Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Science fiction and fantasy writers are in the business of creating worlds. In fact there is a whole village industry of world-building advice - don't have your garden planet orbiting a red giant, do remember that about 90 percent of the people in your medieval kingdom are peasants. (Whether a world in fantasy has to follow the economic logic of the historical past is a question of its own.)

However, world building on some scale is inherent to all fiction, or nearly all. Set a story in San Francisco; the fog and the L Taraval streetcar line are indistinguishable from the real ones, but it is full of imaginary people, visiting each other's imaginary houses, even if the addresses correspond to real ones. Some authors, not ones identified with SF or fantasy, have gone further. Faulkner famously invented Yoknapatawpha County (I've seen alien races with easier names to pronounce), while Sinclair Lewis did him one better and made up the entire state of Winnemac, "bounded by Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana." Since both places were intended to evoke real settings familiar to the author, presumably neither of them had to consult world-building guides.

A kind of alternate history also slips into fiction not regarded as fantastic. This is most common in political thrillers and the like, where the world is generally indistinguishable from our own, but there's a different president - a familiar example is The West Wing, treating its viewers for an hour each week to the president they wish they had.

All of these covertly imaginary worlds raise a subtle question: How different can a world and its history be before it strains our willing suspension of disbelief to regard it as our own, and we must accept it as imaginary in order to believe in it? Subgenres have their own conventions. President Bartlett is a big change, especially in a story line that is all about the White House, but the conventions of political drama accept it; the viewer's reaction is if only, not as if.

Historical fiction faces its own variation of this challenge. The Tudor era is well-documented; we know the names of at least hundreds of people in or around the Tudor royal courts, and considerable detail about dozens of them. You can pretty easily slip an imaginary lady-in-waiting into or gentleman-usher Henry VIII's court, but the reader probably wouldn't buy giving him an imaginary seventh queen, or a made-up Lord Chancellor. Nor could you wrap a few historical specifics around a created character and call him Thomas Wolsey. Readers will expect an interpretation of the real one, about whom quite a bit is known.

So, when I wanted to write about a redheaded Tudoresque ruling queen, I had no choice but to make up her entire world - in the real world, that job has already been taken.

Move back another thousand years, however, and you not only can play fairly fast and loose with historical fact, you essentially have to. Carla Nayland writes about Anglo-Saxon England, and its early period to boot, the seventh century. Our entire knowledge of a kingdom, so far as primary sources go, may be a couple of paragraphs in the Venerable Bede - who wrote them a century later, already out of living memory - together with a sentence in the Annales Cambriae that may well contradict what little Bede told us.

For an author, reconstructing a background from such fragmentary history has its own formidable challenges, but it brings a good deal of freedom in some respects. We know there was a King Aethelferth of Bernicia, about AD 600, who evidently threw his weight around. He had a queen named Acha, but we don't know much more than that. (Read Carla's historical notes on Paths of Exile to get an idea of what a novelist of this era has to work with.)

Go back another hundred years and the well of history runs drier than the Los Angeles River. A rather annoying monk named Gildas (who probably had much to be annoyed about) says a little about Ambrosius Aurelianus - a Briton in spite of his imposingly Roman name - but not a word about his putative successor, reported about 300 years later to have had the title Commander in Chief (dux bellorum), now known to everyone as King Arthur.

Whether there even was a historical Arthur is a matter of endless debate, but there's little debate about one point: He is pretty nearly unavoidable in fiction set in late 5th or early 6th century Britain. He may never have existed (or may not have been named Arthur, etc.), but he looms over the landscape in a way that the real but shadowy Ambrosius does not. In writing a book set in this era you essentially have to create everyone out of whole cloth - even Ambrosius - but if Arthur never shows up, the reader will wonder why not.

Much the same is true of the late Mycenaean world and the Trojan War. We do not have a reliably attested name for a single historical personage in Mycenaean Greece. The Linear B scribes dutifully recorded the names of a few hundred slaves (including, among many properly Homeric-sounding ones, a Theodora who sounds 1700 years out of place), but never got around to mentioning the name of the king. The reader, however, will damn well expect Menelaus, Helen, Agamemnon, and the rest of the gang to make their appearance.

When the legend becomes the story, as the newspaper saying goes, print the legend.


Kedamono said...

Creating an alternate history can be a fun exercise, but sometimes it can be incredibly tedious. This is why some writers will posit a point of departure for their alternate history, name a couple of hight points in that history, and then they detail the present day of the story.

