Would you trust that representation of your world? Would Cameron et al. forget to talk about the challenges of the poor and the middle class? Perhaps our male politicians would neglect to tell of the great women of their time?
Ancient Rome is much the same. Those figures of the past who were lucky enough to receive an education, know how to write, and have their works endure were, it’s safe to say, males of the wealthiest 1%. Yet that’s pretty much the font of wisdom we possess of the ancient world. Archeological evidence adds something more robust to the physical nature of the past, so we can piece together what things looked like, but our understanding is still built on a tiny slither of passed-down wisdom. Skilled historians have the unenviable job of trying to decipher what all of this means, and present to us how they think life might have actually been in the ancient world. Our understanding of the ancient world relies on how well we can interpret the opinions of a tiny minority. And just to make things more complicated, we’re often filtering it through the lens of our own contemporary culture in an effort to make sense of it.
It sounds, you might say, a little fantastical . And I would agree with you.
When I created the novel Drakenfeld , I was consciously dismantling the features I’d read of the ancient world in order to rebuild it in a configuration of my own. I wanted to create something that could sit on a vast island of its own, just off the map of the ancient world. A world that could filter contemporary concerns through the prism of the past, but without being restricted by recorded events. I was remixing the places of the past, using a huge range of historical resources. What I liked about reworking the ancient world in this way came down to what I like most about fantasy and science fiction: that you’re ultimately talking about the present. In my world, if I wanted female senators to show that women could hold equal positions of power (unlike Ancient Rome) – to prompt the reader to think that there are still too few women in similar positions today – then what was to stop me doing that?
Fantasy fiction is largely based on the past anyway, consciously or unconsciously – whether it’s for simple aesthetics or to borrow from great sagas and tell new ones. A Game of Thrones is the classic example of this. So when I was building my own secondary world I wondered - just what is the difference between ancient history, and a fantasy based on history? Where does history stop being a fantasy? We’ve already established our perceptions of the truth are pretty shaky at best. “Fantasy has magic and stuff” I hear you cry! But the ancient cultures believed in magic and curses and monsters too (just read Pliny’s Natural History for a small selection of ancient madness).
But I think the reason for this inseparable bond between fantasy and history is simpler. When historians of the future look back at what David Cameron said, they will know that it is only part of the picture – and that something else will have to fill the gaps in their knowledge. It’s as simple as this: digging into the past requires the same tools and abilities as digging into our imaginations. For those of us who read science fiction and fantasy, or for archeologists of historians, we’re merely excavating ever more layers of wonder. And it’s wonder that makes it a potent ingredient for storytelling.
Mark Charan Newton
Drakenfeld is published by Tor in paperback on 3rd July 2014, priced £7.99