Summer Blockbusters: Sci-fi and Alternate History

It seems the past has replaced the future as Hollywood’s preferred setting for summer’s science fiction blockbusters. Jon Favreau’s screen adaptation of the graphic novel, Cowboys and Aliens imagines an extraterrestrial invasion of the Old West. X-Men: First Class offers a prequel to the popular franchise, tracing Magneto and Charles Xavier’s education and upbringing and (of course) crucial involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[Image credit: Wikipedia]

Briefly Noted for March 25, 2008

Wikihistory is a short science fiction story about a group of future time travelers’ journeys to the mid-20th century. Structured as a series of posts to a message board or wiki, Wikihistory is good mix of alternative history and science fiction, which in several ways again makes the point that science fiction is often just history in disguise. (Thanks Rob and Feeds.)

Ken sends Yahoo’s list of the ten most historically inaccurate movies. Granted, all of them—Braveheart, The Patriot, Gladiator, 300—have their problems. But it would be very easy to find ten more egregious offenders than these.

Curacao, Triple Sec, Cointreau, Grand Marnier? Confused about the difference or trying to decide which tipple to use in your Cosmo? A London “cocktail enthusiast” provides relief with a short history of orange liqueurs.

Red, Green, and Blue

I’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s superb Mars Trilogy, an imagined history of humankind’s colonization of Mars. The first in the series, Red Mars, was published in 1992. It was followed in 1994 by Green Mars and in 1996 by Blue Mars.

I have said here before that most science fiction takes the form of historical narrative, and the Mars Trilogy is no exception, chronicling the “terraforming” of Mars from the arrival of the first human colonists in 2026 to their fight for independence from Earth in the 22nd century in a story that roughly parallels the outlines of American history. But what is most interesting to me about the Mars Trilogy are the subtle adjustments Robinson made to that story line as he completed the books in serial. It’s clear that Robinson altered the course of his future history in response to the actual history that was so quickly unfolding around him during the course of the early-90s. Thus in 1992’s Red Mars, we find the “First Hundred” settlers chosen almost entirely from the ranks of American and Russian military scientists, with a few European and Japanese civilians thrown in for good will. But in 1994’s Green Mars—in a shift that clearly parallels the geo-political shifts of the early-90s and the rise of globalization in the mid-90s—we see American and Russian national influence on Mars greatly reduced and replaced by powerful corporate “transnats” which run everything from Martian mining operations to its police forces. This is just one example of how, in order to construct a plausible history of the future, Robinson had to respond “on-the-fly” to the momentous events playing out in his present.

Of course there are lots more; as always Robinson is a gold mine. If you’re a fan of science fiction and/or alternative history, and you haven’t read the Mars Trilogy yet, close your browser and get to the bookstore.

9/11 Imagined

Unsurprisingly, the anniversary just passed has prompted widespread historical reflection among the popular media. More surprising is the fact that much of this thinking has taken the form of virtual, or alternative, or speculative history: musings about what might have happened had 9/11 never occurred or what might still happen as the aftermath of that great event continues to unfold. For example, the cover of last week’s Time magazine featured an extended history of the future by Naill Ferguson. Likewise this week’s Newsweek features a piece by Jonathan Alter entitled “An Alternative 9/11 History.” Finally, New York Magazine devoted an entire issue last month to the question “What if 9/11 Never Happened?”, featuring “could-have-beens” from the likes of Tom Friedman, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Frank Rich, Tom Wolfe, and Andrew Sullivan. I take it as a measure of how hard things have gotten in the past five years that the anniversary of September 11 has prompted not only heartfelt remembrance, but also such carefully historicized expressions of regret.

FuturesWatch Timeline

Here’s another (crazy) example of how futurists (science fiction writers, etc.) look to history for process and inspiration. The FuturesWatch timeline begins in 1750 and simply carries forward to 2100 as if events from the late 18th century and events from the late 21st century qualified equally as history. Interestingly, FuturesWatch confidently documents things such as “First commercial fusion power plant” (2035) and “Period of increased social and civil unrest” (2055-2080), and only hedges when it comes to music: The timeline dates the end of “Rock and Roll” at 2010, but only tentatively suggests “World Beat?” as its replacement during 2010-2060. Perhaps it’s easier to write the history of future technology and politics than to do the same for art.

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.