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.