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Are Historicals the New Science Fiction?

I try to follow literary trends as best I can, and it seems like we have a wealth of historical novels these days—far beyond the Michener-like epics—and a dearth of science-fiction. It’s almost as if the two genres have flipped around, that historicals have supplanted the purpose of science-fiction.

In many ways, we live in the science-fiction world our parent read about. We have instantaneous, world-wide communication. I spend a lot of my time wandering around cyberspace. We can cross the country in a matter of hours rather than weeks. The future is here.

Good science-fiction comments upon the present by showing where the future might lead us. Now that we’re in the future—nearing the singularity, the scientific event horizon beyond which predictions become much more difficult to make—perhaps we’re looking back at the past to find patterns that show us what might happen next. Or maybe we’re just using that atavistic setting to comment on our present, fulfilling a role that science-fiction used to take.

Comments 12

  1. To me there seems to be a connection between the rate of technological advancement, and the cycle at which history repeats itself. The singularity. It is as if we are running around a world that is getting smaller and smaller, and soon enough we will see ourselves, chasing ourselves. The historical stories coming more often, more quickly,.. reviewing our lives or societal actions/consequences for finer course correction in an agile way, only at rates that exponentially increase in a long-tail.

    The kid in me says “This is where great story-telling skills would rule!” The ability to accept ever-changing directions of the world in a way that seems effortless and Purposeful all along 🙂

  2. To me there seems to be a connection between the rate of technological advancement, and the cycle at which history repeats itself. The singularity. It is as if we are running around a world that is getting smaller and smaller, and soon enough we will see ourselves, chasing ourselves. The historical stories coming more often, more quickly,.. reviewing our lives or societal actions/consequences for finer course correction in an agile way, only at rates that exponentially increase in a long-tail.

    The kid in me says “This is where great story-telling skills would rule!” The ability to accept ever-changing directions of the world in a way that seems effortless and Purposeful all along 🙂

  3. It’s an interesting point, Matt. I think you could also plot the rise of fantasy against the fall in popularity of SF for similar reasons. There was a time not so long ago when fantasy novels had to be marketed as SF (Witch World for example), now there seems to be more fantasy on the shelves than SF.

  4. It’s an interesting point, Matt. I think you could also plot the rise of fantasy against the fall in popularity of SF for similar reasons. There was a time not so long ago when fantasy novels had to be marketed as SF (Witch World for example), now there seems to be more fantasy on the shelves than SF.

  5. Extending what you and Bill say, Matt — I think the popularity of historicals and fantasy both come out of a look to an idealized non-technological past (even a completely fictionalized past in the case of fantasy), but that historicals satisfy that need in people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading genre fiction (and vice versa).

    There’s some good subgenre comparisons, too: historicals like Sharpe and Hornblower that could align roughly with sword and sorcery, while Philippa Gregory etc match to some of the more high fantasy series. Then there’s crossovers like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels.

    (Hey, can I plug one of my current favorite historicals? James McGee’s Hawkwood books. Fanboy moment.)

  6. Extending what you and Bill say, Matt — I think the popularity of historicals and fantasy both come out of a look to an idealized non-technological past (even a completely fictionalized past in the case of fantasy), but that historicals satisfy that need in people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading genre fiction (and vice versa).

    There’s some good subgenre comparisons, too: historicals like Sharpe and Hornblower that could align roughly with sword and sorcery, while Philippa Gregory etc match to some of the more high fantasy series. Then there’s crossovers like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels.

    (Hey, can I plug one of my current favorite historicals? James McGee’s Hawkwood books. Fanboy moment.)

  7. I think it is the “myth of the singularity” (added to a lack of creative imagination by many writers) that has done the greatest harm to science fiction. The assumption that we are approaching an “end to the acquisition of knowledge” is not only a logical fallacy, since to make such an assumption one must first have a sense of the amount of knowledge possible which hints at already have achieving knowledge, it is a cheap excuse. I have read a good deal of speculative non-fiction dealing with human singularity and have yet to be convinced of the singularity being more than a kind of temporary step. Maybe we’ll have to travel “flatly” for a while before the next evolutionary leap, but that doesn’t mean that we will have attained finality.

