Eric Frank Russell once wrote a wonderful science fiction piece where a scout ship discovers a planet, green with fields and ripe with cities. The crew emerges after their fiery (and highly visible) descent to find… nobody coming to see them. Finally they head towards the nearest town, only to discover the inhabitants “racing” in their vehicles towards the landing site, but because of a difference in time scale, they are barely moving at all. The crew returns to their ship, going about their business and ignoring the forest of “statues” that slowly gather around their landing field. Finally an army arrives and charges, only to be picked up and moved backwards hundreds of yards by the bemused crew.
In the end, the commander is writing up his report and notes that we should take care, for if there are races operating on a much slower time scale than us, perhaps there are those running at far higher ones. Having drafted this, he leaves his desk but turns to consider something, only to see that his report has vanished.
When I speak of irony here, I am referring to the more common usage, that of mockery of an earlier time and playing off of (or using) its imageries. Our culture is rich with “ironic” uses of the fifties: the red-baiting buzz-cut military commander, the desperately unhappy housewife, the hair-oiled, train-chasing company man. Most children’s cartoons set their stories in worlds of 50’s and 60’s suburbia, with parents artificially chipper and ignorant to the exaggerated adventures of their offspring.
And that’s fine – it’s a tool writers can use to convey an image quickly. I remember reading Sabatini’s Scaramouch and discovering that traveling companies of actors would rely on established character types (Scaramouch, Harlequin, Pierrot, and others), typecasting them in roles so that the audience would quickly identify their personalities and traits – no backfill needed. We use such characters and concepts ourselves, populating in our tales with the already-known, and perhaps also gently mocking the world of the past.
I did it myself in Early ReTyrement. To establish his commercial supremacy in the ancient world, Mason uses every marketing trick he can imagine to sell average grain at remarkable markups. Part of this involves him spewing a long litany of ‘50’s advertising slogans, the jingles and advertisments that tickled the wallets of our ancestors. And I focused selectively and precisely on that time, as advertisers operated in a verbal market (such as radio), and had to appeal to the ideal of conformity and slight superiority that their products would supposedly bring. So Mason sells his grain and we all get a double laugh, both at the ‘50s and also at the 330ADs, who are even more “naive”.
The danger in doing this is that, aside from appearing condescending, our typecasting can become obvious, even tired, as time moves on. I’m reading a fantasy book right now that starts with a dwarf with his magical axe (of course) and magical armor (of course) who kills a dragon (of course). Ten pages in and I’m drowning in cultural references. Even everyone’s beloved Harry Potter books, with wands and wizards and broom-riding, really doesn’t add anything new to our story-worlds.
And that’s the danger of relying on cheap imagery and established norms. You are locking yourself into a story-telling reference. Time moves on. Think about my earlier reference to that scifi book I opened with. Sure, from our point of view, we are more imaginative and clever and ironic than those stiff, conformist people of the fifties. But is our writing different enough, unique enough, and true enough to stand on its own when scanned by future eyeballs? Or will they shake their head sadly and laugh in bemusement at those still and lifeless ideas that filled the novels of the early twenty-first century?