History – Real and Fictional

This past weekend I was at LTUE – a science fiction and fantasy literary symposium/conference in Provo, Utah [and the reason why there was no blog last Friday was because my not-so-trusty and relatively new laptop crashed right after I arrived there]. I was on a fair number of panels, but in the course of convention events, I found one of my basic tenets about writing being reinforced. It’s simple. All realistic and real worlds have history, and that history is NEVER just the “dead past.”

Over the past fifty plus years, I’ve read a considerable amount of science fiction and fantasy, and although the majority of writers who dealt with invented literary worlds or even future human society made an effort to create workable societies, while I could see how those societies might work, in far too many cases I could see no way as to how such societies or cultures could have evolved and developed into what the writer presented. Most likely, for most readers, that really isn’t a problem, but, perhaps because I am a student of society, politics, and history, it bothers me a lot.

Just think about this. How many of the killings, the wars, and the terrorist threats we face today are the result of past Islamic history and teachings? Mohammed may have lived over 1400 years ago, but that part of history and how it has evolved affects the entire world today, and certainly thousands if not tens of thousands of followers don’t act as though he’s dead and forgotten. World War II was effectively the result of historical conflicts and rancor between France and Germany that date back to the time of Louis XIV, if not before. Obvious as this may seem, in too many F&SF books, there’s little if no sense of real history woven into the background of the story… or how that history affects the present. Everything is in the here and now.

Or sometimes there’s an eternal empire. Eternal? I have my doubts. Although one can claim with some degree of accuracy that the basic structure of Egyptian government was essentially unchanged for almost three thousand years, dynasties rose and fell; invaders periodically intervened and ruled; and in the end, the structure toppled. And that’s the most long-lived empire/pseudo-empire in human history. The British Empire, the one on which the sun never set, lasted less than a century in any true imperial form.

William Faulkner once made the observation to the effect that the “dead past” is not only not dead, but it’s not even past. Obviously, I agree.

11 thoughts on “History – Real and Fictional”

  1. Sam says:

    It’s funny. Most of the fantasy I’ve read has some kind of history.

    Often the evil that threatens that the heroes/protagonists must overcome is evil that was vanquished centuries or millennia previously and has returned such as Sauron in Lord of the Rings.

    George R.R. Martin pointed out that enjoyable as Lord of the Rings was the lack of politics in it bothered him. He thought it was absurd that Aragorn showed up and named himself king and everyone just went along with it.

    Of course the template of waiting for a king to appear was established centuries ago in the King Arthur mythos a la the Sword in the Stone.

    Perhaps once certain concepts become established over time in our fiction such as God, Allah, the afterlife etc. we more readily go along with them and suspend our disbelief. Overlooking the improbabilities and just going with it.

    Certainly some writers go into more intricate detail than others about the history of the worlds they create and the structure of it’s societies.

    Of course the more detail you go into the more likely you are to trip up at some point and contradict yourself – forgetting a fact you established previously.

    Many fantasy writers I come across seem to follow the expedient of studying a real world – usually historical – society such as medieval England and modelling the society of their fantasy world on that.

    To be fair they often overlook detailing how that society came to exist in their world and what preceded it but since it is modelled on a society that actually did exist it’s usually not overly improbable for the reader to accept.

    Also I wonder how far back in the past you think the writer should go?

    C.S. Lewis went as far back as the creation of Narnia by Aslan in the Magician’s Nephew. We actually saw his world come into being.

    Thinking about how our knowledge and understanding of the world has grown over time and gradually changed our species worldview I’ve often wondered about the worldview of the people in your fantasy worlds. There was a time when people thought the world was flat and the sun went around the Earth.

    Science has taught us that we weren’t the first species to dominate this world that before us dinosaurs roamed the Earth for millions of years. This has often led me to wonder what if anything predated humans in your fantasy worlds?

    1. I’m most certain something predated humans on all my worlds. I wasn’t so much writing about a handful of single events, but more about the need to liberally place small reminders of history throughout a book.

      1. Sam says:

        Whilst your fantasy worlds tend to be more realistic than those of some other authors I’ve felt you can never take anything for granted and assume that real world rules always apply.

        When I read Fall of Angels I began to wonder if the first humans in your Recluce universe were from another universe just like the Angels, the Cyadorans and Cassius for that matter.

        If that unlike our world humans did not evolve on that world but were transplanted from elsewhere by accident or design.

        Also since these worlds are made up I cannot assume that the worlds are spherical like ours. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is flat after all.

        As the creator of these worlds you get to decide how they work. Certainly in some ways they do not work like ours.

        I had always assumed that each of your fantasy series existed in a separate universe with different laws of physics that underlay each of your magical systems. A while back I wondered if that was a false assumption and that the magical systems were restricted to the worlds themselves and that Order and Chaos for example did not exist in other solar systems.

