Saturday, October 10, 2009

Future History

Writing in The New Scientist several weeks ago, Kim Stanley Robinson caused a bit of a stir when he argued that the Booker juries were ignoring the best and most vibrant British literature by neglecting science fiction. These juries, Robinson wrote, "judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels."
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.


Dr Plokta said...

If historical fiction is not a genre, then neither is science fiction, since science fiction novels can also be adventures, romances, social novels and psychological novels, among others.

But I read Robinson's assertion as something stronger, an implication that most "contemporary" novels on the Booker shortlist are in fact historical novels, which ignore the ways in which technological and social change have already fundamentally altered the way we live our lives.

In effect, the rate of change has polarised fiction into two camps; science fiction (works that acknowledge and examine the effects of technological progress) and historical fiction (works that do not), with no middle ground remaining. The time at which the work is set is largely irrelevant -- Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is very much concerned with technological change, and is thus science fiction rather than historical fiction despite being set in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Adam Roberts said...

This is a very thoughtful, interesting post Abigail. There's a lot to respond to, and since some of that involves me rethinking my position on a couple of things, said response may take a while to mature (so: I wonder if your implication -- that my dislike of this novel, as with the Baroque books, is a kind of knee-jerk lurching away from the logic of their historiography. Maybe that's right {about the kneejerkiness, I mean}. I'm not sure. [Although, looking again at those Stephenson reviews, I can see at least one massive Wrong Thing I done said: 'in a few years time Quicksilver will be forgotten' ... I got that majorly wrong, obviously; Stephenson's trilogy is still alive, being read and discussed and championed today]).

Hmm. Getting my brackets in a tangle...

Anyway: my slightly more substantive response, in thefirst instance, would be: I got no sense of a coherent theory of history behind Byatt's novel, beyond the sense that history is a whole bunch of stuff happening, stuff that the novelist can list in great gouts of encyclopedic infodumping. One of the (many) things that lifts Robinson's Mars books above the ordinary is that it parses a compelling, ultimately Jamesonian theory of how history operates through its myriad specificities.

Foxessa said...

Even if one is writing a novel about a time period and place in which one has lived, research still needs to be done, as I've learned, having embarked upon such an endeavor.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

I do disagree though that Mantell's novel has nothing to do with our contemporary life. The Reformation opened one of the ugliest and most horrible eras of European history, the Wars of Religion. There are so many living now who wish to reconvene those wars. It is already ugly and horrible, but so far we've not gone military with it. So far, and not for the want of very many desiring that very thing.

We are seeing the military version of the contemporary wars of religion of course, for the last 60 year, in the Middle East.

Any one who could say then that Mantell's book is irrelevant to our times needs to learn more history -- it was that fellow in the Guardian, I believe, who said that.

Thanks for posting this and the links, btw. I was away down South for quite some time during this period, and only just returned recently. News outside of my locality was not particularly available, nor was time online.

Love, C.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Dr. Plokta:

science fiction novels can also be adventures, romances, social novels and psychological novels

True, but I still feel that they have more in common with one another than historical novels of these types do, perhaps because of the additional distribution between different time periods, and perhaps because science fiction novels often use adventure, romance, etc. as a scaffolding for SFnal ideas, whereas in historical novels these genres can be the point of the exercise.

most "contemporary" novels on the Booker shortlist are in fact historical novels, which ignore the ways in which technological and social change have already fundamentally altered the way we live our lives

If that was Robinson's meaning, that I disagree even more strongly than before. As I've said here, I think that historical novels can be about change - not always technological, but change nonetheless. Not to mention that there are plenty of science fiction novels whose authors are content to play with spaceships and alien planets rather than talk about the ways technology changes our lives.


I wonder if your implication -- that my dislike of this novel, as with the Baroque books, is a kind of knee-jerk lurching away from the logic of their historiography

I wasn't trying to imply that, no. I saw your similar reaction to the Stepheonson and Byatt books as an expression of a perfectly valid reader's preference.

I got no sense of a coherent theory of history behind Byatt's novel, beyond the sense that history is a whole bunch of stuff happening

I suppose that's true, though I'm not sure that it's entirely fair to compare The Children's Book to Red Mars in this respect. Robinson has the advantage of inventing his history - he can invent a coherent theory of it, then create events to suit it. It's true that some writers of historical novels pick and choose from, and alter their presentation of, history to suit a thesis. That's certainly what Stephenson did in The Baroque Cycle, which is probably the major difference between those books and Byatt's, but I'm also wondering whether "a whole bunch of stuff happening" wasn't the sense of history that Byatt was trying to convey - not a narrative, but a stream carrying the characters along.


Even if one is writing a novel about a time period and place in which one has lived, research still needs to be done

That's true, but in such cases I think that the sense of the period, the feeling of what it was like to live in it (or rather, to live in a particular place during that period) is innate rather than learned. Conveying that sense is one of the most important accomplishments of a historical novel.

I haven't read Wolf Hall yet (I'm very much looking forward to it), but I wouldn't be surprised if it comments on contemporary events. There are several references at the beginning of The Children's Book - to irresponsible speculation on the part of bankers and financiers, to empire-building wars in Africa - whose phrasing struck me as deliberately aimed at a 21st century audience and our present day parallels with these events.

Anonymous said...

This almost makes me revise my decision not to read the Byatt. Convince me further!

Abigail, you say in your last comment: "I think that historical novels can be about change - not always technological, but change nonetheless."

Yes. I like very much what you say re: historical fiction here, although I'd side with Dr Plokta (on this and only this) when he says that, if this is true, then it must also go for sf. (You suggest that at times, for instance adventure might be the point of the exercise in historical fiction - and, as you find yourself admitting re: the spaceships 'n' splosions brigade, this is also true of sf.)

