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The Dragon's Tale asks an interesting question
"A thought that crossed my mind was why are the SF writers wasting their time rehashing Roman or Byzantine history."

I don't write SF but I've run home-brewed SF campaigns and one model I've used is the rise and fall of the West Indies Federation (January 3, 1958 to May 31, 1962). I used it because the flaws that killed the Federation were ones particularly easy for a Canadian to wrap their mind around.

What choice bits of history would you recommend to those SF writers who want to use some historical model but not one as well-chewed as Roman history?

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From wikipedia

Relationship with Canada

The Federation maintained a particularly close relationship with the nation of Canada, which had a similar past in that it was a confederation of several former British colonies. In the early years, several Caribbean leaders suggested that the West Indies Federation should investigate the possibility of becoming a Canadian province, though this was never more than a fleeting interest.

As I recall, Turks and Caicos has been suggesting that they join Canada for the better part of century without much success but it's amusing to think of a Confederation that reaches from the north pole almost to the equator (although discontinuously).

In a world where the Newfoundlanders voted not to join Canada, one could imagine the UK strongly encouraging NFLD's membership federation of the New World island nations the UK no longer wanted to run. The naval challenges for such a scattered nation would be interesting.

one could imagine the UK strongly encouraging NFLD's membership federation of the New World island nations the UK no longer wanted to run

Last night I read this bit in Harkaway's The Gone-Away World re: Cuba joining the UK (emphasis from the original):
and by the end of the night I understand that I have seen a historic thing and that the people of Cuba have opted to join a nation of shopkeepers because they want infrastructure (roads and sewers), freedom (not being beaten up for pulling faces at politicians) and a decent injection of cash and junk food (this is called standard of living). The people of Britain have accepted them because they relish the notion of an influx of well-trained, educated people of pleasing physical appearance who have rhythm, and because their national psyche needs somewhere to replace another island called Hong Kong which they apparently lost somehow and are still sulking about. Mostly, however, it seems they have accepted this arrangement because it has put the wind up the rest of the world, and that pleases them greatly.

I keep thinking that we're missing the metaphorical boat re: the Turks and Caicos. There's an opportunity presented there that ought to be seized and sooner than later. Enjoy the real estate before climate derangement sinks it underwater forever.

If T&C joined up, my Torontonian husband points out that it'd give Canadians somewhere nice to go for Christmas.

I don't see why not rehash Roman history.

The truth is, that Roman history is given a glossing over in public schools in the US. If you follow the trends today, they gloss over anything that didn't happen before, say, Vietnam.

Putting new faces on old stories and labeling them as such, might encourage someone to read about what the fantasy was based on.

Although your use of the West Indies Federation would be cool to run as a Traveller-styled space-faring game.


Re: I don't see why not rehash Roman history.

I have a Cold War era Traveller campaign where the Vilani found Earth in the late 1940s. Tragically for the Vilani, one of their scoutships managed to get back to the empire before the crew expired from the various harmless-to-Terrestial humans diseases they picked up on Earth so when the American, Soviet, British and the French starships reach the nearest Vilani worlds in the 1960s what they find are developed planets that have just experienced a virgin field pandemic.

For non-Traveller fans, the Vilani are descended from humans removed from Earth ages ago and there's nothing in their history that would give them the rich variety of diseases we have on Earth.

Re: I don't see why not rehash Roman history.

If these Vilani have settled multiple star systems (and therefore should've a population somewhat larger than that of Earth), why would it be them that suffers from pandemics rather than Earth?

That would work if


The ur-Vilani were taken from Earth as a small population, and introduced into a mostly alien ecosystem. Can't recall if they take domestic animals with, but let's say not.

In such a case, the diseases they start with would mostly die out, and they'd be very slow to develop new ones. So, they'd spend most of their history in a nearly disease-free environment. Nice for them, up to a point.

Doug M.

Re: That would work if

Can't recall if they take domestic animals with, but let's say not.

As I recall, the Ancients left the early Vilani on a planet with so few edible by humans plants and animals that the priestly caste was also the food-preparer caste (That is, the arcane knowledge they used was how to turn the local flora and fauna into non-toxic food). That argues for no dogs and what other domestic animals would humans have had back then?

Re: I don't see why not rehash Roman history.

My experience in US public schools is that history started with a cursory glance at Mesopotamia, glosses over Greek and Roman cultures with more examination of how they organized than what they did, stops in to look at feudal systems in Britain around 1100-1300, then hits a few points in the Renaissance and departs for the New World in 1492, never looking back.
From 1500 through until 1898, the only parts of Europe that are mentioned are those that were colonizing in North America. History in any sort of depth begins with the rebellion in 1776. Then, starting with the Spanish-American War, history is focussed on foreign policy. And it stops with Vietnam, not starting there.

To explain my premises: I stopped going to New York public schools at the beginning of the 1990s, and never attended in any other state.

Re: I don't see why not rehash Roman history.

