Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Yippe-Ki-Ay, Futurians

Vintage Season reminds me of "Die Hard"
How many times have you seen or read this story?  Time travelers arrive in a time just prior to a world-shaking disaster and either take in the sights or have a goal to accomplish before the end of the world.  It’s a template built to appeal.  The need to wrap everything up before the expected disaster strikes adds a literal deadline that’s no less dramatic, but a little more subtle, than the blinking red numbers of a digital clock ticking down to the detonation of a bomb.

It’s such a natural and accessible framing device for a story it’s hard to know where to begin listing examples.  The film Twelve Monkeys is a classic of the breed.  That most famous of time-travelers, Doctor Who, runs with a variation on the disaster tourist theme at least once every other season. 

It’s such a classic of the genre, it’s a simple matter for those steeped in science-fiction to unravel the mystery of the strangers who arrive on Oliver’s doorstep early in the story.  We smug twenty-first century types might be forgiven for knowing the answer to a mystery we’ve solved a dozen times before, and in the hands of a lesser writer Vintage Season might feel like the most clichéd example of the disaster tourist tale.  But Moore manages to pack so much into the story that this first example feels as fresh and unique as it must have the day she first crafted the template.  Aside from the mystery that arises from the story’s native time point-of-view character, Moore packs in a love story, the politics of the squabbling future-folks, and enough hints to fully flesh out the future timeline.  It’s a lot to take in.

One of the natural theories as to the identity of the odd Sancisco family that the reader might develop is that they are aliens.  While that idea is explicitly denied by the Sanciscos themselves, it holds true for a certain understanding of the term, “alien”.  The Sanciscos might be human, but the future is no less a foreign country than the past, and almost everything about the family is alien.  Yes, the trappings are strange and near indecipherable.  The music in the future is cacophonous to the ears of the past. (Speaking as an old man, I can attest to the veracity of that!)  The adult beverages are more potent. Their dress is always Hollywood perfect at all moments.  The decorations glow and shift about in designs strange to the eyes of the past.  But these are all just window dressing.

The Sanciscos themselves look and behave as humans on a holiday, but Moore includes a number of subtle impressions about how strange these folk truly are:

There was a coldness in the man’s voice, as if some gulf lay between him and Oliver, so deep no feeling of human contact could ever bridge it.

Their reactions to everything about them, even something as simple as a salad, the way slovenliness is trained out of them as children, even Kleph’s odd style of flirtatiousness, rings of alien ways of thinking.  Moore is relentless in bombarding the reader with constant allusions and reminders that Oliver’s boarders aren’t just wealthy and strong-willed, they are almost indecipherably different to the point of ominousness.  Hardly a paragraph goes by featuring one of the Sanciscos that doesn’t impress on the reader a feeling of impending but indescribable doom.

Where most works that utilize the Moore template are written from the smug omniscience of the future-folk (the film Millenium notwithstanding), Moore’s decision to write the story from the point of view of the doomed natives gives Vintage Season an impact that’s hard to beat.  Know Vesuvius is about to erupt, or that the Titanic should slow down a little, or that today would be a good day to skip that meeting at the World Trade Center, it becomes just a ticking clock.  When you know something is going to happen at the end of May, but not what, it leaves the mind free to fill in the gaps.  And the fact that time-travelers would choose this one, of all the disasters at their fingertips, only serves to enhance the imagination.  The monster vaguely glimpsed is always worse than the monster clearly shown.

We future folk to Moore’s life in the foreign country of the past have enough exposure to media in its various forms to come to take for granted that as times evolve, the classics of a story-type become imitated so often that the genius behind the originator is often forgotten.  Who can forget the raft of Die Hard on an X, movies that followed in that classic’s wake?  Those pale imitations generally fall short – any imitator who surpasses the original quickly becomes the new standard by which the followers are judged.  That’s simply not the case with Vintage Season.  Moore’s deft touch, expertise with romantic sub-plots, and the breezy sense of impending doom that underlies the story make this an unsurpassed classic.  Vintage Season stands as an example of a story type that is often imitated, but never surpassed.  Just like Die Hard.

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