        So that if technology advanced on the world of Recluce to the point that humans could travel to the stars they would find there was no Order or Chaos to manipulate in other star systems. Perhaps even that different magical systems existed.

        1. R. Hamilton says:

          I know I’d like to know more about the very early “history” of the world of Recluce – like where the humans apparently there before the arrival of the Rationalists came from. Given that powers were said to be most prominent in the descendants of the Anglorian/Rationalist/Cyadoran and UFA/Angel immigrants, that opens the question whether the earlier humans were indigenous (parallel evolution? hmm), or had some other explanation for their difference in that regard. And…did Naclos perhaps influence more than one group’s arrival?

    2. R. Hamilton says:

      I wouldn’t say there was no politics – Denethor clearly didn’t think much of the idea of a newly discovered successor to the kings of old. But by the time Aragorn was crowned, Denethor had fallen to despair (through the influence of Sauron via the Palantir), and Aragorn had some visible accomplishments – healer as well as warrior and leader. Elrond’s brother Elros was the forefather of all the Númenórean kings (including those of the kingdoms in exile)…so if Elrond attested to the lineage of Aragorn, that would have been conclusive. BTW, that makes Aragorn and Arwen 1st cousins about 65 times removed. 🙂

  2. I’d wondered about how your series seem to move backwards in time as much or more as forward. It does seem to make the worlds you write more real, and it’s fascinating to read a story set at a point in time when you know what the future society is going to become.

  3. Ryan Jackson says:

    Part of it, I think, is that not everyone has the mindset to look at that type of scope and even if they do don’t necessarily have the ability to hop back and forth the way your works do.

    I had actually asked another Author if he ever considered that method of writing since I know so many series have teases of history fans would want. In this case the first trilogy set in this author’s world were basically after an apocalypse where the bad guy one sort of.

    The Author said he was incredibly impressed with the way you went about your work but he just didn’t really think he could wrap his mind around it. He said he’s doing something kind of similar, with the series taking massive time leaps between trilogies but that he was unlikely to move backwards.

    But looking at all I’ve read, you and to that lesser extent him are the only ones who seem to really draw the full scope of time into their work. (Jordan gets credit for setting that tone a bit too, but there’s massive issues with his Wheel Cycle that tend to break my suspension of disbelief when it comes to history)

  4. Brandon says:

    Dear Leland,

    Your books are special because they illuminate the contingent nature of history by demonstrating how individual choices matter, and that those choices create enduring legacies for future generations and the ecology of the world itself.

    I first read the Magic of Recluce in 1995 when I was 11 years old. Prior to that, in terms of high fantasy, I had only read Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion. I was a history nerd at that age(M.A.and B.A. in history now), and Tolkien’s emphasis on history and language really reeled me in. I found that to be true with your works as well, in terms of history, ecology, and economics.

    I give the Lord of the Rings and your books out to friends and family members as gifts. When I describe the Saga of Recluce to people, I usually say “Imagine if someone wrote the history of humanity on Earth through the eyes of some of its greatest movers and shakers. For example, one book might be from the point of view of Jesus, another MLK Jr., etc.” I don’t mention order and chaos, just the historical nature of your works.


  5. Joe says:

    I agree.

    In fact that’s how journalism was supposed to be: one hoped to be a historian of the present, explaining to those who don’t have the time to research events themselves, why an event is important because of its historical context.

    However there is little evidence that either our government (including all politicians of all stripes), or journalists, or business leaders understand this, let alone citizen John Doe. Most reporting could be summed up as “Hi Mom! Look at me! I’m sitting on a tank in !”

    I would say most people see events as magical, arbitrary and unpredictable. A “don’t care” attitude which may derive from dosing kids with Ritalin at school, and not punishing clear evidence of corruption at the top, and just trying to keep up with the mortgage payments for those who still have a home.

    So why be surprised if SciFi suffers from the same problem?

  6. Mayhem says:

    Deep history is something shared by few writers.
    Part is probably whether they choose to care about that aspect of their work, and part is probably the economics of whether more considered work is worth the extra effort in writing.

    Guy Gavriel Kay is the first one that springs to mind other than yourself – a sense of much more happening outside the world of the narrative is carried through in every work, possibly because they are tragedies.
    His two recent “chinese” works are a particularly good example.

    Steven Erikson also has a lot of that – his world is enlivened by an archaeological and anthropological background, so there is all sorts of instances where the past is never truly buried. And occasionally characters who are part of the past will wander through to enlighten or endarken a situation.

    I think you’ve managed to carve out a fairly unique niche with Recluce and the back and forth in time self contained stories – noone else really does that. I also like the way that events in one book can inform another while at the same time being completely isolated. You don’t need to read another to know what is happening, but they all interlock nicely.

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