I’m really not nostalgic for the past.
The world I was born into had elevated racism to an art, didn’t believe that women could contribute anything of value to society, and the average US life expectancy was less than 70 years (66.6 for men; 73.10 for women). The poor were what we called dirt poor—without most amenities in their homes. (Now they may have ancient telephones and televisions, but not enough food—poverty and starvation seem to be a constant no matter what generation.) Computers filled an entire room, and only sf nutballs dreamed of going to the Moon.
However, now that I’m in my fifties, I’m beginning to understand how people can be nostalgic for their past. We spend our childhoods learning to navigate the world, and we think that world is set in stone. So that world is comfortable, even if it isn’t desirable.
What brought that home to me, besides another birthday, was the realization a few days ago that All The President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, a book that influenced my life, interests, and career choices, a book that actually changed the history of America, hit the bookstands forty years ago.
The media is rightly celebrating the Civil Rights Act, passed fifty years ago, but I don’t remember those debates. I do remember seeing the images of kids getting hit with hoses and chased by dogs in downtown Birmingham, but I don’t remember much else. I was too young.
I read All The President’s Men in my English class, hidden by the gaudy green and white cover of our stupid English textbook that I had read the first week of class. I read All The President’s Men in January of 1975, while multitasking and answering questions about Greek myths (which I had read as a precocious eight-year-old. Yes, I was one of those kids who was horribly bored in school).
The book, more than the movie, had a major impact on me. I read the book to understand the previous two years. An Andy Williams Christmas special in my twelfth year got interrupted with the news that Congress approved Gerald Ford as Vice President. I watched the Senate Watergate hearings during the summer of my thirteenth year, and then spent my fourteenth year trying to understand these adult concepts that led to the resignation of a President.
There was a feeling of might and right in the air, and a sense—at least to young me—that words could condemn a person (Nixon, hoisted on his own verbal petard), solve a real life mystery (Watergate) or elevate working writers (writers no one believed in) into heroes who could bring down corruption.
As a result, I became a journalist first, interested in truth (and not realizing there is no such thing). But fiction became my true calling over time, when I realized that the words which had changed my life and influenced my dreams were all in service of a story.
That world of my childhood and teenage years, while confusing to every adult around me, was understandable to me. It was normal because it was the world that raised me.
To celebrate a birthday or the last day of school or the fact that it was Friday, I would go to a movie with friends. The theater was a magical place, filled with far-off vistas and fantastic worlds. I saw Star Wars with a dozen friends in a theater that someone (not me) had to drive to at a very glamorous brand new mall at the top of the hill in Duluth, Minnesota. Afterwards, we went out for pizza, and the night was very, very special. So special, I can still taste that pizza, nearly forty years later.
Fast forward to now. (Or slow forward, because forty years takes a lot of time . . . weirdly enough.)
I went to movies on my most recent birthday. I chose the films carefully because they had to be films that worked better on the big screen.
I know for a fact that the theater we went to (at a dying mall in Salem, Oregon) was a lot more comfortable than the theater I had gone to as a teenager, but the Oregon theater seemed less comfortable. It wasn’t as nice as my couch at home, with the big screen the proper distance across the room, the sound system set to my preferred loudness, and a remote that would allow me to pause the film when I needed a pee break or more popcorn.
It was nice to see the films, but not special. Special is harder now. So much is available at the touch of a fingertip that doing something unusual seems . . . oddly enough . . . almost out of reach.
Yet this world is so much better than the world of my youth. My nieces and nephews, born in this decade, have a life expectancy of about 80 years. Only throwbacks care what race these kids are (if anyone can tell, because so many kids are mixed race). Many women are still fighting for our place at the table, but a lot of great women have already joined the group at the table and are now holding positions of power.
We have a space station in orbit. We’ve been to the Moon enough that some people consider it passé. And now sf nutballs turn our attention to the entire galaxy rather than our tiny solar system.
Somehow journalists turned themselves from superheroes to idols with feet of clay (mouths of mush?), and I’m not sure any modern teenager believes that words can change the world.
But you know what? I don’t know what teenagers believe. Because the years skate by for me. I don’t examine them minutely like I did when I was a teen. I’m rather stunned that I’ve been married over twenty years (to my second husband), that my Clarion writers workshop class will have ended thirty years ago (next summer), and that I have known my closest friends longer than a lot of people who read this have been alive.
I’m just beginning to understand the vast sweep of history—and how vast that sweep is, how influential the people who comprise a generation are, and how when those people die, a sense of a certain time period gets lost. No history book, no matter how detailed, will capture the sense of the time period that those who lived through it knew intimately.
I actually think that science fiction rarely gets this part of future history right, maybe because so many of us wrote sf when we were young and had no concept of the different ways people of different generations view the same event. I’m finding more and more that the future history, generation-spanning novels don’t interest me, but the stories that look at a single (future) period do.
I think that’s why the science fiction that’s the most memorable deals with adventures and single moments and individual characters rather than sweeping arcs.
For fiction to last, it needs to speak to all generations, not just the ones that were alive when the fiction was written, but also to people who are older, people who are younger, and people who have yet to be born.
Tall order. Impossible in most cases, since we’re talking about pieces of entertainment.
I’ve always known that about fiction.
But that All The President’s Men jolt made me realize it’s a tall order not just of fiction, but of nonfiction, and historical moments (or reality, as we would have called it then).
What seems good and certain and absolute isn’t, not because opinions change or because someone disagrees, but because the passage of time makes it all irrelevant.
And it’s up to the fiction writer—the storyteller—to make the past (or the future) relevant again.
It’s not nostalgia per se to look at the past with a dispassionate but understanding eye. It’s something else, something we don’t have a word for in English.
Maybe we don’t because the concept is too complex to encompass in a single word.
So, I stand by what I said. I’m not nostalgic for the past, but sometimes I miss that sense of understanding I had when I was younger, when I believed the world was set in stone. It’s odd to see how different the world is now, and how easily the world of my youth has vanished into something impossible for anyone but those of us who lived it to understand.