Sci-Fi Facing Backward

For decades, genre fiction of all kinds—sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, and historical fiction—was relegated to the pulp racks and considered beneath the notice of serious readers. Many of these books, while fun, were not masterpieces, and the few that could have been considered masterpieces—maybe a Ray Bradbury novella or an Ursula le Guin series—were disdained for swimming with the genre fiction rather than rising into the rarefied air of realist literature.

While some examples of historical fiction were considered high literature, such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and, even further back, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, others—pulpy historical romances aimed at women readers—were not taken seriously. They were often found on the same metal carousels as laser guns and spaceships in shops and libraries. As late as 2005, the critic James Wood wrote in an n+1 essay, “I think the novel should deal with current reality; I have no time for historical fiction, seeing it as merely science fiction facing backwards.” But since the early 2000s, the overlap in the Venn diagram of genre fiction and literary fiction has grown, with more thoughtful and elevated works from a more diverse array of authors, including Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and historical fiction has been buoyed by the same tide of esteem as sci-fi and its other genre cousins. Authors are pushing the boundaries of genre tropes to explore the past and future of humanity—and the planet—with more depth and dimension. In 2022, Sophie Pinkham wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Historical fiction can also have [a] more slippery purpose: to comment on the present by way of the past, as sci-fi interprets the present by imagining the future.” Where works of historical fiction were once banished to a ghetto of beloved but disregarded commercial novels, they are now acknowledged for being literary lenses for examining our current situation.

In 2021, Rivka Galchen and Lauren Groff both waded into the genre for the first time with two very different but excellent books about women in medieval Europe. Groff’s Matrix follows the adult life of Marie de France, a French woman (as the name suggests) who spent time at the English court in the twelfth century, an era when the two countries were under the same crown. This historical Marie wrote dozens of works, including her famous lays, but we know little about the woman herself, which gives Groff ample room to imagine her life at a nunnery. Galchen, meanwhile, takes on the case of Johannes Kepler’s mother being accused of witchcraft in Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch. The setting being late medieval or even early modern Poland of the seventeenth century, records of her trial are more available than those of a twelfth-century nun. But Galchen doesn’t feel the need to adhere too closely to source material to make her point about accusations and witch hunts then and now.

Everyone Knows opens with one of the most engaging paragraphs I have ever read:

Herein I begin my account, with the help of my neighbor Simon Satler, since I am unable to read or write. I maintain that I am not a witch, have never been a witch, am a relative to no witches. But from very early in life, I had enemies.

These three sentences raise all the right questions: Doth the lady protest too much? Might she actually be a witch? Who are these enemies, and how did she make them?

The remainder of the book spells out all of these details: the circumstances of the first baseless accusation from the loudly accusatory Ursula Reinbold, who “looks like a comely werewolf, [and] is married to a third-rate glazier,” and the snowball of rumors that grows around this initial speck of dust. Frau Kepler is brusque, she keeps to herself, her husband left her decades before, and she knows many herbal remedies and healing lullabies. These are not qualities that make an old woman living alone beloved among her neighbors.

Frau Kepler tells her own story, a rarity for women in most places and eras, but she is an uneducated and illiterate woman. In historical fiction, as in history, women aren’t always afforded the ability to tell their own stories without the opinions of everyone around them weighing just as much as the woman’s own. Katherina’s narrative, in Galchen’s telling, is committed to paper by her neighbor Simon. She often addresses him directly: “Simon, you can probably imagine what it was to leave that harrowing, silly meal.” Or he records her every word, like a court stenographer: “I’m thinking, what happened next? Oh, I know. Christoph has a pipe with the face of a bearded man on the front that makes him appear vain and unwise.”

Simon sometimes interjects his own thoughts into the narrative, in chapters set in bold type, though he is anything but a bold man. “If there were a guild on non-sayers,” he writes, “that would be my guild.” He had his own brush with the rumor mill when he was young, and he has no desire to endure that scorn again.

