The Historical Accuracy Fallacy

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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.[]

Comments

  1. says

    You might want a footnote [0], to point out that GRRM didn’t write the rape scene that everyone’s so upset about this week. It’s not in the book. it’s not in his story. It’s in the TV version’s story; it’s a decision HBO’s producers made. Like the last time, and the time before. Which is not to say that he hasn’t chosen to use violence against women in the course of his narrative, because he has – but these particular choices were not his.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “The Historical Accuracy Fallacy” by K. Tempest Bradford. “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.'” (Further thoughts on what Bradford writes about: While I don’t think Grace of Kings handles gender perfectly, I wish all men who write or aspire to write in this genre would read it for how it destabilizes toxic masculinity and the male gaze — because the male gaze can exist without violence against women, but can gendered violence exist without the male gaze? And then follow up with Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which includes violence against women in a way that is women-centered and actually realistic — when violence happens, it is significant, but the characters spend much more time dealing with bullshit sexism than with gendered violence. All women face gendered violence at least once in their lives; all women face bullshit sexism at least once a day. The “history” of nerdbro fantasy in which one token woman bridles against patriarchy but all women are in constant sexual peril never existed.) […]