• Shop Indie Bookstores
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • Categories

History is Written By People: Conclusions on Building Fictional History

I read quite a bit of history, both real and fictional. In the last couple months, the historically oriented books that I’ve read and enjoyed have included (in no particular order) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the edited volume Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the fictionalized history text by George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire. With all of this stuff floating around my head, and especially after talking about Jemisin and Martin’s work in my book group this weekend, I’ve been reminded of a conclusion that’s good to restate from time to time. That conclusion is this:

History is complicated.

A lot of what I mean by that is encompassed in the expression “history is written by the victors,” that those who come out on top in any conflict usually get the first and/or last say in how that conflict’s framed in official history books. That’s why Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America is still celebrated in much of the United States despite protests that the holiday commemorates genocide, and it’s why children in Vietnam learn that the United States sent colonialist forces to their country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s more to the matter than that.

Good historians, like all social scientists, try to understand and present the past as completely and accurately as possible. But when we talk about history, we mean more than just the most accurate account of events; history’s a distillation of the stories a culture tells itself about the world. By its very nature as the collected experiences of individuals, set down by individuals, real history is never completely uniform, and it’s never totally complete.

First off, no official history ever goes completely unchallenged. One hundred and fifty years later, people still occasionally refer to the 19th-century conflict between the US and the Confederacy as “the War of Northern Aggression.” More than 45 years after network TV broadcast Neil Armstrong saying “one small step for man,” people still dispute whether there was ever a moon landing. Even the most authoritarian leaders usually can’t suppress opposing views completely – and even the most information-driven societies can’t be absolutely sure of the truth of everything in their archives. Not to mention the fact that the archives never hold everything.

Every historian’s work is based on analysis of data. The two “real” histories on my list from the first paragraph, Nielsen’s and Levine’s, rely heavily on first-person accounts, journals and letters from the time periods they’re interested in. But if a place or a people is destroyed suddenly (as happens sometimes in history, and is particularly prone to happen in genre fiction, where a god or an asteroid might wipe out a whole continent with no warning), there may not be much left in the way of records to consult. In Charles C. Mann’s 1491, distilling the latest theories about pre-contact American societies, the author makes the point that there’s a great deal that will never be known for sure about these peoples just because their destruction by the Europeans (through intentional and unintentional means) was so complete.

Finally, there’s the fact that those who set down the history are human beings, and as I tell my students in Sociological Research Methods, human beings can never be truly objective. Even a historian who had access to all the possible data on their subject, from all the sides of a conflict, would have to pick and choose what to include, and those choices would inevitably be guided by bias. Social researchers can try to be aware of their biases, and to work around them, but they can never escape them completely.

Having said all that about how I believe real history works, it probably comes as no surprise that I like my fictionalized history to follow these same rules.

George RR Martin is a master of this. Whether you believe A World of Ice and Fire is a worthwhile addition to the universe or a concession to fans chomping at the bit for the next book, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a marvelously complex and human history that’s right in line with the way Martin is telling his story in the novels. Rather than an uncontested “behind-the-scenes” account of the events Martin’s developed for the history of his world, AWoIaF presents a contradictory account by a few well-intentioned maesters, who are drawing on incomplete data and writing in full knowledge that their work will be reviewed by the current rulers, and so they’d better stay clear of politically incendiary rhetoric (the title “Kingslayer,”  for example, appears nowhere in these pages). The book’s gotten some criticism from fans for not being “the official history of Westeros”; I’d argue that it couldn’t be more official, just as it is.

Another series that does this well is Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first one. When we enter the setting, we’re given the official version of its history – once there were three gods, but then one was killed, another enslaved. These are, respectively, the traitor and the fiend, while the remaining god rules alone in the heavens and the family that helped him win the gods’ war rule on the earth with wisdom and justice. Upon encountering this setup, I’d guess that any reader familiar with the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” history will be suspicious from the word go, and Jemisin is quick to validate those suspicions. In a guest post she wrote for John Scalzi’s blog when her first book came out, she notes that the germ of the idea for the Inheritance books came when she read 1491, which made her think about the idea of “hidden history.”

