjoyed Peter Darvill-Evans’ Doctor Who book “Asylum”. I enjoyed much more the afterword where Darvill-Evans explains how different society in the time period was from modern society, and why he had to set his story at Oxford to have any change of making the setting comprehensible to modern sensibilities. I’d say the afterword is well worth reading all by itself.

  7. There are a couple examples I use of how people are people, even if the culture is largely alien to us.

    One is a carving on the wall of a 1st century or so Roman Barracks in England.

    Put into modern vernacular? ‘The LT can’t tell his ass from his elbow.’

  8. One of my military acquaintances, a retired RAF Group Captain and I discussed that book one night in the bar in Italy. He was born in 46, 9 months after his father came back from the war. He said it was true, true, true! I ‘think’ the way you can get readers interested in ‘older’ environments is with well developed characters. I’ve tried that in my 1870s western series, and it has been pretty well reviewed.

  9. So many small things are different that do change how you live. For example when I was growing up in Ohio almost no stores were open on Sunday. Kids made go karts and mini-bikes and would ride down the sidewalk to use the store parking lots to zip around. The police would take you home and threaten your parents with a ticket if they caught you on the street. Now almost all stores are open 7 days and the COVID pandemic only made a few give up 24 hour operations. The people down in Detroit run off road bikes and 4 wheel vehicles on the street with impunity. Even side by sides. People would have to plan ahead knowing they could not go shopping on Sunday. I understand in Canada big stores still aren’t legal to be open – they just pay the fine as a cost of doing business like the electric bill.

  10. I’ve observed writings of history from many eras. I’ve observed “modern” man. The culture changes. The norms change. They may even evolve. Humans? Pretty much the same as they have been at least since they began to record their doings. The wetware remains consistent.

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