Sometimes these are fine historical novels, written by tremendous writers; I particularly like Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, and my favorite was Penelope Fitzgerald. But working, like all of us, in the rain shadow of the great modernists, they tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways. A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is.There followed several discussions about the relative merits of literary and science fiction, but what struck me about Robinson's comments was his observation that historical fiction dominates the award. That's certainly not an assertion one can argue with this year, in which five of the six shortlisted novels, including the eventual winner, are historicals, but implicit in Robinson's critique is the assumption that historical fiction is a genre, in which opinion he is apparently joined by Chris Schuler in the Independent, who greeted the news of Hilary Mantel's win by accusing authors of historical fiction of "indulging in high-class escapism." Whereas to my mind historical fiction is just barely a mode, and may even, like YA, be mainly a marketing category. How useful is it to lump together Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings, an adventure, with A.S. Byatt's Possession, a romance, Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, a social novel, and Pat Barker's Regeneration, a psychological novel about the horrors or war? For that matter, how far in the past does a novel need to be set in order to considered historical? Does any novel not set in the present automatically get lumped in that category (Robinson seems to think so--one of the examples he gives of historical fiction is Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, set in 1968)? How historical can Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger be if M. John Harrison associates it closely with his own childhood?
A good rule of thumb might be that a novel is historical if it takes place in a period (and setting) not directly experienced by its author (by which standard, incidentally, historical novels have won the Booker only seven times in the last twenty years). So The Age of Innocence, published in 1920 but set in the 1870s, is not a historical novel because Wharton was writing about the period and social set in which she grew up, but Ivanhoe and A Tale of Two Cities are. A historical novel, in other words, is one that requires its author not simply to recall the past, but to study and imagine it, to create a believable world whose mores, customs, settings and technology are as foreign to them as they are to the readers--to worldbuild, in other words. And as in science fiction, worldbuilding in a historical novel reflects as much on the present as it does on the past, in much the same way that costumes in period films tell us more about fashion at the time they were made than at the time they purport to depict (remember Doc Brown in Back to the Future III, sending Marty to 1885 in a pink, tasseled shirt and purple pants because that's how people dress in Westerns?). Sarah Waters didn't hit it big with novels about Victorian lesbians because she was the first person to realized they had existed, nor, I suspect, because she was the first to write fiction about them, but because she happened to hit on a period in which audiences were willing to accept and sympathize with such characters. Contrary to what Robinson says, historical fiction is, or can be, about the now in the same way that science fiction is. It's just coming at it from the opposite direction.
***A.S. Byatt's Booker-nominated historical novel, The Children's Book, is a sprawling saga, spanning the period between 1895 and the end of the first World War, and featuring a cast of dozens. There is Olive Wellwood, a celebrated children's author, her rakish husband Humphry, a banker and later a financial journalist, and their brood of children both legitimate and otherwise. There is Humphry's brother Basil, a self-made financier, who along with his wife Katharina aspires to cement his position and respectability, but whose children, Charles and Griselda, chafe at their assigned roles as a rich man and rich man's wife. Prosper Cain, keeper of precious metals at the South Kensington Museum, the precursor to the V&A, and widowed father of Julian and Florence. Benedict Fludd, a genius potter with a frightful, mercurial temper, who lives in squalor with his cowed wife and daughters and restless son. Philip Warren, a runaway from the commercial potteries in the north who is discovered by Julian Cain and Olive's oldest son Tom hiding out in the museum, where he has been sketching the exhibits, and becomes Benedict Fludd's apprentice, and his sister Elsie, who becomes the Fludds' housekeeper. And additional friends, tutors, vicars, neighbors, acquaintances, and hangers-on. To a one, these characters are artists, bohemians, scholars, freethinkers, socialists, anarchists, and suffragettes, and worldbuilding--or rather the remaking of their world--is very much on their minds.