The world of my novels has all kinds of hidden history. The era my hero lives in is (very roughly) something of a Renaissance period for his culture, the first years of peace and renewal after a long war that basically leveled the previous civilization. When I sat down to flesh out my worldbuilding, one of the first things I had to work out was exactly what happened in that war. So I did, and now I know the whole story – more or less – but as I wrote it out, I found myself taking first one perspective and then another. I told one faction’s version of what happened and then countered it with the other’s; I came up with names for what each group called themselves as well as what they called their enemies. And when I reference the war in the novel, a person’s answer to the question of “what happened” varies dramatically depending on their species, their regional origins, their age and other factors. No one person, no one group, has the whole story. I like it better that way.

There are certainly good books that connect their story’s main events to precise, unambiguous history. But the more I read, the more I’m convinced that if a writer wants their fictional world to have the ring of authenticity, they’d best take a little time to think about how that world views its past. What evidence has been preserved for contemporary people to use in understanding the past? What stories do the people in power want taught and highlighted? Who would have the incentives to counter those stories?

That’s why I read so much history; because the real world is wondrously multifaceted and complex, and the story changes depending on who’s telling it. I think the best fictional worlds are those that have this feeling to them, like Martin’s, like Jemisin’s. That’s what I try to do when I tell stories in my world.

History With a Twist: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Books

A horse, he came to understand, was missing.

Until it was found, nothing could proceed. The island marketplace was crowded on this grey morning in spring. Large, armed, bearded men were very much present, but they were not here for trade. Not today. The market would not open, no matter how appealing the goods on a ship from the south might be.

He had arrived, clearly, at the wrong time. [opening lines of GGK’s The Last Light of the Sun]

 So, like one of my friends, I have been seriously remiss in blog-writing lately. In part, this has just been the craziness of the last few weeks (the November/December confluence of holidays and end-of-term work is rarely a super-fun time for those of us who live on a university schedule), but I’ve also had some of the same issues that Matt talks about in the linked post, of wondering what my handful of loyal readers are actually interested in reading. I originally set up this blog with notions of its being a repository for my blatherings about writing, vaguely sociological philosophizing, and general notations about life and its goings-on… but now I’m not sure just what its purpose should be, other than allowing me to say that yes, I have an online presence of some kind when an agent someday asks the question 🙂

With that in mind, I’m trying something new in this space today. I’m going to attempt a review of one of my new author discoveries, who I haven’t heard much buzz about within my little cadre of fantasy nerds: Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ll try to speak in generalities and avoid spoilers, but there may be a few minor things that creep into the discussion, so if you prefer approaching books in a state of complete purity and innocence, maybe proceed with caution 😉

In the last year and a half, I’ve read seven of GGK’s 12 books, enough that I feel like I can speak a little about “what he writes” (at least insofar as anyone can say that about anyone’s collection of work). In general, his books are somewhere between fantasy and alternate history; they’re clearly fanciful, always including some kind of magic or another, but they’re also strongly rooted in real-world settings and history. Kind of. When talking about them to my friends, I tend to describe them as set in “not-quite-places”; not quite medieval Italy, not quite Tang dynasty China, not quite Saxon England being invaded by the Vikings. Unlike, say, Jacqueline Carey, whose D’Angeline books are set in a tweaked version of the real world (mapping onto real medieval geography, and with most countries other than France — the home base of the series — bearing a strong cultural resemblance to their historical selves), GGK sets his books unequivocally in another world. The obligatory maps included in the first pages don’t bear much resemblance to the ones you’d find on Google; most of the books matter-of-factly discuss the two moons in the sky. But the similarities are there;  Wikipedia entries for his books talk matter-of-factly about how this character’s based on that historical figure, or this event is based on that one.