Of course there are those like Harry Turtledove who has volumes of history for his world and you only see a little bit.

But I like creating alternate histories, like the one I created based on the little know bit of Michigan history know as the "Toledo War". In real life, it was a lot of saber rattling and Michigan lost Toledo.

In my alternate history, it was a shooting war with Michigan seceding from the Union along with three other states, along with the eastern part of Ontario Canada, forming the nation of Michigan. The US breaks up into four or five smaller nations, and history changes. I need to compile that history into something I can post to one of my blogs.

Meanwhile, I also run the Alternate History Travel Guides,, and ran a online game for five years that dealt with adventures and life in the multi-verse. It's moribund right now, but while it lasted, it was fun. It's in the Yahoo Groups,

Carla said...

Aethelferth is one of the better-documented kings, too. His contemporary Cearl of Mercia exists in precisely one sentence in Bede.

By the way, there's debate over whether Ambrosius was a Briton (that won't surprise you, there's debate about everything). Gildas describes him as 'the last of the Romans', and that could be interpreted as meaning that Ambrosius was a Briton who stuck to Roman ways of government (the most usual interpretation) or as meaning that he came from Rome itself or continental Europe.

Arthur's dominance is an interesting phenomenon in its own right. I wonder why he has become so ubiquitous, when, say, Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus) didn't? I even felt obliged to give him a mention in passing in Exile, because if you believe the Arthur reference in Y Gododdin he was already a hero of legend in the north at the turn of the 6th/7th centuries.

Rick said...

Kedamono - I had to go look the Toledo War up on Wikipedia!

I love making up fake history, but oddly enough I did very little of it for Catherine of Lyonesse. I'm not even sure I have an authoritative regnal list of the twelve kings of the House of Guienne who precede her to the throne.

Perhaps this is because the history broadly parallels English or at least British history, so I didn't need it all to give myself a context. A toss-off reference to "longbows" and "Chatelhardie" thus becomes enough to hint at the synologue of Crecy or Agincourt.

A flip side, though, is my plot outlines take the form of faux excerpts from history books - if the story reads believably as history, it will probably hold together in the telling.

Carla - at least Cearl got mentioned at all! Early England sure had exotic names. Bernicia and Mercia sound like they could be imaginary kingdoms somewhere in an imaginary Europe, but just from the names you would never think England.

(Poor Acha, though - it sounds like someone sneezed at her christening, or the pagan equivalent.)

You bring up what arguably is the real Arthur question, transcending his mere historicity. Real or otherwise, why did he catch on so big?

Carla said...

Bernicia, like Deira, isn't an English name. Both are Latinised forms of names that were probably Brittonic in origin, something like Bryneich and Deur. Mercia is Latinised English, from 'merc' meaning a tract of land (Tolkien borrowed this for 'Riddermark', the name for Rohan in its own language). It comes from the same Germanic root as the French-derived 'march', meaning a boundary or border, as in 'The Welsh Marches' and 'The Marcher Lords'. I have a suspicion that Mercia meant 'our territory' in the Riddermark sense, though it's usually given as 'kingdom of the borders' in modern discussions. Not being an expert in Old English, I can't say which is the more likely meaning. The Latin forms that have come down to us likely reflect the fact that Bede wrote in Latin. I suspect if he had written in English, we would know the kingdoms by more 'English'-sounding names.

Acha's situation is exactly analogous to Hildeburh in Beowulf, or, for that matter, Simon de Montfort's wife Eleanor Plantagenet during the Barons' War. It happens all the time to high-born women who make dynastic marriages that fail to stop the men of the respective families from fighting. We've absolutely no idea what Acha made of it or whether she thought Fate had been cruel to her. Fair game for your imagination :-)

Re Arthur, there's quite a lot of sex in the Arthur legends. Uther's illicit passion for Ygraine, and Guinevere running off with a younger man (Mordred, in this case), go right back to Geoffrey of Monmouth. I daresay that helped with the stories' popularity. Arthur's insubstantiality may also have helped. None of the legends refer to him founding a dynasty and Geoffrey goes a step further and explicitly says that Arthur was succeeded by a kinsman, not a son. So in the Middle Ages Arthur stories had no connection with any contemporary ruling European dynasty and were therefore politically safe. It was also safe for a minstrel to tell a story about Guinevere running off with a lover, in the sure and certain knowledge that he wasn't impugning the parentage of some claimed descendant in the audience. Once the romancers like Chretien pick up on Geoffrey, positive feedback does the rest. The more people have heard stories of Arthur, the easier it is to sell them another story about Arthur, so the more stories about Arthur get told, so more people have heard of him, and so on.

