I recently met Kim Stanley Robinson at a cocktail party, because we’re both authors and meeting each other at cocktail parties is what authors do when we’re not writing. I have not read any of Robinson’s fiction other than Escape from Kathmandu when I was in the titular city over a decade ago, and reading a text when one is an altitude-addled teenager prevents one from really remembering sufficient details to engage with the author upon meeting them later in life. I do own a copy of The Years of Rice and Salt thanks to a barista at my old coffee haunt pushing it on me with all the subtly of a dealer forcing a sale on a reluctant crack-veteran, but I read slowly and so it still languishes in my to-read stack. Thankfully we authors are most adroit at not mentioning to one another when we haven’t read, or heard of, each other’s work, and I had the pocket ace of having recently read Robinson’s article “Science Fiction: The Stories of Now” in New Scientist, which is a thought-provoking essay regardless of your preexisting feelings on so-called genre fiction.
All silliness aside, it was great to meet Robinson and thank him for his article, and before the strong currents that swirl through cocktail parties drifted us apart I enjoyed chatting with him about the ghettoization of genre. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to engage him on a point that many of his critics have focused on, which is that Robinson states that historical fiction is often “not about now in the way science fiction is.” Poppycock and balderdash, come the cries, with one Booker Prize judge using the rather un-quaintly-British “bulls--t” to convey his disagreement.
Now, I don’t think Robinson was being as dismissive of historical fiction as some have taken his article, nor do I think he makes a lot of missteps in constructing his argument—as I said, it’s a very intelligent essay, and I agree with much of what Robinson says despite my personal preference for writing about our real historical past rather than intelligent cuttlefish, spaceships, and biology, or however the dismissive quote goes. This is of course a fanciful jest; I have no interest in arguing for the superiority of any genre or style of literature, and should probably reiterate that I agree with Robinson’s assessment that science fiction has been unduly overlooked in some circles, though I personally would have phrased it to explicitly include fantasy. I know why Robinson didn’t, but enough on him and his rabblerousing article. Instead, I want to use this as a starting point to assert that fiction set in the past can be just as much about “the now” as anything else—which I suspect Robinson agrees with, hence The Years of Rice and Salt.
Some historians staunchly maintain that history is solely linear and some hold that it’s mostly cyclical, when it seems to me the most benefit is to be gained by not viewing either approach as exclusive. Patterns seem to emerge in the historical record but perceived patterns can be misleading; on the other hand, one doesn’t have to be up on their Ibn Khaldun or Oswald Spengler to notice similarities between current events and events that unfolded in our collective past. There are all sorts of banalogies about knowing your past to understand your present which don’t warrant repeating, but time and again when complex issues arise in the modern age we can find a similar, if not identical, occurrence in the past. Historical fiction often is very much about the now, as authors scour history for precedents that might shed light on our contemporary events, and the greater human condition.
Of course, sometimes historically-inclined authors just want to write Henry VIII/Ann Boleyn slashfic, but by the same token certain SF authors seem primarily concerned with space babes, as opposed to the Terran variety. As I mentioned yesterday, there is the issue when writing historical fiction of taking a purely escapist/romantic route as opposed to an engaging/realistic approach, and the same can be just as true for fantasy, science fiction, or any other vague genre or individual novel, so should we denounce whole fields of work based on less-than-sterling examples of the genre’s potential? Obviously not, yet this attitude doubtless contributed to SF/F becoming increasingly excluded over the years from discussions of “serious” literature, and it’s the same sort of attitude that critics have accused Robinson of adopting toward historical fiction. Thankfully, there is an easy method to break out of this mindset, and it comes from no less a luminary than Kim Stanley Robinson in that same oft-mentioned article:
“Try this as a kind of experiment: read 30 writers new to you. It's a big project, but what a lot of good reading would come of it… So many wander in a vacuum, wondering what things mean, wondering where real pleasure and value can be found. It is always in literature. When you were young you knew. Try it again and see. The world will light up for you as if illuminated by a grand hypothesis, by an ongoing science of meaning – by the literature of your time.”
I told you it was a good essay. Robinson has pretty firm ideas about what constitutes “the literature of your time” but I’m very much of a mind that the literature of our time consists of the contemporary novels that mean the most to us as individuals, that get us thinking about ourselves and our future regardless of the time period in which they are set or the section of the library they are located. Take Robinson up on his thirty new writers challenge, but I would strongly suggest looking beyond any single genre or “best of” list when you do–if Robinson is correct that “a literary life is an ongoing moral education, a complete geography of the human world” you don’t want to rely solely on the cartographers of a single nation.