The Importance Of The Responsible Use Of History In Fiction

It saddened me recently to see one of my favorite genre writers, Lavie Tidhar, posting about the backlash he’s gotten for comments made about some historical issues with steampunk. Steampunk, after all, is quite popular and heavily influenced by history, with stories often set in the time periods of the Victorian age when steam tech was new and popular. And to my mind, Lavie’s comment is merely a suggestion that there’s a responsibility writers have in using history. I find it hard to believe anyone would question that.

From Lavie himself, the attacks began over a tweet. ” I see Steampunk as “Fascism for nice people”. He adds in this post: “This was partly borne out… from the disconnect I feel at what that term, “steampunk” has come to represent in recent years and the worrying (to me) political and ideological implications of it.”

Okay, well, let’s look at the Victorian period. Wikipedia defines it thusly: “The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria‘s reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901.” It further adds that “the era was a long period of peace, known as the Pax Britannica, and economic, colonial, and industrial consolidation, temporarily disrupted by the Crimean War in 1854. ” This is the period where 15 million people immigrated to colonies like America from England alone. During this time, British troops occupied Egypt in a bid to control the Suez Canal. During the latter part of the period, we have the Age Of Imperialism, defined by Wikipediathusly as: “beginning around 1870 when modern, relatively developed nations were taking over less developed areas, colonizing them, or influencing them in order to expand their own power.” It further states: “The bulk of British emigration, trade, and capital went to areas outside the formal British Empire. A key to the thought of Robinson and Gallagher is the idea of empire ‘informally if possible and formally if necessary.’…Europe’s expansion into territorial imperialism had much to do with the great economic benefit from collecting resources from colonies, in combination with assuming political control often by military means.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but just looking at those little bits, I see lots of political and ideological implications. I’ll leave it to you to do further research but let’s examine what we have so far. There’s clearly a movement by Western nations of power to dominate less powerful nations and exploit their resources. In doing so, I’d assume there was an assumption being made that the dominating country’s destiny was superior to the dominated country’s destiny. It’s not as if they went in invited. They went in by military force. They took what they wanted and used it as they would. Looking back centuries later, we can clearly see the result of many of these policies. African nations continue to struggle for political stability. Most have a level of corruption in government which still seems shocking to us now but which is very much modeled after the historical colonial governments which once ruled there on nepotism and favoritism at the highest levels. Just like their colonial masters, the current African leadership take everything they can from the land and government, including money, etc. and use it to benefit themselves and their friends without concern for the country left behind. This is a pattern echoed in the history of African nation after African nation: Ghana, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, etc. Don’t believe me. Do some research. We taught them the ideology of imperialism and colonism and they continue to live by it today. In many cases, the lack of development or the slow development of these countries is largely due to this practice. Do we not bear responsibility for that at least by implication?

This is just one example and there are many others. I haven’t mentioned the racism, poverty, classism, injustice, etc. which were going on around that. Knowledge of the injustice, poverty, bigotry, etc. of the past is very much a part of informing our response to such things in our present world. How can we really address the issues well without this historical knowledge?

You see, I do think we have a responsibility for the history we use in our fiction. We should be responsible to represent it accurately, which means not only getting the facts straight and correct but understanding the underlying issues as well: philosophies, ideologies, cultural mores, etc. The research is available and plentiful, much of it even free over the internet. The responsibility is ours to take the time to seek it out. When used well, history can enrich fiction in many ways. When used poorly, it can make that fiction a laughing stock.  It can also lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings about history which are dangerous. Would it be okay for someone to write a fictional portrayal of Nazi Germany that ignored the Holocaust and instead glorified the unity and prosperity it brought to Germany? It’s a fact that Naziism united Germany in a powerful way. Yes, there were desenters, but part of its rise to power is the restoration of patriotic pride in the German people by the Nazis which brought people into line and encouraged their support. And yes, with that power came a level of prosperity Germany had not seen for many decades. Yet, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, they have suffered losses far more devastating. Sure, the rise to power and patriotic unity came before the killing of Jews and happened while many Germans remained ignorant of the mass killings occurring in their midst. One could spend hours analyzing and speculating about how they could have been so blind, I suppose, but it did happen that many Germans were shocked by the later discoveries of the darkness at the heart of Hitler’s reign.

Should we ignore the negatives then and emphasize the positives?

