H is for History
The archives were in the very deepest part of the mountain, to keep them away from idle eyes. The dreams of the sigruum were sacred, Sudjummar reminded her at her first and last complaint, and not for the whims of the curious. –Olivia
There were a number of hide curtains stretched across the room, separating it from another space beyond, and when Tonka went ahead of her to pull them aside, she followed. Here was the shrine to history and shame that she’d anticipated. Here were the walls hanging with bridles and, yes, blinders. Here was tack and saddles. Here was a rolled hide and a horsehair whip. And in one corner, there was something else, something like a metal saw-horse, very thin, with struts edging out both sides…“This is the house of our histories,” said Tonka, holding his palms upward to her. “And this is a part of our histories. But they are burdens for a chieftain to bear. And Morathi is correct. We must never forget.” —The Care and Feeding of Griffins
“What really happened?” Amber asked again, wrenching her gaze away to Meoraq. “What was the Fall? What the hell did God do to you people?” –The Last Hour of Gann
* * *
My mother loved books. Even as a child, she was an avid reader, cutting her literary teeth on Louis L’Amour, Robert Louis Stevenson and Agatha Christie. She fed her addiction working as a librarian for several years before getting married to my father and his books. Around about the time I was born, Star Wars came out and my mother’s boundless imagination found its north star. About 75% of the books occupying the twenty or so bookshelves in my parents’ house are science-fiction/fantasy. She read a lot of bad ones, many good ones, some great ones. If you asked her what the difference was, she was always quick to say it wasn’t the story. An old story in the hands of a talented writer could be great; a great story in not-so-talented hands could be awful. The difference, she said, was this: A bad book begins and ends with the words on the pages. A good book gives you the feeling that it began long before you ever started reading. But a great book goes on long after you stop.
I understood what she meant at once. Even in fantasy settings (or perhaps I should say especially then), we want our worlds to have that sense of permanence. All the dragons, demons, aliens, sorcery and starships aside, we want our worlds to feel real. Giving that world a history fixes it at a point in time and builds a foundation on which we writers can then hang a future. Whether it comes in the form of a five-page expositional lecture on the Age of the Dragon Wars or a throwaway line of dialogue as your heroes approach the walled elven village of X’iim to the effect that “they’ve built them like this ever since the massacre at Kelathia,” history suggests itself in endless ways. Prophecies, prejudices, alliances, legends, traditions, taboos—all elements of a sub-conscious history.
Not too long ago, I snubbed the makers of the Riddick franchise for their lackluster efforts at ecosystem design, but I have to admit that one thing those same people do well is historical subtlety. In this last movie, they’re so cocky about it, they do it twice. On the lifeless and impossible planet on which Riddick finds himself marooned, he finds the ruins of what might have been a vanished indigenous civilization, reduced to a cave-like chamber of angular and imposing design. The stark, monument-like style of the surviving relics in that dark, echoing chamber hint at a past that Riddick, of course, is not remotely interested in. Nor should he be. That scene existed to foreshadow how easily and how completely people could be wiped out on that planet. Riddick was not there to study extinct cultures or bemoan their loss.
Later on, he stumbles upon an empty merc-station—a construct alien to that planet, built so that spacefaring folk of the distinctly seedy kind could touch down, make repairs, stock up on supplies, breath unrecycled air and move on. None of this had to be explained (although it was). It was perfectly obvious what it was and how long it had been there, and it amused me no end to imagine what the next group of mercenaries who happened along would think when they saw the condition in which it had been left.
I tend not to write books that are fully set in fantastic or futuristic worlds. My heroines are human, born in modern times and imbued with modern sensibilities, who find themselves thrust into alien circumstances. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, or at least indifference; it takes an Outsider to marvel at what is strange and explore what may be commonplace to another culture.
On the other hand, only someone who has been raised in that fantasy-world can elicit the kind of powerful emotions that come from exposing the highs and lows of an extraordinary ordinary life. As an example, I give you one of the best movies ever made: The Dark Crystal. In particular, I give you Kira, one of perhaps only two Gelflings left in the whole world. She has been raised by Pod People—a child-like and vaguely trollish race who live very much in the moment. When reluctant hero Jen, our Outsider, visits Kira’s village, he is overwhelmed by the revelry and spontaneity of their celebrations, but just as the party is getting started, it’s cut short by an attack by monstrous beetle-like servants of the evil Skeksis. The two Gelflings escape, but the Pod Village is razed and its inhabitants enslaved. As a devastated Jen lashes out in grief and anger, Kira comforts him by saying simply, “The Garthim have always come.” Nothing else in the whole movie illustrates the disparity between the two of them quite so well or so beautifully—earthy Jen, sheltered from violence; ethereal Kira, inured to it.
Very soon afterwards, the Gelflings discover some Gelfling ruins and scene in which they explore these overgrown remnants of what should have been their own culture is one of the most moving in the entire film. My own favorite part is where Kira ascends a vine-covered throne and is quietly amazed when she fits in it perfectly. Not a word is spoken, nor is one necessary. These are puppets and they are emoting the hell out of that scene.
Of course, these are examples of forgotten history, which is to say relics that are discovered, but not necessarily explained. Another way to bring your world’s past into the present is with the aid of a historian. You’ve seen them. They’re usually some wizardly type in a musty old library, pouring over massive leather-bound books and ornately-capped scrolls, always ready to furrow his brow and blather on for four or five minutes about some obscure prophecy that makes absolutely no sense and is of no real significance but will nevertheless become self-fulfilling due to the bad guy’s efforts to circumvent it. Or it’s the hermit living in a cave on the ass-end of nowhere who is the only one on the planet who knows the secret of gunpowder/martial arts/cartography/the rubik’s cube and therefore has to be protected by the hero until the knowledge can be passed on in such a manner as to save the day. Or it’s the fallen aristocrat living in disgrace under the new, evil regime who has not seen the princess since the night she was born, yet recognizes her at once and immediately sobers up following a 20-year drunk-on and gathers an army to overthrow the enemy and restore the true throne. Basically, anytime some wizened old fart opens his mouth in front of the hero, we’ve found our historian.
Of course, history isn’t just for medievalish fantasy worlds. In the 2002 film adaptation of The Time Machine, the part of the historian is ably played by a holographic librarian in a few broken panes of glass. Frank Herbert’s Dune series is one great big history book with some giant sandworms thrown in to spice it up (get it? Spice?). In fact, some of the best (and worst) science-fiction is written with the premise that we are doomed to repeat history unless we learn from it. The fact that it is fictitious history makes whatever socio-political message accompanying it no less relevant.
So essentially, there are three kinds of history when it comes to world-building: the kind that gasps, “What happened here?” the kind that asks, “Why is this happening?” and the kind that says, “This happened. What have we learned?” And, as is so often the case with world-building, success is not measured by how thoroughly you, the writer, answer the question, but by how much they, the readers, think about the answers.