Pseudo-History: A taxonomic travesty

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Regarding the responsibilities of writers of historical fantasy or pseudo-historical fiction, Your Humble Blogger has little that would head in the direction of anything definitive. I have been pondering the issue for a while now, and if it helps, I've come up with four categories that seem to me to have differing levels of authorial responsibility to historical whatnottage, in all its various stuff.

Digression: Gentle Readers may have noticed my tendency to break things down into classes and categories, laboring the distinctions in a nineteenth-century positivist way, taking on the tone of an ancient Strunk lecturing to a particularly slow-witted class of fresh folk. That tone is not provoked by the Gentle Readers; Your Humble Blogger is actually lecturing his own self. In third person. Sorry about that. End Digression.

The first category is fiction that takes place in our actual history, or something very close to it. What came to my mind in this category was the John the Balladeer stories of Manly Wade Wellman; there are speculative elements (it's OK if I call them that, right?) but the world is our world. I think that the author who chooses this path has a high bar of accuracy, and can fairly be criticized not only for anachronisms and such but for perpetuating stereotypes, whitewashing the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, glamorizing war, misogyny and ecological devastation, and anything else that a novel in that setting but without speculative elements would be criticized for. The existence of a vampire in nineteenth-century New Orleans would not justify neglecting the cultural jumbo that would presumably be the reason to set a vampire novel in nineteenth-century New Orleans. Right? A novel set with magicians or dragons in the Napoleonic Wars should either touch on the state of women and slaves or have some really good justification for avoiding it.

The second category is fantasy that takes place in another world that is abstracted from a specific and recognizable culture and time. This could be Harry Turtledove writing the Videssos books that are clearly Byzantium with some fantasy elements. What puts a book into this category is that the parallels between Videssos and Byzantium are supposed to be a Source of Reader Pleasure. Or, to take the intention away from it, a reader should place the book in this category if she finds the parallels to be an integral part of the book. Then the reader, it seems to me, is justified in criticizing the accuracy of the book within the abstraction of the author, or (equally important) in criticizing the abstraction itself. That is, with further thinking, I think that it's fair for me to criticize the choice that Mr. Turtledove makes in (f'r'ex) not dealing with insular religious minority traditions within the larger community. On the other hand, in that criticism, it's important to keep in mind that there are purposes served by the abstraction, and that the thing you are criticizing may be part and parcel of the thing you like. What is obviously (I hope) unfair in this category is complaining that Makuran is Persia and therefore should properly be east of Videssos.

Now, I want to spend just a little longer on this category before moving on. Ms. Bujold, after reading a series of this-is-the-version-of-that posts on The Sharing Knife series, felt compelled to point out that although the book is inspired by the American Frontier, it isn't actually set in the American Frontier, and that therefore there aren't one-to-one correspondences. And that's clearly fair. Except that by making the setting recognizably a pseudo-real American Frontier, she has set up some of the correspondences, and she has to answer for them, whether they are altogether reasonable or not. I do feel that I am entitled to be grumpy about Ms. Bujold's choice to make an American Frontier without Africans, French or Mexicans, even if it's isn't the real American Frontier.

A third category: books that are set in a fantasy world that is largely taken from a particular culture, but which is so different from our own history that its difficult to draw correspondence between any two elements. There are loads of swords-and-sorcery books that are vaguely European, and loads of spooky books that are vaguely Maerchenwald, and so on and so forth. One example might be the Dalemark Quartet by Diane Wynne Jones, which is very very Welsh, but is set in a place that is not Wales at all in any way, and doesn't have anything like the history of Wales. I think these are pretty murky. My inclination is that you have to criticize them on their own terms. If you find that having a semi-medieval or renaissance society without any oppression or visible racial or religious minorities gets up your nose, I think it's worth saying so, and laying out why. But since those religious and racial minorities are going to be invented, I think criticisms of how they are handled (when they are handled at all) is tricky; I've seen reviews that say that obviously the K'Parheth are meant to be Asians, and that therefore the whole book is racist in its depiction of Asians/K'Parneth, and, you know, sometimes that's persuasive and sometimes it isn't. Looking at it from the other direction, I think a writer should be able to invent the K'Parneth without having to make them line up directly with any of our cultures.

