Science fiction is typically a forward-looking genre, but a character exploring a hidden past can be particularly effective within the genre, in ways that might not be possible in conventional action/adventure stories.
Futuristic technologies provide ways of implanting, altering or removing memories.
Science fiction set in the near future can reveal hidden connections to the present, using the characters’ search for their past to draw connections between the futuristic world and the here-and-now.
Presenting a character with a lost past can heighten the disorientation that the reader feels when placed in a futuristic setting.
The search for the past can engage the creative process that I discussed last week. A writer character creating a narrative of their own life (as the main character in Stephen King’s “The Body” does, for instance) is reawakening old memories in the same way that characters with hidden pasts are revealing theirs.
For today’s blog post, I’ll discuss a few techniques that I’ve used and enjoyed in sci-fi in order to explore the past of their stories and I’ll review a story by one of my followers as well.
Stories written in reverse chronological order
Although this technique was popularized by Memento, the story that really intrigued me was “The Tooth” by G. Gordon Dewey. I can’t remember where I first encountered it (sometime in the 1980s, I think), and it took me a while to track it down, but it inspired me to write “Achievement” (in Walls and Wonders) in the same way, to show how a seemingly inconsequential event can impact lives for centuries afterward.
Stories in which the protagonists seek out their identity
My favorite story that delves into the past in quest for identity is “All You Zombies” by Robert Heinlein, for the sheer scope of the character’s backstory and the way that its winding path both makes the protagonist more real and simultaneously distinguishes the character off from the rest of humanity. This story, as much as any other I can think of, illustrates the power of science fiction to present a unique perspective on the world and our place in it. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you give it a try,
Of my own stories, I think “Once More, onto the Beach” (in Walls and Wonders) was the most interesting writing experience when it came to exploring a character’s hidden past. Iniala’s transformation – nearly a rebirth – cut her off from her memories as she crossed the threshold from the beach to open water. In my first drafts, I wrote the early beach scenes at the beginning, but the story lacked tension. I thought it was more effective to start the story in open water, when Iniala hears her name for the first time, and let the memories come to the surface slowly in dreams and flashbacks.
My novelette “Oubliette,” in the same anthology, also explores a missing past, this time due to a neurotoxin that remains after a devastating war. Writing “Oubliette” was a bit more straightforward, but I felt it packed more of an emotional punch.
Stories of implanted or fictional pasts
In some cases, a false backstory complicates the character’s quest for self-discovery. This usually involves malevolent agents or antagonists who is manipulating the main character for their own purposes. My favorite example of this technique is in film. Dark City (1997) uses the setting, plot and well-placed elements of characterization to reveal the characters’ rootlessness and increasing desperation as they confront a world that manipulates them at every turn. Dark City relies on mystery, so I won’t spoil the details, except to say that you might want to skip Kiefer Sutherland’s voice-over intro if you want to heighten the suspense. [Edit: Or, better yet, watch the director’s cut. SF Debris recently posted an in-depth review of the film, which is also worth checking out.]
I would also like to mention “Passing through Gethsemane,” an episode of Babylon 5 that uses the concept of “mind-wiping” for criminals to explore the meaning of justice, repentance and guilt if memories are stripped away.
I haven’t written any stories in precisely this vein (although “Witness” in Walls and Wonders features a misunderstood past). I will end this blog post by reviewing a story by one of my followers. “A Matter of Nurture” by August von Orth appeared in Neo-Opsis. It is a good example a quest for identity that crosses genres between sci-fi and action/adventure. In the spirit of earlier works like The Bourne Identity, it explores the way nature of the human mind and asks whether we are defined by our past experiences or whether we can overcome them and choose our identity as we move toward the future.
Review of “A Matter of Nurture”
“A Matter of Nurture” by August von Orth explores a trope that has fascinated sci-fi and action fans for decades – the assassin forced to confront her past. Psychologists wrestle with the question of nature vs. nurture, particularly when people are driven to extreme behaviors like killing. Is someone born with the urge to kill? Is it learned? Can it be implanted? Von Orth follows Dani as she faces an existential crisis and questions her own nature and nurture. The story kept the suspense and emotional tension ratcheted up until the end. I found myself wishing at times for a bit more substance to the revelations, something that defines Dani as an individual apart from her ethnicity, social class and recurring urge to kill. That being said, the arc of the story was satisfying on its own terms and worth reading for fans of psychological action/sci-fi stories.
That’s it for this week, and for 2018, unless I have a year end musing to post on Monday. Stay tuned to find out. Until then, happy reading and happy writing!