Historians and Science Fiction

Historians are time travellers who live in the present and work in the past. So its probably not too surprising that many of my colleagues enjoy travelling into the future as well, by reading and watching science fiction.

Some of us, however, take a more active interest in science fiction. At least one historian has used science fiction to teach history. Davis D. Joyce argues that "the past, the present and the future are all interrelated, part of a continuim. Thus, understanding any one of them helps to understand the other two." Joyce discusses his attempts to apply this theory with students at the University of Tulsa in "The Past through Tomorrow: Understanding History through Science Fiction" (in Joyce, History and Historians: some essays Washington: University Press of America, 1983, pp. 79-85).

The core readings for Joyce's course were Daniel Roselle, ed. Transformations: Understanding World History through Science Fiction (Fawcett, 1973) and ibid., Transformations: Understanding American History through Science Fiction (Fawcett, 1974). Both volumes are out of print, but some of the individual stories, listed in the Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections: Combined Edition, can still be tracked down in other works.

Joyce also made use of Bernard C. Hollister, "Teaching American History with Science Fiction" (Social Education, vol. 39, no. 2, February, 1975, pp. 81-85). If you can't find this volume in a library, you can order a copy from the National Council for the Social Studies.

Counterfactual historians, on the other hand, write their own version of science fiction, that attempts to understand the past by speculating on alternative outcomes. Two recent examples of this genre are Robert Cowley, ed., What if?: The World's Foremost military historians imagine what might have been. (New York: C.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999) and Niall Ferguson, ed., Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. London: Picador, 1997.

Finally, there are those historians who take what they've learned as scholars and apply it to writing science fiction. Harry Turtledove, for example, began his career as a historian of the Byzantine Empire. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis on "The Immediate Successors of Justinian: A Study of the Persian Problem and of Continuity and Change in Internal Secular Affairs in the Later Roman Empire ... (A.D. 565-582)" and edited The Chronicle of Theophanes: an English translation of anni mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813). Then he switched over to fantasy and science fiction and produced a whole canon of celebrated alternate histories, including Agent of Byzantium, The Videssos Cycle, The tale of Krispos, and The Stolen Throne, all set in alternate Byzantine empires.

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Copyright © 2001 D. Peter MacLeod

The top left and bottom right images are details from David Rickman, Eastern Woodland Indians, middle of the eighteenth century, Department of National Defence. The top right and bottom left images are NASA photos of M16-the Eagle Nebula, prepared by the Space Telescope Science Institute.