But, and this is where it turns out I've been headed with this, I think it is incumbent on a writer to be aware of things like: the Magic Negro trope; Orientalism and similar exoticism; the stereotype of Jews as grasping, uncouth and untrustworthy; the Madonna/whore dichotomy, together with other depictions of women that justify the patriarchy; the deliberate social norm of invisibility of minorities, service workers, cripples, and other undesirables; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (as the King of Siam would say). That may be a lot. I don't know; I don't write. But I think that it makes some sense that people who read a book set in a version of, say, medieval Europe will be offended to find all of the social and cultural evils whitewashed away, or to find that the K'Parneth are inscrutable slant-eyed fanatics who can't pronounce their rs and ls. And it takes more than coming up with new names for geographical landmarks to get away from that.

Well, and I may as well go through the fourth category, as long as I'm at it: books that are clearly intended to have parallels with a portion of our own world's history, but with utterly different circumstances, such that the difference is a large part of the point. I'm thinking here of Trantor of course, ancient Rome in space. But there are others, which of course I can't think of off the top of my head. Shakespeare in space, El Cid in space, Ali Baba and the Forty Space Pirates. You know. My inclination is to give these an extra break, because these things are by their nature delicate, and the more you stretch them the bigger the rips are. On the other hand, it's absolutely fair game to criticize the initial choice; Mr. Asimov decided to do The Decline and Fall of Planet Rome because he thought that the story of Rome is and ought to be central to our story of ourselves, for very large values of us, and that's problematic in a variety of ways. But having made that choice, I don't think he's on the hook for fairly representing the Roman system.

OK, very long indeed, and without much real content. I suppose what I've concluded (to this point) is that I do think it's important, when reading and criticizing a book, to decide which category it's in. And I think it's important for an author to decide that as well, although of course there's no guarantee that the reader will agree. But part of my disagreement with dance (prone to laughter) may be from that categorical disagreement; I think d(ptl) would place the book in the third category, while I would place it plumb spang in the second. I could argue that categorization, but the point is that our different recognitions of the kind of book it is have a substantial effect on our subsequent Sources of Reader Annoyance (and presumably Pleasure).

Take another example: Steven Brust's Khaavren romances. Of which I have only read The Phoenix Guards, so I'm not particularly qualified to play this game, but still: is it category two, because it is so obviously France despite not being France at all, or is it category three, because it so obviously isn't France at all, despite the whole D'Artagnan thing? And if people have very different answers to that question, is my rubric useful?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

13 thoughts on “Pseudo-History: A taxonomic travesty

  1. Chris Cobb

    re the Khaavren romances:

    definitely not category 2, because insofar as there are parallels to France, the parallels are to Dumas’s fictional France, not to historical France. Brust aspires to be true to the spirit of Dumas, not to the history of France, so he treats French history, which enters his work only insofar as he is imitating Dumas, with even less attention to accuracy than Dumas himself. Rather than exploring the question of what seventeenth-century France would have been like had it been populated by a long-lived, moderately sorcerous elven race divided genetically and socially into seventeen Great Houses, Brust is exploring the question of what Dumas’s books would have been like if Dumas had been a citizen of Brust’s Dragaeran Empire instead of having been a citizen of nineteenth-century France.

    Looked at in the broader view of the series, and indeed Brust’s entire body of work in his Dragaeran setting, it doesn’t fit into any of these categories. His fantasy world includes elements that parallel elements of historical earth cultures (the Easterners’ language, and some of their culture, is Hungarian; the Dragaerans are physiologically rather like Elves and their Empire is rather like China; the recent history of the Empire contains elements that resemble the development of industrial and financial capitalism and the Marxist reaction against capitalism; the culture of the Empire at the time of Phoenix Guards resembles that of Dumas’s version of pre-Revolutionary France; etc.), but those elements are scrambled up and re-arranged such that there is no correspondence between the setting as a whole and any actual, historical period, setting, or culture, any more than there is in, say, The Lord of the Rings.

    The fact that this work does not fit neatly into your rubric does not undermine the usefulness of the rubric, but it does indicate that it is not yet comprehensive if one wants to include fantasies like Lord of the Rings and Brust’s oeuvre or like Phoenix Guards (considered on its own) under the heading of historical fantasy or pseudo-historical fiction, in which case another two categories would need to be created for works of these two types. I would be inclined to say that neither work should actually be included in this category. Both works, taken as a whole, aspire to create the feel of historical reality and historical fiction, but they do so not by paralleling (except here and there in fragmentary ways) any particular earthly history but by building a world whose history develops logically and organically from its own origins and premises, and Phoenix Guards, taken on its own, is imitating literature, not history.

