Respecting History

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


I recently came across Guy Gavriel Kay’s essay “Home and Away,” which addresses the complex relationship between fantasy and history, both in the sense of historical fantasy, and fantasy which models itself on (without directly representing) history.

It provoked two major trains of thought for me. The first had to do with this notion:

It was Henry James who argued that historical fiction was, in fact, impossible. That it was condemned to be ‘cheap’ because getting to ‘the real thing’ with regard to the world views of people in the past simply could not be done. One could only write from within one’s own world view, leaving access to the vision or the soul of the past hopelessly barred.

If you think it’s bad in historical fiction, try anthropology. We’ve gone through several decades of angst over this very matter: how can we, as outsiders to a culture, try to represent its nature and point of view? Isn’t that arrogant? Or maybe just impossible? If we can’t achieve that goal, should we pack up and go home?

I’ll come back to those points in a bit; first, let’s turn to my other train of thought, which has to do with respect. I came across the Kay essay by way of Matt Cheney’s column “Pol Pot’s Fantasized Daughter,” published recently on Strange Horizons. Cheney makes some cogent points about the thorny difficulties of fictionalizing and fantasizing a real-world scenario like the aftermath of Pol Pot’s regime. I’ve thought about this in other contexts, too; I’m curious to see more of the world Naomi Novik presents in her Temeraire series, because I wonder how she’s chosen to handle the problems of nineteenth-century colonialism. We don’t necessarily want our historical fantasy to uncritically replicate the problems of real-world history, be they political, religious, economic, gender-based, what have you — but it’s also a little cheap to decide that magic makes the problems go away. Where’s the proper balance?

If it sounds like I’ve thought through this in detail, it’s because I have; I just finished writing Midnight Never Come, which I fondly refer to as my Elizabethan faerie spy novel. All of the faeries in it are made up, of course, but virtually every mortal character except for the human protagonist is real. And the premise of the novel, in a nutshell, is that the faerie queen has been interfering with mortal politics.

Here’s the thing. I find Elizabeth I to be a fascinating individual, and while she was far from perfect as a queen — she was vain, short-tempered, indecisive, and jealous — I have a lot of respect for her. But Midnight Never Come is a secret history, not an alternate history; I’m not making any visible changes to what really happened in sixteenth-century England, but rather saying that some of those things happened for secret reasons. Faerie reasons. And this runs the risk of diminishing the actions and achievements of real people. (A problem White Wolf occasionally ran into with the metaplot of their “World of Darkness” RPGs; sometimes it seemed like ordinary people were nothing more than the blind, clueless puppets of vampires, werewolves, mages, etc, etc.)

They were real people. As far as I’m concerned, just because they’re several hundred years dead doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respectful treatment.

It’s tempting to dodge the complexities of the situation by saying it’s fiction, it’s fantasy, it isn’t real. Unfortunately, that’s too facile of a response, and at its worst it can be a cousin of the “it’s just a joke” non-defense of sexist or racist behavior. If you misrepresent history — real people, real cultures, real events — not all readers will know the period well enough to recognize what’s been made up or changed, and what hasn’t. Benign example: you’ll never ever convince me Loki is really a bad guy, because my first encounter with Norse mythology was Diana Wynne Jones’ Eight Days of Luke. The story you tell will go into the reader’s mind along with everything else they read, and once there, it has a tendency to color their thoughts, even if it’s fiction.

So where am I going with all of this? Back to anthropology. First of all, anthropologists depend on the admittedly amorphous notion of respect. Everything they write may not be — will not be — uncritically positive, but it should be respectful toward the real people about whom they are writing. And second, just because I as an anthropologist can’t achieve “access to the vision or the soul of the past” doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. I can only ever think like me, but I can make my thinking more flexible, more open to other ways of viewing the world.

And that’s how I feel about historical fiction, too. Respect means researching the period, both its physical reality and its worldview, and attempting as best I can to work from that perspective. Respect means trying to fit what I’m doing in with the “real” Elizabeth, the “real” Walsingham — that is, our historical understandings of them — rather than replacing them with modern authorial sockpuppets that happen to bear the same name. And it’s worth trying to do, because fantasy offers an unparalleled opportunity to bring ourselves and our readers into a different cultural point of view.

But it’s hard work — believe me.