“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” – Emily Dickinson
Historical speculative fiction is, at its best, telling the truth, but at a slant. As a writer who particularly loves historical fantasy, I want to tell something that illuminates historical events—and for me, the overlooked people in history—but without undermining the experiences of the real life non-fictional people who went through those historical events.
For my books, I take one historical event and add one magical element. For instance, The Girl with the Red Balloon is about the year before the Berlin Wall came down and the Holocaust with one girl’s family history twined with the magic balloons that help people escape both death camps and East Germany.
But I wanted to be sure that in introducing a magical element to East Germany, I did not undermine the experiences and pain and suffering of many East Germans under the totalitarian state of the German Democratic Republic. People did escape East Germany. They did not do it by magic. Some of them succeeded. Some of them did not. People disappeared all the time. The Stasi had neighbors informing on neighbors and as the Wall came down, the Stasi rushed to destroy documents on hundreds of thousands of people who had been watched.
So when I designed my magic system, I made it extremely limited and complicated to access and to build so I did not suggest in this book that East Germans had access to easy paths out of their state should they wish to leave.
And secondly, it was not always successful. Magic should always be fallible in some way, but I wanted to make sure that magic was not any more successful than the ways in which people did escape East Germany: false papers, tunnels, bribery, hot air balloons, underside of cars, and a myriad of other ways.
When you’re sitting down to write something both historical and speculative, you must decide whether the outcome of your technology or your magic results in alternate histories. It is fine if it does, but be careful how you tread around alternate histories. There is a real capacity for harm by the author in these narratives, especially when we’re rewriting events buried into collective memories: slavery, the Holocaust, the World Wars, Japanese internment/concentration camps in the United States, etc.
If you are not writing alternative histories, then you have a trickier job of having technology and/or magic having a true effect on the world but without changing the outcome. How will the reader perceive that? How will it work for your characters? Is the magic or technology known to them before so the outcome no different in their minds? Or, as in time travel books, does tech or magic change the outcome for your character but not for the course of history?
These are the microcosms and macrocosms of your world and the choices you’re making by writing speculative fiction in historical fiction.
Back to the slanted truth. If you’re using real historical events, your magic should work on a story-level for the plot and characters, but also a meta level. Madeleine L’Engle, without whom I do not think I’d be an author, said in her Margaret Edward award speech, “Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth.”
There’s a great deal in this world and our history that is hard to wrap our heads entirely around, to understand the depth of the suffering or the repercussions that reside in our genes, our memories as a people, in the way our world is set up and the structures that continue to oppress or lift up.
So in that vein, the technology or magic of speculative fiction should allow the reader greater access to understanding of those historical events. It should create a certain space that allows a reader to view, examine, and pull apart complex, difficult or personal beliefs so they can get closer to the truth.
That is, we must use magic or technology as a slant, a way to see things in a different light, so our fiction illuminates something closer to the truth of history, even if that’s an uncomfortable space.
History is not immutable. It’s written by the people in power, but suffered by the people without structural political power. It was witnessed and made by people whom we will never know. It’s our job as writers to witness the people in the margins of history, to examine impartially the people who write our histories, and to remember that when we play with history, we are playing with history. It is not a task to be undertaken lightly.
Like this post? Read the rest of our Starship Ladies series.