Tuesday, January 24, 2012

History and Convergent Books

2011 was an interestingly synchronicitous year for me, reading-wise. As a general rule, I read a handful of historical sci-fi and fantasy books each year, and when I read non-fiction, there's a pretty good chance it'll be historical in nature too*. Normally the books I pick up don't coincide as much as 2011's did, though, and they usually don't get me thinking on a meta-level afterwards.

What started me off was watching Anonymous almost immediately after reading Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear. They both deal with the conspiracies and politics around the throne of Elizabeth I, and both place Shakespeare's plays at the center of the story—with reinterpretations of what that role really was. Anonymous states that Shakespeare's plays were written by the Earl of Oxford as a statement against the party line, and that Shakespeare was the front for the operation. Ink and Steel, on the other hand, has Shakespeare writing his own plays, with the help of a couple nobles versed in magic, and Kit Marlowe, who's living in Faerie instead of being dead. The plays are written in support of the party line (or at least the "good" politics), and the Earl of Oxford is part of the faction intent on bringing James I to power in England. Both stories state the Earl is Elizabeth's bastard.

I admit to knowing nothing about Elizabethan court politics prior to Ink and Steel, so don't know if Bear's portrayal is accurate or not—or even if we know enough about the people involved to have a good picture of what sides they were on. Having read it first, though, I accepted the factions as historical fact, which made seeing Anonymous, which had largely the same cast of characters but in different political roles, a little jarring. Why would so-and-so be saying that? Isn't he for Elizabeth? After a while, though, I gave up trying to make sense of it all and assumed the politics in Anonymous were as made up as the supposed Shakespeare conspiracy. After all, the screenwriters couldn't even be bothered to place the plays in the right order.**

I had a related experience with The Hammer and the Cross, a history of the Vikings from the first historical records to the point at which everyone seems to have settled down, become Christian, and stopped raiding other countries. In this case, I'd read an article earlier in the year about how some of those Viking men who'd been buried with swords and armor and gold were actually women. Unfortunately, The Hammer and the Cross was written before we knew that, so while part of me took the facts at face value and wanted to believe them all, because if it's in a book it must be true, part of me knew there were facts missing and kept adding "and also women" during the battle accounts.

I'm writing this post as an educated adult who's fairly up on her (Western) history and so tends to pick up historical fiction and non-fiction already knowing the general facts. This means that I'll notice basic errors, like epic fantasy hay bales, but when writers make more obscure mistakes, I'm with the majority in assuming there was no mistake at all. That in itself is an argument for accuracy of research, no? I read to learn, and I don't want to learn the wrong things. It distorts my perception of the world. That doesn't mean I'm not for taking creative liberties with facts if that's what the story demands, but I'd like the writer to be upfront about it in a foreword, afterword, or in the way they present the information in-text. The writers of Anonymous, I feel, were not upfront about their changes at all. I'd be less critical of  the film if they had been.

I've talked before about how we approach history. Our past defines us and guides our actions whether we want it to or not, and I think understanding how history interacts with the present and how different cultures worked and were interconnected strengthens our view of the world. Not to get too self-helpy on you. But it's one of the reasons I think historical fiction, SFF or otherwise, is important, because it takes historical fact and makes it come alive. And *points to previous paragraph* why I think historical accuracy is important too.

That brings me to the last coincidental pair of books from last year. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, is a time travel story about a historian stranded in the 1300s valiantly recording her experiences and getting caught up in the lives around her. It's about people and crises and life. Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn, is a first-contact story, about an alien ship that crashes in the medieval Black Forest, and the locals who help them survive and who initiate cultural exchange. It has a lot of interesting things to say about the intersection of science and religion, as well as what makes a "person", and the Black Forest setting feels as real as Willis's Oxford.

I find it interesting that two books set during the same time period, both well-researched, well-written, and critically acclaimed, can have such vastly different feels. Willis' Middle Ages are raw where Flynn's are a little idealized, because that's their stories require.The same goes for Anonymous and Ink and Steel, or any group of books set during whatever time period. History's surprisingly fluid, not just because the archeological record can be interpreted multiple ways or because established facts are sometimes not established at all, but because we impose biases on it, rework it to make a point, and promote some facts over others to influence reality. I love that about it, especially when it results in historical fiction, and especially because comparing different takes on the same history is fun for me.

A good writer will make the reader believe that they're truly taking part in the Middle Ages, or Elizabethan England, or eighteenth-century China, or wherever, and that's important and good, but it's also no substitute for primary documents and historical non-fiction. Fiction is lies, after all, even if it's one lie couched in a lot of fact. I get a lot of my history from novels and movies, and from comparing different fictions, but I keep a saltshaker handy, read informed reviews, and look stuff up if it tickles my interest. It's a good way to read, I think. And a pretty decent way to travel through time.

* Or neuroscience.
** I read Marvel: 1602 after seeing Anonymous and was pleased to see the politics were still there, but that Marvel characters had replaced the courtiers. I liked that--although I would've liked Shakespeare to cameo.
*** Neither is Marvel: 1602 but I hope that's obvious.

1 comment:

Mr Jam Sponge said...

The Doomsday Book is one of the most unusual pieces of science fiction I think I've ever read.
It really does a great job of showing how much all people have in common. It's a nice change to read a SF book with real people and themes in it.