    It all speaks to a kind of “rational millenialism” to me. If you remove the “sciency” talk and replace the word singularity with “Kingdom of Heaven” most people would see through this kind of Jacobin nonsense.

    As for the lack of creative imagination, notice I said creative imagination and not writing talent, it is central to the decline in the quality/quantity of SF. I am actually bored with many of the themes of modern SF, and I often find the overt political points (on both the left and right) staid and preachy.

    A good deal of science fiction has become limited by two things. First a desire to “accurately reflect the modern understanding of science,” and second the re-use of established fictional science alternatives.

    Let’s look at one of my favorite new SF novel series, the Old Man’s War series by Scalzi. He manages to be political without being preachy and is one heck of an entertaining writer. As good as the book is, the amount it relies on past SF assumptions (and I believe the Traveller RPG) is amazing. The faster than light travel is done through “skipping” like in Foundation. The narrative borrows from both Starship Troopers and The Forever War (a combination that isn’t easy) as well as falling back on “consciousness transfer” as the means to living longer.

    These are tropes so long established as to almost be dull, though in Scalzi’s case they are in fact quite fresh. But this isn’t true of modern SF as a whole. I don’t enjoy the writings of Cory Doctorow or Charles Stross because they are too preachy, predictable, and unoriginal. Yes, unlike the fawning masses at Locus, I find them unoriginal. When I read the first sentence in Stross’ “Family” series, I didn’t think his borrowing from Gibson was “fun,” I thought it was plagiarism, not to mention how similar the tales are to Amber.

    Back to singularity fiction for a moment. I know this might be shocking, but it isn’t even anything new. Asimov’s Foundation series is a kind of singularity fiction, Psychohistory is a logically consistent version of singularity theory. The Dune books are rife with the “perfection” of man and take place in an era where man had to adapt to overcome “thinking machines.” I can’t believe I hadn’t already mentioned Dickson’s Dorsai series.

    Those old SF stories, were informed by science, but the speculated what might be possible if our current understanding of science was not accurate (a likely event given historical trends) or what might be possible if our understandings were correct. SF, in many ways, drove and inspired science. Then again, a lot of older SF authors were scientists and now their are a lot of economists, mathematicians, and engineers (not that their always haven’t been). Take Iain Banks, for example, his novels are rooted in Historical Materialist understanding of the future, particularly Consider Plebas, and demonstrate the inconsequence of the individual.

    I guess that’s a long way to go about saying that modern science fiction relies too much on genre conventions, current scientific understanding, and political commentary. All are a part of science fiction writing, to be sure, but the writer should not be confined only to those three themes. Shelter, a book I read earlier this year, has all three in spades (a thinking house, mind transfer, and political commentary about what constitutes identity as well as the “war on terror”), but it is at its core a human story and it works.

    Sorry for the rant, I know it is somewhat incoherent but it was written as the thoughts came and not edited.

  8. I think it is the “myth of the singularity” (added to a lack of creative imagination by many writers) that has done the greatest harm to science fiction. The assumption that we are approaching an “end to the acquisition of knowledge” is not only a logical fallacy, since to make such an assumption one must first have a sense of the amount of knowledge possible which hints at already have achieving knowledge, it is a cheap excuse. I have read a good deal of speculative non-fiction dealing with human singularity and have yet to be convinced of the singularity being more than a kind of temporary step. Maybe we’ll have to travel “flatly” for a while before the next evolutionary leap, but that doesn’t mean that we will have attained finality.

    It all speaks to a kind of “rational millenialism” to me. If you remove the “sciency” talk and replace the word singularity with “Kingdom of Heaven” most people would see through this kind of Jacobin nonsense.

    As for the lack of creative imagination, notice I said creative imagination and not writing talent, it is central to the decline in the quality/quantity of SF. I am actually bored with many of the themes of modern SF, and I often find the overt political points (on both the left and right) staid and preachy.

    A good deal of science fiction has become limited by two things. First a desire to “accurately reflect the modern understanding of science,” and second the re-use of established fictional science alternatives.