Galchen also provides a chorus of depositions in which various locals are asked to give evidence of Frau Kepler’s witchcraft. These interviews read like tweets or Facebook posts, full of rumors that begin as seeds and grow like weeds as the inquiry progresses beyond Katherina and Ursula. The earliest statements are mild enough, with the townspeople offering their experiences with Frau Kepler. But people quickly begin to “remember” events that, in hindsight, seem to have been caused by her witchcraft, such as a pig that was run over with an applecart after Katharina had touched its hoof. As Rosina Zoft, wife of the baker, says in her testimony, “I now see that I always knew. I didn’t know I knew. But I knew. You can know and also not know something.” Her statement reads as if it could have been taken from a Facebook post about pedophile conspiracies and pizza joints, sending our current dystopia four centuries into the past.

Historical fiction creates a space between the narrative set in the past and today’s hot takes. Galchen is not the first to use witch hunts and their distance from current events as fodder for political commentary. Arthur Miller introduced our modern usage of the term “witch hunt” with his 1953 play The Crucible, which depicted witch trials in seventeenth-century New England while being about the communist scare in Cold War America. Galchen picks up the gauntlet from Miller seventy-five years after the events in that play and uses the metaphor of a witch hunt to show the motivations of bad-faith accusers, from the ducal governor trying to cover his embarrassment at interviewing Frau Kepler without a male guardian present to those who feel she was behaving “more like a man in her out-and-aboutness.” They distrust her independence, her medicinal knowledge, and her occasional impatience with acquiring horoscopes for them from her famous son Johannes. It is easier to call an old, long-widowed woman who lives alone with a cow a witch than it is to go against the overwhelming tide of public opinion.

The distance between modern times and a historical setting allows Galchen to write about the most forbidden of characters: a post-menopausal woman. The author knows what she’s up against. When Simon tries to interest others in Katherina Kepler’s story at the end of the novel, he is told, “You don’t want an old lady front and center. Honestly never heard of such a thing.” Just as some of her neighbors want to use Katherina’s proximity to fame for a horoscope from Johannes, Galchen is able to use it to justify centering a woman of a certain age. She’s not just any old woman—she’s the famous astronomer’s mother. The book has received acclaim from the likes of the New York Times, the London Review of Books, and the Wall Street Jouranl, and so the boundary markers have been moved.

Groff stretches the boundaries of historical fiction in a different direction in Matrix by considering a woman who spends her entire life among women, from early adulthood to death. Groff introduces her protagonist from a God-like distance as we watch seventeen-year-old Marie ride out of the forest in the year 1158. We learn that she is very tall and “her stark, Angevin face holds no beauty only canniness and passion yet unchecked.” She is a child of rape who is sent to the English court, and while there she has become obsessed with Queen Eleanor. She is then awarded with the post of prioress of an abbey on a remote British island, though Marie considers it more of a banishment than an honor.

Groff leads the reader through the events of Marie’s life at the abbey as she builds it from an impoverished nunnery where people were dying of starvation into one of the richest establishments in England. The nuns fall in love with women and occasionally with men, have sex with women and occasionally with men, build elaborate labyrinths, and use their minds and bodies to their fullest potential (Matrix was a finalist for the 2022 Lambda Award for Lesbian Fiction). They find uses for each member of their community, no matter how unusual their talents, and they experience the powers and weaknesses of their bodies and minds.

This does not make Marie beloved by all. The nuns build an elaborate labyrinth to protect the abbey from outsiders, and no less an authority than Eleanor tells Marie that there are rumors that the nuns used magic to build it, that they are hoarding both wealth and miracles, that maybe the abbey’s taxes should be increased. “This labyrinth is being seen as an act of aggression,” the queen relates during this rare visit. “Women act counter to all the laws of submission when they remove themselves from availability. This is what enflames Marie’s enemies.” Marie does not disagree.

Again, historical fiction lends a distance that makes writing about a powerful enclave of women palatable rather than the man-hating polemic it might be taken for if it were set in 2022. Being inside this abbey, with Marie at its helm and growing ever more powerful, allows the nuns to flourish in ways they could not have flourished outside its walls, as doctors, artists, and engineers. Women of all kinds in 2022 are still butting against glass ceilings and falling into pay gaps; the idea of being able to work to your fullest capacity then spend your senescence resting in chairs set in the sun outside the chapel is heavenly.

