History, Erasure and the Stories that Need to be Told
Image: Marne battlefield. Annamites playing in a camp 1914 -18. Photo credit: Manhai on Flickr, reused under a Creative Commons Attribution Generic License.
GoH speech at Stranimondi in Milan, October 10th, 2015
(standard disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I’ll be talking here not about the academic discipline, but about history in the sense of the past and the narrative of the past)
Thank you all for having me here in Milan (and wow, for turning out so numerous 🙂 ). Today I want to talk about history, and the importance of history in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
The first part might seem a little counter intuitive: SF is traditionally a genre that looks towards the future, and history, by definition, looks backwards several decades. But actually, history is a really important thing in genre.
First, history is a source of inspiration. A lot of SFF is retellings of historical events: the obvious one is Guy Gavriel Kay (The Sarantium Tapestry is a retelling of the Nika riots in Justinian I’s reign, to the point where you can guess what will happen if you know the underlying history). Kari Sperring’s The Grass King’s Concubine draws its inspiration from the brutality of the Industrial Revolution, contrasted with a legendary kingdom that is more unmoored in time, but hearkens to older myths and legends. But it’s not only fantasy: some of Yoon Ha Lee’s short stories are based on Korean history; Ann Leckie’s Raadsch Empire (and many intergalactic empires) draws from the Roman Empire (see patron-client relationship, for instance). For the writer, it’s a source of details, events, etc.: most scenarios we can think of have already been played somewhere, somewhen.
But history is also a powerful force in plots: see Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory, and the shaping of mankind’s history (ultimately doomed to failure, for it is the failure modes of science that interest Asimov: the Mule is the one unpredictable factor that deals a serious blow to Hari Seldon’s work). More obviously, history drives a lot of fantasy, in which the key to the plot is often an understanding of history/myth (Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, for instance: the historical excerpts turn out to be key in defeating the Lord Ruler at the end of book 1). History becomes a search for truth, to part layers of obfuscation (sometimes merely lost to time, sometimes to active malice: the origin of the eponymous Game of Fives in Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives, crucial to navigating the underground of the city, has been deliberately obscured by the rulers of the country). Myth and history take on a literal, pressing meaning–it can kill you if you don’t work it out in time.
Knowledge of the past is also a source of power, particularly in post-apocalyptic narratives (Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s Canticle for Leibowitz, Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman, Zelazny’s Lord of Light). In Science Fiction it’s often (obviously) the history of science (because science is primordial), and the recovery of what has been lost, which enable the rise of a new, technology-based society.
I’ve just used truth and power, which are tricky concepts. Both truth and power raise the question of how much you can trust history–how much of it is one truth, and how much of it is written by power. Many cultures have a saying about history being written by the winners, and it sadly holds true. Losers of wars, people dominated by hegemony, don’t get to write their own histories (I’m currently researching the history of colonial Vietnam, and some of the history books written by the French, even today, are… breathtakingly out of touch in presenting a benevolent empire, the loss of which we should mourn for. Yeah. Right).
History is what is passed down, what is told. It is an act of storytelling: the story of how we got there, who our ancestors were, how our relationships with other people, other nations, have been shaped. And, on a smaller scale, we all have family history, family myths. And one thing about stories: they are choices, about which events to present and how to link them into a narrative. Like all stories, history is about erasure. About whose stories don’t get told, about who falls by the wayside.
It’s visible in so many places, but one of the ones that’s struck me recently is the history of genre. As I was writing the first part of this speech, the books I kept coming up with as examples were all written by men. And I’ve seen it happen, again and again online: when asked which books they remember, people cite men (often white men). Ask someone to make a list, and most likely it’ll have 90% men on it (and a token woman, generally Ursula K. Le Guin). Read the history of the genre: most of the people they quote as influential and seminal are men (I read a very depressing history of fantasy yesterday that quoted 90% men, and grouped all the women under “women in genre”). Women and people of colour aren’t remembered, don’t make it into the canon–and yet we’ve always been there!
Obvioysly, in my work, all of these aspects are important. First off, history is a personal inspiration: Obsidian and Blood (Aztec/Mexica history/what if magic was real), Xuya (an alternate history in which the Vietnamese empire is still extant, which draws on multiple sources of Vietnamese myth and history), The House of Shattered Wings (19th Century history of Paris, where magic is powered by Fallen angels and there’s a healthy traffic in angel body parts. Yeah, a little gruesome never hurt anybody).
Also, I am fascinated by history as myth-making, and the truths/lies we tell ourselves: The Weight of a Blessing/Memorials both have different stories of a war, and different people/different generations have different understandings of what the war means. It’s a war with 2.5 sides: the two that actually fought each other, and the 0.5 that supported them with troops–and everyone has a different idea of what the war meant, of whether they won it or not, and what it cost them. The people who weren’t invested see it as a tragedy because waste of life. The people who lost it see it as tragedy, but it’s a different flavours: because emigration and massive uprooting and losses (and I didn’t have space for the third side!).
But lately, I have been most concerned about erasure.
