In a past article about Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series I talked about how a key part of the setting and overall mood is a result of the sense of inevitability and inescapability that is created. Routine becomes destructive and insular, and as a result any kind of change – even change from a traditionally “evil” source – is welcome to the reader. This ties in to what I see as an interesting possibility for historical or pseudohistorical fiction – an exploration of evil. The concept of the empirical novel, central to science-fiction in its consideration of the effects of a setting on its inhabitants, becomes interestingly mutated when the settings and attitudes being explored are real ones or close to real ones.
When writing fictional depictions of the past, acceptance of the mistakes made throughout history, and the widely-accepted modern interpretations of historical events, provides a source of tension for writers. One can wholeheartedly accept that, for example, racism was more commonplace when Britain maintained an empire, and write a novel like Flashman which has as its protagonist someone who embraces the prejudices of the day while remaining ultimately relatable and entertaining. Conversely, one can write a historical novel openly condemning past mistakes and presenting a critical look at the past as an inherently flawed and inferior place; such writing can serve a twofold purpose in highlighting past errors and implicitly suggesting the superiority of progress. However, these attitudes I would claim are simplistic and reductive ones and ideally historical fiction should try to avoid falling so easily on one simple side or the other.
I am hesitant to say for certain that a failure to openly condemn is exactly the same as tacit acceptance, but remain fully aware that the line is a thin one. Indeed, when fantasy or science-fiction does wholeheartedly embrace depictions of racism, or sexism, and then claims it is being authentic in doing so, there is little actual authenticity to be found. Certainly, a supposedly authentic depiction of an era which housed institutional prejudice must cover those prejudices – it would be the height of inaccuracy to have a supposedly historical novel which contradicted known fact – but the point where so much discourse about genre and historical fiction’s treatment of prejudices and wrongdoing falls down is in casting the past and its people as a homogenous lump of racists, rapists and fanatics. Any societal attitude is unlikely to be adhered to completely and unquestioningly by an entire community all the time; the ways in which institutionalised prejudices manifest are not simplistic and should not be used to justify “darkness” in writing via lazy plot points. Indeed, the most authentic depictions of past societal prejudice would probably be ones of apathy, possibly extending to distrust for the most part.
This is where Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven is interesting; it does not openly criticise the cruelties of China of its era (for while its setting is entirely fictitious it is extensively researched) but instead shows how many of its characters accept the society as it is without either getting involved in its excesses or actively opposing it. This is an “authentic” depiction of living in a despotic and cruel society; a resigned acceptance of the cruelty of others while not specifically getting involved. This is, regrettably, a somewhat complex morality for the fantasy genre – compare it, for example, to George RR Martin’s novels which increasingly as the series progresses maketheir characters complicit in atrocities and punish others for trying to simply get by without stooping so low. This exaggerated, amoral society is lauded by some critics as “authentic” pseudomedieval society – as if its prevalence of rape, violence and arranged marriages of children in some way gives it some authority as a piece of fantasy. This is not so specifically say such gratitously grim and dark settings cannot be compelling fiction or indeed good writing – for Gormenghast shows clearly how crushing evil and hopelessness can be truly fascinating – but what it does suggest is that they are in no fashion authentic as psuedohistories.
This indeed works the other way; a dedication to embracing and expounding upon the worst excesses of history is as useless as a total denial that we have, as a species, made any mistakes in the past. The modern trend towards Victorian and Edwardian-set period dramas that present these eras – eras built upon conquest and inequality – as some halcyon eras when England was great is as problematic and indeed fantastical as Martin’s pessimistic insistence that his version of the Middle Ages was one of child marriage, incest and violence. To present the country-house fiction, that of the two insular yet content cultures of master and servant, as an enviable situation and one that was a happily sustainable status quo is as fantastical as to paint the opposite picture. Again, resigned apathy and perhaps small-scale opposition might by the authentic picture – what is not authentic is an overly glamorous version of events. In order for one to claim historical or pseudohistorical fiction is not agenda led it must not avoid the problems but simultaneously must not obsess over them. I would argue Under Heaven, in its focus on someone trying to change the status quo because it does not suit their interests rather than out of some grander moral purpose, is thus the more authentic work of fantasy. It does not sugarcoat society and presume it had no problems and yet it does not overstate the problems by making its entire society willingly complicit in them.
Historical fiction, and by extension fantasy fiction focusing as it does on non-real versions of the past, walks a fine line between being an apologia for the evils of the past and hypercritically and fetishistically focusing on them. The former is more problematic in societal terms – if a completely fantastical depiction of society that presents past eras as a halcyon time of greatness and everyone being happy is the prevailing one in the media then unless there is good factual education then the history risks being forgotten. However, the latter is equally annoying as a fan of fantasy fiction; while the prevailing attitude among fans is that this amoral, grim and dark fantasy of Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin is in some way “authentic” then any debates about how it is in fact quite the opposite and reflective of skewed and over-cynical worldviews of the writers are effectively stillborn; the myth that the Middle Ages were as they were in Game of Thrones‘ fantasy world is a convenient one that can excuse the sometimes-obsession of fantasy fiction with creating amoral hell-holes of casual racism and abuse waving the flag of “authenticity” to stave off criticism.