Tag Archives: history

Nine Worlds: How to Think About Historical Fiction


Historical fiction is the orphan of genre criticism, with a low-to-invisible scholarly profile despite its expansive reach, popularity and cultural penetration. Yet of all the major branches of genre fiction, it has always sat closest to the what we would now understand as the poetics of fan fiction, going back to Greek myth’s fictionalisation of the cultural memory of the Mycenaean world. It is possible to argue that fan culture is actually the superset of what scholars do: that historical engagement with the past and the interpretative narratives that we construct to compensate for its inaccessibility are themselves forms of unacknowledged desires for the unattainable other on the far shore of time.

Dr. Nick Lowe, Dept.of Classics, Royal Holloway University

I hadn’t originally intended to go to this talk but the one I’d planned to attend was completely full and this was just across the corridor. I’m so glad things played out that way. Dr. Lowe is a fascinating and energetic speaker, and a huge Greek mythology fanboy. My dissertation, way back in the day, was about the development of story themes from Ancient Persian epics into Ancient Greek ones so I went to chat to him after the presentation. It turned out he knew my old tutor and we geeked out together about how great the man is. Which was all kinds of awesome.


The Macrotext of Historical Fiction

The stories of Greek mythology are the first shared universe that we have record of. They were shared far beyond Greece (which wasn’t much more than city states until around 400 B.C.) to Macedonia and on (courtesy of Alexander the Great) into the Persian Empire. It was a rebootable, retconable corpus of stories which contemporary audiences were deeply engaged with and expert in. All the known poets and playwrights of the era created their stories within this shared cultural property. It was, basically, early fan culture. This creates a pressure towards the democratisation of created ownership. The mythological world belonged to no-one and everyone, and everyone could create within it.

History itself has become a macrotextual setting. Historical fiction measures the gap between what we claim to know and what we desire to know. It also contains nostalgia over unacknowledgable or inexperienceable concepts, such as imperialism, immoral sex, etc.

There’s no truth in history. It’s all competing theories. ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

The past is the macrotext, historical records and academic analysis is the corpus of canon works, and historical fiction is how we try to measure the gaps.

Remembering History


Definitely more fiction than history

Homer’s Iliad was the first piece of historical fiction on record. 500 years after the events of the Trojan War (or wars – archaeology suggests that the site we believe Troy was located, now called Hislarlik, suffered multiple wars over a relatively short time frame), the Iliad was an attempt to recreate the end of the Mycenaean era after a dark age when literary skill was lost and much of history forgotten.

We can’t date episodic memories in order, without writing them down. Human memories don’t work like that. The Iliad started life as a number of episodic oral poems which were stitched together to create the epic. Chinese and early Greek historiography, which ostensibly moved away from fictionalisation and towards reported fact, used episodic or fragmented stories in order to piece events together. Herodotus then used epic poem structure to try and revolutionise how history was remembered.

Early Chinese historiography was generally formed out of commentaries in annals. They weren’t sweeping narratives – that’s very much a Western tradition. The West “founded their history in drama whereas all other cultures of historiography are founded in lyric”.

Narrative structure, with first person retellings, are repeated throughout Western historical documents. This suggests narratological and ideological common approaches perpetuated down the ages. It also demonstrates a need to have an embedded character viewpoint in any story. This, combined with the Western understanding of story structure, forces it into similar shapes, which then become tropes.

Retelling History

You only need to read the first thirty books on Alexander the Great to realise the writers aren’t reading each other. Apart from Mary Renault, which everyone reads.   ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

Despite this macrotextual setting of world history, there’s massive potential for inconsistency. We can’t truly know what that world was like, so everyone interprets it differently. The repertoire of emotions is partly culturally constructed, so a historical novel written in 1950s Britain will inevitably differ hugely from one written in 2010s France. The past is another country and characters should behave as culturally appropriate, which is to say different from now. It’s hopelessly naive to think we can trust contemporary accounts or later academic analysis to give anything close to the true picture.

Historical fiction therefore allows us to experience many possible versions of the past. It also shows us how narrative structure pushes us to think about historical culture in certain terms, and how established events can be interpreted in wildly different ways.

Next week: heroism and morality in genre fiction.

