TT: Living History

Welcome once again to the Thursday Tangent.  If you’re looking for the

Historical, More or Less...

Wednesday Wandering, just page back and take a look at what inspirational items I have hanging on the wall next to my desk.  Meanwhile, Alan and I are chatting about the appeal of historical fiction.

JANE: Last time we started out talking about alternate history fiction which led Alan to an interesting question.  Alan?

ALAN: So when you do all this historical research, do you feel inspired to write a straight historical novel?

JANE: Actually, I don’t.  People often ask me why I write science fiction and fantasy.  If they read the genres, this question is usually just curiosity – rather along the lines of “How did you come to buy a house in that neighborhood?” or such.  However, people who don’t read SF/F tend to ask the same question guardedly, as if expecting I’m going to start telling them about the UFO that landed in your yard or the fairies that were my bestest friends when I was a little girl.

I write SF/F because I like the skiffy approach.  “What if?” has been the kick-off for so many of my short stories and novels.   Although some could argue than any fiction deals with “what if?” to a point, no genres deal with it better or more creatively.

ALAN: That’s certainly true and it’s a large part of the reason why I like reading SF/F so much. But, done properly, historical novels can also play with this a little bit. Just like SF/F, they can be used to illuminate strange and unfamiliar (dare I say alien?) societies and customs. I’m thinking here of James Clavell’s marvelous novel “Shogun” which follows the adventures of a shipwrecked English sailor in seventeenth century Japan. The society it portrays is so bizarre (to Western eyes) that even though it is actually a straight historical novel you can easily think of it in SF terms as a “first contact” story, except that the aliens are neither bug-eyed nor green and they have the proper number of limbs…

JANE: I’m sure this was the case when “Shogun” first came out, but I think it would seem less so now.  I read “Shogun” for the first time in the late1980’s, I found it a great read, but I didn’t find the Japanese culture any more alien than that of the European.  They both seemed cultures of their time and place.  Now, admittedly, my fondness for mythology means I’ve been reading about different approaches to the same problems since I was quite young.  Maybe that influenced my reaction to the sense of difference.

ALAN: The book definitely presents a culture of its time and place, no argument there. But looked at in a wider context, and with modern prejudices, the society comes across as very weird and therefore hard to appreciate. Hence the analogy I drew with other more sfnal alien cultures. I think it helps to consider the culture the book presents in isolation rather than thinking of it as the culmination of a series of historical forces. The latter tends to bring the imagination down to earth with a bit of a thump!

JANE: I can see that.

I have written at least one “straight” historical piece.  Back at the turn of the century (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I was asked to contribute a story to the anthology “The Blue and the Gray Undercover: All New Civil War Spy Adventures,” edited by Ed Gorman.   Although these were historicals, because they were  spy stories, they also had a bit of that “secret history” element you mentioned when we were talking about Tim Powers’ work a few weeks back.

I did a ton of research and wrote about how the pivotal battle of Stony Creek might have come to happen through the interplay of various historical figures who could have been – but might not have been – involved.  It was fun, but it was also very “what if.”  I don’t think I would have been interested in writing a straight dramatization of those same events.  That would have felt like reportage.

This doesn’t mean I don’t read historical fiction.  I do, but I’m not sure I’d want to write it more than occasionally.

ALAN: Turtledove has written a series of four novels set in ancient Greece. They were published under the transparent pseudonym of “H. N. Turteltaub” and again they manage to bring a very strange (in our terms) society to life. Using the same pseudonym, he’s also written a novel about the life and times of the Emperor Justinian, a very odd man indeed. And L. Sprague de Camp wrote several historical novels of which my favourite is perhaps “The Dragon Of The Ishtar Gate” where he has some very interesting theories about just what that famous dragon might have been in real life. I’m not sure what this proves, if anything, but they certainly provided me with a lot of good reading.

JANE: If we’re mentioning authors who do a great job with making historical settings come to life while still showing the “strange” elements, I’d like to mention John Maddox Roberts, author of the long-running “SPQR” series of mysteries.  Unlike two other authors who have written mystery series sent in ancient Rome, John writes about convincing late-Republic Romans, not Americans in togas.  I wonder if this is because John also writes SF – and often in collaboration with Eric Kotani, who is Japanese!  Now that I think about it, John has also written at least three alternate history novels as well.

ALAN: I’m not surprised that you like these kinds of books. I suspect that there’s a large crossover between SF/F fans and fans of certain kinds of historical fiction. I’m thinking here particularly of the Hornblower novels and of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. There are many analogies to be drawn between voyages across the sea and voyages across space and the strange and wonderful things to be discovered at the end of the journey. I don’t want to belabour the obvious, but isn’t the fact that your friend David Weber has described his Honor Harrington novels as being directly inspired by the Hornblower books significant here?

JANE:  Well, sort of….  I believe Weber pitched the project to Jim Baen as “Horatio Hornblower in Space,” but Weber has always asserted that his inspiration was less the fictional Hornblower than the non-fictional Admiral Lord Nelson.  So, you could say that Honor Harrington and Horatio Hornblower begin from the same historical source.  However, the shared “H.H.” of their initials was certainly Weber’s way of acknowledging that he was not the first to begin at that source.

ALAN:  A fair point. But the fact that the analogy works at all, let alone that it works as well as it does, suggests that there’s some truth to it.

JANE: Oh!  I agree.  Weber certainly never denies familiarity with the Horatio Hornblower novels – and had (at least at the last point we discussed the matter) deliberately avoided the Patrick O’Brian novels lest there be a temptation toward influence.

By the way…  I’m also a fan of the O’Brian novels.  Jim started me on them when we were courting and we continued reading them together after we were a couple.

Now, speaking of Jim reminds me…  We meant to discuss beer.  I’ll admit, by now I know what he likes, but I’m still not sure whether all those terms – ale, porter, stout, lager, and suchlike – really indicate different drinks or if they’re just culturally different terms for the same thing.

How about filling me in?


3 Responses to “TT: Living History”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    The best link I can give between beer and history is this documentary, if you didn’t see it already:

    It’s viewable at the site. Note that it is a *little* tongue in cheek.

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