Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Historical Fiction vs. Historical Science Fiction

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.


TheOFloinn said...

Among the best historical fiction are those by Cecilia Holland: The Firedrake, Rakossy, The Kings in Winter, Until the Sun Falls, Belt of Gold, et al. I think historical fiction works best when the history is not the plot but the setting. And perhaps it works better when the history is a bit less well known to the reader.

Robert Scherrer said...

I agree. Of course, the historical eras that I know the most about are also the ones I want to read about... Kind of a selection effect there. I didn't mention it in the post, but I think a good knowledge of history also enhances the appreciation of alternate history stories -- it helps the reader understand all of the author's inside historical jokes, which seem to be a staple of that genre.

Kathy said...

I have that problem in alternate histories, when the author tries to make it too parallel to the actual history. For example Harry Turtledove redrawing WWI and WWII in North America, with the USA as France and Russia, and the CSA as Germany.

You know the confederates will lose an army in a bad siege and perpetrate genocide.

Perhaps the grand historical events are not the best settings for either historical fiction or alternate history? In the latter, though, one can change things radically. Turtledove does manage this in another series, where invading aliens rudely interrupt WWII.

Robert Scherrer said...

I think that last series you mention is Turtledove's most famous. He has a new book out now set during the Korean War - it's on my "to read soon" list.

Unknown said...

I take your point regarding historical fiction, but I would take issue with your choice. Since
Wouk was a WWII contemporary and in fact made his name with the Caine Mutiny, based in some respects on his war time service in the US Navy in Destroyers in the Pacific, I would say Winds of War and War and Remembrance fall into the category of contemporaneous WWII fiction. Right at the end of the era, soon to be replaced by Vietnam era novels. Looking at if from that standpoint, the novels are not meant to be suspenseful in the sense that one was expected to know the events and the point is how the characters dealt with those events.

Robert Scherrer said...

A good point. WW II was much more "current" when the books were published in the 70s than it is today. It's also interesting that the 60s were the first time when there was enough separation from the war to allow for humorous films and TV (McHale's Navy, Hogan's Heroes, etc.) In retrospect, there was probably a very narrow window of time in which this was possible: before which it would have been unacceptable to make humorous references to the war, and after which the war wouldn't resonate with enough people. I am planning to rent the TV miniseries once I have finished the books.