The Children's Book proceeds not with a narrative arc, or even several them, but as a litany of things happening, one after the other. These are the soapy ups and downs of the characters' lives, compelling if ultimately repetitive--there are finally one too many suicides, one too many molesting parents, one too many secret pregnancies, one too many revelations of illegitimacy, one too many young women choosing to pursue a life of the mind over domesticity--and the history they are witnessing and participating in, the transition from the Victorian 19th century to the modern era. The latter is described through the characters' taking the place of real actors in this transformation (Olive's youngest daughter Hedda becomes a militant suffragette, is jailed in Holloway prison, and force-fed when she refuses to eat), or their encountering real historical figures (Olive's Peter Pan-ish play is praised by J.M. Barrie), or, mainly, their taking a back seat as Byatt simply describes history.
On Derby Day, June 4th 1913, Herbert 'Diamond' Jones rode the King's horse, Anmer, in his silks with the royal colours. He was a national hero. The huge crowds applauded him. Emily Wilding Davison, wearing a tweed suit, high-collared blouse and unobtrusive hat stood by the rails at Tattenham Corner, where the horses wheeled around, flashing colours against the sky. Inside her sleeve was a flag with the suffragette tricolour, purple, white and green and another was wrapped round her waist. When the heavy pounding of the hooves was heard, and she saw Anmer leading the galloping herd, she stepped out, in front of the horse, raised her arms, and grabbed at the bridle. They all came down, jockey, horse, screaming woman, on the bloodstained turf.Between the sprawling, multi-character, narrativeless narrative, the reported history, and most of all the novel's When It Changed focus, The Children's Book put me very powerfully in mind of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy (it is, I think, no coincidence that Adam Roberts, who bounced so hard off those books and particularly their method of storying history, has similar criticisms to make of The Children's Book). Byatt is a better writer, as I think the passage above demonstrates, and even if she weren't 600 pages are less of a chore to get through than 2,700. Nevertheless, I find myself, as in Stephenson's case, loathe to praise a novel for substituting history for story, and if I did enjoy The Children's Book it is because in its non-historical parts, and in between seductions and unrequited infatuations, it reminded me of another science fiction novel, Kim Stanley Robinson's own Red Mars.
Red Mars is a story about the colonization of the red planet and about the political processes that shape it, but it is also a novel about the work of making Mars habitable--science, engineering, construction, mechanics, agriculture. Its characters use and develop their expertise, teach, learn from, and inspire one another, and form groups where their individual skills come together to create the physical trappings of civilization on an alien planet. Similar processes are at work among the fictitious characters of The Children's Book, albeit with art, rather than terraforming, as the goal. Prosper Cain recognizes Philip's talent and puts him in touch with Fludd, and later sees that Fludd's downtrodden daughter, Imogen, has talent of her own, and takes her to London, where she becomes a gifted metalworker. Olive is inspired by the exhibits in Prosper's keeping and by the puppet shows put on by the German Anselm Stern, and later the two collaborate on a play. Several characters are involved in establishing artists' communes and schools. At the 1900 international exposition in France, Philip meets a fellow potter's apprentice with whom he has no language in common, but the two are able to cross-pollinate ideas using drawings and hand-gestures, while Olive draws inspiration from Lalique ornaments. There's science in the mix, too--Philip's background in the potteries has taught him the physics of correctly packing a kiln to prevent pots from collapsing or exploding, and he learns the chemistry of glazing and decorating pottery from Fludd, while Imogen studies metallurgy in London. Art in The Children's Book isn't something lofty or ineffable, but a craft and a skill, which the characters hone, teach, and develop, trading both techniques and ideas. Characters are constantly talking about their craft, encouraging one another, and creating opportunities by which others can develop their talent. This, as much as unionizing or agitating for women's suffrage, is how the characters strive to create a new world, and it's an approach that strikes me as quintessentially SFnal.
***Underlying and running alongside The Children's Book's dry reporting of history in the early 20th century there is a constant questioning of historical fiction, and perhaps of all of fiction. Early in the novel, Prosper tells a visiting Olive the history of one of his exhibits, thinking that it might make an interesting plot for a children's story.
