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How to Approach Time, Dates, Era in Dystopian and Speculative Fiction


Not really world-building, but perhaps it is... but my question, how best do we fill in the reader to an era or time, year, in a dystopian-speculative world that doesn't exist though of course, closely relates to our own in an era specific. (I know, speculative fiction 101). Certainly wardrobe, buildings, transportation may work, but say as in 'A Song of Ice and Fire' or 'The Handmaid's Tale' - both take place in distinct and obvious times and era without mentioning it or the year as in example, "The year of our Lord, 1231' etc. There's a resemblance but...

Fire and Ice takes place in medieval times relatively while Handmaid's is a dystopian America, but how does the reader know going in? Though Fire and Ice is a bit more easier to grasp in setting and fictional time, it doesn't ever mention the age, era, etc itself, I think. Though we may understand the setting, familiar surroundings, costumes, how is it conveyed we are not in 'traditional medieval times' from the get go without mentioning an era - or do we? Same as in Handmaid's... It's modern America (North America really I suppose) yet dystopian. Tricks? Tips? What's a good approach to tell readers where we are? I'm assuming as the novel progresses, it will reveal itself. The flaps of books, or sections in bookstores, at least there we can get the idea or before you hand it off to someone, we give them a blurb. But in the overall writing process approach, what is best? I'm assuming the approach is simply let it unfold.


I think this is a matter of design more than anything else. Just sprinkle it in as you go along to set the world up the way you want. Just make sure it's consistent and it all makes sense, somehow.

It's not a book, of course, but in the TV show Archer--the first few seasons, anyway--they had cell phones, and satellites tracking movements worldwide, and even a space shuttle, but the cars were 60's vintage, as were the clothes (particularly Archer's suits, very JFK), giving it a Man From U.N.C.L.E./James Bond feel while still feeling very modern and technologically hip.

As I said above, there's nothing wrong with carving out your own reality, as long as it's internally consistent. I used a Viking Age level of tech but a Shogunate social structure, and even threw in some tech that dates back to the Roman era. To quote one reviewer:

"this is not a treatise in medieval history, but rather a thought experiment in the ways that characteristic apparata (technical, social, economic, or even magical) could logically work."

And that's exactly what I was going for.

ASOIAF isn't based on any one time period, and the books and the TV series are an anachronistic train wreck. The armor and weapons in the TV series span about 400 years of technology, yet somehow they coexist in one continent; further, somehow there are massive cities based on an Exploration Age trading economy even though there's no consistent rule of law. And don't get me started on the entire basis for the world being face-palmingly idiotic: if there was no way to know how long any given winter would last (and someone plot the orbital mechanics of that one for me; I'll wait), civilization would collapse at the end of every autumn. Realistically, life would probably never evolve at all past bacteria and maybe some kind of moss.

So, go nuts. 98% of readers will never do the math.

Now, if you want to specifically cater to that 2% of readers who are going to do the math, well, good luck. I say this because that's my readership. Many of them are humorless, and many others are specifically out to prove that they're smarter than you and will hit you head-on at every point. Prepare yourself for a weekly barrage of long and rambling emails and DMs, and the occasional scathing review from a reader who thinks they understand how something works better than you do (even if, as in my case, I've done the thing myself).
If you're striving for parallels relatable to your readers to imply a time frame... it really depends where your alt-earth "was" technologically speaking before society and everything tanked into dystopia. Then, what technologies could be salvaged in a society with compromised resources and technical understanding? After that, what environmental factors impact those operations? And, how willing would they be to reverse-engineer 'rediscovered' or lost technologies?

I would break it down this way...
By the turn of the century, steam power was fairly well understood and exploited. The internal combustion engine was experimental, as was electricity. If something happened to skew to a dystopia at the timeline here, the resources and scientific prerequisite to manufacture steam engine and mechanics (metallurgy, foundries, machining, compression computations, etc) would likely be the technology to endure, simply by being the more ubiquitous and established of the three.

