You’ll note, it doesn’t say, history of science fiction. A great many, massively more knowledgeable people than I have written about that already. As we like to say in academia, “Not my area.”
But it occurred to me that I’ve said I incorporate history into my science fiction, and I referred to it, if a bit obliquely in Free Will & Choice in the Unbound Series, but I haven’t actually discussed much of it.
So, for your edification, I’m going to start a series of posts on the history I’ve used in my stories.
To keep things simple, I’m going to begin with the British Empire. (Yes, that’s my idea of simple; and, yes, I do know what that says about my brain.)
One of the major settings/themes/issues that the characters in the Unbound Series have to deal with is empire. An empire that’s past its prime, but that lingers on, even where it no longer claims territory.
Some food for thought: raise your hand if you think the world uses English as the international language of business because of the United States.
My students (mostly college freshmen) certainly do.
But–and yes, you knew I was going to say this–so sorry, nope. In fact, we use English because we were originally part of the British Empire (although it wasn’t called that yet), until we opted out.
“The Ways of England are the Ways of the World”
— Jodi Foster as Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King
Most Americans today just don’t realize just how pervasive and influential the British Empire was, and therefore still is, in both positive and negative ways. Just a couple of quick examples (and huge sweeping generalizations! I realize that) . . .
A negative lasting influence in the US from originally being British:
a tendency to distrust and dislike Catholics and Catholicism, a tendency which, although the British don’t carry today, relative to anyone else, they very much held during our colonial period. We have had one, exactly one, Catholic president. Yes, large parts of this country very Catholic, but large parts of this country have a history of discrimination, exploitation, and (because I haven’t used enough words ending in -ion) vituperation against them.
Trust me, if the new wave of immigration was a bunch of white Protestants from Canada, instead of people from Latin America, we’d all hear a lot less screaming about illegal immigrants.
A (mostly) positive lasting influence in the US from originally being British:
a near-reverence for representative government and “free trade.” I put that last part in scare quotes for a reason, which will be explained in a later post on Adam Smith (hint: what Adam Smith meant by “laissez-faire” capitalism and what we’ve done with it are two very different animals). But I get questions all the time from my students along the lines of “What made the founding fathers think of this brand-new idea of giving power to the people?”
My answer is along the lines of, “What kind of government do you think Parliament was?”
Anyway, back on topic . . .
English, as the language worldwide for finance, is thanks to the banking and trade network set up by the British. Yes, we Americans mostly took them over after WWII, but that’s not the point I’m making here.
If you look up the number of English speakers in various countries you’ll discover that more people speak English in India alone than in England, and Britain hasn’t ruled India since 1947–and that’s not even getting into other countries Britain once ruled, which are scattered all over the globe.
In 1914, Britain (a comparatively little tiny island) ruled a quarter of the planet. The planet! Not all of it outright, and not all of it easily, but a quarter of the planet, people. One little tiny island, with probably not more than 200,000 of their population even involved in the “imperial project.”
The World Wars put paid to a lot of European empires, in one way or another, and the British Empire fell, too, eventually, but that influence lingers. I’m planning another post on how empires end, so I’ll leave that one for now.
Ok, fine, you say, but what does that have to do with science fiction?
It All Connects
In the universe of the Unbound, there’s a dying empire, the Ir’drakhon. It’s very old, and over its lifespan, it’s dealt with rebellions and insurrections (ahem), with being reliant on a technology that can be unreliable–with devastating consequences (nothing like, say, petroleum, wink, wink . . .), with ruling disparate peoples who have wildly varying needs, issues, and ideas about how to fix things.
Because the ir’drakhon were in a position to control things, they naturally did so for their own benefit first, and others’ benefit second, if at all. (That’s how empires work, if you were wondering). To justify this to themselves, they had their own version of the “Civilizing Mission,” to bring enlightenment to the poor “savages”—the other species they encountered and eventually ruled. And sometimes that backfired for them, terribly. And, just like in our history, sometimes the backfires will backfire!
Like the British (and pretty much any other empire in our history) they brought both good and bad to these peoples: technology and medicine, on one hand. Exploitation and cultural sublimation on another. Great wealth for some, terrible poverty for others, and always the loss of how these people would have developed if the ir’drakhon had just stayed home.
The different species react in ways unique to them; to their own biological (hello, aliens) and cultural imperatives—and react to each others’ reactions. Insurrection is one reaction. The events of the first novel are outcomes of that and other reactions.
Do my characters sit around and have lengthy discussions about the impact of colonialism on the political and social development of various species? Of course not. Well, ok, a couple of times, but, still, aliens!
The Ir’drakhon Empire no longer rules the sector of space where most of the books are set, but the characters still live with the consequences of the fact that it did every day.
And how they react is based on their personal histories within the larger historical context of their peoples and their universe, just like it is for all of us.
Some of them are more aware of it than others, and yes, some will bring it to the others’ attention, sometimes forcefully. Sometimes forcefully using space ships!
But no matter how much the characters are aware of this part of their reality, my job as an author is to be aware of it, and to let it have the influence it should, positive and negative, in the huge—that planet rebelled!—and small—lighting and writing are still what the ir’drakhon used—ways.
I didn’t have to do much worldbuilding on this at all—I just had to understand the world we’ve built.
They say “Write What You Know.” I couldn’t write any other way.
Part Two is up! History in Science Fiction: Why Have an Empire