    Let’s look at one of my favorite new SF novel series, the Old Man’s War series by Scalzi. He manages to be political without being preachy and is one heck of an entertaining writer. As good as the book is, the amount it relies on past SF assumptions (and I believe the Traveller RPG) is amazing. The faster than light travel is done through “skipping” like in Foundation. The narrative borrows from both Starship Troopers and The Forever War (a combination that isn’t easy) as well as falling back on “consciousness transfer” as the means to living longer.

    These are tropes so long established as to almost be dull, though in Scalzi’s case they are in fact quite fresh. But this isn’t true of modern SF as a whole. I don’t enjoy the writings of Cory Doctorow or Charles Stross because they are too preachy, predictable, and unoriginal. Yes, unlike the fawning masses at Locus, I find them unoriginal. When I read the first sentence in Stross’ “Family” series, I didn’t think his borrowing from Gibson was “fun,” I thought it was plagiarism, not to mention how similar the tales are to Amber.

    Back to singularity fiction for a moment. I know this might be shocking, but it isn’t even anything new. Asimov’s Foundation series is a kind of singularity fiction, Psychohistory is a logically consistent version of singularity theory. The Dune books are rife with the “perfection” of man and take place in an era where man had to adapt to overcome “thinking machines.” I can’t believe I hadn’t already mentioned Dickson’s Dorsai series.

    Those old SF stories, were informed by science, but the speculated what might be possible if our current understanding of science was not accurate (a likely event given historical trends) or what might be possible if our understandings were correct. SF, in many ways, drove and inspired science. Then again, a lot of older SF authors were scientists and now their are a lot of economists, mathematicians, and engineers (not that their always haven’t been). Take Iain Banks, for example, his novels are rooted in Historical Materialist understanding of the future, particularly Consider Plebas, and demonstrate the inconsequence of the individual.

    I guess that’s a long way to go about saying that modern science fiction relies too much on genre conventions, current scientific understanding, and political commentary. All are a part of science fiction writing, to be sure, but the writer should not be confined only to those three themes. Shelter, a book I read earlier this year, has all three in spades (a thinking house, mind transfer, and political commentary about what constitutes identity as well as the “war on terror”), but it is at its core a human story and it works.

    Sorry for the rant, I know it is somewhat incoherent but it was written as the thoughts came and not edited.

  9. Brett: Good one!

    Erin: You may be right. Even fashion cycles seem to be repeating themselves faster these days. That may be me just getting older and still being able to remember the horrors of the early ’90s.

    Bill: Excellent point. Many readers, I think, don’t mentally separate most fantasy from historical (medieval) stories. The various incarnations of King Arthur exemplify that.

    Don: Thanks for the plug and for making a good point. Magical realism (which is also on the rise, even in literary fiction) combined with historical fiction seems to be the crossing point there.

    Christian: I’m not a fan of the singularity meme either. As you say, it’s grabbed hold of a good chunk of modern SF though. Good points about how it’s developed through the history of SF. I think its death knell may have been when it finally garnered a name that fans could hang around it, much in the way that cyberpunk began to rot on the vine directly after Neuromancer defined it. Like the future, the moment after it’s here, it’s already history.

    And I always appreciate your thoughts and everyone else’s, edited or not.

  10. Post
    Author

    Brett: Good one!

    Erin: You may be right. Even fashion cycles seem to be repeating themselves faster these days. That may be me just getting older and still being able to remember the horrors of the early ’90s.

    Bill: Excellent point. Many readers, I think, don’t mentally separate most fantasy from historical (medieval) stories. The various incarnations of King Arthur exemplify that.

    Don: Thanks for the plug and for making a good point. Magical realism (which is also on the rise, even in literary fiction) combined with historical fiction seems to be the crossing point there.

    Christian: I’m not a fan of the singularity meme either. As you say, it’s grabbed hold of a good chunk of modern SF though. Good points about how it’s developed through the history of SF. I think its death knell may have been when it finally garnered a name that fans could hang around it, much in the way that cyberpunk began to rot on the vine directly after Neuromancer defined it. Like the future, the moment after it’s here, it’s already history.

    And I always appreciate your thoughts and everyone else’s, edited or not.

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