My novel The House of Shattered Wings is set in a post-apocalyptic Paris; it’s my love letter to the city, to the 19th Century novels I loved reading as a child. It merges the backstabbing politics of the beau monde in Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo (the thin veneer of civilisation hiding something as cuththroat and as primal as the bandits they so decry); the heartbreaking poverty and the preoccupation with redemption found in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
It has a lot of references to the history of Paris: it’s set mostly on Ile de la Cité, the historical heart of Paris, and there are gardens and rivers and good food–and people struggling to survive amidst the remnants of a magical war that tore the city apart. Notre-Dame is a major location. The society is a distorted version of the Belle Epoque, with its dresses and swallowtails and elaborate balls, dinners and receptions in salons; its obsession with appearances and having access to the latest fashions (in this case, spells, food, and safety, because this is a post apocalyptic society!) I read 19th Century novels; history books; etiquette books (one particular scene, which involved working out the particulars of putting on and taking off one’s gloves, took me an entire afternoon to research. The etiquette of gloves is hideously complicated!)
But the book is also about the stories that don’t get told.
I was raised in a multicultural household–hearing different languages from French to English to Vietnamese, and as a child of two cultures. As I grew up, I gradually became aware that I was Other (just as, incidentally, Dumas was Other). Exotic. Not conventionally pretty–too small, too slight, too weird (though to be fair, being a nerd probably didn’t help 🙂 ). People like me–like my maternal family–never seem to feature much in those stories beyond the stereotypes of the time period (the Exotic Princess/Slave Haydée in Monte Cristo, the Slave Ali, …)
When I was researching the book, I read up on the indentured colonial workers during the World Wars, and particularly Vietnamese ones. During WW1, they were shipped to the front to fight the Germans, and then shipped back again, because of course colonial workers couldn’t be allowed to remain in France. Everyone had their place–and theirs was to be civilised, far far away in a different land. During WWII, thousands of Vietnamese were “recruited” (press-ganged, in reality) to join the war effort, and put together ammunition. After the war ended–because the country was in ruin, because no one really cared about a bunch of Vietnamese–they remained in their camps, their services sold off as indentured workers. They built bridges and cars, picked up harvests, started rice planting in the marshes. It was seven years after the end of WWII when the last of them was sent home: they had been in the country for 13 years–a lifetime.
And I wondered what it would be like, to be one of those men. To have this burning anger–this growing despair of ever getting home–of wondering if your country will even be there when you do come home, because the war has cut off all communications and no one really knows for sure what’s happening in Asia. To feel, keenly, that you are an outsider–both to your own culture, because of what you went through, but because you’re not French, and the fact that you’re not French is written on your forehead.
Those are the people we don’t talk about. Those are the people who survived in the cracks and the hidden places, away from the centres of power. Some of these men returned home (straight into another war of independence and the messy, messy road of Vietnam becoming a nation). Some of these married, and remained in France–in spite of the fact they weren’t made welcome.
I wanted to write their story. Or, at any rate, part of their story (it being always difficult to do justice to such a complex and long subject in just one book!)
This is why, in The House of Shattered Wings, one of the main characters is Vietnamese–and not only that, but a Vietnamese ex-immortal, a mythical being torn away from his land and struggling to survive in his growing loneliness. It’s why, halfway through the book, you discover that there are other mythical beings, from places that aren’t the Christian, French mythology–and that they have always been there. That they have built their own places, their own imperfect refuges, in the spaces that no one wants.
And, similarly, as I mentioned before, there are lots of Galactic Empires based on the Roman Empire, but few on a Confucian Chinese/Vietnamese model (and those that do often reinforce negative portrayals of an ossified, exotically cruel empire, an image that has nothing to do with the stories I read as a child). It is, in other words, “Othered” China/Vietnam.
(true story: when I was young and read a lot of books, some of them were set in China or Vietnam. They all had this veneer of not very well done outsider narrative, oddly fascinated with things like exotic beauties, cruel and barbaric punishments for the slightest crimes–and magical martial arts/mystical wisdom. I thought they had to be set in Fake China, because the things that they depicted were so completely out of kilter with the ones I was used to that they had to be a fictional land. Now, looking back, I’m not sure whether I ought to laugh or cry).
So I wrote Xuya. It’s my attempt to create a far-future galactic Empire on a different basis, where Confucian cultures are dominant as a matter-of-fact. Where literature is important, scholars are valued, and family always has your back. And where AIs and ships are part of the family, rather than being among themselves, or the property of the military/private traders.
People have commented that it’s not a place where they would choose to live, because the atmosphere feels stiflying to them. To me, it doesn’t, particularly–filial duty and family are important, and they can supersede any individual’s wishes–but of course that’s not the dominant narrative of SF. SF is based on the colonial ethos of America and the Conquest of the West: rugged pioneers striking out for themselves, democracies, capitalism (because that is the only possible society of the future). SF is where families are strictures rather than comfort–gaining independence is the only possible way forward, the narrative we are meant to applaud and praise.
I disagree. I’m not saying it’s a worthless narrative. But it is not the only one. It is not the one I grew up with. Those are not the things that are important to me. There are not the things I want to write about. And, also, history has shown that there are plenty of societies, from the ones that only respect strength and warriors, to the ones where learning and scholarship and important, and warrior is a second fiddle. And I think it’s important to acknowledge this diversity.
It’s important that history is about the multiplicity of people and stories and cultures, and that SFF should be, too.
Thank you for listening.