The Myth of No History and the Shadows of Old Gods

Hi there. Been a while. I've had a lot of thinky thoughts that would lend themselves to the essay format, but very little energy to actually congeal them. Also I had to deal with the stress of making a trip to see my family, and a bunch of other things eating my brain.

One of the things you may not realize about my current existence, even if you've known me forever, is that I only really seem to read long fiction these days if I'm sick or if I'm travelling. I'm not happy with that state of affairs, and sometimes if there's a book I can devour in a single afternoon/evening I'll sit down and do that, but the problem is that if I eat part of the book and have to come back to the rest later, there's a good chance I won't come back to it at all, unless I'm a captive audience, so to speak, stuck on a plane or in a hotel room late at night or on the couch with a box of Kleenex near at hand. There are simply too many other things competing for my attention.

(Also, I find computer games to be a less passive form of entertainment, and that active participation often wins out--which is a shame, because computer games mostly fall short on richness and complexity of story; I'd like to be able to get the best of both worlds more often than I do.)

Anyway, I did manage to read three books on the trip. I got to Ancillary Justice five years after everyone else, and Perdido Street Station ten years after everyone else, and a collection of short Finnish F/SF that was printed as a giveaway to members of the last Worldcon. I have thoughts on the two novels which you probably don't care about, especially at this late date (liked the former quite a lot despite some preachy bits, loved the setting and weirdness levels of the latter but had a serious problem with the cavalier treatment of a particular character that came close to ruining the book for me), but I'd like to share an observation about the collection of shorts which turns out to be particularly germane to me in an immediate way.

I noticed a common thread running through all these stories which is hard to characterize. It's the presence of something below the surface. Undercurrents. A past when things were a little more messy, blurred. Old powers and gods. Things which you still do even if you don't remember why, not out of superstition but because the forces you're appeasing never entirely went away and it's a good habit to keep to. The weight of history, some of it unpleasant. Dangers and pitfalls you can't completely understand without knowing what happened a long, long time ago and never forgetting.

Of course this is the result of having a history, and America has an unhealthy attitude toward its own history. We have always been in denial about history. History isn't naturally unattractive to us; we have engineered it to be unattractive to us. Our collective distaste for history is carefully cultivated, and those few of us who defy it are given all manner of backlash for it. There are few topics on which I get as many eyerolls as when I try to convince my fellow Americans that history is vital and important.

We ignore our history on purpose because we don't like what it says about us. We ignore the history of the people who were here before we got here because if we paid attention to it we'd have to acknowledge how horrible we were to them. We ignore the history of various immigrant populations because to acknowledge them would be to acknowledge the amount of shit they were subjected to when they got here, including the deep lodes of racism baked into our structural politics that have never, never gone away.

We make jokes about America having no history to speak of, Johnny-come-latelies, and the people in the rest of the world are happy to laugh at those jokes ("In America they have an entirely different idea of what an old building is"), which makes them complicit. America has plenty of history. We just don't like examining it.

There isn't really any equivalent to this "old forces lurking below the surface" feeling in American F/SF. Some people have tried, but it's difficult. (And yes, I know it's been done quite a bit, but look closely. For example, Charles de Lint grew up in the Netherlands and Neil Gaiman is British.) We have a hard time imagining turning the wrong corner in a nasty section of Brooklyn and suddenly finding ourselves in the otherwhere, or encountering a lesser weather god somewhere on a farm road in Indiana. There are no fairy rings in our forests; a lot of us have never even been in a forest. The Unseelie Court never sent a delegation to the New World. The spirits of drowned women will not rise from our rivers, there are no undines in our lakes, no dervish elementals blowing through our deserts.

Maybe if we were more aware of the gods and the legends of the people who were here before us ... but we don't teach those, because that was part of our cultural obliteration of those natives, and the surviving natives guard those myths closely, jealously, because they are one of the few things they have left to cling to that cannot be taken away and they don't want to hear those names and stories on the lips of their enemies.

Sometimes history is a burden. I roll my eyes at the infighting in Europe sometimes, because so much of it seems to be based on grudges and prejudices that date back centuries and you want to shake all the participants and say "In case you haven't noticed, the world has changed and you need to get over that." Diplomacy must be awfully tricky when you have to take into account every single black mark either side has tallied up since the birth of Charlemagne. But in fiction, history has no downside. The problem is, you can't usually get away with spelling the history out; that's tedious. You, the author, must be aware of the history and you can hint at its applicability, but the reader must also be aware of the history, must be able to pick up your hints, or there's no point. And there Americans fall short, frankly. I can throw in an obscure SF film joke and every nerd in the room will get it, but perish forbid I expect you to know what an anomalous president James Polk was, or why Louisiana had mechanical voting machines long before most of the rest of the country.

And if I show you the possibility of Old Forces lurking in the corners, then I am immediately consigned to one or more genres that have been defined as so broad as to be meaningless. They don't even work to show the gatekeepers what to mock. A category on Amazon which includes my book about a power struggle in Hell and its seepage into the real world, all of the Harry Potter books, and all the paranormal romances is a category no one can actually use to find anything. In Finland, they can show you the dark corners and still call it SF. If America, that doesn't work out so well.

I'm convinced--though I realize that you may consider this a stretch--that the Cold Hard Boy SF gatekeeping and the history-denialism are both windows into the same ugly box of crap. The sexism and the obliteration of the past, the name-calling and the willful ignorance, they're part and parcel. The troglodyte who denies that woman are humans is likely to be denying that black people and native Americans got a raw deal too. And, the thing is, SF can afford the luxury of being exclusively forward-looking; SF can manage to get by without a past (or can pretend to and the farce is considered acceptable). Even when you try to sneak in political theory or such, you can present it in disguise, you can claim to be talking about alien worlds and customs or some such. (Leckie does a fair bit of this. Sometimes she's not too good at the disguising.) Fantasy is usually much harder to separate from the lore and history of humans, even when in disguise. The "alien world" trick doesn't succeed at fooling anyone in fantasy nearly as often as it does in SF. For example, almost all elves-and-dragons fantasy written originally in the English language is centered on somewhat misplaced British medievalism, which is largely Tolkien's fault because he chose that set of metaphors to disguise his writing about the world wars, and his books got a bit popular. And there's a built-in catch. If you do write about magic and witchcraft, but you handwave in some fake science convincingly enough, you can call your book SF and sneak it in; but be careful, because if you fail, it's fantasy. This matters because of the readers, not the categories; there are more fantasy readers willing to tolerate hard-rules SF in their soup than SF readers willing to tolerate a seasoning of the indefinables.

For once, believe it or not, none of this is personal griping. I'm past that point; I will write what I want to write and I don't much care how to sell it. I'm fifty this month and I've long since realized I'm never going to make a substantial amount of cash from writing. If I can't find a real publisher for a book then I'll self-publish on Amazon over and over and sell fifty copies to my friends. I don't care.

But it does mean that the book I started work on this week was changed, in an unpredictable way, by that collection of Finnish Weird. It was going to be probably the hardest, most Cold Boy book I'd ever written, about infighting between teams of hackers and their grueling culture. It's not going to be that any more. The Old Gods peeked around one of those dark corners and told me differently. And it's going to be set in Helsinki (which causes me all kinds of difficulty, since I've only been there once, but I do what I'm told). I can't put it in America. We don't admit the shadows exist over here.