In high school, my senior history prof used to say that we don’t get good history written of a period until the grandchildren are dead. The idea is that good analysis requires distance that we simply can’t get while we retain emotional ties to the agents in an event.
That seems to hold true for historical fiction as well. True, some authors (Vonnegut and King spring immediately to mind) are able to master a kind of nostalgic fiction in the near past. But more often, the past really does have to become another country to hold up well as a setting. The Help, for example, attracted fierce criticism because it co-opted a history that can still stir up fierce emotion: it still belongs to people who can and will be angered when it is mishandled. On more than one occasion I’ve heard someone float the idea of a Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel with a Holocaust setting, only to be unanimously shut down. The Shoah is off limits precisely because that wound is so deep and so deeply felt (and must remain so deeply felt). It is the property of those who lived it and the families of those who did not survive it: it is not real estate available for authorial playgrounds.
But other periods go through phases of popularity for fictional exploration. The American Revolution had begun to be en vogue even before Hamilton made it to the stage. Turn and John Adams filled the strictly historical half of the fictional niche at the same time that Sleepy Hollow rode onto the screen (and quickly rode off the rails).
You can usually see a kind of logic in the trends. Revolutionary fiction becomes popular as we look back to the founding of the United States and try to see both the hope and failures of those founders. Historical fiction becomes a means by which we sift through history, trying to find explanations for today.
Science Fiction and Fantasy ask “What if?”
Historical fiction asks “Why?” and sometimes, “How?” Residents of the United States are constantly trying to resolve this essential dichotomy in our nature: How did we start with the ideals of a state in which every man has a say while at the same time tightly restricting who counts as a “man”? How do we resolve pride in what has been accomplished—a state that is capable of rapidly reforming itself and including such vast difference—with a profound shame over how slowly it includes much of that difference and just how fiercely it has fought against that very incorporation.
We like fiction for that winnowing and sorting because fiction lets us assign roles as heroes and villains.That authorial lens lets us edit fact into neat categories, and people along with it. Which, again, is why distance is so important to writing historical fiction. It’s hard to edit what people remember.
That distance is part of why we are now seeing a surge in World War I stories. The last surviving veteran died in 2016, aged 110, and for most the war is a distant memory. Even before then it was overshadowed by the greater horror of World War II. But while WWII outpaced WWI in terms of both atrocities and sheer body count, it remains a critical benchmark in the way war existed on this planet.
War as an entity, a recurring human activity, has always developed by its own kind of horrific punctuated evolution. Humans kills other groups of people in very similar ways until someone figures out a new way to do it more effectively. That technique spreads and entrenches, until a new method is devised. So our history of warfare is marked by the innovators. Philip of Macedon, Julius Caesar, Genghis, and Napoleon all earned their titles by refining the means by which they could effectively wage war.
But World War I and its introduction of chemical warfare as a means of mass slaughter was an evolution on a higher order. Machine guns and explosive ordnance had been used in previous conflicts, but their use on this scale was also a terrible kind of revolution. It was the introduction of modern warfare and its ability to wipe out humanity on an entirely new scale. And as we grapple with further mutations of the means and application of weapons of mass destruction, it is little surprise that this frontier is attracting its own mythic landscape.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman chose World War I as the setting for Diana’s origin story. This is a reworking of her previous incarnations, in which she entered the world as of World War II or later. Theoretically this may have been to distance themselves from the Marvel Universe, in which Captain America, as the first Avenger, is the product of WWII research. But it makes more sense as an engagement with the very concept of who Wonder Woman is. Her origin myth in the movie tells us that she was born as an antidote to the manipulations of Ares. Moreover, Ares appears here as a kind of Satanic figure whose evil influence is the reason for man’s inhumanity to man. Thus, it makes sense for her to appear in this context of a savage new age of warfare. She is not simply fighting evil, she is a counterbalance to this manifestation of evil in the world. She is the first of the Justice League to appear, the first of the saviors the world will need at a time when it has also developed the means to destroy itself on a whole new scale.
Naively, Diana believes that the destruction of Ares means that humanity will return to its peaceful state, a belief that the movie debunks while simultaneously hinting it holds some merit.
Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios covers a similar territory in Volume 2, which collected individual issues 6-10. Here, the incarnation of Death sends two reapers, Ginny and Big Alice, to collect the Reaper of War. His overzealous performance of his work horrifies even Death herself, and Ginny, as the Reaper of Vengeance, is called to bring his work to a close. Rather than a more facile look at the goodness of humanity, Pretty Deadly probes deeper. DeConnick sees the Reaper of War, and the driver of war itself, as hatred driven by fear, literally here as War’s horse is the embodiment of Fear.
As is almost always the case with Historical Fiction, the setting both reflects on the critical “Why” while positing emotional questions that are very much tied to the present. The Why here comes with supernatural answers: World War I is at least in part the product of controlling forces gone wild, or ordinary impulses run completely off the rails. Ares sees a competitive and cut-throat nature to humanity that he wishes to nourish, but by the time of the Great War he has descended to seeing that as the only value worth encouraging. Similarly, the Reaper of War feasts endlessly on the intoxication of blood and hatred, and chokes the natural function of the world in the process.
It’s not hard to see the applicability of either of these villains. Between mass attacks attributed to ISIS, Brexit votes and the frothing of America First, our world feels very much run off the rails, drunk on the heady mix of supremacy and phobia. We try to cling to a belief in human goodness, only to have a tenuous grip weakened by the blow of the daily news and its latest tally of jury verdicts and spray painted slurs.
But this is the other reason we turn to Historical Fiction. We believe in story. We believe in its power to change, its power to defeat fear and disarm hate. Story gives us heroes to hope on and root for. And when even all that fails, Story reminds us that there are always survivors. We, all of us, because we are here, come from a long line of stories: the survivors, the ones who endured, the ones who loved and fought and made it through the Times Like This. We cannot literally be Wonder Woman. We cannot defeat War. We cannot harness the horse of Fear.
But we can put them on like inner armor, sheets of paper layered within us to a thickness that can withstand bullets. We can arm ourselves with words, and with stories, and we can tear down the walls that confront us.
With weaponry like that, we can each be a wonder. And against an army like that, of readers, dreamers, and creators, no fear or hate can stand.
Elizabeth Cady is a writing, gardening, painting, momming, cooking, journaling Classicist living in Madison, Wisconsin. A social justice bard with +2 to snark, she is currently writing a Victorian fantasy serial that can be found at stormandash.com.