Saturday, December 20, 2008

The ticking clock

One way to set fantasy races apart from humans is to give them an altered life span.

This is far more common in science fiction. When it comes to short life spans, the Ocampa of Star Trek: Voyager lived for nine years, but I’ve read of a short story called “Petals of Rose”, originally printed in Analog, where the aliens only lived for a day. And Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg beats that, since the aliens in his novel only live for fifteen minutes.

I wonder if they ever refer to someone’s fifteen seconds of fame.

On the other side of the spectrum are races which are extremely long-lived – usually elves, building on the Tolkien mythos – though those often aren’t as much fun or as poignant as those which shuffle off this mortal coil too soon. An exception would be when such a character takes on a Bicentennial Man role and watches his friends (or even family) grow old and die while he remains the same.

That would be very moving. I remember the scene in the film of The Lord of the Rings where Arwen sees herself, dressed in black, beside Aragorn’s corpse. More of that kind of realism would be great in stories featuring elves.

One problem with having a shorter-lived race is that if the lifespan isn’t short enough, it won’t make much of an impact on the reader. With the Voyager example, my first thought was that the Ocampa character would just outlast the seven years of the series. Even then, it might have made a difference if she felt or behaved differently from the rest of the crew, or if no one wanted to pursue a long-term relationship with her, but that didn’t happen. She was just like everyone else.

In contrast, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story* about humans living on another planet, affected by radiation that limited their lives to about a week in length, and their days were marked by a frenetic activity that made them wonderfully unusual. There’s one part where two little boys get into a fierce fight, and one says, “Tomorrow I will be big enough to kill you!”

Likewise, fantasy races with an altered lifespan need to behave in an altered way. Would people who only lived for a month sleep at all? How would they feel towards those who lived for decades? They might place a lot of emphasis on thinking through matters quickly, but not on being impulsive – that often wastes time if mistakes are made, and they don’t have time to waste.

Races which live for hundreds of years, on the other hand, would take a different approach. In my world of Nux Varas, such a race institutes breeding programs to develop experimental subjects of its own kind into different species called Variants – since they have hundreds of years to live, they can afford to watch as generation after generation of Variants evolve. Such a race’s mentality and language should fit their altered lifespans as well.

Changing the simple length of the lifespan many of us take for granted could lead to a very different race - as long as all the consequences of that change are thought out.

*I can’t remember the name, darnit. If anyone else knows, please shout out.


writtenwyrdd said...

I see you and I think a lot alike. I ask What If a lot.

but I hadn't considered short lives until this point.

What strikes me is that the culture of the short-lived races would be affected--or at least a human race that lives a shorter period of time would be. The way the mind works and develops for one thing. If the species were to survive, teh brain would have to be able to develop and learn speech practically instantly, for example. And whatever social development is done over time woudl be affected. Frankly, I don't see how it could work for humanity as is; so mankind would of necessity be very alien.

And the question of how the needed changes occur strikes me.

Alien races that age quickly are no different than the world of rodents or insects in the respect of age. Fast development, including only a lifespan of hours, is common in some flies, for example. (Fruit flies, I think.)

colbymarshall said...

I would hate to live longer than someone I loved so much...I guess that's what made that LotR scene to tragic.

Madison said...

About the races who live very short lives, to them they could think that we live an incredibly long time and waste it. Really, how much time DO we waste? A lot. I doubt that races who had shorter life spans would waste that time.

Then again, they could think that thier nine years or one month or fifteen minutes is an incrediably long time to live. It depends on the mindset you give the race.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Lynn,

I think I'm fascinated by shorter lifespans because I used to do research on bacteria. Twenty minutes and you'd have a new generation. Evolution's easily observed under those circumstances, too.

And the fecundity contributes to their colonization of nearly the entire planet. I'm fascinated by that. The closest analog I've seen to it in fiction is an Outer Limits episode where an astronaut starts reproducing by mitosis, literally budding off exact duplicates of himself.

But as you pointed out, it would be difficult to realistically have such an accelerated growth rate in humans unless the story is a fantasy or otherwise bends/ignores biological principles.

Marian Perera said...

Then again, they could think that thier nine years or one month or fifteen minutes is an incrediably long time to live. It depends on the mindset you give the race.

Good point, Madison. The cheela in Dragon's Egg, for instance, live on the surface of a neutron star, which speeds everything up for them.

As a result, they have conversations, fight wars, make love and trek long distances without ever thinking that they only have fifteen seconds - by our standards - to live.

I wonder if such races might be quite happy with their lot unless they lived or were forced to live among people who had much longer lifespans.

Marian Perera said...

I would hate to live longer than someone I loved so much.

Hey Colby,

I once read a short story (published in Asimov's IIRC) about a woman who couldn't die. She hated immortality and kept trying to end her life - by challenging a mugger and ending up with a switchblade in her throat, for instance. But her body would regenerate and she'd be back where she started.

The immortal who's tired of living may be a bit of a cliche, but I've seen some great stories come from that premise.