Philip Pullman created a wonderful fantasy invention in The Golden Compass when he imagined humans having a dæmon as an external soul to share their lives. His Dark Materials I believe is the largest selling recent fantasy series after the Harry Potter books, so the idea must really appeal to many people. It’s a crying shame that the recent film version of The Golden Compass didn’t do well at the box office and I wonder if it’s failure was due to the fact that the dæmon invention was too complex for the mass audience.
This morning when I woke up at 4:30 am and was deliciously drifting in and out of sleep I came up with a fantasy invention that tickles my fancy. I wonder if it’s too complex to make a good story. What if on our birthdays instead of celebrating them with friends we spend them with time traveling versions of ourselves from each year of our life? Imagine a party of ninety where every person is the same person but from a different birthday along their timeline.
Think of the possibilities and ramifications of such a fantasy world. First off we’d have to have a POV (point of view) character. Remember we’re inventing a fictional fantasy world and not one that actually works – so things need to be logical within the narrative. Giving the story to one POV character as he grows older, and maybe even telling the story in first person will simplify conceptualizing the fantasy invention and plotting.
We can start the story when our character is about to turn five and he goes to sleep only to find himself waking up at a new kind of birthday party were all the guests are older versions of himself. They try not to scare him but they encourage him to do well at things that five-year-olds struggle with and they promise they will all be back for another party when he turns six.
Most people hate taking advice, but would you take advice from yourselves if you knew they knew the future? To complicate our story I’ll have this natural tendency continue and our character will be reluctant to change. We’ll have the kid learn over the next several birthdays that the characters who come to visit change in personality and in number. Because on some birthdays there might be ninety people visiting but on one birthday only twenty-two show up warning him that he could die young. Our character will learn that the group advice is good and following it has impact, but it can be conflicting coming from different aged selves.
Of course this breakthrough knowledge will come on his thirteenth birthday when our character gets surly and refuses to do any school work. He will be shocked by his future selves and their limited number. From then on he will try to act on his insider information.
Now that you have the idea how this fantasy invention works we can explore the philosophical and literary implications. How often on some talk show or documentary have you seen some old guy being ask if he would change anything about his life and then hear, “I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing!” I always find that mind-blowing. Even if I had been immensely successful, if I got a chance to live my life over I would do it all different just because life offers us infinitely more options than we can ever experience.
On the other hand most of us aren’t wildly successful and the chance to do things over would give us the opportunity to improve our lives. This fantasy invention would be a metaphor for that. This idea is a variation of one of my all time favorite books and fantasy inventions: Replay by Ken Grimwood from 1987. Jeff Winston dies at 43 and wakes up back in his old dorm room in 1963. He slowly realizes he gets to live his life over with the knowledge of his previous life. You can imagine the obvious plot line here. I mean, what would you do if you were in his place.
Jeff lives his life over, dies again and then wakes back up as his earlier self, but slightly later than before. Again he has to relive his life, but this time he wants to do something different. Now you see the meaning of the title. Most people won’t be familiar with this novel but will know about the 1993 film, Groundhog Day that essentially uses the same fantasy idea with a different gimmick.
My fantasy invention is a variation of these ideas but the character only gets to live one life. It’s philosophically about taking advice rather than learning the lessons of life through many repetitive hard knocks. To make the story more dramatic we can have the party also grow smaller each year because no character that is younger than the POV attends. Thus the story becomes a literary tontine.
There is a variation of this idea, but without the advice aspect, that was a biography of Ernest Hemingway. In this fictional documentary I saw decades ago the setting was a bar filled with men of varying ages, but the viewer quickly learns that all of them are Ernest Hemingway. The theme of this story is about how the same man disagrees with himself at varying ages.
Fantasy inventions are the wonderful aspect of fantasy writing. The possibilities are endless. I’m always shocked when I read a fantasy book that essentially uses a retread of an old fantasy invention. Just how many sexy fantasy witches like Samantha Stephens does the world need, but they’re still very popular in the fantasy magazines. I guess Heinlein should be very flattered because look how many books and video games today seem to be based on his invention of Starship Troopers. And should I even mention Tolkien?
It’s really hard to invent a totally new fantasy invention like time travel in H. G. Wells The Time Machine. As brilliant as it was Mark Twain had already written A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. If you follow the time travel link to Wikipedia you’ll see there were many previous works. I think there are essentially two ways to work with a fantasy invention. The first is to create a unique variation that is used for a philosophical statement. The second is to create a unique variation or retread to create a fun story. Even though Groundhog Day is a silly comedy, I think it makes a number of philosophical statements.
Now that I have my fantasy invention worked out will I write a book? I wish, but it’s very doubtful. I come up with these inventions all the time, thus the 001 I tagged this entry with, figuring I might write about the next 998 ideas that pop into my head. I wish I could write a book. I just don’t have the discipline. I’m using this blog to practice. You are actually listening to my piano lessons for writing, I would say. Hope all the banging and sour notes don’t hurt you too much. My blogs are usually around a thousand words. To scale up to a novel I’ll need the skills to compose something 100 times that large. For a few years I worked on short stories, but I have trouble organizing 5000-10,000 word pieces into valid fictional and essayist structures.
There is a skill involved with structuring of large wordy works. I can barely make these blog posts coherent. Most blogs are non-fiction. I wonder if I should practice fiction in these posts. That would be weird. However, it’s one thing to take a thousand words and lay out a fantasy invention, it’s a whole other thing to scale it up to 5,000 to 15,000 thousands words of a short story or short novelette. I wish I could. That gives me an idea for my fantasy invention character – have him become a writer, with the older versions giving him advice on writing. That would be a nice twist. I could even make the story into meta-fiction and have all the future selves represent experiments in characterization.
Not bad, not bad. Anyone like the idea?