U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historians and Speculative Fiction

In recent weeks, I find myself thinking more about how historians of the future will view our tumultuous era of history. Perhaps such thoughts are putting the cart before the horse—what I can do now to understand the present might be a better question. Nonetheless, daydreaming about the future is a nearly life-long tradition for me, which would explain my continuing fandom for Star Trek and its various spinoffs. I’ve used my space here at S-USIH on several occasions to think about speculative fiction and history, along with my colleagues. The intersection of history and speculative fiction is incredibly important to think about. Historians themselves, in fact, occupy a particularly important space in thinking about the future—especially through fiction.

A recent interview with science fiction writer Ada Palmer was only the latest piece of reading that pushed me to think about this topic deeper. Palmer earned a PhD in history at Harvard University, specializing in Renaissance history. She mentioned in the interview with Locus magazine that history provides an excellent background for writing science fiction:

“Being a historian is excellent for science fiction, because we have to think about how societies change over long periods of time, and how technologies change society. When I sit down to build a future history, I’m us­ing past history, and as a historian I’m used to thinking about questions such as, ‘What is the origin of the currency that the civilization uses? Where did it come from? Has it changed value over time? If so, how and why? What is the sta­ple crop the civilization farms? How does that affect the density of the dwellings of the rural population? How does that affect how quickly news can spread in a political or military situa­tion?’ Which are not questions that most peo­ple are necessarily trained to ask, whether in a science fiction or fantasy world.”

When one thinks about scholars within the humanities, too, it is easy to find people who understood the intersection of speculative fiction and history. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, wrote numerous speculative fiction stories—most of which he never published. Yet, as this post at Black Perspectives makes clear, Du Bois’ writings in the genre of speculative fiction allowed him the opportunity to think about the intractable problem of racism from different angles. Adopting different personas, both within his stories and with different pen names, allowed him to transcend “the veil” and look at society from different points of view. His short story “The Comet,” published in Darkwater in 1920, was his most forceful public use of the genre of speculative fiction to think out loud about the self-inflicted poison of racism in modern life.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series—the grandfather of so many essential concepts of the “space opera” concept best seen in Star Wars—builds off the idea of scholars being able to use their fields of study to influence the future for the better. The principal character of the trilogy, Hari Sheldon, uses mathematics to try to save humanity from the potential of a galactic Dark Age. But one of the central lessons of Asimov’s trilogy is that history is inherently unpredictable, as Seldon’s compatriots discover the hard way. Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics further gets into the ways Asimov’s Foundation series, along with other science fiction works, offer a place to think about the future from a historical and, indeed humanities-based, point of view.

Modern efforts, such as the critically important #WakandaSyllabus, also show how scholars understand the utility of speculative fiction to think about the past, present, and future. In fact, the celebration of Afrofuturism surrounding Black Panther was part of a longer tradition of African Americans using speculative fiction to think about new worlds that have transcended racism and other forms of discrimination. Living in an era that seems more unpredictable by the day, thinking about the ways in which speculative fiction can get us to think about the world through fresh lenses is incredibly important.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction is really sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together…Science fiction is a logical or mathematical projection of reality.” (Quoted by Harvey Breit, “Talk with Mr. Bradbury,” The New York Times, August 5, 1951)

  2. Thanks for this post, Robert! This has got me thinking about other possible examples, and one that comes to mind is H. G. Wells, who not only wrote his famous science fiction novels but a best-selling world history (The Outline of History).

    What he seemed to be able to bring to history–what made his histories so popular–was an ability to in a sense look at human history from “outside the human race,” as it’s often phrased. Some writers (and some scholars) have spoken of their intention to write about a subject as if they are an alien viewing it from another planet (or some similar formulation). I wonder if perhaps that is a fruitful way to think about history writing in general, and represents a very strong link between science fiction and history.

  3. I’ve often wondered why historians who take counterfactual history seriously don’t take science fiction seriously (and vice versa: in my case I take science fiction fairly seriously, but have never cottoned to most counterfactual history because it doesn’t seem to prove what the practitioners think it proves. And I hate time travel stories).

    The best science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding has always had a sense of historical process, the tension between contingency and structure, the complexity of social realities. It was kind of interesting to realize, after I got into doing history properly, how much the science fiction and fantasy I grew up reading really did at least nod at those issues.

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