Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Importance of History in Fiction: A personal commentary

I was a history major in university, and I am sure more than a few of my readers think the subject is quite frankly boring, but it is still something that fascinates me to this day.

And much like those experts in forensic science that wince when they watch CSI, the physicists who cringe when watching science fiction and the lawyers who shake their heads at every legal drama, I too recoil in horror when I encounter the lack of historical thinking that occurs in the work of a lot of science fiction/fantasy authors and filmmakers.

From most of the writing books I have ever read, one of the key points is usually always something akin to "know the world you are writing about", and from my viewing/reading habits, well, it seems like these creators just don't have that good of an understanding of the history of their settings and societies. They make elementary mistakes which are clear to someone who has studied the development of cultures, technologies and nations, mistakes which seriously put the rest of the premise they are trying to present under immense strain.

Usually when you are introduced to a character and a plot, well, the details behind how we got to this particular point are usually very sketchy. You may be presented with a few relevant bits and pieces from the immediate past(like the fact that a war has just taken place), but the steps the society took to get to that point are woefully inadequate to support the story, or what's worse, the causality of the events make absolutely no sense from a historical point of view, like in fantasy books, having almost every character be literate when they've grown up in a society that has no books. Or having a science fiction universe where every planet is one culture, language, religion and race, or in fantasy where a hero can go from one end of a continent to another and can converse with everyone in the same language without explaining that there may be a universal language that transcends the vernacular(like Latin amongst the educated classes in Europe for centuries). I know it is easier to write a story when you don't have to worry about those pesky little details like having to deal with a cosmopolitan society, but it makes me die a little inside every time I see it.

And when they show some of these places, it is like they just pulled that planet/city/empire out of a shrinkwrapped box and plopped it in there. Sure, the buildings may be burned out or falling apart, but when you look at the places they occupy, well, it is like someone just put them up yesterday, like it is some odd futuristic version of a Levittown. There is nothing organic about these places, they don't feel lived in. And in fantasy, there are castles, but you never read about the wars and interregional rivalries that caused them to be built.

There are also those allegorical tales that use certain Earth-based historical events, figures and nations as the basis of their societies (Nazi Germany/Soviet Russia were used quite a bit... ok, more than quite a bit really), but they usually don't explain how things got to that point. We are instead supposed to just take the artist's word that this is just how things are, and usually they are making these entreaties for is to believe them while presenting other information which completely invalidates that reality. Like having a huge, megalithic fascist regime that supposedly controls the lives of everyone, and yet, everyone has access to as much information as they could ever want or has easy access to the very systems would will eventually bring down the entire empire.

And the products of culture are rarely explored in these types of work. Sure, there may be some consumer products and the occasional work of scholarship in these created worlds, but there is a huge intellectual output that is created by a society that is rarely explored.

I mean, if you picked up a novel that was set in Northern Virginia, 1864, you have a good idea of the context in which the events of the book take place, just as you may if it was set in 1960's San Francisco/Saigon. And for exotic and unknown settings like 1540's Europe or 2nd century East Asia, you have other resources to discover this information, but when an author/director is building a world, you have to take their word for it and hope that we will follow them along for the ride. If someone was willfully ignorant of their setting in these cases, we wouldn't accept it. Why is it anymore acceptable when the world is being created from the ground up then?

I am not saying that I need to know the entire history of a world to get into a story, but there are a lot of times when I don't think the creators of these worlds could answer some basic questions about them either, and that is my point. I am not looking for them to make up the entire historical background for everything that ever happened on that world like Tolkien devised, but I do have a reasonable expectation that if asked, an author/director should be able to tell you about the conflicts between two groups of people or how a species reached the stars or united as one on a planet. Because really, how can we be expected to understand a character when the author doesn't fully understand them either?


Becca said...

YES! Nothing throws me out of a story quicker than that. Why should I bother reading if the author hasn't bothered to do his homework?

On another note have you read The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin? These are well conceived fantasy novels very loosely based on historical events/ peoples. Nothing like those bloated Wheel of Time books, I can't reccomend them enough. They are like crack in book form.

MC said...

I read Fevre Dream by him a long time ago, so I do know he does his research thoroughly. I also recently lamented an online friend's descent into those Wheel of Time books.

It took Terry Pratchett a few books to really get a feel for the history of the Discworld, but once he did, well, it was just off to the races really... that feels like a very organic world, and David Brin did create a very fleshed out world in Glory Season, so I know that there are people who also value these kinds of things when they are writing.

SamuraiFrog said...

I recently read David Brin's comic book adaptation of his story "The Life Eaters," and he made a point of saying in his afterword that science fiction writers need to study history to learn cultural cause and effect. I wrote a long essay about Star Wars and put pieces of it on my blog about a lot of those same holes. I wrote it for a group of scholars I'm involved with, and one of them excoriated me for daring to ask for context and a basic understanding of planetary science. Verisimilitude, people!

MC said...

That scholar would probably not accept other assumptions if presented to him/her, am I right? What makes one criticism any less valid than another in this context. The learning process is one which invites the participants to tear things apart to see how they work, from cars to the human body to works of art. Questioning how a plot or setting is developed is vital for the growth of young writers.

Re: history/assumptions: This kind of thing is even starting to bug me in gaming. I was playing Dragon Quest 8, and the dominant religion in that particular world had a goddess as the supreme being... and yet the dressings were very Catholic and the relationship between men and women were very much the same as on earth when the dominance of a female deity would seem to indicate that in fact, women would have an equal standing in that society, if not a superior one(after all, this is a pre-industrial agrarian society).

Chris said...

Agreed on all points, but I still love watching the ham-handed attempts of a show like Star Trek when they make their semi-regular jaunts to past Earth. I mean, Kirk and Spock as Nazis!

MC said...

Yeah, how many times did they find some mysterious planet that was occupied by humanoids facing the problems of a particular civilization at a particularly interesting time in our own history.

That was just laziness(City on the Edge of Tomorrow excepted).