Gabriele C. said...

It's Mark in German.

that's why I decided to go over to an alternate world entirely for Kings and Rebels. Having MCs of high standing tends to interfere too much with the sources because the guys really should have been mentioned somewhere. ;)

It's a lot easier to write historical fiction about the Roman Empire, the sources have more holes than a Swiss cheese. Not to mention they're all from the Roman POV a biased.

Doug said...

I think in the case of historical fiction the historical record can make for a fairly forgiving framework. The further back in time we go, and the spottier the records get, the easier it becomes to write historical fiction. The gaps in the record become the material the author works with.

Thomas Carlyle's brand of historical biography deals a lot with imagining things that are not recorded. While he was writing as a historian and not as a fiction writer officially, he wrote as much what he imagined had happened as a recounting of the facts. Chroniclers only write down so much, and everything outside of the available narratives was fair game for the imagination in Carlyle's books.

In some ways this makes the Hollywood approach to historical fiction even harder to forgive. Consider how many thousands of knights traveled to the crusader kingdoms between the First and Second Crusades; yet for a certain Orlando Bloom movie set during that period it was deemed necessary to pick one of the few that were actually documented, providing a historical record to be ignored. We have very little information about the historical William Wallace, so why couldn't Mel Gibson content himself with following those guidelines while applying his own imagination to what was off the record?

Eh, back on topic. The medieval period provides a wealth of opportunities for creativity in this regard; so many people, even of high rank, left so little written record. Bede tried to avoid talking about two of the seven English kingdoms of his period, because he was defining the English by their religious orthodxy and those two were Pagan. The sheer gaps in the record make it possibile to tell stories without ever contradicting a known historical fact if you please. As we draw closer to the present we must either veer off into alternate realities, or confine ourselves to the "little people" about whom little is written.

When I wrote excerpts from the diary of Sean Gruer, a protestant Irish-Canadian militia officer who served during the Fenian raids, I tried to keep his unit and all his superiors hisotorically accurate, while fabricating him and all the men under his command.

Alternative histories open up lots of new opportunities, but you have to start thinking of all the possibile ramifications of the changes. Sure Burgundy manages to become an independant kingdom during the Hundred years war, but what does that do to the rise of the Habsburgs? Do the Netherlands still end up as an independant state or do they stay part of the kingdom of Burgundy? How do other states respond to Burgundian control of the Rhine trade routes? Would such a strategically positioned state be ripped to pieces by it's neighbours; leaving the same result as our timeline only occuring later?

Kedamono said...

I think Doug hit the nail on the head. I've seen alternate history posited in Soc.histoy.what-if that believes in the more deterministic view of history: If there wasn't an Adolf Hitler, there would have been a Fritz Goetz.

The other view is that the butterflies of change will alter the world to the point where it's not recognizable in a relatively short period of time. No Hitler, then the Nationalist Socialist Party ends up in jail or scattered to the winds and the Communist party takes it place, maybe. Or maybe Hindenburg is succeeded by a stronger Kaiser and that Kasiser pulls Germany out of the dregs of depression... into something.

I'm middle of the road. I think that there are trends that still occur, but that change can alter those trends even stop them. Also, sometimes you can make a change that no one notices because it "damps" out.

For instance, change a political leader in Madagascar 50 years ago and you'd be hard put to notice any change in world, especially in the US.

However, change who was President of the USA 50 years ago, and you have Goldwater as president during Vietnam...

Both changes have effects, one is minor, the other is major.

I do agree that the past is easy to make stuff up for, but you better research what history there is available or you'll end up with people using modern colloquialisms, attitudes, the written version of a gladiator wearing a wrist watch in a movie. :-)

Rick said...

Carla - yet I imagine the people all end up coming off as English, in spite of their exotic names. They are English after all, in fact very nearly the first English people.

As an aside, it's interesting that the early English who so far as I know never called themselves that - were Saxons to everyone else, but Angles to themselves. In my world they go with the flow and are Saxons even to themselves, though there's an Englehead and a Westengleshire.

Doug and Kedamono - historical fiction set in recent eras sets a whole different set of challenges. You have to slip people into well-established contexts, but at least you're handed a lot of specifics. You don't have to figure out what date might have been chosen for D-Day.

