Kage Baker did not believe in Once upon a time.
If it happened once, it will happen again, was her reasoning. The motion of the Universe is repetition and reiteration. Whether you think that motion is an endless expansion and the place is doomed to become one vast, chilly, empty room; or you think the Universe will take a deep breath when it hits its limits and re-coalesce into a new Cosmic Egg – either way, it goes through the same smaller cycles over and over and over. And if you do happen to prefer the “breathing in and out” model (which is more cheerful, with its implied phoenix lifestyle), there is also that enormous overarching repeat each time the walls of the Universe close in.
Life becomes a light show with a BANG! at either end. Kage liked that idea.
She also did not care for Once upon a time as a story lead-in. She felt it cheated the auditor.
First, it was a cheat because it deliberately obscured the basic boundaries of the story – it set “Anywhere, anywhen” as the frame. Kage felt the audience deserved better directions than that – in her own fantasy books, she deliberately dumped the reader straight into the world at hand; she trusted them to figure out it was a world to which they could relate, with a story they could understand.
Second, it was a cheat because those very stories that most needed a clear compass rose in the margin – i.e., fairy tales – used it the most. Just when you needed to know for sure where you were, you couldn’t. Kage didn’t want her readers to have to spend so much time figuring out where was North, how many moons there were and which way was up – she wanted them to hear and see the story, not the stage directions. So she usually made them simple and quick, and trusted her readers to know that unless she specified otherwise, her characters were breathing air, walking on the ground and wearing bodies.
When they weren’t, of course, she tried to make that plain. But only when she thought it mattered. It wasn’t a lot of foreign (and, incidentally, made-up) words that set an alien scene; in Kage’s opinion, it was a scene that pretty well went along as it might in the readers’ ordinary day: until it abruptly didn’t. We’ve all had to deal with ants in the kitchen, mice in the walls, raccoons on the roof – where it gets interestingly freaky is where the hero has to deal with dragons in the eaves.
Everyone has had to deal with land developers, rental offices and HOAs – and Kage figured they were all pretty much Minions of Evil anyway. So in her fantasy world, the misty sacred place is menaced by a real estate office, and it’s the Dark Lord who’s working to save it: by buying it up and making it a nature reserve.
This is where Once upon a time fails. You need to connect the story to the reader; you need to connect your world to theirs. As Kage was fond of pointing out, even starships need bathrooms. Eventually.
It’s the throwaways that really made the world memorable, she felt. She made chocolate a drug – as indeed it is, being of the venerable and ancient plant alkaloid family. Kage just tweaked its effects a little for her Operatives. And as far as I can see, that became one of their favourite attributes with the readers. Demons are renowned in stories for odd and often unpleasant habits: Kage made them prone to OCD, which might result in an urge to eat left ears, but might just as well lead to collecting fine china.
You can distract vampires or the Devil with a handful of millet seeds, she mused while designing demons. That sounds compulsive to me!
Last of all, Kage felt that Once upon a time was used far too often, to describe quite mundane things.
There are all sorts of flat-out miraculous things that have happened once. And only once. And the world we know would not exist if they had happened any other way.
Let us return to the birth of the Universe. Again, whether you hold to one model or the other, you only get ONE Big Bang per Universe. While it comforted Kage to imagine the entire thing falling back in on itself to form a new Singularity – well, by its very definition, a Singularity is … singular. Once upon a time – It happened. Once. The next Universe may happen because of the last once collapsing; the Bang, the expansion and the Singularity might repeat, but it’s only once in the life of each Universe.
Theoretically, each snowflake is unique. So is each human being. There’s lots of good fodder for self-esteem philosophies there, if you believe it. At the least, it might prevent people from getting treated like identical units. Once upon a time, nothing like the child born this morning had ever existed before. Pretty cool.
Once upon a time, a large cell engulfed a smaller cell. Or maybe a smaller one penetrated a larger; eating was still pretty new, and sex hadn’t been invented yet. But what we are pretty damned sure of, 3 and half billion years later, is that this ONE time, the two cells struck a balance. They cooperated. They formed a new kind of life. The unique footprints of that one single act of unnatural (at the time) union are still plain and clear in every cell of our bodies. And every cell of everything else’s bodies, too, who have any claim to the exalted high Domain of eukaryotic cells.
And this doesn’t even touch on the greater still Once upon a time that probably started life in the first place.
Once. Once. Once upon a time. The things happened that produced birds, and cats, and primroses, and mantis shrimp, and algae, and Yersina pestis bacteria, and wombats, and barley, and human beings. That’s too big to waste on glass slippers and eating disorders, don’t you think?
Kage did. And so do I.
Somehow you and your sisters manage to view the mundane with new eyes. I am ever-astonished.
Oh, but I LOVED hearing the phrase “Once upon a time.” In fact, I still do. To me, it meant and still means …story! Not all stories, but a particular kind of story. A ritual more than a meaningful phrase, but it always signaled ‘story,’ and was the cue to snuggle in, listen, and be prepared for transportation to someplace marvellous that existed only in the words of the storyteller and the listener. It still sounds delicious to my ears. I also loved “Long long ago and far far away,” as well as the more newly-acquired “There was, and there was not.” None of these phrases make empirical sense, but they always always meant ‘story.’ Even today, when I hear those words, I automatically stop to listen to what comes next.