The Unities

Kage Baker had a  vast superstitious respect for the Aristotelian unities. Those are the classic precepts of how to tell a story, derived from The Poetics of Aristotle (whose did you expect?). These are the unities of action, place and time:

1)  Action: a story or play should have one main plot line and few or no subplots;

2) Place: it should take place in one location and the action should not travel;

3) Time: the action should take place in no more than 24 hours.

This is how you write a perfect story. Kage said they sounded like the recipe for a sitcom.

But she knew about them, and she ritually applied them to everything she wrote. Then she tossed them out. In fact, Aristotelian  unities have mostly been observed in the breach over the years, especially since Shakespeare’s  success. The Bard of Avon is now honored as the best writer in the English language, but in his own time, he was something even more amazing: an actor and playwright who died rich. Willy ignored the unities constantly, to the indignation of several of his contemporary critics, who could not understand how the work of someone so ineducate and careless kept drawing crowds and making money. But the lesson was not lost on the writers who have come afterward.

Dickens, who sits on Shakespeare’s right hand in most pantheons, knew perfectly well what the unities were, and ignored them. He even made considerable fun of them in a passage in Nicholas Nickleby, wherein a literary scholar (neither an actor nor a writer) solemnly explains how Shakespeare is wrong, all wrong, because he does not observe the unities. He also demonstrates his own special theory, that the meaning of Shakespeare can be completely altered by merely changing the punctuation … try this at home, kids! The results are hysterical. As was Kage the first time she read this passage.

It was obvious, from what Kage said about her past as a nuts-and-bolts, gaffer’s-tape medievalist, that she was familiar with the unities. If you also read what she wrote, she clearly wasn’t observing them. Never a Con went by without someone fresh from an English class pointing this out to her – sometimes with amusement, but more often genuinely annoyed. What makes a 20-something from the 21st century take umbrage with a science fiction writer not employing the unities? Pedantry apparently is unaffected by the passage of time.

At first, feeling obligated to the readers, Kage would explain that modern fiction had different requirements from classical Greek plays. She would explain that modern audiences don’t actually follow the action well when a novel is split into 24-hour segments all published separately (an idea that was, to her astonishment, seriously considered by her critics). She would cite long lists of books much better and more famous than her own that nonetheless ignored the unities as much as hers did. Didn’t matter. Dickens’ nitpicker was evidently an immortal archetype; down the years he has fissioned like any other bacterium, and his descendants come to all science fiction conventions.

As her story evolved and her patience waned, Kage simply refused to argue. She told the unities freaks that she was writing about time travel, and so The Poetics were irrelevant.  She developed a theory of temporal homogeneity: all time was actually simultaneous, she said. Not only did everything happen that possibly could, it was all happening NOW. Our view of time’s linearity is a mere artifact of our sensory organs – it only appears to flow past us because we are facing into its stream. Time’s arrow is like the pointer on a roulette wheel, and we are standing on black while it is always pointing to red.

Did she believe this? Sometimes. Eventually. She did once and may have again … but she could tell this story oh, so convincingly, in a carefully bounded moment that perfectly adhered to the unities. And her auditor always believed her.

I choose to believe it, too. Somewhere,we have gone early to the Hollywood Bowl for the Tchaikovsky Spectacular tonight. We’ve spent the afternoon making 4 dozen egg rolls by hand; we have 2 bottles of cheap red wine and 2 or 3 snuggly gentlemen. The night will be perfect. There we are, and it is Now. and Always.

Tomorrow: what the vintners drink

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply