content by

Erika Harlitz-Kern

History and SFF: Oral History and Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night

Traditionally, history is the study of the human condition through written texts. But over the last half-century, historians have focused more and more attention on what is known as oral history, part of what UNESCO calls humanity’s “intangible cultural heritage.”

Protected by a UN resolution adopted in 2003, this intangible cultural heritage is considered more vulnerable than the cultural heritage consisting of monuments, locations, and buildings because the carriers of this heritage are human beings, and, as we know all too well, human beings are mortal. Oral history is part of this type of cultural heritage because if a people or culture dies out before their history has been recorded, vital information about the past will be irretrievably lost.

[Aspects of oral history can be found in The City in the Middle of the Night.]

History and SFF: Footnotes in Fantasy Storytelling

The key to a credible analysis of history is for historians to credit their sources. The most efficient way to do this is to add a footnote. A footnote, as all of you probably know, is a small, elevated number that is placed after information taken from another text. At the bottom of the page there is a corresponding number, and next to this second number the information about the source can be found. Here, historians sometimes also include commentary that is not immediately relevant to the discussion, but needs to be said to make sure that all flanks are covered.

We historians spend a lot of time getting our footnotes right before we send a book or article off to being published. It’s painstaking and pedantic work—but love them or hate them, footnotes are crucial for scientific rigor and transparency.

Footnotes can be found in SFF, as well. But where historians use footnotes to clarify or to add additional helpful commentary, fiction authors have the freedom to use them to obfuscate and complicate their story in intriguing ways. Let’s look at a couple of examples…

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History and SFF: Big Data and The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older

My family’s first computer had a 41 MB hard drive. I saved my carefully crafted teenage observations of life on 1.5 MB floppy discs that never seemed to be filled to capacity. Two years later, I moved away to go to college. I brought with me a laptop computer with a 240 MB hard drive. I was a very proud owner of this technological marvel, even though I had no idea what to do with all that storage space. Since 2005, we have been living in the age of Web 2.0 and Big Data. Now, I download 240 MB of data every time I update the apps on my smartphone.

The exact origins of the term “Big Data” might be in dispute, but its meaning is clear. Big Data gets its name from the enormous amounts of digital information generated, collected, and stored every second.

[What might a future dominated by Big Data look like?]

History and SFF: Historical Sources and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

History is the interpretation of the past based on written and recorded texts. These texts are known as historical sources and they are the sine qua non of history writing. Over the past centuries, techniques have developed for how to categorize, evaluate, and analyze historical sources. Being a historian means that you dedicate a substantial amount of your time mastering these techniques in order to make your interpretation of the past valid and reliable.

In The Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemisin uses historical sources to tell the history of The Stillness, a seismically overactive continent where human civilization is repeatedly destroyed through prolonged cataclysmic events known as Seasons. Individuals called orogenes have the ability to quell earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, thus limiting some of the havoc The Stillness wreaks upon its population. Though crucial to the survival of humanity, orogenes are discriminated against, despised, and shunned.

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The Great Man Theory and Historical Change in SFF

The question of what factors drive historical change has intrigued historians from the very beginning, when the earliest scholars first turned their attention to studying and interpreting the past. To find the answer(s) to this key question, historians make use of social science theories. These theories help make sense of the inherent contradictions found in human behavior and human society.

[One of the most persistent theories is The Great Man Theory…]

History and SFF Storytelling: A New Monthly Column

Welcome to’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.

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