In his afterward to Under Heaven (his most recent book and the one I read last), GGK addresses the question of why he’s writing this way instead of “just” writing historical fiction, by saying that a) since he can’t actually claim to have insight into the thoughts and motivations of a historical figure, better to make somebody up who shares some of their qualities and see what that person does; and b)

 Remember that I want to keep you turning pages till two a.m. (or better). I always want that. So consider this: If I base a book on the Provence of the troubadours and Courts of Love (A Song for Arbonne), the reader who knows what happens in that time and place does not know what will happen in my story… I’ve served notice with the shift to imagined Arbonne from real Provence that I reserve the right to change events, sometimes dramatically. This, for me, generates storytelling energy, narrative suspense, even after-the-book-is-done reflections on our own time and how it might have been different if certain events had been otherwise. The past opens up in the imagination. “What if?” is more than a game; it is a way of considering where we are and how we arrived here… and this is a huge component of what I am trying to do (Author’s Note, p. 578)

I think this balance – masterfully pulled off – is one big reason why I love his books so much. They’re clearly carefully researched, and he doesn’t skimp on the details; the bits of Under Heaven laying out the way armies communicate over vast distances, or the complicated relationship between the Cyngael (not-quite-Welsh) and Anglcyn (not-quite-Anglo-Saxon) peoples in The Last Light of the Sun, or the almost-ubiquitous reflections on the strangenesses of the different cultures profiled in the books by one kind of outsider or another, are a lot of fun to read. But his books also have a self-conscious awareness of history that I don’t often see in other places; moments where the narrator draws back and explains, for a moment, how the events that we’re seeing unroll in front of us will be framed coming down through the ages. Which, for this reader who thinks way too much about history and its telling, is a definite bonus.

Craftwise, the books are serviceable. The characters aren’t the most memorable I’ve ever encountered (I’ve yet to meet a Tyrion Lannister or Melisande Shahrizai in one of GGK’s worlds), but they carry the tales well. The plots are tightly woven and self-contained, with no threads left hanging at the finish (if you’re one of those readers who likes ambiguity in your endings, these books might not be the ones for you). Where the books shine, as a rule, is in two areas: their construction of place (so much so that I’d recommend waiting to pick one up until you have an hour to spend with it at the beginning, to acclimate yourself to the world in one big chunk to begin with), and their pacing, particularly when events in the books are picking up. When I reach climactic events in one of these books – when there’s a duel to be fought, or a city to sack, or magical forces to overpower – I tend to go into hermit mode, putting my head down and telling Husband to leave me be until I’ve got through to the end.

The other thing I like about these books, in general, is that they’re not afraid to go for a bittersweet ending. I think that might have something to do with the historical grounding, too; history always works out, and like I’ve said in a previous post, the human race hasn’t managed to destroy itself yet, but things rarely work out just the way we plan them to. And I think, by and large, seeing that reflected in fiction makes for a more satisfying ending.

If you’re interested in dipping a toe into his pool of work, I’d recommend starting with Tigana (medieval Italy) or The Last Light of the Sun, with its un-Vikings and un-Saxons and un-Welsh (not to mention the poor Moorish merchant whose reflections, quoted above, start the book). I’ll keep poking through the used bookstores and picking up what I find there, and maybe I’ll have another author review for y’all sometime soon. Or else maybe my schedule will calm down and I’ll be able to go back to philosophizing. Either way, I promise to be more committed to regular posting in the new year (and maybe even before then). Enjoy the winter holidays, everyone!

