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April 12, 2003

Historian of things that never were
Posted by Teresa at 03:32 PM *

Edgar Governo is a historian of a very pure and particular sort: he collects fictional timelines. As he explains, he’s also interested in history proper; but “Gleaning knowledge from a past that never existed—or a future, for that matter—is simply so much more sublime. That is what this site is all about.”

He has extensive descriptive links to 79 timelines for television shows, 25 for movies, 83 for books, 23 for games, and 63 for comics. There are all the timelines you could have predicted would exist: Sherlock Holmes, J.R.R. Tolkien, Patrick O’Brian, Robert Jordan, Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, Babylon 5, Buffy, etc. It’s equally inevitable that fans have compiled over two dozen timelines for DC’s multiply replaited continuity, including Earth-2, -2.5, -3, -4, -5, -12, -17, -18, -238, -1278, -A, -C, -K, -S, and -X. (There are far fewer attempts to sort out the Marvel universe. I think Marvel fans have simply given up.)

There are some odd gaps—apparently no one’s compiled timelines for The Sopranos, the three Godfather movies, or Pulp Fiction—and some odder non-gaps. I wouldn’t have expected there’d be two timelines for Friday the 13th (one of which Governo calls “surprisingly rational”), or an extensive discussion of the pre-show back history of Bonanza, or one covering the four “Minervan Experiment” novels by James P. Hogan. Nor, for that matter, that there’d be a timeline for the Muffy Birnbaum stories.

I think what we’re seeing is the operation of a particular turn of mind, like the ones that make you a copyeditor or a bibliographer. I think some readers automatically keep track of the implicit and explicit chronology. The reason I think it’s a turn of mind (as opposed to a meme, habit, or fannish enthusiasm) is that they can’t shut it off, even when it’s obvious that a narrative’s chronology is being driven by the needs of a sloppily contrived ongoing plot, rather than any underlying plan or logic. I’m fairly certain that in a couple of cases, the fans who’ve put the timeline together have given the subject far more thought than the author ever did.

I’m also struck by the aspect of timeline compilation as a reconstruction of the author’s working notes. When I’m teaching expository theory to young writers, I always tell them yes, you should figure out your world’s geography, history, economy, climate, material culture, religion, and quaint social customs; and then you should leave 98% of it out of the story. If you do, the 2% you mention will feel solid and accurate to your readers, but it won’t overtax their patience by making them remember details they don’t yet care about. Fiction should not make you feel like you’re studying for the test.

I assure you, it’s excellent advice. But what do we have here? Fans of the work trying to recreate all that information the author justly left out!

There’s the paradox of it: A lively, fast-moving story can so engage the audience’s imagination that they’ll go to all the work of reconstructing the background notes; but if that same information had been left lying around underfoot on the surface of the page, slowing and encumbering the narrative, the readers wouldn’t have cared enough about the story to go on reading. (via Morfablog)

Comments on Historian of things that never were:
#1 ::: Lisa ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2003, 04:25 PM:

>I assure you, it?s excellent advice. But what do we have >here? Fans of the work trying to recreate all that >information the author justly left out!

It occurs to me that I've spent an inordinate amount of my time in graduate school either doing similar re-construction, or studying the efforts of others to perform such re-constructions . . .

#3 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2003, 05:50 PM:

I was already familiar with the efforts of the Baker Street Irregulars and their associates (a West Coast link) but Bonanza? Living near the Sierra I couldn't resist and just wast^^H^H^H^H spent an hour digging through that ingenious timeline -- and I haven't seen a Bonanza episode since the 60's . . .

#4 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2003, 08:53 PM:

Thanks so much for this handy page. I wandered immediately into the timeline for Elric (I re-read most of Elric a year or so ago and decided Elric was the adolescent of the fantasy world -- all that whining and angst and nobody understands him) and the next thing I knew it was, um later. I will have to check out the Tolkien timeline of course, but later...

