Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction as the Reflection of Science Fiction Across the Time Axis

I am probably similar to most readers of this column in that I do not read an exclusive diet of science fiction stories. In 1996 I was burnt out from reading so much science fiction the previous 20 years that I abandoned it almost entirely for an entire year. Instead I enjoyed the freedom of stretching across the entire spectrum of fiction and literature. Looking back on my overall reading material from that year, I realized that contemporary fiction was still almost nonexistent in my reading. Whatever percent had previously been spent on f&sf was instead spent almost exclusively on historical fiction.

On a rough estimate, my current reading falls approximately into the following categories:
• 50% science fiction and fantasy
• 15% nonfiction about science fiction (including fanzines)
• 25% historical fiction
• 10% miscellaneous nonfiction (primarily history)

Basically, my reading falls into two symmetric categories, 2/3 f&sf related and 1/3 history related. Those have always been my areas of greatest interest, with science fiction usually dominant, probably rising as high as 80% from the 70s through the early 90s, then falling back to 0% in 1996 before settling into the current amounts.

The obvious question arising from this reading pattern becomes: is there are natural relationship between science fiction and history that together they should dominate my reading taste? Recently I looked at the Locus poll of a few years ago in which they selected the top 50 science fiction books ever published. Due to ties, there were actually 52 novels on the list, and examining those titles I was not surprised to realize that the vast majority of novels on the list fell under the general category of future history. All of them incorporated some aspect of science or technology, but primarily in their background rather than their foreground, so that less than 20% of the novels can be considered even remotely “hard” science fiction. But nearly all of them examined the future history of humanity in some way.

Surprising? Not really. Science fiction and history go hand-in-hand. In fact, using mathematical terminology, if we consider the contemporary world as a time axis, science fiction is the reflection of history across the time axis. After all, when most–perhaps all–writers devise sfnal futures, don’t they base them in large part on realistic historical pasts? They could be as overt as Isaac Asimov basing his Foundation Series on the Roman Empire. Or they could be more subtle futures drawing together strands from a variety of different historical epochs.

So for somebody who prefers to read fiction than nonfiction–and I certainly fall into that category–reading historical fiction should provide many of the same pleasures as reading science fiction.

Consider: if science fiction is truly the study of potential future change as many people believe it is, isn’t much historical fiction about real historical change? Renaissance Italy is the setting of a lot of historical fiction and that was an era drenched in change after the long stagnation of the Dark Ages. The fall of the Roman Empire (or the Ottoman Empire or any of the various Chinese empires) are all about change. The industrial revolution is about change. How many writers have set their stories in the era when Neanderthals co-existed with the first homo sapiens? If that was not about change, what the heck was it?

You like sense of wonder? I love sense of wonder in my fiction, and good science fiction provides large doses of it. But so does historical fiction. There’s wonder in artistic passion (such as Irving Stone’s Lust for Life) or scientific discovery (nearly all of Andrea Barrett’s stories are filled with such wonder) or tales of great exploration (such as historical novels about mountain climbing or jungle exploration or the early discoverers of the New World) or examining the amazing cultures of past eras.

Historical fiction satisfies many of the same cravings as science fiction. Granted, it does not satisfy all of them. If scientific change is your preference–such as the works of Alaistair Reynolds, Greg Egan or Stephen Baxter–then you will find a scarcity of it in historical fiction–although certainly not a total lack of it. If learning about aliens and their cultures really excite you, that does not occur in historical fiction–unless, of course, you prefer stories about cultures so exotic and so different from western society they are truly alien. I suspect that is part of the reason behind my fascination with Chinese society through the centuries.

You like space adventures? How about adventures in untamed lands? Military science fiction? Military historical fiction also exists. Science fiction which incorporates many of the aspects of literature? There is much historical fiction which is as much literary as the science fiction of Ursula K Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Bishop.

Obviously, not everything which wears the garments of science fiction is truly science fiction, nor is everything that pretends to be historical fiction truly historical fiction. Some fiction which was contemporary fiction when it was written two hundred or two thousand years ago is about universal human aspects having nothing specifically to do with the era in which it was written. To be truly historical fiction, the setting must be an intricate part of the story, as much a factor in the story and character development as any other aspects. So just as some supposed science fiction is a contemporary story which happens to be set on 3rd millennium Venus–are you familiar with the term “Bat Durston” which is a derogatory term given to cowboy stories transplanted wholesale to some alien planet?–some supposed historical fiction could be easily moved out of 3rd century Rome and transplanted in 20th century New York City without any editing at all. Just as science fiction must be about the future in which it takes place, historical fiction must be about the era in which it is set.

So while admittedly it is simplistic to say science fiction is the precise reflection of historical fiction across the time axis, it is fair to state that the two genres have much in common, offer many of the same pleasures, so I think the majority of lovers of science fiction would likely enjoy much historical fiction as well.

So if you are a rabid science fiction fan who has not read much historical fiction in your lifetime, here is a sampler of historical fictions which I have either enjoyed tremendously myself or have been highly recommended by people whose opinions I trust and which are now on my own Recommended Reading list. Enjoy!

Shogun / James Clavell / medieval Japan
Spartacus / Howard Fast / Roman empire
The Pillars of the Earth / Ken Follett / Medieval England
Pillar of the Sky / Cecilia Holland / prehistoric times
An Instance of the Fingerpost / Iain Pears / restoration England
A Dream of Scipio / Iain Pears / 4th century/14th century France
Daughter of Time / Josephine Tey / 15th century England*
Story of the Stone / Cao Xueqin / Ming dynasty China

* Daughter of Time actually takes place in contemporary times, but it is so intimately wound around the era of Yorkist England that it is as much historical fiction as contemporary fiction. It is also one of my very favorite books which I recommend as highly as any other book on the list.


  • In the context of sf & historical fiction, how about Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle", and Crowley's "Lord Byron's Novel"

    By Blogger Howard, At 3:03 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 8:43 AM  

  • I haven't read either the "Baroque Cycle" (scared off by its length) or Lord Byron's Novel (which is coming out in pb in this country during the summer), but both are on my Recommended Reading list.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 8:44 AM  

  • Try not to be worried about the length: it's a great swashbuckling adventure! My dad loved it, and he hates reading SF.

    By Blogger Howard, At 5:35 AM  

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