Friday, June 15, 2007

Half a page of scribbled lines

The meme theme continues with a challenge from plok to create a premise for a new television series about time travel.

The problem with loving time travel stories and reading every one you can find and then trying to think of an original idea is that you keep recognizing what's already been done! Heinlein did that already. John Varley covered that. I had one idea I really liked before realizing Trey Parker beat me to it. (South Park is surprisingly fluent with its time travel episodes.) What I've ended up with instead is a knowing and deliberate homage/rebuttal to one of my all-time favorite stories: "Vintage Season" by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Also a fair bit of influence from stories by William Tenn, namely "Child's Play" and "Errand Boy."

This one is called "Tourists."

Four people arrive at JFK Airport. Nothing about them gives any clue where they're from. They speak flawless unaccented English -- and, it turns out, every other language they encounter, with equal perfection. The first is an incredibly successful artist, hungry for authentic sensation and experience to be transmuted into her future work. The second is a jovial and friendly old man who has retired from his life's work and now indulges his passion for learning. The third is a graduate student in history whose trip was paid for by a wealthy patron. The last is their somewhat stiff-necked tour guide, showing the rest around and pointing out things of interest. His three charges look around gaping, awestruck by the sheer strangeness of their surroundings. They're charmed by how primitive and pastoral this airport and its inhabitants are. So many people! The jumbo jets -- people actually get inside those huge rickety things? How delightful!

They're a tour group from the distant future visiting the present day, here to fully experience the last phase of our culture before...that really bad thing happened and it all fell apart. Centuries later it simply isn't discussed in polite company but everyone knows how awful it was. The hints of it are all around but no one living at the time sees where it's going to lead. It's quite touching and tragic, really, how blithely they dance on the edge of the precipice without ever realizing it's there.

The behavior of the tourists is much like that of the wealthy person visiting the Third World today. They're friendly to the natives and absolutely charmed by our strange primitive customs and quaint way of life...but with a smiling condescension rooted in the assumption they're better and smarter than we are.

As they explore New York City, the group is supposed to stay together...but the student wanders off on her own. She's spent considerable time in the ruins, of course, but actually seeing the place when it isn't submerged under the ocean is amazing. Anyway, a history major certainly knows the rules of chronal disengagement and she hardly needs that supercilious Guide to instruct her on how to behave. She befriends a poor inner city child and asks the little girl to show her around, to see the 21st Century through the eyes of a typical crecheling. As a reward, the student entertains the little girl with a demonstration of some future gadgetry: the pantograft, the attolens, the gravisend -- it's so sweet how the simplest things dazzle them! -- and that's when the others catch up. The flustered Guide gives the student a warning on not contaminating the past with anachronistic displays of technology. They argue over what constitutes harmless fun.

This foreshadows the growing conflict within the tour group. As they travel around the world, the history student gets increasingly involved with our time: seeing how basically innocent and naive we are, and so totally undeserving of...well, you know, what's coming. How can decent people just stand by and watch? The kindly old man is sympathetic, but he also knows sometimes you just have to let things happen as they will. The conceited artist is unsympathetic: she needs to take in more unmediated misery and suffering in its purest form to make truly powerful art. Come on, people, there's a horrible famine going on: you can't honestly expect her to miss that! The Guide is caught in an awkward position: each of his charges represents serious power and wealth, and his impulse is to be subservient and win favor. Any one of these people could wreck his career and ruin his life if they become displeased; he has to act as referee without offending any of them.

The student, who's on our side and wants to help us, is essentially the bad guy here: she's talking about changing history, or at least helping ease the suffering of individuals if they must leave the vast flow of events intact. But how can she know what's acceptable meddling and what's too much?

Structurally I see this as episodic, not a story arc building up to a huge climax a la Heroes or The 4400, but still with continuing threads and character building. The student's desire to get involved develops slowly over a series of episodes, as does her conflict with the artist: the two of them would finally get fed up and have a big actual fight with future technology and gadgets, so ray blasts and force fields and anti-grav circuits ahoy...but it wouldn't really solve anything.

We would never get to see the future the tourists come from, getting our picture of it solely by implication from the things they say. (The budget department is welcome to send me flowers.) Weirdly enough, given the premise of this challenge, we don't ever see time travel take place: the tourists have just arrived as the story opens, and time travel itself is so expensive and power-expending that it isn't done lightly. You set off on your tragical history tour -- ha ha ha, I crack myself up! -- and you had bloody well better be finished when the Guide activates the recall signal that brings the group home.

And finally, we do not see or find out much about the big event that's so terrible in our future. That would erode the premise and destroy whatever mystique it originally had. The tourists will leave before it arrives, no fools they. (Whether or not the student decides to stay, marooning herself to eventually die here, is another matter. Or will she resign herself to the past being inevitable? Will the artist learn empathy? Will the old man find out something shocking about an ancient ancestor? Will they meet other visitors from the future? Are there contemporary people who know about the time travelers and serve as native bearers?) The real point here is to look at our culture and ways through the eyes of visitors who know how it all turns out, and give us the opportunity for poignant or humorous or satirical commentary on our failings...and while we're at it, to show how America and the West in general treats other cultures in our own time.

So whaddya think, sirs and madams?


  1. My God, you're right! There's never been a time so ripe for the "Tourists"-style time-travel story to be turned into actors and props as this time, right now!

    Very nice vision, there! Why of course! Holy jumpin' catfish, it'd be like...I don't know, it'd be like Angels In America, or something! And beginning in JFK airport...ha. Nice touch.

