Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic Fantasy and SF, and something that’s come up a couple of times in the comments is the idea of a “precursor” civilization. On the one hand, we’ve more or less agreed that the existence of one doesn’t automatically mean that the present story is post-apocalyptic. On the other hand, unless we’re writing about Neanderthals, we’re pretty much always dealing with a pre-existing civilization, aren’t we?
In SF, the precursor society is easy to figure out. It’s us. SF is the fiction of change, and the social/scientific/technological world that it changes from is the one the writer/reader is living in. There seem to be two basic approaches to this concept, one in which the story is set in the near future, and one in which today’s society lies somewhere in the distant past.
With the exception of people like Isaac Asimov, and works like his Foundation Trilogy, most of the early SF writers were using the near future premise. Heinlein’s The Door into Summer, for example, written in the 1950’s, was set in the 1970’s. The movie Blade Runner is set in 2017.
I know. As SF fans have been saying for years, “Where’s my flying car?” This gives you a hint as to why the near future premise isn’t used much anymore. The future got here a lot faster, and in many ways differently, than anticipated. We might have microwave ovens, but we’re not colonizing the moons of Jupiter.
Not all the early writers were using the near future premise, however. I’ve already mentioned Asimov, but you also had people like Andre Norton, who was one of the earliest writers to use the distant past premise with reference to Earth as the home world. Since then, this premise has become the norm (think Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Iain M. Banks), except for people like Robert J. Sawyer. He’s not worried about the future catching up with him, because he’s not writing predictive stories (not that the early guys were either, really). A little like Larry Niven, Sawyer’s more often writing about what things would be like if certain changes occurred. In other words, he’s more “what if?” and not so much “if this goes on.”
By setting their stories in a far future, writers may feel they have more scope, less to explain about how we got “here” from “there” – something Fantasy writers don’t have to worry about nearly as much. But, like SF writers, Fantasy writers seem to have a couple ways to go. Primary world fantasies, like the Chronicles of Narnia, like Norton’s Witch World books, like most urban fantasies, do use our world as a starting point. Or, to be more accurate, a leaving point. Our society, the world as we know it, isn’t being used as a precursor civilization, however, but more as though it ran in tandem with the imaginary world.
In secondary-world fantasies, where the setting is completely fictional and separate from our world, there seem once again to be two basic tropes. In one, the present society has evolved naturally out of the past of the imagined world. Think Joe Abercrombie, Kari Sperring, or Michelle Sagara. In the other, which we find in Robin Hobbs’s Farseer stories, or my own Dhulyn and Parno novels, there is a precursor civilization that has disappeared. The significant thing about these previous societies is that they’re inevitably seen as having been more advanced than the society of the story, though not, as I’ve said before, an apocalyptic change.
Hmm. If Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away universe is the precursor for ours, and ours is the precursor for his Tales of Known Space, does that mean Niven’s got it both ways?
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website www.violettemalan.com