This is History, Folks. Right Here, Right Now

One of my projects this week has been getting caught up on really old NPR podcasts (yes, I live an exciting life ;)) and I encountered this story about the Man Booker Prize book for last year, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. The part that really struck me was this quote from the book, about the difference between history you live through and history you only hear about:

I still read a lot of history, and of course, I’ve followed all the official history that’s happened in my own lifetime — the fall of Communism, Mrs. Thatcher, 9/11, global warming — with a normal mixture of fear, anxiety and cautious optimism. But I’ve never felt the same about it. I’ve never quite trusted it as I do events in Greece or Rome or the British Empire or the Russian Revolution. Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again. The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest. And yet, it’s the most deliquescent.

Although I probably won’t read the book — straight literary fiction isn’t usually my style — the point struck me nonetheless. The history that you live through seems, at least to me, somehow less inevitable than the stuff that you only hear about.

I’m 29, and I’ve experienced relatively few “big” historical events in my life. As a matter of fact, I have a very clear memory of watching a History Channel special on “We Interrupt This Broadcast” moments (the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, etc) with my dad about 2 weeks before I left for college, and commenting that “we haven’t had many of those since I was old enough to remember.” He countered that “you probably don’t want to experience too many of those.” And I shrugged, shipped merrily off to college in August of 2001, and then understood what he meant a little better a few weeks later.

History does seem different, somehow, when you can remember first-hand the way things were before it was made. My sister and I flew from Manchester, NH to Philadelphia in 2000, our first time flying without an “adult,” and our aunt met us at the gate; my cousins born in 1992 and 1994 (and my undergraduates) will have never had this experience. I saw Senator Obama speak in Oakland in spring 2007, when he was still “that guy who might get picked as Hillary’s VP candidate if she’s lucky enough to make it all the way.” Just saying those sorts of things makes me feel old, but it also gives me a sense of the flow of “the big story” of history that I don’t think I had when I was younger. Ditto being old enough to recognize better than 50% of the people whose deaths make the news these days; it’s always a little strange to me when some notable makes the passage from “contemporary” to “historical figure,” someone who my kids will never share space on the planet with.

I’ve had occasion to think about this in terms of my novel, too; because the tale I’m writing takes place in a larger world with its own complex and detailed history, there are a lot of “historical events” due to take place after the era in which my first book is set, and I already know the eventual fate (and manner of demise) of many of my characters even though the majority of them will be living happily for many years after the point in time that I’m writing about right now. It’s made me realize that knowing an ending does shape the way you frame what comes before. If I know, for example, that a character will die in 10 years by falling under a bus, I might be tempted to foreshadow this by having them trip and be caught by the protagonist JUST IN TIME some years earlier, so that when the protagonist hears later about their inevitable demise she can think “oh, no! If only I’d been there!”

It makes sense that I’d do this, of course; that’s how fiction works. But I wonder if we don’t do it in real life, too. I wonder if future generations of high school students will still wonder at how things would’ve turned out differently if New Hampshire had voted for Al Gore in 2000 (I missed being old enough to vote in that election by 6 months. I wondered), or how a different national disaster policy could’ve made the outcome of Hurricane Katrina less horrific, or whether the Star Wars prequels could’ve actually been good movies. Once history happens, it seems like most of us — at least those who are casual observers instead of professional historians — think of it as pretty much fore-ordained.

I’m not sure why I’m feeling so philosophical today; maybe it’s the political season, maybe it’s the fact that the 9/11 anniversary is looming again (it probably doesn’t help that we’ve turned the date itself into a title — though I suspect even so, the calendar date won’t carry the same weight for kids born in 2002 that it does for us “grown-ups”), or that my family’s approaching a big personal anniversary next week. But I do think it’s worth pondering, at least for a moment: how is the history you live through moment-to-moment different from the history that’s handed to you already pre-packaged with a beginning, middle, and end? I think maybe the stuff that we learn about abstractly (whether it’s the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the fact that there was a person on this earth named Abraham Lincoln, or the notion that North America was once populated by mammoths and giant buffalo) all feels a little bit like fiction — deliberate and planned, put together by someone with a sense of overarching plot — and it’s only the stuff we live through ourselves that seems messy and complicated and “real.”