Olive Wellwood had the feeling writers often have when told perfect tales for fictions, that there was too much fact, too little space for the necessary insertion of inventions, which would here appear to be lies.Twenty years later, Olive's oldest daughter Dorothy, now a doctor, and her cousin Griselda are working in a makeshift hospital in Paris, where the convalescing soldiers stage a play, "a precise representation of the court martial of a deserter," ending with his execution.
Griselda said, 'What do you think made them put it on? Does play-acting help them look it in the face? Or cut it down to size?"So we have two perspectives on the use and nature of fiction, and on the use of historical facts within fiction, not coincidentally coming from opposite ends of the huge transition the world has undergone. In between there is Olive, perhaps the closest thing the novel has to a villain, and certainly the character who ends it most grievously and pathetically diminished, playing dangerously with the commingling of fiction and fact. Each of Olive's children has a book in which she writes their own personal story, though she spends the most time on Tom's story, in which he loses his shadow and must travel underground to retrieve it. Alone among Olive's children, Tom doesn't lose interest in his story, which is either the cause or a symptom of his unwillingness to put away childish things and pursue an adult life, a tendency which Olive enables with her relentless storytelling about him, and then betrays when she cannibalizes Tom's hellish experiences at boarding school, and later the story of his underground journey, for her commercial work. When Tom is taken to see Peter Pan, his family expect the boy who has himself refused to grow up to adore it, but Tom crossly sums it up as "make-believe make-believe make-believe. Anyone can see those boys are girls." At the premiere of Olive's play, "He refused grimly to suspend disbelief."
Of course, suspending disbelief implies that there was disbelief in the first place. For Tom to enjoy Peter Pan or Olive's play, he has to first let go of the notion, which has accompanied him since childhood, that there is magic all around him, and relegate it to the realm of fiction and make-believe, and the realization this his personal story has been taken away from him and transformed into such a make-believe destroys him. Wonder, which was a inseparable component of not only the children's but the adult characters' lives at the beginning of the novel, has been concentrated into permissible zones, while the rest of the world grows grimmer and more mundane (the novel's chapters are titled The Age of Gold, The Age of Silver, and The Age of Lead). The characters' progress over the course of the novel is a heedless rush down a road that ends with the brick wall of the first World War (which Byatt describes in a short but devastating segment, mercilessly taking one playing piece after another off the board), in the wake of which fiction becomes not a tool for flights of fancy but a means of conveying, distancing, and dealing with grim realities. To use Clute's term, this is a story about the thinning of the world, but it is also the story of its compartmentalization. The same grimness that drives wonder out of the lives of all the characters who, unlike Tom, are willing to grow and change, also relegates it to the realm of children's fiction (it is probably significant that Byatt so stresses the artistry of Anselm Stern's puppetry, which at the time was apparently considered a legitimate theatrical art and today is found almost exclusively in productions aimed at children). And, of course, to the realm of genre. If Olive works at a time when the fantastic has yet to be codified, just around the corner are the earliest practitioners of fantasy as a genre (Hope Mirrlees is glimpsed briefly).
The Children's Book is the story of a fall from a sort of bohemian, anything-goes Eden. It is the story of lines being drawn: between stories for children and those for adults, between respectable, literary fiction and the generic kind, between German and English, and, a couple of decades down the line, between art as something non-functional and maybe even not aesthetically pleasing and the kind of craftsmanship that Philip, Benedict and Imogen Fludd, and Anselm Stern practice. It's that very compartmentalization that will ultimately lead to novels like The Children's Book being thought of as worthy for consideration for the Booker award, while works by Adam Roberts and Geoff Ryman aren't, mainly (though not entirely) because they don't fall in the right category. The Children's Book isn't a perfect novel. Like many works of science fiction, it is more often interesting than enjoyable. But it is, undeniably, a novel about the now.