The Changing Setting of Civilization

stories_of_the_past_and_future[1]I’m a big fan of the webcomic XKCD. Recently, Randall posted this comic showing the relationship of when a story was published vs how many years (forwards or backwards) the story is set. It’s might be a little puzzling at first, but let’s look at some examples to help us make sense of it. Take George Orwell’s 1984. It was published in 1949 and took place (to the best of the character’s knowledge) in 1984, some 35 years in the future from the date of publication. Now, you’ll notice the graph is split between the white “Still Possible” section and the gray “Obsolete” section. This delineation is according to present day (specifically, when the comic went live).

The bottom of the graph shows the same sort of information, only these are stories that were set in the past. OK, are we good so far?

A few more things I want to point out. On the far left in the gray zoned area we can see all of civilized history starting with the Neolithic revolution around 8,000BCE to present day, and on the far right is a kind of singularity of “stories written today, set today.” Then finally we should look at the line separating “set in the future” and “set in the past”. This line runs from when writing was invented to today.

So why am I dragging you through all of this? Because stories have settings, the where and when, which obviously can tell us about the author’s own time and place as well as his perceptions of the world. It’s a common thing to consider when studying an author. Stories like those of H.P. Lovecraft might take on a new dimension when considering that he was deeply racist, a common attribute of society in Lovecraft’s day. However, how often do we look at all the stories in this way at the same time? That’s what this graph from XKCD does, albeit with a just small sampling of stories to give us a feeling of novelty.

So what kinds of insights might we glean from a more comprehensive chart?

  • How comfortable people have been about setting stories in the future or past.
  • How people have gauged what “in the future” and “in the past” mean.
  • How discoveries about history have effected story settings.
  • How sociological revolutions have effected choosing a setting for a story.

Or, to sum up in a single point:

  • What humanity believed to be its horizons and how those beliefs have changed.

As a big history geek and storyteller, stuff like this is super exciting to think about because it’s putting into perspective what storytellers have been doing over the past 5,000-ish years. As civilization grows, so do our stories. We have more material to draw upon, more to invoke, and the results are all the more potent for it. Just like visual arts evolved from cave paintings to complex computer animations indistinguishable from reality, stories have evolved too. Except, as a lens through which the world is seen, stories encompass all aspects of humanity and the world humanity inhabits, the time and place, its setting.

What XKCD has shown us is a very small window into the growth of the soul of global civilization.
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