Bleeding of Genres: Historical Fiction and SF

No genre is an island. When we write about difficult-to-categorize writers, we often talk about them bridging a genre divide, or throw a lot of hyphens into our descriptions: X is a great mystery-sci-fi writer, or Y’s new novel is a fabulous comic-fantasy romp. But writers also steal from each other all the time and readers don’t always pick up on the resulting work’s mixed pedigree.

No genre is an island. When we write about difficult-to-categorize writers, we often talk about them bridging a genre divide, or throw a lot of hyphens into our descriptions: X is a great mystery-sci-fi writer, or Y’s new novel is a fabulous comic-fantasy romp. But writers also steal from each other all the time and readers don’t always pick up on the resulting work’s mixed pedigree.

Historical fiction is a pretty good example of this, and I’d like to consider some of those trailblazers that have acted as somewhat of an uncredited grandfather to some modern speculative works. Let’s start with Shōgun.

It was with this 1975 publication that critics and fans started referring to James Clavell’s novels as the Asian Saga. Set in Japan, China and Singapore, in three different centuries, Shōgun’s feudal Japanese setting, circa 1600, is the earliest chronologically, and likely the best known to popular audiences. It also kickstarted a widespread Western interest in Japanese culture that has not yet abated.

The novel is based (very loosely) on the true story of an English sailor shipwrecked in “the Japans,” and in it we see through his eyes a slow acceptance and eventual enchantment with a very foreign way of life. The Japanese, for their part, are more than a little put off by this crude, barbaric and slightly dim foreigner, to whom bathing is a frightening prospect.

Actually, an Englishman at the turn of the 17th century might seem just as foreign to a reader today as a samurai of the same time, but when this book was first published, ideas like honour trumping life, a strict hierarchical caste-based society, and ritual suicide were entirely outside the everyday Western experience.

For that matter, so were 1200-page novels. Paperback doorstoppers occur with greater frequency today, but in the ’70s, three hundred pages would have already been considered a longish novel. I have to assume that word-of-mouth with a particular evangelical zeal put Shōgun on the best-seller lists, despite these hurdles.

Twenty-seven years after its publication, I had still yet to read Clavell’s opus (that occurred when I was actually living in Asia) but I was deeply absorbed in Across the Nightingale Floor, by an English author using the pen name Lian Hearn. Set in a fictionalized version of the same country and era as Shōgun, this time our outsider is not blown in from Europe (or some fictional analogue). He is raised by his mother in an isolated village outside, and only slightly aware of, the larger political machine of the nation — at least until that same machine comes and wipes out his village and everyone he cares about.

Rescued by a member of the noble/warrior class, his origins are immediately hidden under a new name, Takeo, and it is through his eyes that we see how it all works: the bids for power, the strategic marriages between noble families, the jostling for land and status between one warlord and another, the use of assassins with supernatural powers as political weapons.

It’s Clavell’s epic all over again, but the techniques of ninjutsu, reimagined as genuine supernatural powers, take a greater role, and all the people and place names are made up. And because cultural mores and political manoeuvring are so central to both novels (and to the actual historical period they’re based on), our fantasy writer is just as beholden as Clavell was, to go to the primary sources and really understand the way of thinking of her characters.

The thing about blazing a trail is that pathfinders can follow it even if they don’t know who treaded there before them. It would be amazing if Hearn wasn’t very much aware of Shōgun, but could she have been following in the footsteps of his literary descendants rather than the man himself? Certainly that’s a possibility. A great work ripples, its influence spreading ever outward.

Harold Lamb was a historian of some repute, but his meticulous research did double duty, as he also wrote historical fiction. Publishing in adventure magazines during the early pulp era, the scholar’s tales featured ethnic protagonists that would hardly be found in mainstream fiction, from Cossacks to Mongol warriors to Muslim swordsmen.

Lamb published most of his short stories in Adventure magazine and was an early influence on a young Robert E. Howard, whose Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror tales would soon appear alongside Lamb’s. These latter tales were fantastic, in every sense of the word. Not based on real people or cultures so much as vague impressions or stereotypes of the same, they were rousing tales, and the beginning of a new genre called sword and sorcery.

Now we are seeing a revival of the genre thanks at least in part to Howard Andrew Jones, editor of Black Gate and the writer of The Chronicles of Sword and Sand, with several short stories and two novels so far. Jones proudly claims the pulp traditions as part of his literary pedigree, but he’s disposed of the worst aspects of it. Two-dimensional characters, cultural stereotypes, and exclusively Eurocentric viewpoints have fallen by the wayside.

But while Jones acknowledges and admires the best parts of Howard, he, too, calls himself a student of Lamb. And unlike Howard, he has absorbed the erstwhile academic’s other lessons: careful research and a deep understanding of non-Western philosophies.

A great compliment to Jones’s work is the frequent use of the moniker “historical fantasy” to describe it. The implication is that, sans magic and monsters, a reader will genuinely learn something about a different time and place through his writings. Worldbuilding is all well and good, but recreating, accurately, a bygone world that no one alive has witnessed adds some additional challenges.

There are plenty of alien cultures and political systems to be found on both the fantasy and science fictional sides of genre literature: elven courts, star-faring races, Lunar colonies. But the diversity of our own species has also produced plenty of material to draw on, either for inspiration or direct appropriation.

There are plenty more examples. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is almost historical fiction, except for the fact that the main character is a time traveller. Catherynne M. Valente’s novel Deathless begins in Stalinist Russia, but ends up in the realm of the dead. Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia is set in a version of the early 20th century where everything is not as it seems. And we haven’t even discussed alternate history, science fiction’s awkward stepchild.

Misunderstanding how to write in historical settings is the easiest way to fail in any of these works. Whether writers incorporate their research into a fictional world, like Hearn, or add genre elements to an otherwise undisguised historical period, like Jones, they ignore the literary lessons of their historical fiction forebears at their own peril. But when they succeed, the reader gets to step into a living, breathing world.


J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.

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