Historian and comic book author Van Plexico joined me on a panel asking whether revisionist history was the new fantasy. Incredibly, fans in the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Literature track were not only awake on Monday at 10AM, closely following Dragon*Con’s last late-night activities, they were exceptionally erudite and thoughtful.
Before addressing the panel’s central question, Plexico began with an inquiry into the meaning of the term “revisionist history.” The pejorative connotation of revisionist history as rewritten and used for political agendas was recognized, but quickly rejected as not useful for literary purposes. Instead, we embraced a broader view of the term as including any revision of our historical perspective as we consider new source materials and the written and archaeological record of past times.
Plexico initially considered alternate history as the focus of the panel, but the discussion soon uncovered other ways that history is explored in speculative fiction. The most conservative side of historical genres started as classic historical fiction, then added “what if” alternative history which changes one significant event or decision and looks at the consequences, for example, “what if” Virginian Robert E. Lee had accepted the command of the Union forces instead of the Confederacy’s? A more academic look by historians are the What If series edited by Crowley and answered by working historians.
The group agreed that alternate history (“AH”) has also moved into the science fiction and fantasy arenas. An arbitrary line was drawn in the sand: science fiction AH includes SF tropes like aliens, space ships, and ray guns; fantasy AH adds dragons, elves, and other denizens of fantasy worlds. Harry Turtledove was mentioned as an author who had explored science fiction AH while George R. R. Martin and Naomi Novick have both written AH featuring high fantasy tropes.
Both time travel and post-apocalyptic novels were highlighted as work that could be considered on the history/SF/fantasy continuum. Connie Willis’s Hugo and Nebula winning novel Doomsday Book and Michael Crichton’s “beach read” novel Timeline were suggested as time travel examples while some of Jack McDevitt’s short stories in his new collection Outward Bound and his novel Eternity Road explore post-apocalyptic “look-backs” at our current times and cultures.
Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 and the movie adaptation featuring a pierced, Goth Xerxes were contrasted with Stephen Pressfield’s historical novel Gates of Fire. In spite of the highly speculative nature of Miller’s work and the cinematic version, both could be considered as either revisionist or alternate history on the SF/Fantasy continuum, although the lack of six-pack-abs on fannish Spartans posing for hallway photographs definitely placed the reality factor of the Miller versions to the test.