Lost in Translation has examined the passage of time on technology and how that affects adaptations and remakes. However, technology isn’t the only thing to change over time. Society and culture aren’t static. What was one scandalous may now be commonplace. What was once de rigeur is now out of fashion. What was once common practice is now forbidden by regulations.
Older contemporary works are seen as period pieces today. The social mores of Jane Eyre have long given way, so adaptations place it during its time. Prohibition limits The Great Gatsby to the 1920s. Changing the setting of either requires work to make the stories believable in the new era. Today’s world isn’t as class-based as the Victorian era and the excesses of the Twenties fall flat in today’s borderline recession.
Some works don’t have that nice delineation in their era. Their themes are considered timeless. But the details have begun to date them. Adaptations that don’t take into account the changes are going to fall flat. Take Catcher in the Rye, a novel commonly assigned in high school English classes. The novel was written in the Forties and reflected education and teenage isolation of the time. While teenage worries of finding a place in the world is still a concern, the details of the novel date the work. Today, Holden wouldn’t have flunked out of four schools; at some point, his learning disability would have been diagnosed long before the story began. He wouldn’t have been able to leave school without permission without an Amber alert being issued. And there is no way he could have walked into a bar to order any alcohol without ID; bars risk losing their license and both the establishment and the bartender risk large fines. While the book appears to be contemporary, it isn’t, and any adaptation, assuming the Salinger estate allows one, needs to be able to adjust for these changes.
It’s not necessary to go back that far. Even works from the Eighties needs to adjust. The 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice had to account for how much the War on Drugs had changed since the TV series began airing in 1984. The police have become far more militarized, with military-surplus gear, in the intervening time. And not all changes are obvious. Subtle changes have happened over the past few decades.
Contemporary novels aren’t the only works affected. Science fiction has always been about the issues of the time the works were written. Let’s take two episodes from the original Star Trek, “Let That Be Your Final Battlefield” and “Day of the Dove”. With “Let That Be Your Battlefield”, the message was that discriminating because of skin colour was destructive, as the last two survivors from a planet where the only difference between peoples was whether they were black on the left side or the right side. Today, while the message is still needed, the approach would be less of a sledgehammer, like in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Far Beyond the Stars” which showed how discrimination hurt people. The message of “Day of the Dove” was that it is possible for foes to set aside differences and come to peace. In the original Trek, the Klingons represented the Soviet Union while the Federation acted as a stand-in for the US at a time when the Cold War was in full force and almost turned hot after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, the Cold War is in the past and, for the most part, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been dropping since the Eighties.
A quick fast forward to 1978 to the original Battlestar Galactica provides another example. At the time, women were beginning to try to break into the combat arms of various military services. The first American woman to be a combat pilot was Jeannie Leavitt in 1993. In the episode “The Lost Planet of the Gods”, to replenish the losses in shuttle pilots during the evacuation of both the Twelve Colonies and Carillon, the Galactica opened flight training to all, including women. In the episode, thanks to a disease picked up on a planet, the Galactica‘s fighter corps was down to just Apollo and Starbuck, forcing the new shuttle pilots to upgrade their skills to fly Vipers, the starfighters. On a mission to escort a medical shuttle to the planet to find a cure for the disease, Apollo and Starbuck lead the new pilots, but each needs to break off, one to check the planet for a safe landing zone, the other to check on a Cylon fighter trailing the squadron. When Starbuck leaves, he places Lieutenant Deitra, played by Sheila DeWindt, a black woman, in charge. Deidra gets four on-screen Cylon kills over the two-part episode and returns in a later episode. Today, though, the idea of not having women in any combat arms, especially in an advanced society, is considered backwards, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot showed women, including Kara Thrace and Sharon Valerii, as pilots with no fanfare about their gender.
Even today’s works will be affected in the future. As a wise green Muppet once said, “Always in motion is the future“. Most works will be based on current culture and issues. Creators can try to predict, but the most surprising thing about these predictions is that there is a success rate. What speculative fiction can do is explore the potential issues, from treatment of artificial intelligences to the problems of extraterrestrial colonization, and get people to think about them. The idea of firsts – first man in space, first woman to become a fighter pilot, first black man to command a mission on the International Space Station – will fall eventually as the firsts are achieved, yet today, they are important to track.
Culture is changing. The only constant is change. Adaptations, including remakes and reboots, will have to either keep the original work in its original time or make the effort to adjust the work to reflect the changes. Both approaches have challenges, and it is possible that an original cannot be easily updated.
This past weekend, October 11-13, 2013, saw Can*Con 2013, the 33rd Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature, held in Ottawa, Ontario. This year, Can*Con also hosted the Aurora Awards, celebrating the best in Canadian science fiction and fantasy. Can*Con is small compared to media conventions such as Anime North, Toronto FanExpo, and the San Diego ComicCon, but the size helped focus the direction of panels towards readers and writers of speculative fiction.
The conference had three panel tracks plus a special events track. The panels were aimed at authors both published and aspiring and at readers. Fan works, webcomics, graphic novels were also part of the mix; Can*Con acknowledged the breadth of formats available on paper and the web for speculative fiction. The special events track included the Auroras plus readings by guest authors and pitch sessions held by Canadian publishers. Friday and Saturday evening featured concerts and filking*.
There was a small dealer’s room with tables piled with books where authors and publishers sold their works. The diversity of the wares went from comics and graphic novels to anthologies to novels both light and dark.
The Aurora awards took place Sunday. The winners were:
Robert J. Sawyer – Lifetime Achievement Award
Best Novel – English**: The Silvered, Tanya Huff[link]
Best YA Novel – English: Under My Skin: The Wildings Vol. 1, Charles de Lint
Best Short Fiction – English: “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland”, Douglas Smith, On Spec #90
Best Poem/Song – English: “A sea monster tells his story”, David Clink, The Literary Review of Canada, July/August
Best Graphic Novel*** – English: Weregeek, Alina Pete
Best Related Work – English: Blood and Water, edited by Hayden Trenholm
Best Artist – Erik Mohr, cover art for Chizine Publications
Best Fan Publication: Speculating Canada blog, edited by Derek Newman-Stille
Best Fan Filk – Kari Maaren
Best Fan Organizational: Randy McCharles, Chair and Programming, When Worlds Collide, Calgary
Best Fan Related Work: Ron Friendman, conception and delivery of the Aurora Awards voter package.
Takeaways from the convention: Canadian speculative fiction authors, published and aspiring, would do well here. The panels are informative, there’s a chance to network with other authors, with publishers, and with fans. Fans can easily mingle with writers; panels existed for fan activities. The convention was open and welcoming, and small enough to be intimate. I will be returning.
* The singing of popular songs with the words changed to a more geeky version. The name is derived from folk music.
** The French Aurora Awards ceremony will be held at Boréal in Montreal.
*** Four webcomics were up for Best Graphic Novel – English.