How Important is a Back Story, Really?

My novel – which I am currently editing – has gone through so many changes. It is about a medieval society in our future, one where technology has been demonised and outlawed, declared “heresy” by a new church. I began it eleven years ago very much with 9/11 in mind. I predicted as a reaction against militant Islam, that Christians would become far more strident and demanding. Initially, it was to be resurgent Catholic church, seizing power after a nuclear war some time in the early 21st century.

I soon abandoned this idea of a militant Catholicism and invent a new church. I could invent a whole new Testament and a figurehead around whom it would be written without concerns about criticisms from modern Catholics saying “doctrine would never be changed to say that.”

Besides which, inventing a new church permitted the Catholic Church – often one of history’s most horrendous oppressors – to become the oppressed. In this world, Catholics could live in fear of their lives and Test Acts would be the norm. Eventually I would decide that this new church was a splinter group of the Anglican Communion because some of the more conservative elements of that church still have clear anti-Catholic sentiments.

But how did we get here? What would lead humanity to abandon technology and the pursuit of it? It had to be a major catastrophe. At first I played with the idea of a plague and the new church (maybe) manufacturing the notion that it had been created by humans therefore pursuit of technology = evil. With few people able to repair what was there, much less develop new technology, we simply slipped back and back to what was simple.

Something about that didn’t quite fit though so I came up with the concept of a nuclear war some time in the early 21st century. I was never totally happy with it but it felt like a “best fit”. Billions could potentially die in the first exchanges and later on in the fallout. I imagined – and then later committed into text – that it was North Korea and the USA. The problem is that I could not see Europe being unaffected. I was never happy with the idea that nuclear war would break around 2050 because in this day and age feels pretty remote. But this week I had a revelation…

What if Kennedy had been signing the order to launch?

What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone the other way? What if instead of the warming of relations in the 1960s between Krushchev and Kennedy, we had had obliteration? What if the eastern bloc countries rose up against Soviet control (which at this point had only been in place a few years anyway). What if Europe simply said “you’re on your own, we’re sitting this one out” as we had in Vietnam?

As it stands now, this feels far more of a logical path. Obviously, I do not need to give a full explanation except making it clear that this is a world where those 14 days ended badly. The back story of this church is now that its founder was a prominent anti-nuclear campaigner while an Anglican Bishop and on the eve of the war, left the church because they refused to speak out against the madness. With sympathisers in the pulpits and the pews, the new church he founded established quickly and as the USA and USSR launched their first missiles, his anti-technology views took hold.

Though I do not want to focus on it too much (after all, the the novel is set 500 years later and this is not an alternate history novel) I felt it important to have a plausible back story. Any thoughts on this are welcome.

2 thoughts on “How Important is a Back Story, Really?

  1. tmso

    Oooh, I like that – primarily because it could have easily happened the other way around. I think you should run with it. :)

    1. Yes, the more I think about it the more plausible it sounds – particularly the European allies of both countries breaking away as the missiles were being prepped for launch.

      Potential prequel ideas there too.

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