Could science fiction bring back the epistolary novel?

Illustration for article titled Could science fiction bring back the epistolary novel?

The epistolary novel was one of the greatest forms in literature. Popular during the 18th century, this form basically consisted of people writing long, long letters to each other, narrating their lives. One of the most famous epistolary novels of all time is Clarissa by Samuel Richardson — which many people consider one of the greatest novels in English.

Technological change killed the epistolary novel. Can more technological changes bring it back?

Top image: Star Wars "Rugosa" concept art, via Wookieepedia.

Update: On Twitter, Paul Weimer just pointed out that Dracula is one of the great epistolary novels, something I'd forgotten since it's been so long since I looked at it.


As far as I can tell, things like the telephone and the car wiped out the idea of a novel made up of long letters, between best friends who never meet in person. You can talk to your friends all the time, and you can visit each other much more easily than when different parts of England were like opposite sides of the world. Even different parts of the planet no longer feel as far apart as they once did.

And even if you primarily communicate via email (or Livejournal posts) these aren't formats where you can only send a letter once every few days, forcing you to write one long update. Part of what made the epistolary novel such addictive reading was the notion that you would catch up with each correspondent after a few days had passed, and everything (well, a few things) would be different. Often, each letter would begin with breathless declarations like, "So much has happened! I scarcely know where to begin," etc.

Every now and then people wonder if the epistolary novel will make a comeback, thanks to some new development in technology — like, for example, email. I remember reading about several attempts to write novels that consisted entirely of email conversations between people. In 2004, for example, Eric Brown wrote a "Digital Epistolary Novel" called Intimacies that consisted of emails and instant-message conversations, which you had to download special software to read. Around the same time, Lauren Myracle was writing young-adult novels that were entirely in the style of instant-message chats — books included ttyl, ttfn and l8r g8r. (One wonders what title she would have chosen if she'd gotten up to ten books and already run through kthxbai and brb got 2 pee.)


There have also been attempts at text-message novels, I'm pretty sure. And there have been Twitter novels, most notably Mayor Emanuel.


But I also feel safe in saying that the epistolary novel hasn't experienced a major comeback — and again, I'm going to blame that on the format. Classic epistolary novels were immersive, because writing letters was a big deal. People took their time reading and writing letters, and getting mail was a major event. None of this instant-gratification stuff. Also, when you read novels by people like Richardson, you're struck by the claustrophobia of these characters, who seldom get to go anywhere themselves. They're trapped in one place, with one situation they can't escape, and writing letters to a friend is literally the only freedom they have. The only privacy, too.

And like I said, there's nothing quite as immersive as a good epistolary novel, because the letters draw you into the fabric of someone's life and the gaps between letters create a space in the narrative for things to happen.


Back when Clarissa was being adapted for British television, one newspaper TV critic fretted that this was bound to be a dull TV show — since all it would be was people sitting at desks writing to each other. Somewhat missing the point that the action is actually what happens in between the letter-writing, and the letters merely describe the action.

So to work, the epistolary novel must be a slow conversation between two people who never see each other and can't communicate in a more interactive fashion. It's almost impossible to imagine how those circumstances could arise again. But then again, maybe science fiction could make it happen?


I can think of four different science fiction scenarios that could recreate the circumstances of the epistolary novel:

1) A long space voyage, with only intermittent communication with home. The more we're learning about space travel, the more I wonder: will we even be able to communicate across light years? At Worldcon, we heard from some hard science fiction writers who believe it'll be almost impossible to beam messages between star systems without the signal degrading. One could easily imagine a deep-space traveler who's only able to send written messages, and only once every week or so. And meanwhile, aboard the space capsule, they're trying to pressure her into marry the wrong man. (Well, maybe that part would be trickier to make believable.)


2) A post-apocalyptic world. Or even a world where energy is suddenly a lot more expensive, so we can't run server farms nonstop and jet around the world as easily. All you really need to bring back the epistolary novel is to imagine a world without fossil fuels, where we haven't figured out a cheap enough replacement. But it's possible that you might need an apocalypse to make this believable, too. In either case, there are plenty of near-future disaster scenarios that could make communication slower and harder.

3) Beaming messages across time. What if you could receive messages from the future, but only intermittently? Say, once in a while — and they might have to be carefully censored by the temporal non-interference guild before you got them. Text only, because images might reveal too much.


4) A post-Singularity world. Maybe after the Singularity, our brains will be so overclocked we'll be able to send a dozen paragraphs fo text as easily as we now send an emoticon? And there will be a huge revival of the practice of writing elaborate letters because we'll have so much spare brain power that we'll need an outlet?

In any case, I hope somebody finds a way to revive the epistolary novel. Even if they have to coin a new label with the suffix "-punk" in it. The epistolary novel is a uniquely compelling, charming form that relies on a basic paradox about people: the harder it is for us to communicate with each other, logistically and otherwise, the more that communication means.


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