Tony likes "History"

The History Boys—Alan Bennett’s play about the meaning, study, and teaching of history in an English grammar school in the 1980s—won six Tony Awards including Best Play, Best Director, and Best Actor at last week’s ceremonies in New York.

Get your tickets soon. The play is set to close in September.

Late Update (6/27/06): History Boys extended through October 1.

Late Late Update (11/21/06): History Boys film adaptation opens in limited release today.

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away …

The topic of this spring’s Washington DC Area Technology and Humanities Forum was just announced on CHNM News, and I couldn’t be more excited. On May 15, 2006 Mark Sample, Jason Rhody, and Michelle Roper will discuss “Taking Games Seriously: The Impact of Gaming Technology in the Humanities” at Georgetown University’s Car Barn. This is right up Found History’s ally.

The forum’s topic touches on something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: the extent to which fantasy and science fiction (both closely tied to gaming culture) are indebted to history for both substance and narrative structure and style—that is, the extent to which fantasy and sci-fi are written as history.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that fantasy is just alternative history and science fiction the imagined history of the future. The sources seem to say as much. The original Star Wars, for example, is framed from the outset as a story from the past. Introduced by the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” the movie (and its sequels and prequels) goes on to present a plot based loosely in Roman history (“the Republic” vs. “the Empire”) and characters based loosely in Greek epic (Han Solo as the unseasonal hero, for example). Each Star Trek episode reproduces an entry in Captain Kirk’s diary, invariably beginning with a reading of the “star date.” Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a presented as a history of the third age of “middle earth” and even begins with an explanation of “archival” sources in its “Notes on the Shire Records.” A professor of Anglo-Saxon literature and language at Oxford and an expert in the chivalric romances of the middle ages, Tolkein borrowed heavily from the genre, which was itself a kind of fiction masquerading as true history. Finally, like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings also has its prequels in The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. Indeed, the “prequel” seems a distinctive feature of science fiction and fantasy, and is yet another giveaway of the genres’ preoccupation with the past.

I first noticed the connection between sci-fi and history in my doctoral research, which examined the history of inter-war interest in science’s past, both in higher education and in more popular contexts such as World’s Fairs and museums. Among the most important figures in this story are George Sarton and Charles Singer, the founding fathers of academic history of science in America and Britain respectively. Exploring the correspondence of these endlessly-fascinating giants of early-20th century history, I noticed that both men (themselves close friends) enjoyed long personal acquaintances with H.G. Wells, the renowned author of War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and other science fiction classics. This led me to look more closely at Wells, and it turns out that while we remember him only for fiction, he and his contemporaries may rather have identified him as an historian. In fact, in terms of total number of words, Wells probably wrote more history than he did fiction, and his thousand-page Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind easily went to as many editions in the author’s own lifetime as the sci-fi books for which he is better remembered. Moreover, during his lifetime Wells traveled the world on paid speaking engagements, where he usually spoke on topics in history, religion, and ethics, rather than reading from his fictional works. Thus in Wells we see that sci-fi and fantasy are tied not only to history internally and textually, but also externally in the circumstances of their production and the interests of their authors.

Of course, I’m not the first person to make these connections. More recent authors of science fiction and fantasy most certainly have. Neal Stephenson, for example, definitely recognizes the connection, switching easily and expertly between stories set in the future (Snow Crash, etc.) and stories set in the past (his incredible Baroque Cycle). He sometimes even carries characters over from the past into the future (the mysteriously immortal Enoch Root, for instance). Another example is The Years of Rice and Salt by acclaimed science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, which in its account of what might have happened had the Black Plague destroyed European civilization entirely, is really alternative history rather than science fiction.

I’m not a gamer, so I can’t speak at length about how historical models play out in video games. But it seems to me that at least one genre of fantasy and sci-fi games, in which players retrace a highly-authored (albeit forked) narrative through a historically-inspired space (e.g. the Myst and Zelda franchises), seems ripe for this kind of analysis. I’m really interested to see what the excellent panel at the Tech & Humanities Forum has to say about that.