Guest post: Michael J. Martinez
On playing with, and occasionally breaking, history
As my gracious host well knows, historical fantasy is rich with storytelling possibilities. And to some, it may seem…easier, perhaps, than creating an entirely new fantasy world from whole cloth.
The British naval hero Horatio Nelson, for example, is the subject of several exhaustive biographies detailing his life and times. When I wrote The Gravity of the Affair, a novella in which he was the main character, I had much to draw from – even the other characters’ names are all taken from history itself.
But consider that my Nelson exists in a universe in which sailing ships ply the Void between planets, thanks to the mystic science of Alchemy. What sort of change might this bring to Nelson’s life? Would he find the views ‘round Jupiter humbling? Or would his already considerable pride wax even stronger? And in such an “alchemy-punk” setting, will he lose his arm at Santa Cruz de Tenerife? Or his life at Trafalgar?
That’s the real challenge of historical fantasy. What if Nelson survived Trafalgar? Where would ego and ambition take him? Or, what if he lost at Trafalgar? What if Napoleon managed to cross the English Channel with an invasion force, backed by dangerous alchemical power? Or, what if Napoleon instead managed to invade Moscow after all?
I admit, I didn’t really alter the flow of history too much in The Daedalus Incident, my debut novel. A few historical figures are out of pocket for a bit, yes, but this adventure – while encapsulating world-shaking events – does not change the timeline too much. Well, aside from the presence of Alchemy, sailing ships in space, habitable planets in our Solar System, a race of lizard-people on Venus and some very strange aliens living on the ring-cities of Saturn.
Otherwise, you know, history rolls on. George III is still King, and still mad. The British are dealing with the insurrectionists calling themselves the United States (of Ganymede). The French still either annoy or ally, depending on the day.
I’m currently at work on the sequel to Daedalus, The Enceladus Crisis, and I’m planning to alter the historical timeline in small ways…at first. I kind of envision this work as planting the seeds of something far larger, something that may rattle the foundations of history as we know it by the time I finish the third book in the Daedalus series.
Yes, I’m going to “break” history. And that, I think, is harder than writing a completely fictional world.
Cause and effect is part of everyday life, and there’s a logic to it that we expect. The same goes with historical fiction. If Napoleon invades England, for example, there are a million questions that follow, all of which need answering. (And I’m not saying any of this is in the cards for my upcoming books, by the way, so no worries about spoilers!)
So if Old Boney invades, does he take London? Does he capture the King? Where would English forces retreat, Wales or Scotland? What of the Stuart pretenders? The Irish? Does this mean Bonaparte won’t march on Moscow and lose his troops in the snow?
One question begs six more, and each of those fuel more questions. One can’t get bogged down too badly, but I’ve found that the answers need to be there several iterations out. And at some point, I may look at my setting and realize I’ve passed the point of no return – that not only did I deviate from history, but that there’s no logical, plausible way for the setting to get back on track, as it were. It will have become a whole new world indeed.
Michael J. Martinez spent nearly two decades as a journalist and communicator telling other people’s stories before trying a few of his own. So far, it’s worked out well: He’s the author of The Daedalus Incident, out this month, and The Enceladus Crisis, coming next spring. He lives in the greater New York City area with his amazing wife and wonderful kid, and is feeling pretty lucky these days. He blogs at www.michaeljmartinez.net.