This is just one example. I could offer many others. I think there is a responsibility for the use of truth in fiction. Because truth has power and truth lends a poignancy and even a authenticity, a sense of reality, and a credence to your fiction like nothing else. When we use history, if done believably, people start to regard the fiction as factual without often having the ability to discern the fictional from the true. Thus, using history has its advantages and disadvantages, because in using it, we also become historians of a sort and bear a responsibility for how we educate readers about that history, or, you might say, reeducate them about it. Don’t we?

I don’t have easy answers for this but I do know that, while I love steampunk, I think the cultural mores and ideologies are a very important part of it and must be taken into consideration in writing it, as Tidhar seems to suggest. I really think when that doesn’t happen, it shows a lack of respect and responsibility both. Sure, you can set your novel in a different period and employ steampunk tropes. There are different implications that come with that. I’m dealing with it myself in my epic fantasy The Dawning Age. But if you set it in a specific historical period, accuracy and fact become so much more important a part of the world-building canvass. And I think it would be remiss not to consider them in depth. Part of the reason we have Holocaust deniers and others ignorant of history is because of a failure of our educational system to do this at times, I believe, as well as a failure societally to consider the implications of our history as relevant, informative lessons for us today. “The past is the past,” we say, as if those ignorant forefathers were plagued by so many odd ideas and notions we’d never be susceptible to. If we continue with such attitudes, I fear history will repeat itself in horrifying ways, don’t you? Some lessons deserve to be remembered forever.

I’m sure some will disagree with me about Tidhar’s comments and my interpretation of them. I’m sure some will disagree with my insistence on responsibile use of history. There’s always naysayers, but I stand by it nonetheless. The implications steampunk and Victorian elements have for some people might be similar to reactions many have when someone uses Swastikas. It’s offensive by implication. For those who know the history behind the steampunk era, careless use of that history is the same.

I do believe we have a responsibility for using history in fiction with accuracy and our best efforts to get it right. Slight modifications for storytelling aside, that shouldn’t include ignoring issues of colonialism, imperialism, classism, etc. It’s perfectly fine to admire and adore periods of history but let’s not ignore the warts and faults in doing so. If we do, we are not only contributing to misinformation but, in a sense, we are adding our endorsement to what went on by writing it off as unimportant. And we may well be teaching others to forget historical lessons that shouldn’t be forgotten. I, for one, wouldn’t want that responsibility on my conscience.

For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

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  1. Bryan, as ever, a thought provoking look into one of the issues around writing and writing well.

    I don’t know if couching the argument in terms of history is necessarily a useful way in, when the subject at hand is really to do with the quality and honesty in treatments of various situations, ideas and attitudes.

    I read the post on Steampunk as fascism and felt that this, again was an attack on poor quality of thought and execution, rather than the genre itself. Unfortunately, whenever the word “fascism” turns up in a headline, the rest of the debate gets kicked into the long grass; it’s too emotive, too charged as a concept to allow people to take constructive middle positions in a wider argument. Playing devil’s advocate when discussing anything to do with the Nazi party is still widely considered to be beyond the pale.

    Returning to the ideas of quality and honesty though, I’d simply refer to the advice on writing given by Orson Scott Card on finding your way to the truth of a character: as the writer “acting” out that character, the more thought you put into the milieu, the situation, the actions of the people involved and the more truthfully you do that, the better the outcome will be. You have to ask tough questions about what you want to say and how you want to say it, because the readers can certainly expect you to have done so.

    As a for instance, in an Imperialist, adventurist climate of subjugation through conquest, you could encounter racism, bigotry, religious intolerance, patronising attitudes to indigenous society and culture and many other foibles. These are all deeply negative things, but by forcing characters on both sides of these dividing lines to address them and respond in a genuine, human fashion the issue doesn’t become rooted in the negative aspects, but in the honest reactions of real-feeling people.

    The historical understanding you are discussing is part of that, as fiction from a holocaust denier or a conspiracy theorist might be unpleasant due to it’s fundamental misapprehension of widely accepted historical ideas, but it is not the core of the issue.

    The wider issue has cropped up several times in the last few days and weeks in the form of the Tomb Raider rape debate (check out Chuck Wendig’s posts on that subject) and the aforementioned Steampunk debate: the thoughtless reiteration of cheap stereotype shorthands. The dramatic pointless rape, the uneducated savage, the frothing clergyman and righteous crusading conquests are all things that betray the trust of the reader by putting nasty, negative place-holder characters and situations in works which are supposed to be thoughtful and engaging.

    Mr. Card and Mr. Wendig make similar counterpoints though, in reiterating that nasty negative things like rape and racial stereotype can actually become worthwhile if actually necessary for the further truth of the story, treated with honesty themselves and put into the right context. If these events and ideas help reveal aspects of character, to show a vital human side to the story, their negativity feeds into good storytelling rather than feeling tawdry and tacked on.