There is a potentially wonderful tension between the free-will and determinist models of history. I would guess, though, that any alternate history eventually becomes a parallel history. The specific ripples of the point of departure are eventually lost in the noise, so to speak, and you're left with a history broadly parallel rather than diverging.

For varying values of "broad."

Doug said...

Tsk, tsk, tsk Rick; you forgot about the Jutes. Everyone forgets about the Jutes. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes; I wonder why the Jutes lost the name game. Bede was among the first to define all the descendents of Germannic migrants on the Isles to that point as the English; using the name of one tribe to refer to all of them.

My feelings on determinism are...complicated. I've tried to write something on the subject three times now and ended up deleting what I wrote every time. Suffice it to say that I think both extremes make maistakes, though in general I sit closer to the non-determinist position. So much of the history I've studied has come down to slim victories and random convergences, I don't have much faith in sweeping historical forces or an order to history.

At the same time the notion that only one person could fill a certain role seems quite arrogant. Part of assuming that things could have happened differently is thew idea that different people could have done fairly similar things.

Carla said...

Bede's term 'anglorum' is rendered as 'English' and as 'Angles' in modern translations, depending on the context. He uses 'anglorum' as an umbrella term for Angles, Saxons and Jutes when he wants a single term to lump together all the Germanic inhabitants of Britain. When he is talking about specific kingdoms he uses the specific names, like East Saxons, South Saxons, East Angles, Northanhymbrorum, etc. So it seems he recognised diversity within what he considered was a larger grouping. The Ango-Saxon Chronicle also uses a similar set of specific names. Bede was keen on the ideal of unity, but how many people other than Bede would have recognised and accepted the idea of a single 'anglorum' people is a moot point. One assumes that the South Saxons etc called themselves Saxons, otherwise the name wouldn't have been in use.

As to the names applied by others, don't forget that the Byzantine Greek historian Procopius refers to Britannia as being occupied by Angles, Frisians and Britons, so it's not as if everyone used 'Saxons'. It reminds me of the Saracens calling all the European crusaders Franks, and, come to that, of Europeans calling all the Saracens Saracens, though I bet they were a multiplicity of different groups. I wouldn't read too much into the various ethnic labels, they were probably about as accurate and specific as referring to 'Africans' today to mean all the inhabitants of the continent of Africa.

Rick said...

Doug - you're right that the Jutes get dissed. It would be worthy of a comedy routine: "Oi'm a Jute, and oi rape and plunder every bit as good as them other lot."

Historical determinism is a toughie, as Asimov found out. I suppose I am also in the middle, tipping a bit toward determinism as determining the limits of the possible.

For example, Leif Erikson didn't lead to much, but some European was going to discover America in a consequential way (and almost certainly bad for the Americans) by the 16th century, because there were so many oceangoing ships; if nothing else, someone rounding Africa would have hit Brazil.

Carla - I believe that the modern Arabic word for "Westerner" is still franj

Also, I don't recall where I read it, but a language person argued that, e.g., the title rex anglosaxonum would best be translated "King of the English Saxons" - a people still identified ancestral as Saxons, but now English ones as distinct from the Saxons on the continent.

Doug said...

Well, I think that if sustained contact between Europe and America had occured earlier it could very well have occured differently. A decreased difference between the technologies of Europeans and natives could have change the ways that Europeans perceived the locals, and more importantly would have allowed natives more time to assimilate new tchnologies. Even more importantly, it would have left more time between the decimation of native populations by European diseases and the flood of people leaving Europe during the Industrial revolution; thus more time for local population to recover and social unrest to die down.

Things wouldn't have been hugs and roses, but I think native Americans could have stood a better chance if the Norse had been more successful in their colonization.

Rick said...

Presumably any sustained contact would have let loose Old World diseases and caused a demographic catastrophe, but yes, the Indians might have had a chance to recover before European intrusion became overwhelming.

But the whole thing is strange, because while Leif and his gang didn't have guns and the Conquistadors did, they were Vikings, for heaven's sake! "Lord, from the fury of the Northmen, protect us." Yet the Indians blew them off without difficulty.

Were guns the problem? Or did the Aztecs and Incas simply draw the worst case scenario - crowded urban societies, that much more subject to epidemics, and aliens who poured in too fast afterwards.

Doug said...

Leif Erikson wasn't really a Viking because Viking doesn't refer to the culture, but to the activity of raiding. We use the term to apply to Norse raiders and it can be properly used as such, but there were never any Vikings in north America.

