Brian Staveley is a teacher and writer. He has taught literature, religion, history, and philosophy, all subjects that influence his writing, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He works as an editor for Antilever Press, and has published poetry and essays, both in print and on-line. He lives in Vermont with his wife and young son, and divides his time between running trails, splitting wood, writing, and baby-wrangling. BStaveley.wordpress.com. @BrianStaveley. Facebook. Goodreads.
“I started the fourth George R. R. Martin book,” a poker buddy mentioned to me the other night between hands.
“And?” I asked.
“And who the fuck cares about Dorne?” he demanded, shaking his head.
While I, for one, am actually pretty keen on the Dornish plotline, I understand my friend’s irritation, an irritation that I think drives straight to the heart of a fundamental distinction between different types of fantasy: some are histories, some are stories.
“I write history,” has a different ring to it than, “I write stories.” The writer of history sounds more assured, more grounded in the world of evidence and fact, more likely to make next month’s mortgage payment. Stories, on the other hand, wonderful though they are, smack vaguely of the impractical: history has shipping routes and raw tonnage; stories tend to be heavier on werewolves and rebel space stations.
It was not, however, until the 15th century that the two English words – both descended from the Greek historein – began to diverge. Story is, in fact, just an abbreviation of the longer word (an abbreviation that happened in Latin before the word came into English use), and only gradually did the two drift apart.
This linguistic drift is lucky for us, because there really are two different activities at work – an account of past events, on the one hand, versus a fictional narrative intended to entertain, on the other. It’s helpful to have a word for each.
Not, of course, that there isn’t overlap. A book like Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is history – she’s writing about stuff that actually happened – but the close focus on the tribulations and triumphs of Lou Zamperini, who was shot down over the Pacific in World War II, means that we approach this history as though it were, in fact, a story. We have a protagonist, he faces obstacles, we move through various climaxes, etc. Compare this approach with that of, say, Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There are individual stories there, to be sure, but they are subducted beneath the great tectonic plates of culture and religion, war and commerce. The personal stories force their way to the surface only occasionally, incidentally.
The fact that there are histories that operate primarily as stories will come as a surprise to no one. Interestingly, there are some fictional works, especially in the realm of fantasy, that function more like history. A few sample titles might bring the field into focus:
- Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin
- The Foundation Series, by Isaac Asimov
- World War Z, by Max Brooks
- The Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erikson
The method of the fictional history leans heavily on multiple viewpoints. World War Z moves between individual accounts (ostensibly oral); often we spend a few intense pages with a given character without ever encountering her again. Likewise with Asimov’s Foundation. Although there are characters who persist, the massive temporal leaps between chapters means that characters we come to love in one section are hundreds of years dead a few pages later. Erikson’s Malazan series starts out in the mode of more conventional fantasy storytelling; then we get to book two. We discover ourselves on a different continent entirely, interacting with a cast of characters that is almost completely new. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home has something like a consistent character in Stone Telling, although the narrative is consistently interrupted to include more “objective” pieces of information, both archaeological and anthropological –recipes, maps, and songs.
There is, of course, a way to write both at the same time. Some individuals in the course of human history appear to rise out of the great sea of humanity; their stories become history. The lives of a Joan of Arc or a Genghis Khan seem to slip the bounds of story. The sheer scope of their influence transforms their every action, regardless how personal, into a historical gesture. If I stride out the door of my house and declare war on Massachusetts, we have an odd story about an overtired writer. If Kublai Khan steps out the door of his ger to declare war on China, we have history.
This is probably why so many fantasy tales revolve around a “chosen one” – a prince, a queen, a prophet. Such characters offer the opportunity to link the intimate with the historical, to yoke private hopes, fears, and doubts in the same harness with sweeping, world-changing events. Characters as disparate as Robert Jordan’s Rand al’Thor and Nnedi Okorafor’s Onyesonwu fit this mold, and a satisfying mold it is.
Other writers, such as Joe Abercrombie, run in the opposite direction. Abercrombie, in many of his books, seems to be actively mocking the notion that individual human decisions matter in the great geo-magico-political order. No spoilers here, but more often than not, the actions of his characters turn out to be trivial or inconsequential. Occasionally we do get the sense that certain events may have mattered, but the chaos of war and politics keeps us from ever knowing how or how much. As a result, Abercrombie, though he deals with large casts of characters, is really a storyteller – a wonderful storyteller – and not a fictional historian.
Each style – story and fictional history – has its satisfactions. I find the sheer scope of Erikson’s work breathtaking. On the other hand, I’d never sacrifice the intimacy of the relationship between Ehiru and Nijiri in N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon (although, to be fair, this intimacy has profound implications for the entire world.) And then, there are works that confound the distinction entirely.
Which brings us back to where we began: Dorne. There is no right and wrong.
The satisfactions of history are different from those offered by story, and, indeed, the same structure need not apply to both. The frustrations of my friend seem to spring from the fact that he thought he was reading a story; a story, to be specific, mostly about the Starks. As the series progresses, however, as some characters die and new ones are introduced, A Song of Ice and Fire starts to look more and more like a fictional history. While some readers will welcome the shift, my friend doesn’t appear to be one of them.