The Back Story

Every story has a “back-story” — all the things that happened before the first event in the story takes place, from the origins of the universe, to the cause for the protagonist’s irrational fear of pink feathers.

One of the staple pieces of advice for modern fiction is, “Show, don’t tell.” This advice is given because new authors, who spend a lot of their time crafting the back-story in their heads so that their characters and setting have at least some semblance of integrity, are always anxious to dump all that hard work on the reader at every opportunity. No reader wants to slog through that.

Of course, this can be taken too far, and then you get a story that becomes so tediously existential that you have no clue what is going on until the last two paragraphs — if then.

There is a balance, just as there is a balance between the use of active and passive voice. Active voice is always better than passive voice — unless it isn’t.

Anyway, I gave all that my best shot in the previous post, and we’ll see what contest judges and real editors think of the effort, sometime in May.

That said, I’m going to lay down some backstory in this post, just for my own amusement, and if you’re the sort who hates backstory, walk away now.

I’ve set this little tale sometime within the next century. The consequences of Peak Oil have begun to play out, but they are far from finished.

“The city” — an unnamed city, not too large, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest — from which Mark hails, still has contact with the old state/federal system, but the slowdown in transportation has brought about the dream of today’s Tea Party Republicans: the federal and state powers are vastly reduced, and the cities are, in practice, virtually autonomous. Many cities nevertheless choose to retain ties to state and federal governments, for which they receive various perquisites. That’s the case here, so this city would be very recognizable to anyone from this decade. There are schools, jobs, and stores. But there are also some differences.

One of the biggest changes is that personal vehicles are a thing of the past (except for the very wealthy), as is most travel: the only people who regularly leave this city are the “mercantiles” or “mercs”, and they generally hold contracts and writs of passage with the remaining major commercial transportation providers. There is some public transportation, and the middle class (if there was one) would have bicycles, but for most citizens, sturdy shoes are important.

The other big difference is that new raw materials (particularly metals) have become extremely expensive, and are in short supply, so there is a lot of what Archidruid Greer calls “catabolism” — aggressive recycling, a lot like the aggressive recycling of copper from abandoned suburbs in Cleveland right now — and if you don’t know this is already going on in the good old US of A, you need to get out more. The old industrial zones, or I-zones, of most towns have become a valuable resource for raw materials, but aren’t much good for anything else, because of all the automation and high-technology that had been introduced after the 1970’s. Those machines no longer work — not enough reliable power from the grid, and replacement parts are hard to get, if not impossible — but they make a fine source of steel, copper, lead, and gold to trade or use in local industries that have reclaimed a more viable corner of the I-zone. So the I-zone is strictly off-limits, by city statute, and unauthorized scavenging there is considered looting. Penalties are stiff.

The other group in this story, from which Benedict and Emmaline hail, are the Clans of the Circuit. Their origin was the Renaissance Faire Circuit of the early 21st century.

This idea is based on the fact that, right now and in real life, there are a number of permanent Ren-Faires around the country, such as the one in Larkspur, Colorado. If you put their active seasons together, end-to-end, you have a more-or-less continuous Ren-Faire going on somewhere for most of the year. There is a whole class of people whose livelihood consists of traveling an annual circuit. You can think of them as American Gypsies, or perhaps as the Carneys (carnival and circus workers) of the previous century. They are nomads by nature and preference; they are very comfortable with living outside the thin skin of money and suburban houses and PTA meetings; they practice — as part of their show — a lot of middle- and low-tech skills, like tanning and iron-smithing.

It’s not too much of a stretch to see these folk become more self-reliant as the larger social order around them disintegrates, and begin to fend entirely for themselves. Since I’m setting this somewhere within the next century, they’ve had as much as five full generations to figure out how to hunt and gather and trade and raid and get by.

These are the two cultures that come into contact in this story.

There are a couple of things that might strike people as strange about the Clans, starting with the whole child-making thing between Emmaline and Mark. The biggest long-term problem any very small population faces — and this village is under 100 people — is inbreeding. Small group cultures have had a number of different ways of dealing with this historically, the most common being (I think) raiding other clans for women. These folk have taken a different tack, that of giving any woman of child-bearing age the absolute right to choose anyone as the father of the child, with a prejudice toward fathers outside her Clan. This is common among most of the Clans. Perhaps some future stories will explore how (or if) this works out.

Another is the business with the skywatchers. There’s another story I’ve sketched, in which the skywatchers are central: it’s set a couple of generations before, when the federal government is still watching the infrared feeds from their spy satellites, and considers any group that isn’t participating in “normal” society to be “homegrown terrorists.” There’s a quiet arms race going on at this point, but in reverse: the spy satellites are winking out, one by one, but the Clans are using up the high-tech materials they need to make the silverthread blankets. Both will be matters of legend within another generation or two. However, I’m guessing the Clans will set blankets of some sort to the south of any fire for centuries to come, long after they’ve forgotten even the stories of why it was originally done.

There’s the little touch with the myco-caine: as the name suggests, it’s an anesthetic with narcotic properties derived from a fungus. Technological development doesn’t stop when big science stops, as I explored briefly in an earlier post. Most of the Clans have a fairly advanced pharmacopeia built around fungi and plants, and it’s a big part of their inter-Clan trade.

Some purists might wonder why a band of nomads would bother to carry around a forge, or even how it might be reasonably managed. Perhaps I’ll tell that story sometime.

The city is a much more straightforward, if depressing, extrapolation. It is, I’ll admit, also a bit of an allegorical whipping boy.

I’m not sure our national folly can actually persist at the city level, but if it can, it’s most likely in those cities still attached to the structures of the old world. The city is still mostly dependent on its outside connections for food and manufactured goods, though the quality keeps dropping as prices rise. It tries to maintain the outward appearance of an old liberal democracy, with public education and a city hedge to feed and care for the poor, but it is increasingly a plutocracy dedicated to keeping everyone else poor, anxious, and eager to comply lest “benefits” (like a job, or medical care) be cut off. Such a system requires an internal enemy to keep the masses seething at each other, and it has devolved into pitting children against their own parents.

The city’s long-term prospects of survival are pretty close to zero.

There are other cities that have broken their dependency with the old world, though they still maintain what might be called “diplomatic relations.” They’re far more interesting, and there are some good stories there.

The Prophets of Doom introduced themselves as I was writing this. I don’t know exactly who they are, yet, or what their long-term prospects are. But they’re important. The thought of Mark going back to that dying town was utterly depressing to me — so much so, that I kept trying to twist the story so he’d end up with Emmaline. I even considered killing him. Then the elder decided to talk him into joining the Prophets, and I suddenly saw this hopeless kid going back with hope and purpose.

So, any of you who have slogged through this backstory to this point, I have a question and a request.

The question is this: were there any spots in the story itself that left you hanging with a “What is going on here?” feeling, and did the backstory make more sense of it?

The request is that you post a comment with your answer to the question.

This entry was posted in General.

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