SF doesn't rehash very much Roman history. We're not talking Steven Saylor here. It rehashes a very few episodes from Roman and Byzantine history (mainly chosen for ideological reasons), and for the Byzantine period, particularly the era of Justinian and Belisarius.

There are a few historiographical reasons for the latter emphasis. Although Asimov took "Bel Riose" in his Foundation stories from Gibbon, most of the rest seem to have their origin through L. Sprague deCamp's Lest Darkness Fall, which in turn was derived largely from Robert Graves' historical novel Count Belisarius. (Turtledove, a professional Byzantologist, was influenced in his choice of field by LDF, and his awful Videssos fantasies recast unfamiliar episodes in Byzantine history, right down to using some of the same names, like Vaspurakan.)

Anyway. Belisarius in post-WWI Britain, and his legendary ill treatment by Justinian, was symbolic to many of Britain's ingratitude towards its most innovative soldiers, and particularly to T.E. Lawrence; both Graves and George Bernard Shaw used the comparison. And Liddell-Hart, Lawrence's biographer, used Belisarius as an example of the "indirect approach", which later fascinated Jim Baen.

There are some other threads. Silverberg leaned on Procopius's Secret History for his Up the Line, and Guy Gavriel Kay, in a classic example of Third Artist Syndrome, decided he needed to revamp and simplify the situation to write yet another Kay novel.

Re: I don't see why not rehash Roman history.

"SF doesn't rehash very much Roman history.."

Exactly. If a future civilization wrote US based SF which focused only on, say, the battle of Gettysburg and the career of McArthur, that would be better coverage than Rome/Byzantium gets, given that we have two thousand years to choose from. The Byzantines still have nine hundred years to go after Belisarius, after all.

Heraclius should be worth a novel or six, plus Julian (even though Vidal did that one), then Basil the Bulgar-slayer, Trajan and Hadrian (a different book from the "memoirs"). Leo the iconoclast! A novel concerning that evil bastard Octavian would be welcome. As for the republic, how about a book about the Gracchi, if only to annoy J*rd*n?

I could go on for pages. Tiberius from his own pov (too bad Fred Pohl didn't write that one).

To add to your list, though, Poul Anderson used Commodus/Septimus Severus in his Flandry novels.

SF hasn't scratched the surface of the available material. And then there's Greece.

William Hyde

Re: I don't see why not rehash Roman history.

Theodore Judson did a variation of Commodus and his succession in The Martian General's Daughter:
"Know this, my child: I came not to care what he has become. There once was a time I thought I could educate him, education being the last depot the train called failure usually stops at. In later years I considered raising another man outside my family to be the next emperor, as my immediate predecessors have done. Then, four years ago I returned to Garden City and found him and several of his friends sitting on the palace steps like idlers in front of a convenience store; it was morning and they looked to have been out all night on the streets of the capital, dressed as they were in their heavy cloaks and hoods.

He was only fourteen. The gang of them, they had a sack full of something they did not wish me to inspect. I had a squadron of soldiers with me, of course; they retrieved the bag for me, and inside there were the most hideous bits of animal life they had collected during the night, the whole of it cut up in a bloody mess: a cat's head, a dog's hind leg, and such. When I poured it all out on the ground, there was a child's severed hand amid the other gore. The soldiers and I were aghast. We looked at them and wondered. And they, the little murderers, they could only cower like cowards before me. 'This,' I told myself, 'is the Empire we have fought a hundred wars to preserve...'"
Judson really should be better known, although I gather he dislikes fans of the genre even more than I do.


has not written, and does not seem likely to write, the book that gets made into the feel-good movie of the year. He's about half a notch more cheerful than Peter Watts.

Note that his second novel is about a future character who self-consciously models himself on Alexander. This does not go well.

Doug M.

The Martian General's Daughter ends with the daughter -- who is the narrator, so this isn't particularly a spoiler -- surviving, settling down quite happily while fading into the background. (Which is not feel-good, but not hopeless either.)

So does the narrator of Fitzpatrick's War, although there, the background is rather hopeless. (Imagine a wingnut fanboy sitting on the future's face, forever.)

Even Tom Wedderburn's Life ends with dignity.

I'd say a full step above Anderson's lithium novels. More of a sense of humor than Anderson ever had.

Re: Judson

Tom Wedderburn wastes his life, and all chance at happiness, on a doomed and foolish love for a girl who's, well, just a tramp.

Dignity, okay. And Judson manages to tell this story without coming across as a misogynistic asshole. But I'll stand by my original description of "not exactly feel-good material".

Doug M.

Re: I don't see why not rehash Roman history.

There's room for plenty of fiction about the bad emperors. For the most part they were painted worse than the were (Domitian might be the winner here) so there is plenty of room for a little deft revisionism. Or the portrayal of a flawed ruler, rather than a cartoon-like despot.

Then there's the alt-history possibilities. E.g. that someone goes back in time and gives Marcus a vasectomy, forcing him to adopt. The noontide of the Roman empire lasts a generation longer, at least.

