Tuesday, May 1, 2007

History: Past, Future, and Fake II

Appropriately enough for Romance, it all comes down to Rome.

Nyrath the Nearly Wise, author of the invaluable Atomic Rockets website, noted in a comment on my last post, Ken McLeod called history "the trade secret of science fiction." As a heavy consumer of fake history, SF has developed an efficient manufacturing process for churning the stuff out. This takes the form of a broad consensus version of the future, first identified as such by SF critic Donald Wollheim. You can read my own sketch of it in the Future History entry of my "Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy" (title and concept stolen, of course, from Diana Wynne Jones).

In a nutshell, humans go into space in a big way, and sometime in the next few centuries (usually) they spread out to the stars. The new worlds they settle are presently united in an Empire - but sooner or later the Empire falls, plunging the worlds into a new Dark Ages of backwards, impoverished isolation.

In the future, it seems, time on some scales runs backwards. The first few centuries of this future history are cribbed from the colonial history of North America: Columbus and the Pilgrims and the Wild West all jumbled together, but culminating - at least in US science fiction - in a new Revolution, the free and noble colonists throwing off the heavy hand of King Geo of Earth. At a later period, however, Rome becomes the governing theme: grandeur and decadence, the fall, and the Interregnum. (Science fiction has its own technical term for a Dark Age; how cool is that?)

As a dramatic stage this future works pretty well, which is why it has become the standard - an author can allude to it in a few words, and experienced SF readers will recognize the framework. It has the further benefit of being rather plausible, so long as you grant its pretty dubious premises, such as cheap and convenient interstellar travel. Some nice tensions are built into it as well. We cheer the freedom-loving colonists (don't we?), yet the fall of the Empire is grand tragedy.

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!


This theme came into SF with Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, a book that had enormous influence on me when I read it in junior high. (This is possibly not a good sign; it is one of the very few things I have in common with Newt Gingrich, and a persisting buzz surrounds the fact that the Arabic word for "Foundation" is al-Qaeda.)

Asimov got it of course from Edward Gibbon, who not only wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but largely created it. That the Western Empire broke up into fragments was not exactly news, but Gibbon taught us to see it the way we still do, rude barbarian encampments under the broken aqueducts.

Gibbon had not a good word to say about the Eastern Roman Empire, even though it outlasted the western half by a thousand years. Later historians improved on him by renaming it Byzantine, lest the Roman name be sullied by contact with the effete eunuchs of Constantinople. What a contemptable people those Byzantines were, arguing abstruse theology in taverns when they weren't smashing statues or blinding each other, or even negotiating with Muslims; achieving nothing for a thousand years but staving off Visigoths, Avars, Slavs, Persians, Arabs, more Arabs, Bulgars, Vikings, more Vikings, Turks, Normans, more Turks, and still more Turks. They failed to stave off the Fourth Crusade, and finally there came more Turks than they could handle.

Byzantium is nowhere in science fiction (anyway, most of us 'Murricans never heard of the place), but it shines glorious in fantasy, disguised as Gondor. This is Byzantium roughly as seen by a tenth-century Englishman, who has not yet learned to sneer at it - "English and Danes" were still among the stoutest defenders of Constantinople in 1204, when the Fourth Crusade showed up.

Rome, too, shines in fantasy, though refracted almost out of recognition. The whole broad genre of Romance begins with Arthur. Whatever the obscurities of the "historical Arthur" - where the claim can be made with a straight face (I'm rather sympathetic to it) that there really was an Arthur, but he had a different name - the original one brief shining moment came in Britain, sometime around AD 500, when for a little while it seemed that that a people who still sensed their romanitas might hold their own against the tide.

11 comments:

Bruce said...

Among sf/fantasy writers, Harry Turtledove has done quite a bit with Byzantium, both as fantasy and as alternate history. Can't think of any specifically science fictional uses of Byzantium, though.

Nyrath said...

I too have a sketch of Donald Wollheim outline of future history here, thoughtfully illustrated with old SF illustrations. I think I got it from some literary history of science fiction.

Besides Asimov using Gibbon, the other biggie is James Blish using the (discredited) theories of Spengler for his future history. That bit was immediately swiped by the authors of a computer game called Omnitrend's Universe. I think it also was copied by a role playing game, but I'm not sure.

Gabriele C. said...

David Drake and Eric Flint have co-authored the Belisarius saga, six books Byzantium in space, according to what I've read about them - haven't bought any yet.

Another Fantasy take is Guy Gavriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors.

-- What a contemptable people those Byzantines were, arguing abstruse theology in taverns when they weren't smashing statues or blinding each other, or even negotiating with Muslims; achieving nothing for a thousand years but staving off Visigoths, Avars, Slavs, Persians, Arabs, more Arabs, Bulgars, Vikings, more Vikings, Turks, Normans, more Turks, and still more Turks. They failed to stave off the Fourth Crusade, and finally there came more Turks than they could handle.--

This is the best short version of Byzantine history I've ever read. Roflol.

Bernita said...

Yes, Rome is but a backwater in the G.G. Kay duology.

Nyrath said...

In Bill Baldwin's THE HELMSMAN series, everything is loosed based on World War I and II. He even included the Dunkirk Miracle.

Rick said...

Turtledove and Kay have finally gotten to Byzantium, but it's not yet part of the standard kit of tropes.

Kay is doing the same general kind of schtick that I do, fake history that cheerily admits to being based directly on the real Middle Ages.

Gabriele - bow and doff of cap!

Nyrath - someone who has gone down the memory hole even more than Spengler is Arnold Toynbee. He'll be my next topic, because when I found his work it was like stumbling on the collected works of Hari Seldon.

As with macro history, so for levels down, and World War II pretty much lurks in the background of most military SF. The Napoleonic Wars have been surprisingly productive for space-navy SF, considering that they were fought at the dawn of the industrial age with basically pre-industrial ships.

Gabriele C. said...

Hehe, and my space opera idea that's not really going anywhere, is 12th century feudalism in space. I'm not going to wake that monster now, having enough plotbunnies already, but I have not yet completely abandoned the idea of writing a space opera. I'll have some swords, that much is sure.

Rick said...

Invasion of the Feudal Plotbunnies - that sounds truly terrifying! (There really was a movie about giant radioactive bunnies: "Night of the Lepus."

How will you justify the swords, or will you just brazen it through without explaining?

Canageek said...

Andre Norton made heavy use of this trop in her books. The Last Planet is a textbook example, for instance.

Rick said...

Yes - I remember that book. In fact, it was my favorite Norton book (probably no surprise).

Rick said...

Should have added - welcome to another early post and comment thread!