Nine Worlds: The Chinese Don’t Do Sci-Fi?


China and Chinese aesthetics have been borrowed by the West as a sci-fi setting and McGuffin for years. Native Chinese science fiction, however, has remained relatively unregarded until very recently. Yet it has existed for over a century. This talk is a history of Chinese sci-fi and specualtive fiction from the turn of the twentieth century through to the present. Discover the influences of China’s unique history and culture on key themes and voices, from its first dawning to contemporary works.

Xueting Christine Ni

Disclaimer: I know basically nothing about Chinese history, literary, politics or culture. I know a tiny bit about the mythology, and I do mean tiny. If I make any mistakes in this blog, I sincerely apologise. Everything Xueting said was fascinating and my note-taking couldn’t always keep up.

Another World

Chinese fantasy is mostly set in the romanticised past of Chinese history, rather than creating new fantasy worlds.

The Chinese culture has been borrowed from extensively by the West to create futuristic otherworldly cultures. It’s “an alien culture without stepping onto a rocket”. This goes both ways – medieval Britain in classical Chinese 20th century literature is used in a similar manner.

The Politics of Sci-Fi


Kehuan Shijie, “SF World” – a Chinese SF magazine

At the beginning of the 20th century there was a massive flair in SF writing, as the government pushed a ‘save the country with science’ agenda. This was repeated in the 1980s, when the country was forward-thinking and had stable development. One of the masters of the genre was a chemistry graduate – “science was important“.

In between these two periods, the country was too unstable to have much luxury for SF, due to war, invasion, and the change to a republic. As a result, a lot of SF writing has strong social and political commentary, both local and global. In China, the level of censorship was often a strong indicator of how much good work was (is?) being produced.

The Cultural Revolution had a huge impact on SF plots. The genre was used as a way to reclaim history and allow the readership to come to terms with the past. War and revolution brutally severed the link between the ancient and modern periods of Chinese history, and SF tries to form a bridge between the two distinct cultures.

The early tradition of SF set stories in the wider world, either to avoid insulting the homeland directly or as a reflection of China as a bit-player in global politics. Modern SF is far more likely to be set in China itself, suggesting either less concern about the consequences of critique, a new confidence in China as a dominant player on the world stage, or a more immediate preoccupation with matters at home.

The 80s single-child generation is now nearing their thirties, and this is having a massive impact on both modern Chinese culture and SF themes. That generation is currently having to care for their parents and grandparents without any siblings to share the burden. At the same time, the strong sense of community that flourished in a state-owned culture has been nearly obliterated in the current privatised, corporate culture.

Similarly, many graduates are currently unemployed. There is increasing social stratification, leading to a huge gulf in living standards (particularly in cities, where slums are growing rapidly). The overpopulation crisis has led to jobs, schools and living space all under pressure. This is reflected in the current trend of ‘Angry Young Man’ stories (see below).

Themes and Characters


Super Robot Girl, a 2015 film

Near future tech is very popular, especially virtual reality and robotics. AS more factories and restaurants employ robots in reality, the Chinese accept them as a fact of life. SF stories often explore the positive aspects of this, rather than Asmiov’s more doomsday approach. Bio-engineering is also popular. Altering bodies to fit ideals or achieve immortality has been a constant throughout Chinese history. There is a cult of conformity, adjusting looks and lifestyles in order to fit pereived ideals, and near-future science can enable this desire.

Not much is said about characters that break the rules and are removed. The reader is left to draw assumptions, based on history and cultural expectations. This speaks volumes.

The ‘Angry Young Man’ is a popular modern archetype, railing against the system with a certain sense of naivety. This character type is generally written by post-80s writers, who play heavily on themes of consumerist greed, tech advancement and commercialism leading to near-future dystopia. These anti-heroes tend to act as a lens of ‘realism’ for readers, rather than doing anything to change the situation. They are commentators, not actors.

The past is idolised, and almost portrayed as otherworldly. This tension between old desires and history, and new innovation is very obvious in modern SF. There’s still a desire for mysticism in the age of robots.

Lost in Translation

So why hasn’t Chinese SF been translated into English? One reason is that there’s frequently a direct and strong critique of Western politics, which Western readers might well find unpalatable. The USA in particular is a big target for Chinese dystopian futures, which isn’t especially popular with the Americans.