So, if you think in terms of the foundations of one technology becomming the stepping stone to the next, it can help you navigate the whereabouts when deviations might need to occur if catastrophe struck.

I think about human technology as a somewhat tangential but mostly linear progression...(I'm ommitting medical advances and biotechnology because that can vary wildly on cultural values and restrictions)

food preservation-agriculture-animal husbandry
wood-stone structural engineering
crude biofuels (beeswax, animal renderings)
Sanitation systems
Steam Combustion-turbines-combustion/compression engines
fuels: bio and petrol
Home refrigeration, food preservation, climate controls
electromagnetism-electricity-radiowaves/microwaves-sonar-radar-wired communications-full spectrum lightwaves
atomic periodic tables- chemistry- plastics-carbon *batteries
aeronautics/space exploration
transistors-electrical engineering-computers
wireless communications- space sattlelites (internet)

**I mentioned batteries twice because of the revolution of NiCad to Lithium-Ion. Primitive electrolitic batteries were discovered in the tombs of dead Pharaohs. There were other non-rechargeable battery chemicals throughout history, but I can't remember the solutions off hand. NiCads were in regular use by the Victorian-Edwardian Era because they were safer, but were huge, clunky and heavy. Lithium Ion batteries have played a huge role in portable technology, so much so that batteries will be likely be classified in the future like in terms of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Age, or B.LiOn.E.

Now, for example, the technology for what we know today as Television was developed back around 1929. So, some tech was invented and understood but not widely in use. Bluetooth was invented during WWII by Hedy Lamarr, long before the wireless internet was ever actualized. Primitive computers were well established, but not declassified.

So, as a thought exercise, I could picture an alt-world where everybody was using a bluetooth enabled radio based mobile phone, in lieu of cell towers and geosynchronous orbit sattlelites. Now, I'm not enough of a tech whiz to tell you if radio engineers from the 20s and 30s would have been able to make an equivalent to an iPhone by the 50s, if other vaccuum tube and transistor tech wasn't pursued instead. But, again, TV was invented in 1929. So... could they have engineered a wireless radio phone that was also a pocket-sized television? That's a fun question.

While consistency matters (unless there is a reason for something to be so out of sync with your "normal" technologies... like, a super computer charged by solar panels running off a battery bank talking to the last surviving sattlelite that is jealously guarded by a ruling class, while eveyone else uses radio phones...) if you can deductively navigate through a piecemealed set of technology in your mind, it will probably make sense for the reader.

There are always going to be the humorless and the ultra technical-critical. I don't think you're really trying to target them for your primary audience. But, I'm critical enough to ask questions that, if an author can offer an explanation for in some roundabout fashion, I'm basically ok with it all.

I don't want to oversimplify, but for me the biggest "tell" as to where your alt-earth was technologically before everything went to dystopian hell would be whether or not there was a ubiquitous use of multiple engineered plastics.
If there *was* industrial quantities of plastics, but now it's a scarcity and a precious resource worth mining from ancient landfills and dredging up from oceans, I can deduce that a lot of s%#t must have gone down. Namely, fossil fuels must have run out, or, mankind otherwise lost the ability to process crude oil into refined plastics. And, if bioplastics aren't in use, I can infer that food is too precious a resource to manufacture into non-edible products in spite of a plastics scarcity. And if plastics are done, and bioplastics, I can assume the internal combustion/compression engine has gone to the wayside, too.

You could write something as simple as "two sibling children digging around, discovering a plastic bottle wrapped in a plastic shopping bag. Secretively but joyously, running back home to show their parents. An intact bottle is easily a month's worth of food rations! Everybody will be so relieved to see what they found. The green bottles are worth more than the clear ones they found last year, maybe it'll be three months' worth of food rations! They couldn't wait to see the look on their parent's faces when they pulled their found treasure out of their leather backpack."

^If I read that, I would be deducing that the world had seriously gone to hell and some serious s#%t went down.

