Written by James Lewis. Edited by Joscelin Woodend.
When I imagine a stereotypical example of historical fiction, whilst attempting to ignore Lucas’s promise that Star Wars took place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I picture period drama. It is the kind of stuff that the head of ITV programming would drool over. Aristocratic – and let’s be honest – British nobility fighting, amongst other things, social change, oncoming crisis (take the first world war in the case of Downton Abbey) and the desire to jump into the pants of one of the following: the butler, the neighbouring nobility, the stable boy, the maid, the local peasant boy, or a zombie. Hang on I hear you say – Zombies? In Victorian England? Why was this not covered in school, somewhere between reciting a song to remember Henry VIII’s wives and the causes of the First World War? Something must be done.
Ok, so there was not a Zombie outbreak, or at least one that was recorded. This did not stop Seth Greame-Smith from satirizing Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice to create, rather wonderfully, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The plot largely remains the same, except, instead of discussing social change or an oncoming crisis, Elizabeth Bennett, Mr Darcy and co. discuss their zombie fighting abilities, whether women should carry muskets (maybe some social change after all) and how the messenger has been devoured by the undead. Simpler times, kind of.
Of course this is not the only example of writers taking liberties, which is a rather gentle way of putting it, with historical certainties. Probably the most famous recent example is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Without wishing to spoil the plot too much, the often outrageous writer/director somewhat misrepresented how the Second World War ended, mainly when he suggested Hitler died in Paris in 1944 whilst watching a film when a team of Jewish American assassins and a French woman shot his face off and blew up the theatre in turn. Guess I spoilt more than I intended. Regardless, let me reassure you that this is probably not how the war ended, that you have not misremembered your history lessons at school. It is Pulp Fiction (excellent film pun), designed to entertain rather than instruct. In all honesty, I worry if anybody would utilize such a film to inform their historical understanding.
I am unsure what we can learn about Tarantino’s augmentation of history. Inglorious Basterds is a revenge story, a tale of American Jews extracting vengeance upon the Nazis. Perhaps the only ambiguity is the comeuppance of Christoph Waltz’s character – a pragmatic Nazi – whose fate is the same as that of his more ideological brethren, the forever association with the regime’s horrific crimes. That is not to say that changing history in fiction is a practice from which nothing can be learned. An author who revels in such a practice is Kurt Vonnegut. In two of his works in particular – Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle – he weaves history with science fiction to create complex narrative arcs with the goal of carrying simple and persuasive interpretations of humanity and the world that we live in.
The Cuban Missile crisis was the closest the world came to nuclear annihilation. It is remarkable even today talking to those who lived through it, the fear and reverence with which they discuss the events and how they were broadcast. In Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut flexes his creative muscles to build a fictitious Caribbean Island community – San Lorenzo – and a new conduit of destruction – Ice Nine – from which to articulate his Cold War concerns. In particular this is channelled towards the dangers of pure research and how it is used or manipulated. Ice Nine was invented with the goal of freezing water in warfare to allow machines like tanks to travel across hazardous or not traversable aquatic bodies. Once its potential was noticed however it was corrupted. It become a tool of the Cold War, both sides fearing and revering its power. By creating such a simple threat – Ice Nine’s extremely high freezing point means that all water freezes instantaneously upon contact – Vonnegut artfully demonstrates the dangers of pure research. It should be noted that Vonnegut actually worked in a research lab after the Second World War, so much of this is based upon his own experiences.
His manipulation of history in Slaughterhouse 5 is a lot subtler, an odd idea considering the inclusion of extra-terrestrials. The Tralfamadorians, who appear in many of Vonnegut’s novels, place the terrestrial events of the novel in context, highlighting ideas of fate, death, and time’s relationship with the universe. In a twist of bitter irony – oh Vonnegut you sly devil – it is revealed that a Tralfamadorian will be the architect of the end of the universe through a test pilot accident. Vonnegut masterfully plays this off with his Second World War narrative, one based at least partly upon his own experiences – just like in Cat’s Cradle. Except the uses of atomic weaponry the fire-bombing of Dresden was the most destructive act of the war, and Vonnegut treats it with such reverence. It is a deeply personal account despite the author’s cynicism, always moving; never preaching. Almost all the characters become vehicles of some part of Vonnegut’s stance towards war and technology, and if not, used for the purposes of critique.
There are some dangers to the manipulation of history in fiction. In my view this is isolated to education. When utilized by authors such as Vonnegut however it can be a powerful tool, both to entertain and to commentate.