  2. Chris Cobb

    Edited for clarity:

    Change I would be inclined to say that neither work should actually be included in this category to .

  3. Anonymous

    Argh. Third try:

    Change I would be inclined to say that neither work should actually be included in this category to I would be inclined to say that neither work should actually be included under this heading (i.e. of historical fantasy or pseudo-historical fiction).

  4. hapa

    hopefully a pleasant surprise: i found this very immediately helpful with some internal wrestling about how to scope and critique visions of and plans for “the future.”

  5. Vardibidian

    I am pleasantly surprised; I didn’t think immediately useful was ever one of my strong suits, and certainly not with this post.

    And I’m trying to think of a better pseudo-history to ask about, since the Khaavren romances turn out not to be pseudo-history at all…


  6. charlene

    Pseudo-histories that immediately come to mind are GG Kay’s Sarantium/Byzantium books and Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series (strong parallels to northern European history).

    I actually did not feel that Sharing Knife fit into your category 2; I felt more like it was a category 3 — some of the technological trappings of American frontier, like paddleboats and farming culture, yeah, but the underlying mythology, history, and resulting politics is very different… seems more like the Dalemark quartet than like Sarantium. I actually didn’t think I was supposed to think of it as the American frontier any more than I thought I was supposed to think of Chalion as medieval Spain and therefore be asking where all the Moors and Jews were.

    I strongly suspect that category-3 milieus that are not vague-European-medieval (vague-18th-century-Europe, as the Vlad/Khaavren books are, or vague-American-frontier, like the Sharing Knife books) are much more likely to be thought of as category 2– because they confound the reader expectation that a category-3 book will be set in vague-European-medieval.

  7. Chris Cobb

    One matter that it might be worth talking through further is the tangled relationship between history, myth, and “culture” as sources. I wonder if Charlene’s point that “category-3 milieus that are not vague-European-medieval (vague-18th-century-Europe, as the Vlad/Khaavren books are, or vague-American-frontier, like the Sharing Knife books) are much more likely to be thought of as category 2” –which seems plausible–is true not just because of reader expectations, as she suggests, but also because of reader knowledge. That is, it is easier for an American writer, anyway, to construct a work that will be read as a category 3 story if the setting is vaguely European, even if the work in fact draws on history fairly directly, because all most readers will know of the source setting is category 3 knowledge. To put the matter another way, readers know the Medieval Europe of chivalric romances much better than they know the Medieval Europe of history. Thus, even if the work straddles the line between category 2 and category 3, many readers will just take it as category 3 because they have no way of knowing that the plot and the details of the culture are actually closely modeled upon Pope Innocent III’s preaching of the First Crusade, or something like that. I have had a number of conversations with readers, even fans, of Guy Gavriel Kay’s earlier novels (e.g. Tigana and Song for Arbonne who had no idea that they were fantasy reconceptions of specific European cultures and even of particular historical periods and historical events.

    It’s more likely, I would suggest, that an American audience will pick up on the parallels to actual history or actual culture in settings on this side of the Atlantic. Over on the “Mohanraj, Rosenbaum, Bujold” thread, an Australian poster has indicated that (s)he “never ever saw it as anything [more specific?] than a versions of colonial settlement vrs a native world.” For an Australian reader, Bujold’s frontier setting in The Sharing Knife series is clearly category 3, but would it be instead category 2 for an American reader who might have a different relationship to the details? Not having read the series myself, I couldn’t say, but I do think that in the general case, reader knowledge matters. Authors can influence reader knowledge by the way they frame their books’ relationship to history, of course. Kay’s earlier novels mentioned above don’t give the reader more than a few hints about their historical connection, while his more recent works include extensive authorial commentary and bibliographies for further reading that make the historical element unmistakable. Geography is another factor that can orient a reader’s view of a work’s relation to history. But different readers will still respond to historical details with differing degrees of recognition.

  8. Lois Bujold


    I think your taxonomic category grid is a valiant effort and very human, but much too simple and Procrustean to contain something as protean and fractal as a novel, which I think might better be conceptualized as a conversation, fluid and flowing. Setting up books as political allegories (when they are not — some clearly are just that thumpingly simple) invites the reader to go rooting for correspondences “like little girls hunting for white violets in the springtime” as somebody said — Thurber? — and contains the danger of inventing them when they aren’t found. Sort of like literary torture.