Also, I think that, without characters directly referencing to their own sensibilities of their own timescale, you can give your readers some credit to clue themselves in to what societal-technical level your WIP is framed in by the details you give them.

It might help to map out some thought experiments with the technological progression/regression of your WIP, with some tangents on "what if's". What if the electric grid went down for good as of today? Well, manufacturing would likely revert to steam powered devices. Solar and wind turbines could be manufactured by steam powered machines. And, personal communications would be radically impacted (back to rechargeable batteries). And night lighting and environmental controls (HVAC) would regress to turn of the century without major improvements in insular materials efficiency... etc.
The question and answer of "What of the grid went down today" is not the going to be even remotely the same as "What if the electrical grid went down during the Cold War?"

I think you can have a lot of fun mixing up technologies for your setting and should explore some odd combinations if you can. There are readers out there that appreciate a bit of research and some humorous juxtapositions. Well, as much humor as there can be in a dystopian setting.

I'd also let it unfold slowly as the story progresses. But remember it's not just the level of technology itself that matters. It's resources etc. So imagine you've got a society with the beginnings of electricity but no copper. No copper means no power lines. Or steam with no good supply of coal. Try running steam engines on lignite! Or just wood. And if irons in short supply, how good would a bronze steam engine be? Railway tracks? You could kill cannons off by having no sulphur.

Alternatively think of the other options to the technology you're wanting to bring in. For example how well would cars and trains have done if horses were far more powerful and quick in your world than they actually are.

Cheers, Greg.


toujours gai, archie
This is another case of it depends. First, why does the reader need to know about time period at all? There are any number of SF or fantasy stories that don't really imply any particular era. Maybe your story is one of those. I know you said dystopian, but that could mean any number of things. There are some good suggestions in this thread for addressing something "in the future after something really bad has happened." But then again, maybe that's not your story.

If the story is really focused on a character, then what's most important early on is that we learn about the character. Less so about the world. We could be several chapters in before we find out we're in a post-nuclear wasteland. OTOH, maybe the story is very much about the apocalyptic setting and how survivors deal with it, in which case you'd want to introduce those elements early.
First, why does the reader need to know about time period at all?

This is the point I would make too. If the time/date is not relevant to the story itself, it shouldn't become something for the reader to focus on. We've all likely read books where the date is placed as the lead in of every chapter and that works fine for me. Even if it is earth, in a distant or not so distant future, depending on the story, you can work it in subtly, weaving it throughout as you go. A news broadcast or pirate transmission, a banner announcing a festival in a small town, a sell by date on an old can of protein chunks found in the rubble. . . :)

Martin got the use of, or lack of, the calendar right I think. In a world where seasons last for years what would have been the impetus to put our own particular sort of value on the marking of passing months and years? The seasons dominate the passage of time there. Winter is coming.

But as for time's relevance to a character. . . I wish I could recall the place where I first read/heard them but there were some essays about day to day life in Japan immediately before and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Might have been in a National Geographic or Smithsonian years ago. These were first hand accounts of the upheaval and uncertainty the majority of Japanese citizens faced, even those far from the cities that were destroyed, given the limited information the general population had of the outside world and the war as it was actually unfolding. Fear, uncertainty, dread, anger. What I recall most of all was a common desire to just get back to some semblance of "normal". School, running water, power, going to work, transportation, farming etc. One woman from an outlying village spoke of marking her calendar days off with a charred piece of fire wood during the last weeks of the war because it was important for her to see that the days were passing just as they always had. To have that one constant remain in tact when many had no radio, no newspaper and no way of knowing what the next day would bring. That became a daily moment that no-one could take from her and it helped her to remain calm. To me, the most effective dystopian societies are the ones in which people strive to return to, or hold on to, normalcy while staring down/fighting against/escaping from the horror of whatever has happened within them. That desire seems to have been an integral part of the human will for survival all along.


Exceptional. All of you. Wish I could have responded earlier after reading all your replies, but was too under the weather. But thank you, one and all. Appreciate your advice and insight, greatly.