What is the difference between ‘historical fiction’ and ‘science fiction?’ A world of difference, say the critics and professors (and grant administrators and prize juries). Historical fiction is about real things that actually happened, people who actually lived. It is based in truth; science fiction is made up. Actually, most of those people aren’t that unsophisticated. Who really believes that Hilary Mantel knows the unexpressed insights of Thomas Cromwell or the unrecorded conversations or details of life in Henry’s court? Who imagines Richard Harris can express the very thoughts of one of Cicero’s slaves?
Historical writers do their research, exploring surviving manuscripts, architecture, art and music and then extrapolate the most likely set of events. And if those extrapolated events don’t provide a strong enough narrative, they adjust them until they do, adding events and conflicts based on the theory ‘no one can prove they didn’t happen’ and, more importantly, ‘that’s how people behave.’
Writers who set their stories in ancient Rome or the castles of Henry VIII aren’t trying for the truth; they are trying for verisimilitude – a world that has the feeling of truth. Ultimately they are writing fiction. For people who are alive today.
Science fiction writers do much the same thing. They do their research – in this case, examining known scientific facts and current theories, economic and social conditions and trends – then extrapolate a possible future, operating on much the same principles: ‘no one can prove it won’t turn out that way’ and ‘that’s how people behave.’ Of course, science fiction writers face the unfortunate reality of having the future then unfold in a somewhat or dramatically different way. How embarrassing! Historical fiction doesn’t face quite that dilemma – our understanding of history doesn’t change that suddenly and certainly not right in our faces.
Occasionally a treasure trove of unknown documents appears – the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example – that shifts our knowledge in a substantial way but, for the most part, history, especially ancient history is somewhat immutable. But make no mistake; it is not what really happened. Our knowledge of history is determined by two things – what people chose to record and what objects or ruins happened to survive and be found. Take the great Sao civilization of central Africa. Never heard of it, you say. Not surprising – they either had no written language or recorded it on biodegradable surfaces. And they built with wood in a jungle. We only know it existed – and existed for a substantial length of time – because of a few finds of metal artifacts and some mentions in the journals of Arab traders who were, of course, biased in their reporting.
The real question is not whether these two genres are so different, but why are they so much alike? After all, both are heavily engaged in world building, trying to create a sufficiently detailed environment for their characters to operate in that the reader never stops and says: That’s not right! (And believe me – having written both, there are plenty of people out there just waiting to pounce on an error of historical fact or a flaw in your scientific reasoning.) Whether you are exploring the inner workings of the Roman legal system or the operation of a generation ship in deep space – you better get the details right and create a seamless, consistent and logical portrayal of how it really has to be.
Both historical fiction and science fiction are also critically concerned with the ‘moment of change,’ that instant when one world order or way of life transforms into another. The life of Cicero is endlessly explored (partly, it is true, because there actually is a large body of information about that time) because it was the moment when the Roman Republic was changing into the Roman Empire. Henry VIII stands for the Protestant Reformation – which was not only a religious movement but a political one that profoundly changed world views and laid the basis for the modern West. Science fiction endlessly obsesses on the ‘Singularity’ when we transform from humans to trans-humans.
It is inevitable too that science fiction should adopt some of the structures of historical writing – creating entire future histories as both Asimov and Heinlein spent a good part of their careers doing.
However, the real similarity lies in the purpose of both forms of fiction. It is odd that no-one ever asks ‘what is the value or purpose of historical fiction?’ at least not in the same way science fiction is interrogated on the matter. Yet, the answer for both of them is the same. History and science fiction provides a lens to examine the current world, without getting into the messy politics of right, left or centre. Looking at the behavior of political advisers to kings may be a way of talking about the behavior of current day politicians. Examining the treatment of people who are compelled to modify their bodies with cybernetic parts may let us look at racism and transgender prejudices and issues in today’s world.
Which, of course, the purpose of all good fiction – to provide us with a different perspective, a fresh way of looking at the world. To allow us to have minds bigger than our heads.
As for those prize juries – they don’t have a bias in favour of history and against science fiction. After all, Midnight’s Children won the Booker twice and if it isn’t science fiction (or at least fantasy), I don’t know what is.