    Your poster on the Khaavren romances pointed out the extent to which a novel may be engaged not only with history, but with other literature. Just to use TSK as an example, since it’s on the table anyway, where in your grid is the space for my relationship with my grandfather, or with the lost landscapes of my childhood, or my tussle with Tolkien, or my speed-date with the romance community, all of which are also and simultaneously part of the tale?

    Where in your grid is space for works like _The King of Elfland’s Daughter_, or _The Well at the World’s End_, or _The Last Unicorn_, or _The Wind in the Willows_, speaking of lost landscapes? (Perhaps grandfathered with respect to this argument, or escaping out the side from the “historical” parameter?) Or Tolkien himself, for that matter, with his deep engagement, simultaneously, with the landscapes of pre-Medieval and Medieval literature and the killing fields of World War I?

    These sorts of simplifying conceptual systems tend not to work well with stacked complexities. For example, it is plain that a mother, a daughter, a grand-daughter, an aunt, and a sister are all different things, yet I am all of them at once. A good novel isn’t any simpler.

    Good conversation, very thinky, carry on.

    Ta, L.

    (Oh. I was not implying I thought you were a newbie writer, in my own blog post. It was just an emotionally-neutral example of the same psychological phenomenon — sensitization affecting reading protocols — writ smaller, for an illustrative example.)

    (Also oh, and alas: a 13,000-year-old migration splitting into over 200 social groups and languages =/ a 1000-year-old magically-bioengineered fallen aristocratic caste holding itself together, through a variety of interesting social mechanisms, in a single militarized culture patrolling a vast landscape in a very systematic fashion. My Lakewalkers have as much in common with Orthodox Jews as with Native Americans. It still creates a racial frontier, however. For the moment, the power differential and the unity still favor the Lakewalkers, another non-correspondence, though we can see (as they cannot) where the farmer technology is going to go with that. The farmers, in turn, are all descended from a remnant of ordinary folks from the same culture who took refuge from the first malice war in enclaves in the south, and thus have a single area of origin; I tried to imply this with the more formal, standard, “Eastern” dialect spoken by my southerners. There is no trans-oceanic travel of any kind at this period to turbo-boost immigration or trade; all the population pressure is internal, as seen in Book #4.)

    (Third oh, for the record I am largely in agreement with the RaceFail argument, insofar as I understand it; but I expect I will learn more listening than talking.)

  9. Vardibidian

    I think the point about the categories being different for people with different backgrounds is fascinating, and I think would probably reward a good deal of serious study and research. Because, of course, there are different rewards involved as well, different Sources of Reader Pleasure, different resonances and connotations.

    Ms. Bujold objects to the whole taxonomy, because it is reductive and therefore inaccurate; no book will be described accurately as Category Two or Category Three, but at best will be Category N but with… And of course she’s right. She’s right insofar as being right is helpful, there. All taxonomies are incorrect because they are reductive. The question isn’t whether mine is reductive, but whether mine has the ability to bring value to a discussion, when used along with all the other ways of talking about the book. What it really is, I suppose (what a taxonomy really is, I suppose, now that I think about it) is a way to say that this has more in common with that, that we can contrast those with these, that although of course all of the ones in this group are different, yet they share something.

    So. I (of course) think that this structure that I come up with could be useful to talk, readers with other readers (including writers, of course), about differences and similarities. I’ll make the (horrible) comparison to genre distinctions, and the question of what is fantasy and what is science fiction; all of the various ways of answering that are awful, and yet the distinction is useful, as we can tell because it is actually used. Empiricism! I have resorted to observation of the real world! Now you know I’m desperate.

    And I’ll keep going there—comments at Tor and other places have made it clear that lots of readers have enjoyed the book whilst putting it plumb spang in Category Two. Not that they know about my categories, but it’s clear from the kind of how-long-is-the-Ohio-River-in-the-Shining-Knife-world conversations they are having that they think of it as That Sort of Book. Now, I hope that very few people think of it as only that sort of book. That would, indeed, be a misreading. But my own experience of reading it is that one of the things it is, is That Sort of Book.