    Having finished telling you how the wider problem is the key issue, I’d like to end by returning to the understanding of history elided upon in the post. Firstly, the skills of the historian and the author are very closely related and in many instances, the better one is at the former, the more interesting their works as the latter can be. Secondly, I’d agree with some of the sentiments expressed in the article and say that history is a great basis for all sorts of fantasy and science fiction, and a rewarding route that can be taken to round out a story or a world.

    So… um, yeah.

    TL;DR – Yeah, I liked the post, but I think you’re actually pointing at a constituent part of a larger issue.

  2. Perhaps, but it’s the particular angle I wanted to address in this post. My posts tend to focus on specific aspects of a larger whole intentionally. I think if you’re going to use history, you have to consider its many aspects together in depth as one larger picture, especially as a writer, even more than the fan reenactors here. It’s important to understand the associations such period tropes bring to mind and relate to on a larger scale but as far as being a writer, it’s important to know what baggage the history you employ in storytelling brings with it. Thus I focused on that and some specific related examples.

  3. I should also point out that Card’s statements on homosexuality and some of his related writings do not make him a very good example in this case when discussing issues like bigotry, intolerance, etc. He’s not exactly known for his ability to practice what he preaches in those cases. In fact, he rewrote Shakespeare to put forward his views on those issues in ways that many would say are the opposite of finding truth through character.

  4. Hi Bryan

    I was at first bemused, and then saddened by the vitriol that Lavie has faced over his comments.

    Can Lavie provoke with his rhetoric? Absolutely. Sometimes he goes over lines that make me, and people I know very uncomfortable. He made a couple of comments after Bradbury’s death that were in extremely poor taste.

    I do think that Steampunk is often a paint job that hides some real concerns and issues about the Victorian era. Lavie’s way of expressing concern with that is in-your-face, but I do think that he is often a usual corrective to accepting things at face value that really, really should be examined.

    “The past is a different country, not a theme park” is what I am saying.

  5. James Clark says

    I have to admit that I was unaware of the approach Card had taken towards those kinds of things and it comes across as a real shame, especially in light of some of the more humanistic elements of his work. Having said that, the failure to act on his own good advice doesn’t mean the advice isn’t good.

    As for the look at history specifically, well two things really:

    1) as I was writing my comment above, the importance of history came through more and more, amply validating the reasoning behind writing your post in my eyes.
    2) with the various questions that have been floating around the games and publishing industries concerning the portrayal of gender, race, attitudes to sex and other related issues over the last few weeks, it seemed that this post fell into the groove of these discussions.

    I’ll think some more on this and maybe ask a few questions in another comment; I hate typing on my phone!

  6. Nob Ody says

    After the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, who some rather convincingly argue is a classical fascist (NB nazism and fascism ain’t the same thing), and the remembrance of Utøya, I find the comparison of a fiction aesthetic with fascism in a twitter slogan utterly disgusting, and anyone doing that has basically disqualified themselves from any civilized discussion.

    If you consider actual works of steampunk and the idea of steampunk as an aesthetic rather than a genre (as the Steampunk Scholar argues), the concept of historical accuracy becomes rather more problematic. Steampunk isn’t historical novels, nor is it (necessarily) alternative history (classically constrained to have one and only one point of departure); steampunk may take place in an post-apocalyptic future, on some other planet (there is a rather steampunk–ish tome of the french bande dessinée Sillage, for instance), or in a pure fantasy “reality” (e.g., another BD, Midi-Minuit). In those cases, historical accuracy is rather besides the point. Also, I’ve also taken anachronism to be a defining aspect of steampunk: for instance, anachronistic (and often completely fantastic and magical) technology, such as steam-driven robots and spaceships flying through the aether. And anachronistic attitudes, politics, etc.

    Yes, people and nations during the Victorian ear did a lot of nasty things and held horrible views, but which historical period isn’t that true of? A lot of fantasy is (loosely) is based on medieval Europe, and during those 1000 years there was a distinct lack of democracy, no religious freedom, periods of really horrible attitudes against and treatment of women, lots of torture and cruel & very unusual punishments, wholesale slaughter of heretics, wars of aggression, the inquisition, antisemitism, crusades, (by today’s standards) war crimes aplenty (e.g., Richard Coeur-de-lion killing a whole town – men, women and children – because they would be too cumbersome as prisoners; exterminating whole towns seems to have happened a lot during the crusades), slavery, poverty, plagues, etc., etc. (though the infamous vikings, despite what todays neo-nazists and the like think, were not racist). Is this something that all readers and writers of fantasy, all members of the SCA, and so on, should keep in mind and address all the time?