Feminism isn’t the only theme Groff takes on in Matrix. While capitalism has caused rapid climate change, humans have been inflicting irreparable damage to the earth for millennia. The grand-scale ecological horrors of the past century and a half were built on a human history of rearranging nature, the consequences be damned. Groff has spoken often of her belief that she has a moral imperative to address this political issue in her fiction. In an interview with Edge Effects in 2018, she said, “Of course, I write literary fiction, so it can’t be polemical. If it’s polemical, I’ve failed. I need to do something more scalpel-like, something a little bit sideways. I need to settle into this idea of climate change without necessarily having it be really heavy-handed.”

She has chosen the genre of historical fiction in this case as her “something a little bit sideways.” The nuns achieve feats of engineering unheard of in their community, such as building a dam that turns a swamp into a lake. These effects would seem magical to outsiders who hadn’t seen the work of the women’s muscles and the moving of the earth, if outsiders could make their way through that aggressive labyrinth. The nuns—and the reader—cheer these feats and together realize too late the cost of changing the landscape so severely to suit their own wishes. What seemed miraculous becomes disastrous and deadly.

Like other genres, such as sci-fi and fantasy, historical fiction uses tropes that readers expect to encounter. Science fiction must get the science right, and the magic system in a fantasy novel must have rules guiding how it works—and when it doesn’t. In the case of historical fiction, a fidelity to the era and, if historical figures are used, to the personages as they were in life is required. Literary genre fiction at its best uses the tropes as a framework to push the reader beyond their expectations. Galchen’s setting remains firmly in the past, but her language and the form of her prose are modern. You’d never mistake a line like “She’ll read any pamphlet she can get” for seventeenth-century German, but the reader could easily swap in the social media—or, worse, forwarded email—of their choice for “pamphlet” and consider their own part in a digital pile-on. Groff’s details of daily life for the women at the abbey contrast with the omniscient reserve of the narrative voice, which allows the reader a critical distance as well as a temporal distance for examining Marie’s choices and possibly their own.

There are still pulpy genre books that readers can devour like sweet candy, but the new age of genre respectability means that some works are critically elevated. What, then, is the difference between literary and commercial historical fiction? Lydia Davis tried to draw the line between commercial and literary fantasy novels, writing, “There were other books I liked but was not profoundly moved by, and perhaps [an] absence of moral tension was the reason.” Groff herself has said, “In literature, if a book upholds the audience’s prefabricated beliefs without complicating or challenging said beliefs, that book is solidly entertainment.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with entertainment. Fun books, with adventure and high stakes and emotional swings from despair to elation, are as necessary to a reading life as weighty narratives. Commercial fiction tends to focus more on action moving the story forward rather than the inner lives of the characters, and movement is compelling in a way that contemplation isn’t always. It’s easy to tear gleefully through these books—and even multiple books in series, which is common in commercial genre fiction—but they might not linger in your psyche, tugging at your morality. Making the reader consider their beliefs about the current day via the settings and people of another time, in the past or the future, is literature. Pinkham, in her 2022 New York Review of Books essay, goes on to say of historical fiction, “The attentive reader notices parallels and patterns, silent gestures toward the tyranny and absurdity of the moment of writing: after all, history repeats itself.”

Genre fiction that challenges the reader’s beliefs and allows them to contemplate their current moment is literature worth thinking about deeply. It needs to make itself worth consideration, worth the time it takes to both read the book and think about what it’s saying. Literature is making a difficult ask of twenty-first century readers who barely have the time and mental focus to make it through a Twitter thread let alone consider its wider implications. As both of these books show, we live in exhausting times.

The remove offered by literary historical fiction eases the burden just a little. It gives the reader space between the dispiriting onslaught of cancel culture accusations taking over their social media feeds and the mostly true—but cleverly satirical—events surrounding Katherina Kepler’s trial for witchcraft. It offers perspective for considering how even the cloistered lives of nuns could have effects beyond the abbey’s walls and how we might create communities that nurture us while also feeding our worst tendencies. Like science fiction facing backward, historical fiction offers both escape from daily life and, at its best, engagement with it.

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