MKK

#5 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2003, 01:08 AM:

Here's another. Alberto Monteiro's frighteningly comprehensive SF&F timelines for works by Lovecraft, Adams, Brin, Heinlein, and Tolkien:

http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Corridor/8611/index.html

#6 ::: Marc L. ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2003, 02:07 PM:

Pulp Fiction Timeline: I remember seeing one of these in the New Yorker. It was a hand-drawn flow chart showing how all the events of the film were linked. It may have been part of a cartoon.

#7 ::: Ray ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2003, 07:22 PM:

I suppose I really should publish my "Dhalgren" one someday.....

#8 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2003, 08:26 PM:

The "West Wing" timeline presented here is good. But it's a timeline of the major characters' lives. I'd like to see a history of the United States in "The West Wing." The differences go way back -- for starters, their presidential elections are two years offset from ours.

#9 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2003, 08:26 PM:

The "West Wing" timeline presented here is good. But it's a timeline of the major characters' lives. I'd like to see a history of the United States in "The West Wing." The differences go way back -- for starters, their presidential elections are two years offset from ours.

#10 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2003, 08:26 PM:

The "West Wing" timeline presented here is good. But it's a timeline of the major characters' lives. I'd like to see a history of the United States in "The West Wing." The differences go way back -- for starters, their presidential elections are two years offset from ours.

#11 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2003, 08:26 PM:

The "West Wing" timeline presented here is good. But it's a timeline of the major characters' lives. I'd like to see a history of the United States in "The West Wing." The differences go way back -- for starters, their presidential elections are two years offset from ours.

#12 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2003, 08:27 PM:

Oh, bloody hell, I apologize. It seems three Mitch Wagners from alternate universes posted their thoughts here at exactly the same time I did. They also drank all the beer.

#13 ::: Stephanie ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2003, 10:18 AM:

The Invisible Library consists of books that exist only in other books -- the Orange Catholic Bible, etc.

#14 ::: Navah ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2003, 12:57 PM:

Thanks! This is a wonderful resource, especially for someone like me who likes to know how things fit together.

#15 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2003, 02:20 PM:

When I92m teaching expository theory to young writers, I always tell them yes, you should figure out your world92s geography, history, economy, climate, material culture, religion, and quaint social customs; and then you should leave 98% of it out of the story. If you do, the 2% you mention will feel solid and accurate to your readers, but it won92t overtax their patience by making them remember details they don92t yet care about. Fiction should not make you feel like you92re studying for the test.

May I quote this, appropriately cited, in my upcoming presentation on editorial conventions and considerations in speculative fiction? Please?

#16 ::: Bill Higgins ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2003, 04:53 PM:

TNH writes: "There92s the paradox of it: A lively, fast-moving story can so engage the audience92s imagination that they92ll go to all the work of reconstructing the background notes; but if that same information had been left lying around underfoot on the surface of the page, slowing and encumbering the narrative, the readers wouldn92t have cared enough about the story to go on reading."

Maybe I've worked on too many convention programs, but my first reaction to this was "Egad! A panel topic!"

#17 ::: Emmet ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2003, 04:27 PM:

May I just point timeline completists at

http://www.pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/Pulp.htm

and pages linked therefrom, which speaks for itself well enough that little more can be said.

#18 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2003, 06:48 PM:

Sure, Jennie. Just tell them I said it.

Feel free to add that the name of the workshop is Viable Paradise, it's held on Martha's Vineyard in the fall, and I teach exposition.

#19 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2003, 06:50 PM:

Feel free to draft me any time, Bill. Steve Brust is good for that one. So's Maureen McHugh.

#20 ::: Edgar Governo ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2003, 09:16 PM:

Thank you very much for mentioning my site on your own, and for putting so much thought into the ideas which underlie it...I've certainly apppreciated all the traffic and feedback I've received as a result of this entry!

I absolutely agree with this thought of yours:

I think what we92re seeing is the operation of a particular turn of mind, like the ones that make you a copyeditor or a bibliographer. I think some readers automatically keep track of the implicit and explicit chronology. The reason I think it92s a turn of mind (as opposed to a meme, habit, or fannish enthusiasm) is that they can92t shut it off, even when it92s obvious that a narrative92s chronology is being driven by the needs of a sloppily contrived ongoing plot, rather than any underlying plan or logic.