If we can call Shakespeare a fantasy writer, then we can add some late Byzantines to the list, with Titus Andronicus.

William Hyde

Re: I don't see why not rehash Roman history.

Aurelian could be an interesting alternative to Belisarius too.

If you follow the trends today ...

We never used to get anywhere much past World War II in american-history classes when I was in high school and college (except for watching a documentary on the Civil Rights movement, usually discontinuously with the rest of the class's timeline, in the middle somewhere).

Nobody's done the Khazars since Turtledove, right?

The Polish ascendancy would be fabulous. Also Charlemagne. And I'd like more of the French periods other than the Regency, the Revolution, and the Renaissance.

I agree medieval Polish history would be a great model for a science fiction universe. Likewise with medieval Bohemia and (especially) Hungary.

Whatever you do and no matter how much you would like to see a sfnal treatment of this, do not seek out Leo Frankowski's Conrad Stargard series...

How about Colonial or Post Colonial Africa?

Mike Resnick has done this


Doug M.

Re: Mike Resnick has done this

Does it count?


Those stories were published in books, which people bought. The fact that they sucked does not disqualify them.

Doug M.

The Peloponnesian War is interesting, as long as it's not rehashed into yet another tedious paean to the Spartans.

(Deleted comment)
How 'bout Renaissance Italy?

I used Weimar Germany for one of my Traveller books.

the sack of Vijayanagara and the subsequent collapse of it's empire, which (arguably) made the subsequent European expansion into south India possible.

I think that the later Abbasid Caliphate (perhaps during the period of the "Buyid Confederacy") would be an interesitng model for an sf setting, as would the decline and fall of the Egyptian New Kingdom during the 19th and 20th dynasties.

Do I have to say it? I guess I do. why rehash?

There are a lot of bad reasons to rehash, no question. Does that mean there are never any good ones?

Doug M.

Well, there's money to be made in pandering. That's bad from one point of view, but good for someone struggling to make a living in a dying market.

I think a good knowledge of history can provide lots of good material for AH or low-magic fantasy, but seems to me that the patterns that apply to pre-industrial societies don't map convincingly onto galactic empires or even a halfway advanced future setting. Which Judson seems to get but not many others do

You've liked this sort of argument lately. "Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the GOP: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the Party for the fifty righteous that are therein?"

It's a response to a certain sort of sweeping generalization that seems to be much in the air just now.

Doug M.

Generally, though, when someone questions a premise, the appropriate thing is not to question the questioning of the premise.

Because if you don't, since you can draw parallels SOMEWHERE, people might accuse you of doing it anyway, so you might as well.

I would hope most writers are not influenced by the type of reader who sees close analogies where none exist.

I'd hope most writers aren't influenced by readers at all. My beta readers have some influence in that they'll tell me when I'm not making sense, but really, I'm writing for me, not for them. So far I'm lucky in that some of the stories I want to write, someone else wants to pay me for.

But then I've noticed a lot of people ARE influenced by what people think, and even will make efforts to conform with a particularly "attractive" vision that other people seem to see in them. (A particularly sad and egregious case being George Lucas who bought into the "Cambellian Hero" myth so much that he apparently convinced himself that he was really doing all that when he made the first "Star Wars").

In the spirit of self-reflection:

Getting obscure historical references makes me feel like a big man!

If someone were to file the serial numbers off of the Lebanese Civil War, it would make a great plot for a fantasy (of the "everyone's a bad guy" subgenre) novel/series.

Another period in which you could probably do any number of "this just can't end well" plotlines, as well as having deeply different societies in collision, would be the Taiping Rebellion. Or maybe my fascination with that horrid mess has biased me. (Especially how Jonathan Spence tells the story.)

The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, whatever that horror was so-called, would also be interesting. If you dig into what less politicized historians are writing about, for example, the Japanese occupation of Korea, there's fascinating stuff on both sides: the few Koreans who thrived during the occupation, and many other Koreans who organized resistance (not all sunlight and roses, of course) and on the other side of the colonial-identity fence, the workaday aspects of attempted Japanification of Korea, like for example the process of introducing radio here as an occupying power. Lots of interesting backdrop stuff, especially with a society that anyway has obtained the technology from yet another society with even better tech.

Oh, and The British Raj! And the rest of Indian history! And... oh... I'll stop.

There's quite a bit of SF inspired by the British Raj. Most of it is ideologically pro-British; most of it is also quite horrible.

I'm happy not to have run into much of that myself, and it just seems weird to me that someone would choose to write it from the British POV, or exclusively so anyway.

(Weird in a very familiar way, mind you, having a father educated in a British protectorate in Africa. Weird in a, *sigh*, oh, of course, sort of way. I'm also not very surprised to hear that much of it is horrible.)

Though, come to think of it, Paul Park's Celestis feels like a British Raj-inspired novel, though actually really, really good. But far from straightforwardly pro-colonizer(s).

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