    And. My experience as well is that one of the Sources of Reader Pleasure for this particular reader was its evocation of the American Frontier and of the literature that contributes to the image of the American Frontier in my mind. Flatboats on the Mississippi, covered wagons, mule trains, the Natchez Trace, fiddlers and farmers and the beginnings of the great cities of the Midwest. Daniel Boone and Johnny Appleseed and Laura Ingolls Wilder and Sarah, plain and tall. The Robber Bridegroom. I think that Ms. Bujold meant to evoke all of that, and did evoke it in my mind, anyway. True, she only evoked it. The books aren’t set in the American Frontier, the way that (f’r’ex) the Alvin Maker books are. That series derives its power not only from evoking the American Frontier but from nailing it down; the reader that isn’t drawing distinctions between Orson Scott Card’s version of William Henry Harrison and the real one isn’t doing his job. But one of the strong points in the series, what makes the series distinctive (other than the hundred pages or so of slam-bang action that YHB loves, loves, loves) is the way that she makes her own creation of the Great Green World evoke that American Frontier myth that I keep in my head.

    Now, I know that not every reader shares my experience of this. But I think it’s clear that lots of them do, enough that Ms. Bujold clearly feels compelled to repeat her claim that the works are not simple allegories but are new creations. And yet that very repetition is evidence on my side. As is, at the moment, the wikipedia page for the first book in the series. And although of course I may be mistaken, I think that Ms. Bujold has planted that stuff in the book as a potential Source of Reader Pleasure for those people like me who will derive pleasure from it.

    I’m almost done, I think, for now. The last step is to say that when a writer gets the benefit of that history and myth, the baggage is likely to come along too, and that I think that’s a legitimate critique of a reader of a work. Ms. Bujold didn’t write a series of books in some version of the American Frontier that would be indistinguishable from a history book, nor did she write them in a version that was crap history. But she did write them in a version that was recognizable, and where the differences between the version in the book and the version in our mutual Idea of the history include the reduction from, say, five races (where the word is standing in for, well, an awful lot, but this is surely long enough already) to two. I think to imply that she is not to be held responsible for that decision is preposterous; of course she is.

    And the response that there simply aren’t any African slaves or French trappers in her version seems to me to ignore that there isn’t any Mike Fink in her version, either, or any Old Hickory, or Overland Trail, or My Life Among the Indians. Does a work of that kind only get the good stuff?


  10. dance (pronetolaughter)

    reduction from, say, five races (where the word is standing in for, well, an awful lot, but this is surely long enough already) to two. I think to imply that she is not to be held responsible for that decision is preposterous; of course she is.

    I don’t disagree with you. But rather I feel that she has fulfilled her responsibility for this decision by 1) creating a clear origin myth that explains why this world is reduced and 2) retaining the essence of the issues and questions evoked by a multicultural frontier. That is, that there are many ways to use history responsibly other than recreating it.

    I am not sure what you mean by the last paragraph?

    (I also thought Chris Cobb’s point about reader knowledge being key to the taxonomy was superb)

  11. dance (pronetolaughter)

    Realized that my last comment basically just repeated your taxonomy. So I wonder if it might be a stronger tool if the taxonomy did not attempt to establish categories, but rather characteristics? Eg, lay out 10 points of what we can legitimately demand of authors, or 8 arenas of evaluation, or somesuch. Maybe a sort of flow-chart style?

    The other thing I was going to say, long ago, is that your point about an author’s responsibility to avoid various tropes like the Magic Negro, I think deserves more attention than to be buried in a taxonomy. Regardless of the type of novel one is writing, a slanty-eyed empire that changes R to L is just lazy writing.

  12. Lois Bujold

    V. asks, “Does a work of that kind only get the good stuff?”

    Damn straight. I consider my books to be like a smorgasbord made up of all my favorite desserts. If you want broccoli, you can put it in *your* book.

    :-), L.

    (Or Brussels sprouts. You can definitely keep all the Brussels sprouts. More for you.)

  13. charlene

    Hmm. V and dance’s comments have given me (rather unfortunately incoherent) thoughts about different readers categorizing things in different ways. I could imagine, for example, a person who categorizes works (say) primarily based on technology/culture and secondarily on geography to, without much doubt, put Sharing Knife into Category 2, whereas a person who categorizes almost strictly on political indicators and origin myth (um, I must confess that I almost never pay attention to geography in books, and had not even retained the part about the river running north to south until it came up in this conversation) to pretty definitely put it in Category 3 or beyond, whereas perhaps (to someone who categorizes using some scheme based on all factors, or perhaps in the categorization scheme of the author’s… who, one presumes, must have thought about all factors if they are present in the book) it belongs in some ether in between the two.

    (So, to follow dance’s line, maybe what’s needed is a second dimension to the categorization, or a spreadsheet to which one can give one’s own Reader Weightings of the appropriate indicators?)

    This is interesting. Thanks for making me think about this!


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