Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Plausibility, Plots, and the Future

Except for purely natural events, things tend to happen for a reason - even if that reason is no more complex than "nobody knew what the hell they were doing and, thus, screwed up royally." It's important to keep this in mind as a writer when you're threading your plots and watching the characters do what they do. One of the easy traps of fiction writing is to turn characters into marionettes; for the author to move them from place to place or from ignorance to revelation not because of the experiences that inform them or the evidence they can perceive, but because it's necessary to the story. Plots live and die on plausibility.

If that's the case, your only real option is to pause, go back and look at the situation again, to find a way that the character can get where they need to go in a sensible manner. If the path from beginning to end is full of fiat, the structure isn't going to stand very strongly.

This is true in the big picture as well as the small - it holds up just as well when setting down histories as it does for heroes. Everything is affected by what came before it - earth-shattering revolutions don't really appear out of nowhere. In cases like the Revolutions of 2011 or the collapse of the Soviet Union, it's more the case that unfamilarity or a lack of on-the-ground information contributed to ideas that were thoroughly jossed by the will of the people.

My theory, personally, is that people who don't really write fiction are far more liable to fall into this trap.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a book called Canada in 2020: Twenty Leading Voices Imagine Canada's Future. This is not an anthology, this is not a work of speculative fiction - it's more a work of speculative articling, if such a term exists. Possibilities expressed within run the gamut from 2020 seeing Canada, less Quebec, become the fifty-first American state to immigration turning Toronto into a reflection of Sao Paulo to Canada's return to center stage as a prime supporter of international peacekeeping.

The first one, though, is something else - it's what got me thinking along these lines. "Imagining Canada's 153rd Birthday," by journalist and professor Andrew Cohen, takes a look ahead to Canada Day, 2020, and a Canada that isn't very much a country at all. At its core, it's based around the "Hotel Canada" idea, the concept that new immigrants to Canada are not integrating into this country but just living here. "No, this isn't your father's Canada," Cohen writes. "Nor is it the Canada of Sir John A. Macdonald, Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, Brian Mulroney, Pierre Burton, Margaret Atwood, Michael Bliss, Douglas Coupland, or Avril Lavigne. They would not recognize it, and few in this new country would recognize them. The nation roams around under a cloud of amnesia, as if nothing happened before yesterday."

That last sentence is perhaps more true than Cohen intended. His Canada in 2020 is the loosest of confederations; for some reason that is not well explained, during the 2010s the provinces crept closer and closer toward autonomy. In 2010, the House of Commons shut down when "the federal government transferred its remaining powers to the provinces" - for some reason that is completely unexplained. The game effectively ended for the federal government in 2014, Cohen says, when the provinces started raising armies.


Onward, soldiers of British Columbia! The wealth of the West Edmonton Mall shall yet be ours!

And so we come back to the issue of plausibility. The Great Recession notwithstanding - how believable do you find the concept of the provinces of Canada raising their own armies? What the hell are they going to do, fight Fenian raiders? In what world would a politician or party that went ahead and adopted such an indefensible takeover of an expensive federal responsibility not be turfed out of office at the first opportunity? Where are they getting their motivation?

It's evident - fiat. Cohen decided that he needed a Canada in 2020 that was atomized, that was barely anything more than lines on a map. Beyond the issues of plausibility, 2020 is way too soon for this sort of thing. Technology may change fast, but culture - except in those places where it is specifically tied to technology, like cell phone etiquette - doesn't. It's as if Cohen's Canada really doesn't have a history.

I mean, really. The Canada in 2020 project started on July 1, 2006, and the book was published in 2008. We must therefore assume that the trajectories toward the futures included within it can be traced back to somewhere between those two dates. Can you swallow the federal government putting an end to the House of Commons, and thereby diminishing its own power, in 2010? Can you swallow Canada spinning apart so fast that twelve years after 2008, it's supposed to be unrecognizeable?

Personally, I recognize it - very well. The author has determined what he wants to see, and he's going to get there: plausibility be damned.

1 comment:

  1. This seems like a typical off-base future prediction, with the departure from reality based on ideology rather than limited foresight. It's rather like someone in 1920 predicting that the U.S. will cease to exist by 1935, while completely missing the Great Depression.