It is, however, nonsense to reduce 'change' to the purely technological kind, and in this way historical fiction is indeed as much about the now as sf can be. For all my problems with it, in many ways Wolf Hall is more engaged with the present than many contemporary novels (and most sf novels) I've read this year.

Mantel has argued recently that any work of fiction is historical by the time it is published, because writing is not instantaneous. In this sense, there has never been any "middle ground" between fictional pasts and futures - but that doesn't mean that only the futures can address our changing nows.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Convince me further!

Um, notorious wronghead James Wood didn't like it?

I like very much what you say re: historical fiction here, although I'd side with Dr Plokta (on this and only this) when he says that, if this is true, then it must also go for sf

Yeah, I'm starting to wonder if I have a leg to stand on re: SF as a genre rather than a mode (and more importantly, as a mode which is substantially different from historical fiction). It still feels different, but that might simply be because I've been trained to think of SF as its own thing, whereas historical fiction tends to diffuse among literary fiction novels.

Matt Hilliard said...

Just because bookstores put Mystery, Science Fiction / Fantasy, Romance, and Horror on the same level doesn't mean they are talking about the same thing.

When we say a story is a detective story, or a romance, a thriller, or an adventure, we're making a statement about what happens in the story. Something about its plot, basically.

When we say a story is science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, technothriller, alternate history, or magical realism, we're saying something about how the story is told. Specifically, we're defining what "moves" the author is allowed to make.

I think every story pulls at least one mechanism from each group. Since a lot of things can happen in a story, you can take multiple things from the first group. However there are weird precedences in the second group, so if you try to combine them, usually one overrules the other. It'd probably be fun to try to work out the rules, but first you'd need a comprehensive rather than representative list for both groups.

That's my stab at it from an "objective" point of view. Obviously people's perceptions of genre are a lot more tangled.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Yes, that's what I mean when I distinguish between genres and modes. Still, this discussion is pretty on the fly, and though Dan and Dr. Plotka are right that there are as many examples of story types within science fiction as there are within historical fiction, I'm wary of classifying science fiction as a mode without giving it a bit more thought. A possible distinction might be that science fiction has tropes, shared universes, specialized terms and shorthands, which historical fiction (again, possibly because of its being set in real history), as far as I can tell, doesn't. But then that's probably a generalization that someone with more grounding in the field will take exception to as well, and then the discussion will fold in on itself.

Matt Hilliard said...

Ultimately it's mostly semantics anyway. The Booker people may have prejudices about tropes and such, but I think mainly they are interested in "literary" fiction and they're under the impression there isn't any in the Science Fiction section of the bookstore. When they think of the best of the genre they probably picture something like "Rendezvous with Rama". That's the conventional wisdom, and the only way they will learn differently is by cracking open some literary SF and reading it.

If it's true, as one of the judges said in response to Robinson, that publishers aren't submitting literary SF then it's the fault of the publishers more than the judges.

Anonymous said...

Hilary Mantel was in yesterday's Guardian ruminating on the uses of historical fiction. Worth a read, especially for the bit where she says fictional futures are rubbish. :P

The comment box isn't letting me paste and therefore quote things, sadly, but your distinction between SF and HF reads like so much special pleading to me. For starters - what is 'real history', and what on earth leads you to believe historical fiction is without specialized terms and shorthands? You'll have to do better than that. :)

Adam Roberts said...

Trying to have second thoughts, I quote Isobel Armstrong's letter to the LRB, here, in which she defends Byatt's novel as 'a major experiment in writing from the outside'.

I'd say that engaging with the novel's actual praxis, for instance on the level of style and characterisation, is a more fertile approach than generalising about 'genre', SF, historical fiction or otherwise.

Adam Roberts said...

Don't mean to be gnomic. So, for example: by all means let's compare Byatt's novel, the Baroque books and Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books. But the first thing that strikes me has little to do with the notional generic categories into which we might wish to dispose these titles; but rather with the fact that Robinson is a much better stylist and draws much better characters than Byatt or Stephenson.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


especially for the bit where she says fictional futures are rubbish

"the grim forecasts of dystopian fiction are almost always exceeded in nastiness by developing realities," and then she slags off chick lit. I suppose it is traditional to defend one's field by putting down others.

I assume that by 'what is real history' you mean to echo Mantel's point in that article, that all writers of historical fiction (and all historians) are delivering a biased, slanted, unreliable narrative. Nevertheless, it seems disingenuous to suggest that there is no difference between an invented future and a fictionalized version of the real past. And what are the tropes, terms and shorthands of historical fiction, beyond 'it's set in the past'?


Honestly, on the question of Byatt's style and characterization I don't feel qualified to add anything to Armstrong's nuanced analysis. I registered the fact that Byatt was writing from the outside but can't say that I have either Wood's aversion to the practice nor Armstrong's admiration for Byatt's success at it (and it is, I think, a success). It seems part and parcel of the 'then this happened, then that happened' structure of the novel, and I'm not sure I buy Armstrong's reading of it as a deliberate rejection of the lie of the characters' interiority. I just don't think she was that interested in the characters this time around.

It's been a while since I read Red Mars so I can't call to mind Robinson's style except to agree that in certain respects it is better than Stephenson's (certainly in The Baroque Cycle; as you know I had a lot of fun with his overpowering erudition in Anathem and Cryptonomicon). I did think that The Children's Book was beautifully written, even if some of its characters were perhaps flatter than those in Red Mars.

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