By Nelle Myrica Donaldson
Choosing a Fantasy Door: History vs. Sci-Fi
What if you could choose between changing the past and changing the future? In Back to the Future (1985), Marty travels back in time in order to affect the future, but let’s say it’s either/or, more like the “flight vs. invisibility” question: no wrong answers (and yet…). When I think history, I think “what’s done is done; what can be learned from it?” When I think fantasy, I think about what could be, in an ideal future: e.g. solutions to global warming, world peace, a little more “me time” in my day…
And that’s what I try to teach my kids: to learn from the past and plan for the future.
“Historical fantasy” is an oxymoron, right? I had to ask for clarification when I first heard the term, but I was out of the loop: in fact, historical fantasy is incredibly popular. Which makes sense, considering that most humans are well adapted to rewriting history (whether we call it fantasy or not), and less agile at thinking big about future change. “Is and was and always will be” comforts a lot of people. It allows us to take ourselves very seriously.
Denialism comes easily, creativity less so. This is related to the human propensity, as described by Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, to “generally overvalue the present and undervalue the future”-We also have this word, nostalgia that, by its own etymology, betrays our wistful affection for the past. Genre writers simply add things like dragons, wizards, ghosts, and fairies, and there you have it: historical fantasy. (The Mists of Avalon, Outlander, Game of Thrones).
Which is to say, despite and because of my humanity, whether literal or literary, my eggs are in the change-the-future-basket. That’s where I feel inspired and empowered.
I am generally pretty thrilled about fantastical escapism, whereas I find something uneasy and disinteresting (almost boring) about historical fantasy. I see the difference between science fiction fantasy and historical fantasy as amounting to a sense of futility around the latter. Through a human psychology lens, it’s similar-denial (an internal rewriting) may ease the pain of now, but it’s also a way to be stuck in a past-referencing loop that thwarts progress.
While most things-animate and inanimate-require structure and flexibility in order to endure, historical fantasy seems glass half-empty in the way that it inserts magical tropes into a fixed past and finds its sweet spot where magic can happen without contaminating what’s already been written decades or millennia ago. Sci-fi-fantasy, on the other hand, exists in the space where reality leaves openings for the possibility of real magic (and if you’ve ever read about mantis shrimp, planted a garden, used a telescope, or gestated a human, you likely understand my personal sense of “real magic”).