Past, Future, Research, and Imagination: Historical vs Science Fiction
by Anne E. Johnson
The signature on my emails and the profile on my Twitter account say I write “Historical and Science Fiction.” To some, these may seem like opposite genres. Historical fiction is about places and times that actually existed. Even characters and events might be drawn from factual research. Science fiction, on the other hand, is about futuristic worlds that can only be imagined. Right?
Not always, as it happens. Historical fiction can require a great deal of imagination, and lean more heavily toward fiction than history. On the other hand, science fiction can require a great amount of research, and I don’t mean just about science. And, while I’ve never tried it, it’s even possible to combine historical with science fiction (as the steampunk sub-genre often does).
Some historical fiction is so thorough in its use of fact, that author really is turning true history into fiction. A good example of this is Debra Brenegan’s novel Shame the Devil. Brenegan did scholarly research that could have led to a nonfiction biography of early feminist writer Fanny Fern. Instead, Brenegan wrote a “novel,” but it’s really a way of bringing the biography to life as fiction. She imagined the exact words spoken by the characters, but nearly every scene is based on research.
Alternatively, for my historical novel A Kiss at Vespers (due out July 19), I did basic research about Britain and Ireland in the early Eleventh Century, finding out things like what the Vikings were up to, which towns were central to trading, and how Irish monasteries were constructed. But all the details are invented. There was no St. Luran’s monastery on the east coast of Ireland at that time, and if there had been, I doubt they would have let a woman stay there, even after she’d been shipwrecked! I decided to let the needs of my story outweigh the force of the historical documents.
Research for science fiction can be just as intense. An excellent recent example is Debris Dreams by David Colby. That’s a near-future story about a teenaged girl living near the moon, and having to defend it by fighting in space. Colby did meticulous research about the physics of that scenario, in order to give a realistic picture of what life would be like if you’d never been to Earth but could see it. Many science fiction (and fantasy) authors also do thorough research about military organizations and the history of warfare and weaponry.
In complete contrast are the books of my Webrid Chronicles, Green Light Delivery and Blue Diamond Delivery. Everything in them is made up: the species, the environment, the physics. Factual research would have done me little good. However, just like in writing historical fiction, the science fiction author has to be consistent. Only, instead of checking everything against research, she checks against the details of her own made-up worlds. It’s important to keep copious lists!
* * * You can learn more about Anne E. Johnson at her website. Purchase Green Light Delviery and Blue Diamond Delivery at Candlemark & Gleam, on Amazon, or on Barnes & Noble. Purchase A Kiss at Vespers at MuseItUp publishing.