historical accuracy on twiter

The Historical Accuracy Fallacy

historical accuracy on twiter

One of the more ridiculous aspects of this week’s discussion around Game of Thrones is how often people try to trump any complaints about (among other things) the abundance of rape or the dearth of POC characters with agency with: But Historical Accuracy! The number of people I’ve seen talk about how things were back then with all seriousness would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.

Public Service Announcement: Game of Thrones is a fantasy novel, not a historical one. It does not take place in the past, it takes place in a fantasy world that shares some aspects of our actual past with many elements that are made up, including dragons, White Walkers, and people who can come back from the dead.

All of the elements in Game of Thrones are there because George R.R. Martin put them there. He, as the author, made choices and decisions and continues to do so. He uses history as a guide, but guess what: he’s allowed to do whatever he wants because he’s the author.

If a woman is raped in the story, it’s because he wrote it that way, it didn’t just happen because “that’s the way it was.” If all the brown-skinned people are slaves or savages[1], it’s not because anyone forced him to conceptualize them that way.

No speculative fiction author is bonded to historical accuracy, even when writing historical SFF. If you’e allowed to add magic and dragons and elves, you’re allowed to add brown people where folks think they didn’t exist[2] and you’re allowed to leave out the sexual assault.

Anyone who tries to argue otherwise probably has no real clue what’s historically accurate, anyway, and they also don’t understand how speculative fiction works.

The Grace of KingsWant an example of an author who gets this? Come here and let’s talk about Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

The novel is set in an alternate world in the island empire of Dara, a fantasy analogue for China. The series depicts a fictional, fantastic version of the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han Dynasty. There are several analogues to real people and real events in this first book. There are also major differences, especially in the technology available. And then there’s the treatment of women.

Minor spoilers ahead.

It’s easy to go with the default assumption that all past cultures were patriarchal in nature and therefore women have to be confined to certain roles and no man ever questions this or does anything about it. Liu doesn’t do that. He does the opposite.

At one point the two main characters are hunkered down in a town with an army waiting to destroy them outside. The army general can’t get them to come out and fight, so he attempts to lure them out with taunts. Flyers descend depicting the men dressed in women’s clothing and accusing them of being cowards with “feminine hearts.” The gendered insults are many and varied, but they all boil down to: these men are like women and therefore weak.

One of the main characters responds by asking “what is so bad about being compared to women? Half the world is women.” He later gives a speech about the courage of women, using events seen in the book up to that point as examples, and concludes:

“By custom, we wield the sword and wear the armor, but who among you does not know a mother, sister, daughter, friend, who exceeds you in courage and fortitude?

So let us no more think of being compared to women as an insult.”

Think this isn’t historically accurate? It might not be. But Ken Liu made a choice to give his character, a pragmatist, a logical reason to reject sexist nonsense.

This kind of thing happens more than once in the book. On top of that, all of the major and minor women characters get complex personalities and backstories. Some fit in to what might be considered traditional roles or types, many do not, all of them are well drawn[3]. I won’t say the book is some feminist utopia. I will say that the choices Liu made feel deliberate and considered. He didn’t let “Historical Accuracy” get in the way of creating characters that weren’t insulting to modern readers.

Every spec fic author has this option, this power. They are the creators of the world inside their books. Every aspect of a fictional world is a choice, even if the choice is “it was like that in the 1300s in England so it’s like that in my world, too.” That’s fine, but let’s not pretend that that isn’t what you chose and not something forced on you by God, History, or The Rules Of Writing.

Acknowledging this means that we have to stop responding to “There’s a lot of unnecessary rape in these books” with “That’s the way it was” and instead with “The author chose to include all that rape. Why? Is it really integral to the plot and character arcs, or is it down to laziness? Misogyny? A fondness for rape?[4]” Pushing aside that convenient excuse leads to a number of uncomfortable questions, doesn’t it?

And Historical Accuracy is an excuse, not a reason. Period.

Footnotes

  1. I’ll point out here that I don’t know if this is true, I’m saying if it’s true.[]
  2. And hey, guess what, they probably did.[]
  3. I have several specific examples but they are all spoilers and best discussed with folks who have read the book.[]
  4. I’m going to nip this in the bud right now: I am not accusing George R.R. Martin of liking rape or of being a rapist.[]

Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #1

In response to some of the discussion in the magazines that want more diversity post and the whole William Sanders thing, author Ashok Banker wrote a post about racism, sexism, and cultural insesnitivity in SF/F.  The post makes several good points:

Today’s Science Fiction and Fantasy field, while possibly bearing some strands of DNA from other countries and cultures intermingled in its genetic makeup, is undeniably dominated by American authors, particularly in America.

And a sizable majority of those American SFF authors are white. Virtually all of them are American. And I won’t even venture to guess how many are Christian.

[…]

Which itself begs the question: Why is a genre that’s always so proud of its ability to explore worlds unable to integrate the world into its fold? Why is American SFF publishing not representative of American society and culture as a whole? Why is this white enclave dominating the genre and the field?

[…]

If anything, the very imbalance in the racial and cultural composition of the field in America itself points to a deep malaise.

The recent attempts by some editors to claim that they’re open to multicultural writing, that they welcome submissions from women writers, that they look forward to international writer submitting work, is itself an admission that these were failings of the field until now.

[…]

So is American SFF racist? And sexist, bigotted, culturally insensitive, etc?

Well, I suspect a great number of professionals in the field might be.

Go to the post to read more.

There’s also some stuff in the post about how authors of color such as Tobias Buckell and myself “pull punches” and focus only on specific editors and not the community-wide problem.  I have a lot to say about that, but I think it’s a separate but related conversation.

Normally I would suggest we all go have a conversation about the race/gender/culture problems over on Ashok’s blog, but he shut down comments (the reason has to do with the stuff we’re not talking about here, which I will illuminate in a related post coming up in a bit).  Since we can’t talk about it there, let’s talk about it here.  It’s International Blog Against Racism Week, after all!

I’m particularly eager to have a discussion about how certain racist tendencies extend to non-American and non-European authors and the books they try to get published.  Justine, Ekaterina and I discussed the sad state of translated books in the US a while ago. I shudder to think how many of those few translated are from non-Western countries.  (my guess: not many)

It’s true that American SF is reluctant to embrace the whole world — why?  And what can be done to move toward fixing that?  Is Ashok correct that segregating international authors into just one issue of a magazine does nothing to help?

Table of contents for Two Separate Issues

  1. Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #1
  2. Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #2