Monday, February 18, 2013

Tripping on the Past, Imagining the Future

Note:  The internet makes the world a very small place indeed, and eventually you start running into people who share your interests....even if they are a bit odd.  Take for instance the combined interests of Science Fiction, politics and the Roman Empire.  My - first ever - guest blogger today, Sarah Hoyt, writes prolifically in these areas.  She actually makes a living doing so.
(See link below )  Sarah, you're up!

I’ve been invited to consider how my having grown up in Portugal, with the detritus of empire literally – more or less – underfoot has made my writing science fiction different.

I was about to say it hasn’t, not that much, but it has in a way.

You see, Science Fiction was first explained to me as “History, but turned forward.”  This was the explanation my brother gave me, when – in his first year in Electrical Engineering – he started bringing home these odd books.  (Out of Their Minds is the first SF I remember reading – I’ve determined before that I’d read Have Spacesuit, but I read it UNAWARE that it was science fiction.  I thought that was just how things were in America – and A Canticle for Leibowitz was the third.  The second has completely slipped my mind.  I think it was one of those “the bomb explodes and then we survive by doing unspeakable things” books so common in the seventies.  However, even though the name and the author have gone into those mists from which no memory returns, it was the first book to make me aware I was reading a different genre.  I knew that WWIII hadn’t happened.  I mean, I was eleven.  So I looked at the spine, and then went in search of Alvarim (who is almost ten years older than I) and asked him “what is science fiction?”)  And he – poor kid, I mean, he was what?  Twenty?  -- gave me the best explanation he could “history turned forward.”

I guess that stuck, because when I first started writing science fiction -- sixteen? Years ago – the first thing I did was sit down and write a future history extending a thousand years in the future.
(I thought more than a thousand years would be beyond my scope, because I’m modest that way.)
I have for some time now been feeling that doing this was odd – I think I realized most people don’t do carefully outlined future histories before setting pen to paper for space opera (forgive them Heinlein, they know not what they do) sometime around when Darkship Thieves came out, and I was on a panel trying to explain when it was set.

However, it wasn’t till this blog invite came along that I realized that uh… maybe the reason I did this (I can’t answer for Heinlein, though I could make guesses) is that my background is SO different.  As in, I grew up in a region that many ways felt like a mishmash of times.

I think the first time I became aware that the language spoken in a region changed, I must have been four?  Maybe three.  On Saturdays, dad took me “for a walk” so that mom had the house to herself and could clean without me underfoot.  The walks usually went into the woods around the village where dad would show me birds’ nests, explain the different ways they were built, or we caught tadpoles, or…  Yeah, there’s a reason ‘vacation’ for me is the Natural History Museum.  BUT in Portugal it’s impossible to do that without tripping on ruins, and lintels, and even boundary markers.  A good number of these were in Latin.  So dad had to explain that Portuguese came from Latin, and the other influences that fell into it.  (Okay, he didn’t have to explain, but he chose not to be bludgeoned to death by “why?”)

After that at some point – between six and eight? – I started reading history books, starting with my brother’s (there is no real lending library system in Portugal, or there wasn’t when I lived there – might have changed now – so for a voracious reader every book is meat.  I waited with bated breath for my brother to get his school books each year, because I read them.  I also read the old ones, or re-read them.)  And then I started noticing all the debris of the past around me.

Portugal has a long past – going back, in my region, to a Celtic background and then to Phoenician and Carthaginian colonies, well before Rome came.  It’s impossible to ignore.  Some of the houses still in use dated back to the middle ages.  There were Roman ruins all over.  The soil under the village was hollowed by Roman gold mines, which were then followed by Moorish gold mines.  It played out sometime under the Moors (though I often wonder if new tech would allow us to mine residual gold) leaving a poor agricultural region and gaping holes under the entire area, which lead to sudden cave-ins in heavy weather.

History is impossible to escape.  The village up the road (from which my paternal grandfather came to marry grandma) was called Rio Tinto – that is Blood River and the story of the name is that at the last great battle between Moors and Christians, so many dead fell in the river that it ran red like blood.  (Now I’m older, I wonder if it’s been more than one battle and the name is just ascribed to the last.)
When a farmer up the street dug down to build a cow shed, he came across a Roman cemetery.  (And he shut his mouth and built anyway, because he didn’t want his land expropriated.  However, artifacts made their way out to various hands.)  When, up the street, they started digging for apartment buildings, they came across a Roman (industrial scale) oven, answering forever the question of why that area is called Forno (oven.)

Of course, the Romans weren’t the only ones to leave traces.  The area is called Aguas Santas (Holy Waters) and local tradition ascribes it to Our Lady appearing over a certain fountain in what is now a back alley.  Only… the area name and the legend date back to before the Christian Era.  Of course, Balaat of the Carthaginians was also “Our Lady.” (Yes, I very much fear excavations would reveal a tophet.

Anyway, this is by the way of saying that I could never think of history as something with an end.  A lot of the science fiction books – not just in the Golden Era, but now – seem to assume there is a beginning and an end.  An easily discernible beginning, I mean, something that we can trace exactly “it was because of Western hegemony” seems to be a favorite or “patriarchal oppression.”  Coming as I do from a place that is a hodgepodge of times and cultures, all melding together to create an unexpected result, I’m more likely to think “it’s because of humans.”

In the same way, I tend not to think of history as “ending” which means that for instance post apocalyptic novels where everyone just lives in the mud forever drive me nuts.  Civilization WOULD rise again.  It’s what our kind does.  Now, it might be unrecognizable to us, but it would rise again.  (This is why A Canticle for Leibowitz struck such a deep note.)

And this is why my novels tend to be set in a future history that has a past, but not a defined end.
There are certain forces I see playing out in human history – the play and counterplay between the people who want to control others (often for their own good) and of the people who want to be left alone (aka be free.)

Even though I think freedom can’t be won permanently (well, you know, the other guys get a say too) I think it’s the only fight worth having.  Because if we have a little more individual freedom, even for a short time, it allows civilization and humanity to take huge leaps in comfort, knowledge, and expansion.

This is largely the theme of my work.  And the freedom of Eden in Darkship Thieves gets a push-back-against in Darkship Renegades (out from Baen.)  At the same time, the regime of the Good Men is taken down (or starts to be taken down.  It’s a long process) in A Few Good Men, which starts at the end of Darkship Thieves and which comes out March 5.  It is of course, not a permanent freedom.  

But for a while, it allows Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to flourish.  And it passes the torch of freedom and hope to others, down the long road of history, who might find the ideals worth dying for.


A link to Sarah's good stuff.

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