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Friday, August 28, 2009

History & Fantasy: A Roundtable Discussion...

with Guy Gavriel Kay, Cecelia Holland, Gary K. Wolfe, and Charles N. Brown

Cecelia Holland began publishing historical novels with The Firedrake (1961). She has published more than 25 books, most historical, occasionally with fantasy elements. She also wrote one SF novel, Floating Worlds (1975), and modern-day novel Home Ground (1981). Her most recent work is a fantasy series about 10th-century Vikings: The Soul Thief (2002), Witches' Kitchen (2004), The Serpent Dreamer (2005), Varanger (2008), The High City (2009), and The Kings of the North (2010).

Guy Gavriel Kay's first novels were set in the invented world of the Fionavar Tapestry, but Sailing to Sarantium (1998) and Lord of Emperors (2000) were set in an alternate version of ancient Byzantium, and other novels that make use of quasi-historical settings with fantasy elements include Tigana (1990), A Song for Arbonne (1992), The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), and The Last Light of the Sun (2004). His latest novel, Ysabel (2007), won the World Fantasy Award.

Excerpts from the interview:

Gary K. Wolfe: This is a roundtable discussion concerning the relationship of fiction and history, with Cecelia Holland and Guy Gavriel Kay, each of whom uses history in different ways in fiction....


[A long discussion about historical fiction follows; the conclusion, which focuses on the distinction between SF and fantasy perspectives, is excerpted below.]


Charles N. Brown: Cecelia's idea of historical fiction is closer to science fiction, and Guy's idea is closer to fantasy. I'd like you to talk about that for the last few minutes. As Gary says, Cecelia's extrapolating to the past, but it's the same way you write about the future. Guy's looking at it from the fantasy viewpoint of characters. You don't have a science fiction mind. You have a fantasy mind, and she has a science fiction mind.

Cecelia Holland: No, it's that people who construct science fiction are trying to visualize a future in which we know who we are -- that says who we are now. When you look at good historical fiction, you reconstruct the past in a way which will let you know the possibilities of people so we know who we are now. It's one end to the other. First of all, science fiction assures us that there's going to be a tomorrow. It's harder and harder for people to realize there was a yesterday. And it wasn't like now, and yet it worked, or it worked as well as now does. There was a past, it happened to people who were like us, whose understanding was incomplete and biased and yet who muddled along and created or destroyed things as they went. It wasn't done by marble heads; it wasn't handed down by God. That it didn't have to happen the way it happened; it happened the way it happened because of the decisions that all these people back there made. And they made those decisions based on who they were at the time, not on 21st-century ideas but on 9th-century ideas. Therefore you strip away the 21st-century ideas in the process of trying to load up some 9th-century ideas.

Guy Gavriel Kay: How do you load up 9th-century ideas?

CH: You read a lot of the stuff. One of the things I love about the Icelandic Sagas is that they seem so modern, as compared to Le Roman de la Rose, where you have talking flowers. In the Sagas, people have the same kind of passions we have, and they seem to be like us. At the same time, they have ghosts, and they have gods.

GGK: That's why I did Last Light with the ghosts and faeries as real. That's what I argued before, if you were comfortable doing an Icelandic Saga in a historical evocation of the time that actually made real the ghosts and the faerie world. I was able to do that; it's the reader's job to decide if I did it successfully or not.

Let's go back to where Gary began with me on the actuality issue. Part of it is a measure of awareness of limitation, an awareness of constraint on how sharply or accurately we can capture something. I've found that the use of the fantastic is a shared alert between the reader and the writer of those constraints and limitations. That works for me, ethically and creatively, to avoid the illusion that I am reaching my way back to the 9th century accurately. That's a compact that I've set up with my reader that belies the usual compact, which is that with a good writer the reader believes they're getting accurate data.

The hesitation I have with the distinction drawn between science fiction and fantasy is that what I'm doing is making use of the fantastic as a tool to explore history, not writing fantasy about the past. The reason I put it that way is that if you look at the books, the degree of magic, of fantasy elements and tropes, varies widely. In a book like The Lions of Al Rassan, or A Song for Arbonne, there is essentially none of what one might call magic. There are hints of precognition or somebody with a psychic ability. The point I'm making is that it's not so much writing fantasy about the past, it's using elements of the fantastic in measures that seem suited to that story. That's key for me. I have never introduced magic because that would be a market-appealing -- or even avoided using it because it might be a market-impeding -- element. Cecelia said, and I completely agree, you're working for yourself and your story. The degree to which you use certain tools is driven by the needs of that story.

CH: There was a book called Historical Fallacies from 30 years ago. One of the fallacies was to look back at the past as if the only things that were relevant were the things that turned out to matter now. What is relevant to now isn't necessarily what was relevant then. To find what was relevant then is the work here. I think it's the only work: to try to recover the past, recover who we were then so that we have depth and resonance. I do not understand people who want to live their whole lives with their faces pressed up against the present, when all they have to do is turn around and they have this whole great playground. History is, or the past was, and we can find our way back there if we use the imagination. We can at least find something that resonates well enough that we can escape from the prison of the now.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer



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