JFA 20.3 (2009)

Editor’s Introduction

“Introduction: The Form of the Content of the Form”
Brian Attebery

History is a tale we tell ourselves about the past, but there is no past, not here, not now. There is only the present, including the odd fragments from the wreck of the past that have washed ashore around us. We look these over, we read the words inscribed on some of the pieces, we guess at the gaps, and we construct a story. And then we do it all over again, for the present in which the tale was told is now itself part of the past and has to be wrapped into the narrative.

Fans of Hayden White will recognize two thirds of my title. His pioneering work of metahistory, The Content of the Form, invited historians to look at the way they typically present their findings, as narratives. Taking his cue from Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, in which Marx claimed that history repeats itself, but the second time around turns tragedy into farce, White asked who chooses these modes of tragedy and farce. Is it history, revealing its true shape, or is it the historian who must have a story to tell and can only do so in the forms provided by culture? In either case, forms are not empty vessels. They already hold something, before any facts are poured in: a sketch of a plot, a handful of character roles such as “hero” and “antagonist,” a desired outcome, a logic of cause and effect. Such contents are meaningful. They sort information into clusters and make certain facts stand out and others recede into the background. They tell us what an ending is, and where to look for new beginnings.

I find White’s insight provocative and penetrating. My historian friends are not always so impressed, but I’m not sure whether that’s because they think it is obvious or because they don’t like to examine their own thought processes too closely. The one thing I wish White paid more attention to is the idea of story itself. Where do we learn the narrative structures into which we fit historical events? Is every history both recit and conte: story and story-telling? Does narrative on a large scale—the story of a tribe or a nation—really work the same way as personal narrative, or do terms like tragedy and farce lead us into seeing a similarity where none exists? And why those two forms? Why not tell history in the form of a bildungsroman or a detective novel—or fantasy?

There are, of course, many historical fantasies: fictions in which impossible events are interwoven with real persons, places, and movements. Tim Powers constructs especially deft fantastic interpolations into history, inserting real lamias and belles dames sans merci into the lives of the Romantic poets and turning casino builder Bugsy Siegel into the Fisher King. Other writers write plausible histories of nonexistent places: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, history: John W. Campbell coined the term to describe Robert A. Heinlein’s self-consistent timelines, and other outstanding examples include Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels, James Blish’s Cities in Flight quartet, Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and Cordwainer Smith’s stories of the Instumentality of Mankind. Besides future history there is alternative history. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), for instance, investigates the historical processes we think we understand by imagining them starting from different premises: Europe dead of the plague, Islam filling the historical niche occupied by Christianity, colonial empires launched from China and India. Some works of sf and more than a few fantasies examine the writing of history itself. Among the latter are Diana Wynne Jones’s The Crown of Dalemark (1993), John Crowley’s Ægypt, aka The Solitudes (1987), and Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings (2002). But none of these quite dare to write history—real world history—as fantasy. What would that entail, and what might the exercise tell us about the past and our relation to it?

One kind of history almost seems to require a touch of the fantastic, and that is the history of human consciousness. Most people in most times have thought of themselves as living in a world that included both material reality and supernatural forces. Daily life was rife with ghosts and monsters; gods and demons shaped grander destinies. To write about those people only in terms of economic conflict and political maneuvering is to miss a large part of their reality. Jeanne Larsen, Nalo Hopkinson, Nega Mezlekia, and others have taken up the challenge of writing history with the myths and legends left in: their work might be called magical realism, but I think fantastic history comes closer to the mark.