    I'm impressed by this, RAB. Lots of room to move, and brilliantly topical allegorical stuff. Good one.

  2. Well! I bet it took Tony Kushner way more than two hours to write Angels in America!

    I suppose if the series were picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel, the production would be in Vancouver and JFK would become the international arrivals hall at YVR with all that aboriginal Indian statuary.

    More importantly, if anything of mine were ever bought by the Sci-Fi Channel, I would have to go on a killing spree. I've seen what they do to writers. Being imprisoned as a mass murderer would only help my professional reputation by comparison.

  3. Ha! That's be the way to ruin it, I guess.

  4. I like this and think it has a lot of potential, but it feels like it's missing something, and I'm not sure what.

    Perhaps... some kind of continuing presence from our time? But not in a Mulder and Scully type way.

  5. Just gave this a thorough read, and I'm captivated by it all! I could say it's brilliant, and it is; I could say that the story has the capacity to flourish in so many directions that it's almost crazy with the heat, certainly; but really, I'm floored that this great premise just shows up casually from the playspace of your imagination. Too cool...

  6. Mari, a problem I run into a lot when developing a new idea is falling in love with the starting premise, then being afraid to "mess it up" by introducing something that strays too far from the original intent. But making a situation more messy is the very thing that turns a premise into a story; things going out of kilter is where conflict begins. So maybe I've allowed this to stay a little too tidy?

    I must have been thinking on some level of adding a contemporary voice when I tossed off the idea of "native bearers" who are aware of tourists from the future. Someone like that could become an additional character: the ordinary guy who works as a "local guide" showing these people around. But I'd be concerned that adding him would overwhelm the rest, changing the story from being "future tourists versus the present" to "future tourists versus one present-day guy" which feels a lot more mundane. (Not to mention that the latter is the central conflict in "Vintage Season" and I'd want to stay away from borrowing too much!)

    Thanks for the insight -- and I don't use that word lightly -- it's touched off a lot of thinking about my creative process!

    GTS, you are clearly a fellow of taste and discernment. :-D

  7. If I might make a suggestion...

    As far as literary rebuttals to time-travel tropes go, my favourite is Silverberg's "Up The Line", and I think you could do worse than borrow a little from it here. Of all your characters, it seems to me that the Guide is given the least to do...why not toss a little interior life his way? No doubt he's spent a considerable amount of time in the past, in orientation, training, and actual work -- his relationship (and his organization's relationship) with the native bearers is probably decently complex, and it seems worthwhile to me to explore/exploit it. Maybe he has a girl back there, maybe he has a wife up in the future, maybe maybe etc. etc. Now, that particular sort of thing might be a little crude, I don't know; but the general idea ties into something I was doing a lot of reading about last year, and so with your permission I'll witter on about it a bit.

    There are all kinds of memoirs and novels written by people who were British Foreign Service guys, in some cases as late as the Fifties, and they all have a similar, and interesting, tone when they're talking about their experiences in Africa or wherever. They all report the same feelings, when it comes to being people who have a foot in both worlds...and I could go on about this at some length, but to shorten it up, they worry about the Imperial system to which they've dedicated their lives not living up to its promises. They're the ones who've gone as native as they can, they pine for England when they're away but they chafe when they're living there, and yet they're forever directed by people who don't have their close feeling for the native people and the land they live in, who don't look at their imperialistic culture through rose-coloured glasses. And as a result, the foreign-service men look around and find themselves ugly, when they were promised they'd be beautiful.

    I said I wouldn't go on too much, even though there's a lot more to say. But there's just one more thing I really have to mention, which is: that these people are all in the Foreign Service because they don't fit in at home, because they've bought into their own Imperial hype too completely to be properly civilized. In other words, they're a bunch of nuts! Although you can't tell it from their earnest, often poignant writing.

    So...maybe it's not so easy all the time, being a Guide. After all, you probably have to bear a pretty heavy standard, and it probably gets to you after a while.

    Just a thought!

  8. Excellent line of thought there, plok! I didn't include every idea I had about those characters in the above pitch...and if I really were developing this as a series I'd want the Guide to have precisely the kind of depth you're describing, but it would stay hidden at first. One great thing you can do in a series is have a character who seems to be all one thing and stays in his familiar groove episode after episode...until suddenly he doesn't, and you realize he has a whole other level to him that was there all along but simply wasn't apparent before.

    And, hmm, if the Guide has some guilty secret of his own, that would make his efforts to negotiate the conflict between the artist and the student a bit more complicated...yes, there's definitely something to that!

    (Also, one thing about this being an idea for television rather than a comic book or a novel is that so much else is going to be brought in by all the other hands who would come on board. The hypothetical actor who played the Guide might bring a whole different element to the character, and the writers and producers would be well advised to leave room for that. In any collaborative medium, having too comprehensive a vision at the start can be just as damaging as being too vague...)

  9. Yeah, TV can be wonderful, can't it? We always talk about the unique virtues of comics when it comes to serial storytelling, but of course TV can be a thrilling medium too...

    Wow, whoops...that's a ridiculously obvious thing to say, I guess. I just mean, as probably you know RAB, that this is a real nice TV-specific idea of yours.

    But, enough flattery! It'll all come out in the wash!

  10. Ooh, I like the premise a lot, and also like Plok's suggestion of the Guide as a kind of chronal "expat." I spent 5 years in Japan, and the longtime, permanent expats there were an interesting bunch: at home in both cultures, but also at home in neither.


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