For someone like myself, there's never been a way to shut it off at all. This is the turn of mind that has complled me to put together chronologies ever since I was a child, doing things like figuring out the year when The Handmaid's Tale should take place...

...and of course, it's what inspired me to create my website in the first place. I just knew there had to be other people like myself out there, who would appreciate the existence of a repository like this. (Entries like yours, and the comments here, happily vindicate this belief.)

More than just wanting to "reconstruct the author's working notes," though, I think people with this turn of mind (especially when they're fans of a work, but not only then) have a need for their fiction to have at least as much historical, geographic, and other consistency as the real world does. It goes beyond wanting to infer the world that lies within an ongoing plot--we need it to be a world in the first place, capable of inference.

On that note, I invite any recommendations for worlds not mentioned in this article that you'd like to see timelines for...I'm sure I can hunt some of those down, or at least include the recommendations on my site.

As for panel topics, I'm already planning to run a panel at this year's Worldcon on precisely this subject matter, so if you or anyone else are going to attend and would like to be drafted, I'd be more than happy to have you.

#21 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2003, 08:16 PM:

I haven't read "The Handmaid's Tale," but I've read that it would fit nicely into the world of Robert A. Heinlein's "Revolt in 2100."

#22 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2003, 08:18 PM:

Edgar Governo - So what year DOES "The Handmaid's Tale" take place in?

#23 ::: Kate Worley ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2003, 12:54 AM:

I was always glad that we did a set of trading cards for OMAHA...I'm currently working on a synopsis for a possible novelization, and I'd be lost without those particular bits and pieces coming easily to hand.

You are absolutely right about fans giving the subject more thought than the authors do, in some cases (I am reminded of the New Zealand fan who actually counted panels and calculated the percentage of sexual content in the book). We always found this particularly true in the anthropomorphic field. In transferring those aspects to another medium, I'm finding great fun in making them as invisible as possible. Heck, this bird flies, I'll do a radio script!

#24 ::: Edgar Governo ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2003, 12:14 AM:

First, to answer Mitch Wagner's question:

Well, originally, I'd determined that--based on the days of the week in the book (especially the date for Labour Day) and Offred's memories of being a child in what seemed to be the 1980's--the book should take place in 2014, with the 33-year-old Offred being born in 1981.

Some time later, though, I noticed that the days of the week are virtually the same in 2008 (except for it being a leap year, which doesn't affect the sources used). As such, you can also have it take place then, with Offred being born in 1975, although I think that makes her a little too old to have such vague memories of the US pre-Gilead.

The Epilogue, of course, which looks back on the events of the book from further in the future, has specific date references (the academic conference therein is occurring in 2190, IIRC), making chronological conjecture for that part unnecessary.

Personally, I don't think it would fit particularly well with Heinlein.

How's that? :)

Second, to address Kate Worley's points:

My concern is chiefly with internal historical continuity, and not so much with "how much x appears in y" (although I know people who do that, too :)). As such, I haven't found too much difference between fields or genres...once you have that frame of mind, you just apply it to everything. :)

The real question, though, is whether there might be an Omaha the Cat Dancer Timeline around that you'd be willing to put online... ;)

#25 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: May 20, 2003, 03:44 PM:

I really wanted to see the Patrick O'Brian timeline--too bad the link is busted--because while I love the Aubrey/Maturin books, it seems moderately plain that the author didn't care much about a coherent timeline--the War of 1812 seems to take about 15 years . . . O'Brian himself acknowledged this in a forward to The Far Side of the World

#26 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2003, 12:22 PM:

rea - So the War of 1812 in the Aubrey/Maturin books lasts as long as the Korean War in the TV series "M*A*S*H"?

#27 ::: Edgar Governo ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2003, 05:24 PM:

The link to the Patrick O'Brian timeline which rea mentioned has since been fixed--as well as having a link to another timeline of Jack Aubrey's Career added. :)

#28 ::: liz ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2003, 07:22 AM:

what do you mean about the things that you have got on this

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