    And the 19th century Western European empires were not exactly the first and only imperial powers dominating others: the Greeks (Marseille begun as a greek colony), the Romans, the Huns, the Mongols, the vikings, Russians (strange enough, vikings from what today is Sweden seems to have had a part in the funding of what became Russia), the Mayans, the Incas, the Ottoman Empire, China, Imperial Japan, …

    There isn’t a single time or place in history that isn’t tainted in some way, and that includes today.

    Being ignorant of history is one thing (and Schmidt seems to have missed some of the evils of the Third Reich – and how widespread some of the ideas were at the time: for instance, the first institute of racial biology wasn’t German), not addressing every evil associated with the sources of inspiration in a work of fantasy is another.

  7. While no-one would particularly care to go back to the colonial era, the above over-simplification of it presents a comic-book version of the times, with all of the evils of the world caused by western colonial powers. To suggest, for example, that today’s corruption in some African former colonies is a result of them modelling their governments on colonial administrations is, at least in the case of the British Empire, absurd. The British colonial office and the courts they set up in colonies were notably free from corruption, and generally very competent. The colonial administrations were often very unlike present dictators, in that they invested money back into the colony in infrastructure, hygiene, and education, and if anyone was exploiting the local resources it was British businesses, not colonial administrators – try naming a few Victorian British colonial administrators who amassed vast personal fortunes and power through butchering and bankrupting their colony, and you’ll have a pretty short list compared with the number of post-colonial dictators who did those things. The colonial administrations were certainly paternalistic, but they were not simply cynical “fascist” regimes devoted to milking colonies of everything of value. And the assumption, made in this article, that present-day Africans are incapable of thinking for themselves and simply ape the colonial governments of many generations ago is racist, and just as paternalistic as some of the colonies. It’s particularly strange that you give Liberia as an example of a post-colonial state whose history has been corrupted by acting “just like their colonial masters”, since Liberia was never a European colony – it was established in pre-Victorian times by freed American slaves.

    Also, lumping together atrocious regimes like the Belgian Congo with British Colonies into a generic, evil “colonialism” makes the discussion practically meaningless. If the British Empire were in any way comparable to, say, Nazi Germany, how is it that over 50 former colonies have voluntarily joined the Commonwealth, the successor of the Empire? How is it that former colonies (now entirely independent) as varied as Jamaica, The Bahamas, and Papua New Guinea, voluntarily choose to have Elizabeth II as their ceremonial head of state? That doesn’t sound like the successors of a brutal, oppressive Empire that dominated its subjects simply by military force. If the Empire had been that brutal and exploitive, former colonies would hardly be eager to keep up the old connections in a new form.

    As for the “racism, poverty, classism, injustice, etc.” – do some research yourself, and you may find that these things weren’t created by European colonialism, or the Victorian era. They were present in all societies, cultures, and historical periods.

    Before advocating the use of fiction to preach a doctrine about the evils of the past, at least make an effort to get some kind of semi-objective understanding of that past, instead of just putting forward the fashionable one-sided demonization of colonialism and European culture.

  8. This brings us to the important thing SF & Fantasy can do: let us approach our archetypes and origins without being bogged down by the things that our society has rejected. For example, Heinlein could use SF to explore – say – the experience of carving out a new home in an alien place without having to deal with the problem of what happens to the natives, and John Ringo could explore a total war of survival without the knotty problem of the enemy fielding non-consenting minions. Similarly in Fantasy, Tolkien could tell us one side of an irrefutably just war. Similarly, Steampunk lets us explore Victoriana on our own terms –

    – plus zeppelins and corsets. 🙂

  9. Douglas Briton says

    You make some good points. The 19th century wasn’t all fun. It was a time of the “scramble for Africa” where the Europeans divided a continent amongst themselves and where children went up chimneys.
    But it was also the time when the slave trade was dismantled and laws were introduced to protect workers.
    As for the colonisation of Africa. Yes, there were some horrors. King Leopold and Cecil Rhodes stand out as individuals who got very rich.
    But you are wrong to say we were never invited. The Tswana pleaded with the British to come in and protect them from the encroaching Boers and Zulus, but the Brits only moved when the Germans also tried to move in. Thus we had the Bechuanaland Protectorate, modern Botswana, a very peaceful place.
    And don’t forget the Battle of Aduwa (spelling?) where the Africans went shopping for artillery before meeting the European colonists and soundly defeating them.

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