Kate Heartfield writes science fiction and fantasy. Several of her recently published short stories have had historical themes. “Traveller, Take Me”, in On Spec and in audio at Podcastle, is a ghost story about prospectors and pulp fiction in Manitoba in 1914. “Cattail Heart”, in Daily Science Fiction, is about Canada’s shameful history of residential schools for Aboriginal children. “Their Dead So Near”, in Lackington’s, is told from the long perspective of a cemetery. “Limestone, Lye and the Buzzing of Flies” in Strange Horizons is about … well, it’s about the past catching up. By day, Kate is a newspaper journalist in Ottawa, Canada. Her website is heartfieldfiction.com and she is on Twitter as @kateheartfield.
Austin Grossman, the author of You and Soon I Will Be Invincible, has a new novel coming out, an alternate history of the Nixon administration. The Washington Post‘s review of Crooked was largely positive, but the reviewer seemed disappointed that Grossman’s “zany” and “outlandish” plot couldn’t manage to be weirder than history.
“For all the comic potential of this satire, ‘Crooked‘ has trouble competing with the actual Richard Nixon,” wrote Ron Charles, the editor of The Washington Post’s Book World. “While dropping in occult bits here and there, Grossman has somehow managed to make the Nixon administration less maniacal than it really was. But perhaps that’s to be expected; Lovecraft himself couldn’t have dug up a creature creepier than G. Gordon Liddy.”
I haven’t read Crooked yet, as its release date is July 28. I plan to, as I enjoy Grossman’s writing. And Charles’ quibble hasn’t dissuaded me – quite the opposite, in fact. To my mind, showing that real life is just as weird as our imaginings is precisely the purpose of historical fantasy and alt-history – or one of its purposes, anyway. No world-building can out-weird the world that humanity has built.
Many of the most bizarre elements in any Tim Powers novel are based on real events. In fact, Powers has said, “I don’t have to make anything up.” He just finds all the weird things that people have really done or reported and finds connections among them to provide plausible speculative explanations. When you look at the cast of characters in The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves, from Shelley talking about his doppelganger to Rossetti exhuming his wife to get some poems out of her coffin, the notion that these people were dealing with vampiric creatures is, if not the more plausible explanation, perhaps the more comfortable one. There is a certain frisson each time the reader realizes that.
Which is more bizarre: That two days before the battle of Waterloo, a French general spent a long day marching 20,000 men between two battlefields without engaging in either because he was trying to follow conflicting orders, or that he did this because Susanna Clarke’s magician Jonathan Strange was moving the roads? The fact that magic is no more jaw-dropping an explanation than human error shows how powerful human error must be. History turns on a whim.
Historical speculative fiction – be it fantasy, time-travel or alt-history – constantly challenges our views by forcing us to see the past as the alien country that it is.
In The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, a desperate and ultimately genocidal alien culture is juxtaposed with the destructive energy and extremes of ideology during China’s Cultural Revolution. The fact that the reader is forced to hold up the one against the other, to ask whether humanity is worth saving and what the role of science might be in saving it, is not a failure on the author’s part. The alien elements are not there to “compete” with the horrors of the real history in the book; that’s not the point.
When Shakespeare put the witches into Macbeth, he wasn’t trying to out-weird the workings of the human mind but to show how horribly twisted the human mind can become, how susceptible to the whisperings of ambition and flattery. What is stranger: that a man could be influenced by witches, or that a man could choose to kill his King?
The blurb on the cover of Crooked says it’s “more believable than the truth” – clearly not everyone sees that as a flaw. The supernatural elements in historical fiction are seldom there to provide escapism and they are certainly not there to help the reader believe that the progress of human history has been rational and tidy.