The Pros and Cons of a Macro Timescale
Most fantasy and science fiction series tend to be, by their very nature, large in scope. We expect stories about the fate of worlds, the rise and fall of empires, and history in the making. A book might still focus on a character’s personal, small-scale struggle, but it’s rare the focus will only be on that. The key conflict usually expands to include a whole kingdom, world, galaxy or universe.
However, most SFF books still focus on a critical period in a world’s history – a slice the length of one lifetime or less. Important events might have occurred in the past (and we may even jump back to explore these in flashbacks or a prequel) but for the most part, we follow one character, or one set of characters, as they struggle through their epic journeys to reach a historic outcome.
That said, some series dare to go even broader – expanding their scope not only on the spatial and political scale, but on the time scale, setting the events of their story over a time period that encompasses multiple lifetimes. Series like Foundation, The Dragonriders of Pern, and Malazan Book of the Fallen are prime examples of this.
Working on a longer timescale can have disadvantages, but also unique benefits:
THE CONS OF A MACRO TIME SCALE
There’s a good reason series don’t usually pull their field of focus out too far beyond the lifespans of their characters: readers get attached. We like to have a personal journey to follow, and to feel that journey is a vital and unique one. A large time scale means with each new book – or sometimes even each new segment of a book – we have to get to know new characters. I’m sure many readers have experienced the disappointment of discovering their favourite character is not in a sequel.
With a series like Asimov’s Foundation, in each book we must get to know several characters living hundreds of years apart. It’s a testament to the strength of the concept, and to the way the challenges faced by each different cast of people still contribute toward an overarching goal, that it still manages to be a compelling story.
The other potential pitfall of a large timescale is that it often adds complexity. The Malazan Book of the Fallen has been known to intimidate new readers with its sheer scope – one that encompasses a burgeoning cast of characters, multiple continents, and thousands of years. It has nonetheless garnered many loyal fans, no doubt because readers who invest in it are ultimately rewarded with an intricately-crafted world and story. Still, it takes a skilled authorial hand to weave a tale of that size, and attempting such an endeavor is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Time Travel Paradoxes
Many fantasy and sci-fi stories that play out over long time periods involve time travel, sometimes solving the previously mentioned issue of character continuity by jettisoning heroes hundreds of years into the future or past. This can be thrilling, but it brings with it a minefield of potential paradoxes, contradictions and confusions. Some readers will pick these apart and cry, “implausible!” and others will simply accept and enjoy. While a key strength of the Dragonriders of Pern series is its scope and its creative use of time travel, some readers will take issue with perceived flaws in logic.
THE PROS OF A MACRO TIME SCALE
A scope that encompasses centuries or even millennia can imbue a work with a unique sense of awe and wonder. To read a tale that spans dozens or even hundreds of lifetimes – that weaves a grand interconnected dance over the pages of history to a final epic conclusion – is quite something. The story feels larger and more important than one person or one lifetime, and can give meaning to the random permutations of life, history, and the universe.
One of the many strengths of Hyperion Cantos is the sense of grandeur its timescale creates. The lifetimes of its characters are abnormally lengthened through interstellar travel, manipulations of time, bestowal of immortality, digitization, and even cloning, so that together their experiences weave a tale that spans many centuries. It tells the story of the expansion and collapse of human society in the universe, and even explores the idea of creating a god. I’d argue the timescales of Foundation and Dragonriders of Pern have a similar wonder-generating effect.
Just as this can be a potential con, it can also be a pro. While complexity can be a nightmare for an author, and can intimidate some, if it’s done well it can also draw many readers in and inspire a deep respect and appreciation for a story. A rich, complex story that encompasses multiple lifetimes can excite and enthrall, especially as readers see the dots connecting over the span of hundreds or even thousands of years.
A Unique Quality
A well-told tale that takes place over a long timeline will often be a memorable, stand-out one – not only because such stories aren’t common, but because they are relatively unique to the genres of fantasy and science fiction. With the exception of perhaps historical fiction, few other genres offer the opportunity to tell stories on this scale – stories that not only involve an entire world, but many centuries of history and many lifetimes.
WEIGHING IT UP
The cons above are probably why we don’t see many stories that play out over multiple lifetimes – either because the potential pitfalls mean that authors rarely tackle them, or if they do, rarely pull them off. I know I would be intimidated to attempt such a large-scale story. But the pros mean that, if done well, these kinds of stories can be particularly impressive, unique and memorable. They can instill an epic sense of history, complexity and grandeur, make us feel we are stepping back to gaze at a bigger picture, and dish out an extra-large dose of the wonder we speculative fiction fans love.