Western readers also generally lack a strong understanding of the history and culture which informs Chinese SF plots and characters. That makes it harder to engage with the stories at the right level.

If you’re interested in trying some, however, the following three authors were recommended as good starting points: Lagrange Graveyard by Wang Jinkang, The Fish of Lijiang by Chen Qiufan, and A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia.

Next week: using foreign languages in genre fiction.


12 Tall Tales: Storytelling In Objects


Two weeks ago I went to the preview show of the Craft Council’s 12 Tall Tales exhibit, which uses the work of twelve artists to tell stories through the objects they made. The point of the exhibition, however, wasn’t to tell stories by depicting them, but through rather more abstract means. There’s a lot of great stuff at the exhibit and I’d encourage you to go if you can, but I wanted to share a few of my favourites.


The guide to the exhibit – I don’t agree with some of their labelling though!

Fortune Telling

The exhibit was a row of metal cylinders with spinning dials of light dots at the top. The idea was that, in this Age of Information, predicting anything is just a matter of data analysis. Want to know when you’re going to get a heart attack? Analyse your diet, fitness regime, personal and family health records, etc., and the machine can give you an answer. All it takes is access to the data.

It made me think of Arthur C Clarke’s quote about suitably advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. Imagine a crystal ball with a USB socket. Plug in the data, ask the question, and the fortune teller will give you an answer. It’s not magic, it’s science. And, the way technology’s going, it’s not even science fiction.

Contaminated Craft

Four black earthenware bowls for storing food, made roughly and unpolished. Nothing special to look at. But the clay was taken from a Japanese rice farm in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant exclusion zone, and is mildly radioactive. The bowls are

…as purposeless as the land is to the farmers of Fukushima… The vessels express a narrative that goes far beyond their form of function, acting as material witnesses to the nuclear disaster.  ~ Exhibit sign

That’s a hell of a story, for a dish.

Just A Hint

This was a bit more abstract. There were ceramic casts of various bits of household objects, like an AC vent, or an Xbox.

In the same way that the chisel or loom is no longer visible in a piece of furniture or tapestry, the principle tool of creation – the story – is suggested but no more. ~ Exhibit sign

You’re sort of bringing archeology into art, here. The existence of the object is proof of the existence of the history and the next trick is to work out what that history was. Looking around your room right now, then, pick up to six objects. What story do they hint at?

Can You Handle Another Story?

This exhibit was sadly not operational, as we were at a preview, but the idea was compelling. There were a number of objects, mostly ancient archeological finds, a flat brass square with faint lines on it, and an audio guide. You listened to the audio guide which began telling you about the objects and ended by weaving them together as characters in a new story.

There’s a number of ways this could be done. All the objects could become anthropomorphic; they could become crucial to a plot, a la Chekov’s Gun; their individual stories could become interlinked throughout history; or, and this is the one that I find most intriguing, it could be that bringing the objects together is a catalyst that sets off a series of events. Two cursed objects, whose curses combine, for example. Or a faulty gas lamp starts a fire which burns down a building, which reveals a forgotten painting with a secret message encoded into it, which… you get the point. But the idea of telling a story without really needing living characters to push the plot along is an intriguing one. Anyone know of any examples?

Roll A D12

And finally… the way the exhibits were displayed involved a D12 (or 12-sided die) on the exhibit, and matching that number to the explanations on the wall. You could also use the diagram below to roll a D12 and design your own object:


My object is an absurd necklace made of gold that represents life in fifty years. Now, I can write a story for that but I’m rubbish at designing objects. So, suggestions on a postcard please!

Alternatively, go roll your own… 😉

What in the World? Researching Settings


Apologies for my recent absence. I don’t really have an excuse. Life just gets short on spoons occasionally. (For those who aren’t aware of Spoon Theory, I can’t recommend reading it highly enough. It isn’t only applicable to those with illnesses.)

Anyway, I’m making an effort to get back in the saddle. This is largely prompted by the upcoming Nine Worlds Convention – a three-day celebration of all things geek. My experience of conventions is comparatively limited but I had an absolute ball at the World Fantasy Convention back in 2013 so I’m hugely looking forward to this. Not least because I’ve got myself involved in speaking on a panel discussion about the use of research in world-building.


