History and SFF Storytelling: A New Monthly Column

Welcome to Tor.com’s new column on History and SFF!

My name is Erika Harlitz-Kern, and I will be your guide during the coming months in discussing the ways that history is used in fantasy and science fiction. But don’t worry—I won’t be dissecting your favorite story digging for historical inaccuracies and judging its entertainment value based on what I find… The purpose of this column is to take a look at how authors of SFF novels and novellas—with a focus on more recent works, published after the year 2000—use the tools of the trade of historians to tell their stories.

When any scholar does research, they use a set of discipline-specific tools to make sense of their sources and the material and the information they find. Historians are no different. In history, these tools consist of techniques on how to evaluate texts, how to critique the research of other historians, how to think critically about the past, and how to be transparent when presenting research results. This column will delve into how authors use these same tools to tell their stories and build worlds.

One useful example of how an author can utilize the historian’s tools of the trade is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. The world in Foundation is based on psychohistory, which in the hands of Asimov becomes “the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations” because “the individual human being is unpredictable, but the reaction of human mobs […] could be treated statistically. The larger the mob, the greater the accuracy that could be achieved.” In other words, psychohistory is a mathematically calculated direction of societal development based on Big Data and the behavior of macro-level cohorts in the past.

Asimov doesn’t engage in the telling of real-life history, but by including encyclopedia articles that sum up past events and individual lives, he uses historical research techniques as the framework and foundation (sorry not sorry) for his story and the world where it takes place. This approach is what unites the various stories that will be discussed in this column.

So, what topics will this column focus on?

First, we will discus the conundrum of what drives historical change. Within historical research, there is a tension between attributing historical change to the actions of single individuals or to the workings of groups within societal structures. In Asimov’s version of psychohistory, this tension is taken to its extreme. Science fiction is often considered to be a genre that examines what it means to be human, using space and the future as the backdrop. What happens when authors use history as the backdrop instead?

Next, historical documents. Or as historians call them, primary sources. Primary sources are the meat-and-potatoes of historical research. They are the sine qua non of history. They are also a staple in fantasy fiction, where old documents and books are used to either set up the premise of the quest, or to provide backstory. Going forward, we will take a closer look at how authors use these types of sources to tell their stories.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of historical sources is Big Data. Because of digitization, which enables the processing of enormous amounts of information within seconds, Big Data is being touted as something new and the way of the future. As Asimov’s use of psychohistory shows, Big Data is not new to science fiction. Nor is it new to history; historians have been using Big Data since the innovation of the computer punch card. The question is, how do history, Big Data, and SFF interact in the 21st century?

We will also be talking about footnotes: Love them or hate them, footnotes are crucial in demonstrating scientific rigor and transparency. Footnotes can be found in SFF, as well. How do authors use footnotes? Is it to give credibility to their stories? Or is it to mislead?

While we will be covering all of these topics mentioned above, this column will also explore how history is made and how it is used. Because when we talk about history writing and historical research, we are not talking about the past as such; we are talking about an interpretation of the past. It is a fact that the past doesn’t change, but our knowledge of it does. That knowledge is what we call history.

The first topic we will look at here is oral history. Traditionally, historians have studied the human condition primarily through written texts. During the later part of the 20th century, historians began to branch out considerably, looking for information in other areas. Some of them joined cultural anthropologists in studying oral history. Oral history is part of what the United Nations calls “immaterial cultural heritage.” Immaterial cultural heritage is particularly vulnerable, because it’s made up of memories, traditions, and stories passed along by word of mouth. Once the memory of a culture dies, that culture dies too. That can make for compelling storytelling.

The next topic is perhaps the most problematic aspect of history writing—history as propaganda. History developed as an academic research subject at the same time as nationalism developed into a political ideology. Over the century and a half that has passed since then, history has served the interests of nationalism well, providing the development of imperialism and the modern nation state with their own research-based narratives. Much of what we are seeing in the current public debate over history and its interpretation is a questioning of that relationship, and this is certainly reflected in some of the SFF that is being published right now.

Last, but not least, we will talk about alternative history. Alternative history asks the question “what if?” and uses an event in the past to find the answer. This is a great plot device for fiction, but it’s not something historians engage in. Here we will discuss the tension between what was and what might have been, as well as the issues that arise when history is used to predict the future, as seen in the mathematically predicted Seldon Crises of Foundation.

Who am I to set out to cover all these topics? If you haven’t guessed it already, I am a historian and a fan of fantasy and science fiction. I have a PhD in history, and I combine teaching Ancient, Medieval, and Viking history with writing about the genres I love.

Join me next time when I will discuss the driving forces behind historical change in the Tao trilogy by Wesley Chu.

And in the meantime, what other SFF novels and novellas published after the year 2000 would you like to see included in this monthly column? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Photo: Tom Murphy VII (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Erika Harlitz-Kern is a freelance writer and historian with a PhD from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. When not reading and writing about fantasy and science fiction, she teaches history at Florida International University in Miami, and spends her free time in Florida’s wetlands, silently thanking the alligators for not turning her into a snack.

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