I have never been very interested in historical fiction. For a long time, I thought that was because my interests skewed more toward science fiction, and I thought those two genres were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Historical fiction, of course, deals with things that really happened, while science fiction deals with things that haven’t happened (yet, at least).
I recently finished reading Connie Willis’s novels Blackout and All Clear (both books tell a single story—it’s more accurate to call the work a two-volume novel, except no one writes those anymore). My experience with Willis’s books is making me rethink the historical fiction-science fiction binary.
The setup of Blackout and All Clear is that historians at Oxford University in the year 2060 can use time travel to go back and see what life was really like back then. The plot follows three historians who are all studying different aspects of WWII England, especially Germany’s bombing of London. One of the jacket blurbs jokes that the level of period detail will make you think Willis had access to the time machines in the books, and I’m inclined to agree.
I recently graduated from Ball State University with a Master’s in Creative Writing, and one of my professors, Cathy Day, talked about the time and effort it takes to research historical fiction; she wrote about a the origins of her hometown’s circus in The Circus in Winter and is currently working on a novel about Cole Porter’s wife.
Thinking about the amount of work Connie Willis must have done to get all the details just right in Blackout and All Clear boggles my mind.
The way that Willis evokes distinct time periods in the novels—1940s London and a futuristic Oxford—as well as combines these two genres, has made me realize that historical fiction and science fiction both do the work of world-building. That is, they attempt to flesh out and represent a world significantly different from the world in which the author lives.
The difference comes from how the author constructs those worlds. An author writing historical fiction is bound by how the world really was—the kinds of materials they used for clothes, when a given song was recorded, the dialect and jargon of the period—whereas an author writing science fiction is bound by the particulars of the world they envision—whether time travel is possible, if aliens have visited Earth, what kinds of technology have been invented. Both end up limiting the choices an author can make about the world they create, although the rules for each genre are different.
I’m currently working on a science fiction novel about a world in which a machine allows people to come back from the dead, and noticing the kinds of choices Day and Willis had to make when they wrote their historical stories is helping me to think through all of the little details that will build and define my fictional world.