Although I enjoy reading about history, and I've been an inveterate board wargamer for 40 years, I've never enjoyed historical fiction. On the other hand, I'm an avid fan of historical science fiction (which probably includes about half of all time travel stories ever written -- I particularly like the works of Poul Anderson), and I also enjoy historical fantasy, especially the books by Tim Powers (more about him later). But I think I finally understand this apparent disconnect.
I was recently persuaded by this laudatory article at The Atlantic to take a crack at Herman Wouk's massive two-volume series on World War II, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Wouk is often compared to Tolstoy, and since I never read War and Peace, I figured Wouk's books would make an acceptable substitute. Plus I find World War II much more interesting than the Napoleonic era -- it's easier to sort out the good guys and the bad guys. Herman Wouk, by the way, is still alive, at the age of 100.
Now I am going to explain my issues with historical fiction, but before I do so, I have to summarize part of the plot of The Winds of War. Warning: there are spoilers after the break.
OK, here are some spoilers from the The Winds of War:
In September, 1939, the Germans invade Poland.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.
In 1945, the Americans drop two atomic bombs on Japan and end the war (I haven't gotten that far yet, but I've got a hunch it's going to happen).
So do you see my problem with historical fiction? I already know the plot! Of course, Wouk drills down to the individual level, but that only makes things worse. One of the protagonists, a young American Jewish woman named Natalie, goes to visit her boyfriend in Warsaw. In August of 1939. I wanted to scream, No! Don't Go! It's a bad idea! It's like one of those horror movies where you think Don't go down in the basement! and the main character then says, "I think I'll go down in the basement." Later, Natalie gets to Italy, with plenty of time before war with the U.S. is due to break out. But she delays and delays, finally getting a flight out that's scheduled for Dec. 15, 1941. No, that's not a good flight! Get something two weeks earlier!
Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying the books tremendously - I've started on the second one after plowing through all 800 pages of the first one. But knowing the history makes the plot of the books slightly less interesting. And that's the contrast with historical science fiction and fantasy, where there's a lot more leeway to reinterpret the past. The aforementioned Tim Powers is the master of this. Many of his books involve "secret histories", in which the past unfolds as we already know it, but many of the events are given a new, fantastical interpretation. The best example of this is Declare, in which the Cold War is reinterpreted as an attempt by the Soviet Union to make use of various evil supernatural powers. In reading Powers's books, a good knowledge of history adds to the enjoyment, rather than spoiling the ending.
And if you'd like to see a hilarious take on World War II as a bad television series, take a look at this.