Wed
Mar 16 2011 11:59am
How Captain Kirk Led Me to Historical Fiction

It was Star Trek that got me interested in historical fiction. Not because I’d been watching the crew interact with historical figures on the holodeck—the Next Generation didn’t exist when I was a kid. And it wasn’t because Kirk and Spock once met a simulacrum of Abraham Lincoln. It was because, Star Trek nerd that I was, I’d read that Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry had modeled Captain Kirk after some guy named Horatio Hornblower. I didn’t think I’d like history stories, but I sure liked Star Trek, so I decided to take a chance. Once I rode my bicycle to the library and saw how many books about Hornblower there were, I figured I’d be enjoying a whole lot of sailing age Star Trek fiction for a long time to come.

Of course, it didn’t turn out quite like that. Hornblower wasn’t exactly like Kirk, and his exploits weren’t that much like those of the Enterprise, but they were cracking good adventures. Thanks to my own curiosity but mostly to the prose of the talented C.S. Forester, my tastes had suddenly, and accidentally, broadened beyond science fiction. I’d learned that other flavors of storytelling tasted just as good.

I no longer thought of historical fiction as a strange, untouchable world, and as I grew older I tried more and more of it, sometimes because a period interested me and sometimes just because I liked a cover or a title. That’s how I found the work of Cecilia Holland, and it’s why I wasn’t afraid to try out a book by Harold Lamb titled The Curved Saber after I was spellbound by Lamb’s biography of Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general. (I’d read it for a high school research paper.) I’d read Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories by then, and recognized Harold Lamb’s Cossack tales were a related animal. In an introduction to one of Harold Lamb’s books, L. Sprague de Camp mentioned dozens of Lamb’s stories had never been reprinted. I never forgot that statement, although it was years before I decided to look into the matter. After all, if no one had bothered to collect them, how good could they be?

Really good, as it turned out. So good that my hunt for them felt a little like a search for lost artifacts, difficult to obtain, but gleaming with promise. Lamb’s stories were hard to find because they existed only in rare, yellowing pulp magazines, owned only by collectors or a handful of libraries scattered over the United States. The more of Lamb’s stories I read, the more interested I became not only in his fiction, but in the pulp historicals in general. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that the kind of heroic fantasy fiction I’d come to love sounded so much like the best of the pulp era historicals. These were the stories in the magazines when sword-and-sorcery founders Howard, Leiber, Moore, and Kuttner were coming of age. We know from Howard’s letters that he purchased the most prestigious of these historical pulp mags, Adventure, regularly, and that he loved the work of a number of authors who were printed regularly in its pages.

After years of research I came to conclude something that was obvious in retrospect: fantasy and historical writers had been cross-pollinating for a long time. More recently, authors like Guy Gavriel Kay and George R.R. Martin have been writing acclaimed works at least partially inspired by real world cultures and events. And some writers have been blending fantasy and history. We don’t have to look too much further than Howard’s stories of Solomon Kane or C.L. Moore’s tales of Jirel of Joiry to see that genre mash-ups have been going on for a half century, but we can journey even further back to Beckford’s Vathek or even into the mythlogized cultural history of the Persian Book of Kings (the Shahnameh) or the Iliad and the Odyssey and see that genre divisions didn’t used to exist.

Our society’s currently experiencing a resurgence of interest in historical movies, and I can’t help noting that films like The Centurion or The Eagle are marketed very much like fantasy action movies; few would argue that 300 was targeted to hit the same demographic that had enjoyed the battle sequences from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It might be that today’s audiences are more savvy than I was as a young man, and that the blending of genres we’ve seen over the last decade has broken down the barriers that once kept historical fiction readers apart from fantasy readers apart from science fiction readers and so on. I’d certainly like to think so. Maybe none of us, readers, writers, or viewers, are as worried about the boundaries any more so long as the story takes us to strange new places.


Howard Andrew Jones is the author of The Desert of Souls (Thomas Dunne Books 2011), a historical fantasy set in the 8th century Abbasid caliphate featuring Dabir and Asim, characters who’ve appeared in a variety of short fiction venues since 2000. His Pathfinder novel, Plague of Shadows, was released on March 15th. Jones was the driving force behind the rebirth of interest in Harold Lamb’s historical fiction, and has assembled and edited 8 collections of Lamb’s work for the University of Nebraska Press. He has served as Managing Editor of Black Gate magazine since 2004.

11 comments
trench
1. trench
I have the exact opposite story. I got into historical fiction when I was still a teenager. I was reading Mitchner and Rutherford and all the other staples of the genre. My gradmother asked me what I liked so much about these kinds of books and I explained that it was the depth of the story that drew me in and she in turn turned me on to epic fantasy and sci-fi.

Go Grandma!
trench
2. Fraser Ronald
Captain Kirk: is there anything he can't do?
trench
3. Howard Andrew Jones
Go Grandma, indeed.

I still remember my dad not minding me turning over to try out "this cool new show" my friend told me about in nursery school -- this was Star Trek, in reruns. We were 5 and didn't know it wasn't new. The first thing I saw was Kirk and Spock beaming down and I think I was hooked right then.
Alex Bledsoe
4. alexbledsoe
I think the innate optimism of Trek inspired a lot of its fans to explore (no, I won't say it) things they might otherwise not have, even if they were technically unrelated. I wonder what the legacy of the current dystopian SF series will be?
trench
5. Howard Andrew Jones
I agree with you about the optimism. A lot of folks who didn't grow up watching the original have a hard time with it now, and they can't look past some of what they see. But there is still great power there.

Torie Atkinson wrote brilliantly about the show's optimism elsewhere on the TOR web site, in her wrap-up of season 1. I don't know that anyone's ever managed quite as well to describe just how powerful it really was:

http://www.tor.com/component/content/blog/48618
Sharat Buddhavarapu
6. Sharat Buddhavarapu
I sure hope that genre boundaries continue to dissolve in the minds of writers, and readers. We may need to think about them for marketing purposes, but I'd like to think a person can sit down to enjoy a story based on it's writing merits rather than what genre it is in.
Pamela Adams
7. Pam Adams
It wasn't Star Trek that led me to historical fiction, but science fiction. I was reading SF works that cited Kipling and other nineteenth-century writers, so started expanding my reading list.
trench
8. Howard Andrew Jones
Sharat, I completely agree. I, too, hope readers will value a good story regardless of genre.

Pam, do you know if modern science fiction cites older works still? I haven't been reading a whole lot of modern science fiction. When I was in my teens and twenties, it seemed like the science fiction paid homage to classics. Star Trek was constantly citing Shakespeare, for instance.
trench
9. Jack Durish
The Hornblower stories get even more exciting if you trace them back to their origin. Forrester built his character on the writings of Frederick Marryat, a 19th Century British frigate captain who wrote some cracking good adventure stories himself. His work more accurately described the milieu because he himself had stood on the deck of wooden fighting ships engaged in more than 50 battles.

Take one more step and you discover that Marryat served as a midshipman under Lord Cochran and that many of Marryat's stories and almost all of the Hornblower adventures were based on the exploits of this real naval hero. Somehow, the adventure seems more dangerous and the exploits seem more heroic when you discover that they were performed by a real flesh and blood man.

History and historical fiction have been my favorite genres for more than 50 years and, of course, now that I have time to write, my first novel is historical fiction, though of a more modern age.
trench
10. cameron13
I am so glad to see the writers reference to "The Shahnameh" as it is definitely the greatest historical/mythological blened story ever written. It is also pretty cool that its stories have come out in a modern American comic book format as well.
trench
11. cameron13
www.theshahnameh.com

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