Obviously there’s a HUGE amount to say on this subject and I’ve said much of it already on this blog. Important points include:

  • Building on existing cultures to give your audience an easy and textured hook into your setting
  • Picking something small (such as currency) and extrapolating from there
  • Stealing random ideas from history, because it’s frequently weirder than fiction
  • Avoiding jarring your audience out of immersion by Not Getting Things Wrong

The context of this particular discussion, however, revolves specifically around building worlds that the audience will interact with, be it in computer games, LARP, or collaborative storytelling. I’ve been asked to get involved due to London Under, and the research that was done there to bring local history into the game.

One of my aims with the London Under setting was to blur the line between reality and fantasy as much as possible, in order to bring my audience deeper into the world. To that end, I tied in the history of the immediate area as well as news stories. Many of the fantastical plots stemmed from a real-life event. The building of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, for example, became a major point of gang territorial warfare; the Dutch Elm Disease of the late 1960s was revealed to be a piece of biological terrorism committed by one sect of dryads against another. I wanted people to walk down a street, or read a newspaper, weeks later and know something about it – partly true, partly fantastical, and occasionally difficult to tell where the line was.

There’s an obvious problem with this, which is the issue of timeliness. Using current news stories means that the setting and plot has a very high risk of dating quickly. Anything based on, for example, Thatcherism feels old fashioned now and that sense of the old-fashioned will carry over in the audience’s mind into your world setting. On the other hand, if done well, it gives your world an extra dimension of historical reality – one you don’t need to explain in detail because the audience will fill in the gaps for you. And that unconscious gap-filling means they are more emotionally invested in your setting. They understand something about it, have brought it closer to their own world, and it’s more real to them as a result.

To be honest, I’ve no idea what the panel discussion will end up covering on the day. Do come along and find out! My dear friend Dr. Nick will, in a weird quirk of coincidence, also be taking part (doctorate in naval architecture =  really good at designing spaceships and dirigibles), as will Jeanette Ng and Russell Smith. Let me know if you think there are any other points or questions that ought to be raised. And please come say hi – it would be lovely to see you there. 🙂

Palimpsest Exercise: From Point A to Point C


This term’s university module, now nearly over, has been all about the importance and methods of research. I haven’t learned a whole lot of new stuff this term but I did come across the concept of palimpsest exercises whilst writing an assignment on incorporating fact into fiction.

A brief history lesson

In Ye Olde Times, when parchment was super expensive, using it only once was pretty wasteful. A lot of manuscripts were written on, cleaned, written on again, cleaned again, and so on. That’s a palimpsest. The term doesn’t just apply to paper, incidentally – a bronze plaque that’s been turned over and reinscribed, or stone that’s been smoothed down and recarved, are also palimpsests. The word comes from the Ancient Greek palimpsestos, which literally means ‘scraped again’.

In a way, reused canvases (a la Monet) could be called palimpsests. They weren’t scraped off, just painted over, but technically the modern definition doesn’t require scraping. All it means is ‘used for one purpose and later reworked for another’.

When we read [a palimpsest], we see erasures from other reading and writings. History is the reading we make of this subjective, visually complex activity. It is made up of layers upon layers of fact and opinion and stray thoughts, so that one cannot always decide if one is reading one layer or another.   ~ Brian Kiteley, How Language Lives: Reading and Writing Historical Fiction


The Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, a Greek manuscript of the Bible from the 5th century

The actual exercise

Pick a paragraph from a writer you like. Pick a second paragraph from a second writer. Got them? Right, now write a prose bridge between them.

The challenge is to somehow make them fit. Brings the settings together, make a logical progression of plot, or even turn two character voices into one. You can rewrite the original paragraphs a little to make this work – hence the name of the exercise. Start easy, with paragraphs that are vaguely similar in tone or subject matter, then graduate to completely different genres, voices, and worlds.

The point of this is to stretch your powers of persuasion. Make the reader believe that these two different paragraphs belong together, and always have. If you can do that, you can make them believe anything you put on the page, and then you’ve got them hooked.