To go a Viking, meaning to go raiding, involved hit and run attacks using the superior mobility granted by ships to gain surprise and evade pursuers. The Vinland colony was stationary, and rather than an exclusive population of battle-hardened men the Vinland colony was composed of families of settlers and their livestock. They couldn't use mobility against the superior numbers of the locals, and they weren't as well trained or armed as a raiding party. While undoubtedly Norse settlers had some skill in weaponry for survival's sake they didn't come prepared to fight. The word "civilian" doesn't mean very much when applied to pre-modern cultures, but as far as it can be applied to the Norse at all the Vinland colony was a civilian endeavour.

The Aztecs and the Inca had Gold, that was what made them such luscious targets. The natives of the Northeast worked little or no metal, while the Hopi and the Navajo worked Silver, and the Aztecs and Mayans had both gold and silver. Further North their was the Fur trade, but the real land grabs in what would become Canada in the US usually were linked to farming. Before land was the big issue it was cash instead, and a lot of European involvement in the wars of groups like the Iroquiois and the Huron centered around fur trade money. Before that it was the gold of Central America.

The Aztecs were taken down by an alliance of tribes they'd been repressing. Cortes may have provided the moment of weakness and then picked the bones clean, but they had already made their bed before Europeans arrived. When the Aztec capital fell they hadn't have time to be ravaged by disease yet.

When Pizarro took down the Inca with 169 men three things contributed: 1) The Inca had been ravaged by smallpox. 2) The Inca had just had a civil war. 3) Pizarro captured their leader and and army of over ten thousand fell apart and were defeated in detail.

Big battalions are great, but a decent command structure or a little initiative works wonders.

Guns in the lat 15th and early 16th century weren't all that great, but they were very intimidating. In raw lethality they lagged behind longbows and crossbows, but when facing green troops or natives who didn't know what they are seeing they worked like magic. Running natives are easier to run down on horseback.

Mind you I think that horses might have been enough to give the invaders a good chance to, though the Vinland settlers didn't have a lot of those either. I worked on some of this stuff while I was trying to write an alternate universe story about an attempt to reestablish the Vinland colony in the early 1150s. A group of merchants from Antwerp organize an expedition, and to deal with the locals find a bunch of Anglo-Norman knights who lost their lands for backing Mathilda against Stephen and will join for the promise of land. Throw in some Icelandic sailors and a couple of Irish monks and they're off. By maintaining a supply of wood to Greenland the merchants could cut into the Ivory trade from Greenland to Europe and get rich, or at least that was the plan...

Rick said...

Tough crowd, tough crowd! I figured someone would probably nail me on Vikings. You're right of course that Leif Erikson was not leading a raiding expedition, and has broadly the same relationship to, say, Harald Hardrada that the Plymouth pilgrims have to Drake - same culture, different line of work.

Still I wouldn't want to get in an argument with 10th century Norse people, even relatively peaceful ones.

As an aside, does anyone know when it became common (in English) to speak of Vikings, either for the actual raiders or Norse of that time in general? My impression is that the medieval English called them Northmen, or Danes, or heathen devils, but not "Vikings." I could be completely wrong - I haven't tried looking it up - but the modern English usage has a whiff of the 19th century to me.

I thought that Mexico City (I forget the Aztec name) was in mid-epidemic when Cortez got there. But you're right that both the Aztecs and Inca were caught at very bad political moments. They then suffered demographic collapse that would probably have wrecked their cultures even if the Spanish had all left, and certainly left them no chance to take the punch and learn how to cope with guns.

Also true about gold - a gold rush mobilizes a lot more people a lot faster than farming colonization does, or the fur trade.

Actually, though, guns by 1500 were pretty damn formidable - that is just about when the military revolution really took hold and European warfare was becoming gun-centric.

Your challenge in the 12th century, really, is to get Europeans motivated about North America! Beavers aren't even extinct in Europe yet, undercutting the prospects of a fur trade - interesting approach you're taking, letting the Greenland ivory trade provide the key. From the little I know it's about the best prospect.

Carla said...

"As an aside, does anyone know when it became common (in English) to speak of Vikings, either for the actual raiders or Norse of that time in general? "

At the turn of the 18th/19th century, when all things Romantic were in fashion. According to the BBC, the term 'Viking' first appears in the OED in 1807.

Rick said...

Boy, did I call that right!