What got me thinking about this question is reading Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song, which feels a lot like a fantasy and yet quite clearly is not. Ryman makes up much of what he tells us about twelfth-century Cambodia, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, and of course J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. A lot of science fiction incorporates what has come to be called future but he fesses up to his inventions in an extensive afterword. Historians do the same. There is no magic in the novel. No gods swoop down to aid his characters; no prophecy predicts their rise and fall; wisdom is imparted by sages rather than mages—and by bitter experience. Perhaps the fantasy affect comes from the unfamiliarity of the scenery and culture: Khmer names and battles on elephant-back may remind western readers of the exotic nomenclature and weird warfare of a Lord Dunsany or a Jack Vance. Another push toward the fantastic is the unimaginably improbable horror of Cambodia’s more recent history, which forms the second strand of the novel’s twofold plot. However, I think the element that really made it feel fantastic is the link between past and present. King Jayavarman’s time touches on the present in the form of an archaeological discovery: a narrative inscribed on pages of gold. Contemporary characters get caught up in the struggle for possession of the golden leaves. Issues current in the 1100s are still being fought over in the twenty-first century. The story of the past changes lives and ideas in the present. Strangest of all, minds touch across centuries. That’s just history. We forget how magical it is, until someone like Ryman reminds us.

The essays in this issue of JFA all have to do with history and the fantastic. Kathryn Walls shows how C. S. Lewis’s cozy and timeless fantasies of Narnia might have been influenced by historical events such as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Heather Snell finds reflections of the historical experience of a number of colonized groups—Native Americans, post-Diasporic Africans, and the deaf—in an sf story by Carole McDonnell. Umberto Rossi’s reading of J. G. Ballard’s novelette “The Ultimate City” is historical in two senses: it examines Ballard’s use of the literary past, including both his rejection of its iconic figures and his readmission of Shakespeare into his own personal canon, and it illuminates the disruptive and anachronistic narrative form that Ballard uses to make a kind of sense out of twentieth-century history. T. S. Miller similarly looks at one writer’s use of another, which is to say, at fantastic storytelling as a form of historical recreation. In this case, history includes something that never really existed: Frankenstein’s creature, which has haunted our dreams, embodied our ambitions, and shaped debates about science and humanity for a couple of centuries. Miller conducts a sort of archeological dig through Brad Bird’s 1999 animated film The Iron Giant; Ted Hughes’s novel, from 1968, on which the film was loosely based; James Whale’s 1931 film; and Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, which set the whole thing in motion. And, closest to my theme, in our lead article, Margaret Rose writes about steampunk, the hot new retro form that somehow turns the Victorian era into a future past. Rose suggests that steampunk puts meticulously researched historical details into “flamboyantly wrong imagined pasts, in order to explore the ways in which the conventional historical sensibility sometimes gets it wrong.”

Works Cited

Ryman, Geoff. The King’s Last Song, or, Kraing Meas. 2006. Afterword. Easthampton: Small Beer-Harper, 2008. Print.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.


“Extraordinary Pasts: Steampunk as a Mode of Historical Representation”
Margaret Rose

“When Curiosity Gets the Better of Us: The Atomic Bomb in The Magician’s Nephew
Kathryn Walls

“The Postcolonial Fantastic as New Ground of Invention: Reading Carole McDonnell’s ‘Lingua Franca'”
Heather Snell

“Shakespearian Reincarnations: An Intertextual Reading of J. G. Ballard’s ‘The Ultimate City'”
Umberto Rossi

Frankenstein without Frankenstein: The Iron Giant and the Absent Creator”
T. S. Miller

Review Essay

“Dark Enlightenment: On John Clute’s Darkening Garden”
Leon Marvell


Francesca Billiani and Gigliola Sulis’s The Italian Gothic and Fantastic: Encounters and Rewritings of Narrative Traditions
Rev. by Felice Italo Beneduce

Jules Verne’s The Kip Brothers and The Mysterious Island
Rev. by Janice M. Bogstad

D. Harlan Wilson’s Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction
Rev. by A. K. Drees

Sean Redmond’s Studying Blade Runner
Rev. by Kevin M. Flanagan

Heather L. Duda’s The Monster Hunter in Modern Popular Culture
Rev. by Lynda Haas

David Whitley’s The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation
Rev. by Jim Holte

John Paul Riquelme’s Gothic and Modernism: Essaying Dark Literary Modernity
Rev. by Markus Oppolzer

Andrew Gordon’s Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg
Rev. by Jen Schneider

J. P. Telotte’s The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader
Rev. by Melissa Colleen Stevenson

Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox’s New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction
Rev. by Roslyn Weaver