April 21, 2006

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.


  1. at the risk of placing a totally off-track comment – and also of teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, i’d like to point out that H. G. Wells is not one of “switching easily and expertly between stories set in the future and stories set in the past” (what you say of Stephenson).

    As I recall, Wells spent the period 1890-1900 turning out sci-fi short and long stories. Then, around the turn of the century (or just before) he switched to a new utopian genre, which he himself considered a form of sociological literature. At the same time, his writing moved from sci-fi to serious novel set in Edwardian England. Then, and only in 1920, did he publish his famous history of the world.

    Thus rather than Wells moving fluidly between these genres, it would seem that (putting the contemporary novels aside) there is a definite trajectory that he works through over the course of his life: distopian sci-fi -> utopia -> history. All these are clearly related, and the history i think was written, not for history’s sake but in order to better ground his futuristic predictions (and in the context of a post-WWI unease).

    What is not at all clear to me, however, is the transition from distopian sci-fi to utopian future. For it would seem that Wells dramatically changed his mind about the likely course of the future around 1900. I cannot work out what was at the root of this.

    Apologies for bypassing games.
    talk to you soon,

  2. Simon,

    Not off track at all. Thanks for the comment. Wells definitely had a different career trajectory than Stephenson and other contemporary authors, and I didn’t mean to suggest that current authors are following some pattern established by Wells. (I’m certainly not a Wells expert, but I share your recollection of his biography.) I simply meant to point out that there seems to be a persistent interest in the historical among sci-fi writers and that Wells is where I first happened to notice it.

    Also, I’m not really sure it matters whether or not Wells was writing history “for its own sake.” As I see it, disinterestedness is a relatively recent disciplinary value among historians, and even now it is often more keenly professed than it is practiced. Certainly in the 1920s, history (especially history of science) was usually written with some specific end in mind.

    Talk to you soon,

  3. Tom,

    (though i should not say it, this conversation is a welcome break from the 1001 essays on new media that i am trying to get my head round).

    to take your last point first. I see that my ‘history for its own sake’ touched a nerve. I am with you that professional disinterestedness is a relatively recent ideal, but I think it does matter that such an ideal – or some related ones – had just come into operation by the 1920s, so that the different reactions to Wells’ history, inside and outside the academies, are in a way markers of a fairly new divide between professional and ‘popular’ history writing.

    (I’d also be interested in what you mean about 1920s history of science having a ‘specific end in mind’. Which historians of science do you have in mind here? And what ends do you have in mind – cultural, or disciplinary?)

    On the wider post – i did not mean to suggest that you were making any point about Wells as serving as a model for later writers, or indeed to suggest any significant point about your post.

    I picked up on the discussion of Wells because for the last year I have been vaguely wondering why he changed from distopisan fiction to utopian prophecy. On one level I think this might be related to his encounter with the Fabians and subsequent rejection of the Marxist idea of class struggle which had informed much of his sci-fi. But I sense there is something else going on that I have not put my finger upon…

    In general – and attempting to return to the main topic of the initial post – Wells does seem to occupy an important place in terms of the construction and dissemination of a kind of unilinear vision of history which holds that the study of the past and the study of the future are related activities, that the future simply follows the past according to predetermined patterns, and which seems to be the basic model of history which – interactive narrative adventure aside – informs the kind of movie and game histories that you mention.

  4. Simon,

    To take your last point first: well said … that’s exactly what started me thinking about this in the first place a couple years ago.

    On “history for its own sake,” I have George Sarton especially in mind, who like Wells was working very much in the context of post-WWI unease, and indeed hoped to establish the history of science as the cornerstone of a New Humanism that would once and for all reconcile humankind’s moral and technical faculties. (For example, the very first post-WWI issue of Isis opened with an essay entitled “War and Civilization” in which history of science was presented as a very real and practical antidote to industrial warfare.) In that sense, I think we can say Sarton’s ends were at once disciplinary and cultural. And not unrelated (though I’m still trying to work out how) to Wells’.

    Finally, I really think you’re on to something in suggesting using reactions to Wells as markers to the new divide between professional and non-professional history of science. I would like, for instance, to compare Wells’ reception among science museum professionals to that of academic historians like Sarton, Singer, and Thorndike, who were all actively trying to distance themselves from museum-based pratitioners in this period.

    Happy to provide you a distraction … I needed it too.

  5. Tom,
    thanks for the clarification on Sarton et. al. This is all very interesting.

    I’ll close with mentioning two points that have long held my attention, and which are – possibly – relevant.

    The first is Samuel Butler’s late Victorian (dis)/utopia ‘Erewhon’ (1872) – a story which includes Butler’s Darwinian speculation that the next stage of evolution will be machine intelligence. But I mention ‘Erewhon’ here because the Erewhonians envisage time as a giant scroll, constantly in the process of being unwound, and in which the past and the future are already written. This is the earliest statement of a unilinear history that I have come upon.

    The second point is just that Bergson (with his idea of duration), Walter Benjamin (in his theses on the phil. of history) and Dziga Vertov (with his invisible director in ‘Man with a Movie Camera’) all seem to be attempting to place human freedom back into the positivist unilinear model of history – and i wonder if, somehow, their work is not of great relevance for the issues of computer games and history.

    ok, back to the archives!


  6. Wow! Lots to think about here. I like the idea of games undermining positivist unilinear understandings of history, but I worry about the oposite. Once players realize that “free will” in the game space is really just an illusion, that they’re simply following a highly-authored narrative tree, will they make the Erewhonian conclusion that history is just an unfolding scroll? I probably don’t give people enough credit …

    Also, I should check to see if Dan Cohen (Dir. of Research Projects at CHNM), who works on Victorian religion and mathematics has done anything with Erewhon.

  7. i was not clear enough. i do not have a full grasp of the relationship between the interactive game and the unilinear narrative, but i have a strong suspicion that they belong in the same conceptual mindset.

    in England in the 1870s there is a discussion of ‘complexity’. the people who subscribe to a unilinear notion of history tend to like the idea of complexity as a way of denying that freedom of the will has any susbstantial role to play in the science of society or history – human behaviour is just a very complex form of simple molecular behaviour.

    my sense is that discussion of interactive games with multiple paths boil down to a similar relationship. i.e. the game is just a more complex version of the usual unilinear version of history.

    an article I just read on the chnm site seems relevant here – Joshua Brown’s ‘History and the Web’:

    “That was our intention. We quickly learned, however, that we had fallen into a pattern that is seemingly intrinsic to the spatial interactive game approach. Instead of expanding the historical imagination of users and promoting their active inquiry, we had actually limited the choices open to them, in particular curtailing their ability to make informational linkages and to draw their own conclusions. In short, the narrative outcomes were preordained…”

    The Bergson/Benjamin/Vertov assertion of freedom in the face of such models is not – i am almost certain – captured in any existing game or web site; and i am not sure how it ever could be… But this – for me – is a key point of departure for thinking about such issues…


  8. i was wrong in that last post – if Dziga Vertov can invoke freedom in a movie, then it must be possible to do so in a game or web site…


  9. Sorry to misinterpret your comment. I think we’re on the same page with this stuff.

    I had forgotten about Josh Brown’s article. I’ll have to go back and take another look. Thanks.

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