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Science Fiction for History Lovers

April 29, 2023 by in On Books

I recently asked my 11-year-old son whether he preferred fantasy or science fiction. An avid reader of both, he shrugged and said it wasn’t fair to compare because they’re “totally different.”

“Fantasy is cool magic in the past,” he said. “Science fiction is cool stuff in the future.”

It’s an answer I think a lot of people would agree with — and yet, just a few days earlier, I’d sat in on a lecture by historian and science fiction author Arkady Martine as she explained how she based her award-winning space operas on the very real history of Byzantine imperialism.  

“History is the trade secret of science fiction,” she argued. “The past is very alien.”

The more I think about it, the more I realize much of my favorite science fiction pulls heavily from history and ancient cultures, despite there being no formal category of historically inspired sci-fi (at least not in the same way there’s historical fantasy.) To that end, I’ve put together a reading/watch list for anyone else who’s also so inclined but maybe never thought of science fiction through this lens. The list includes traditional sci-fi, as well as the sub-genre alternative history.

  1. Dune by Frank Herbert. This classic novel borrows heavily from 20th century Middle East oil politics and examines the dangerous consequences of messing with the environment. It’s also been turned into a two-part movie, the second of which is set to be released this November on HBO Max.
  2. Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. These books start with a genius mathematician who invents a whole new discipline – “psychohistory” – that combines math with sociology and psychology to predict and then survive the fall of a galactic empire. The books have inspired a series on Apple TV, the second season of which is expected to drop this summer.
  3. A Memory Called Empire/A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine. Martine’s Teixcalaan series is heralded for its nuanced exploration of colonization in space. During her lecture, she explained that even the worm holes in her universe are designed to mimic the limited-contact conditions that existed during Medieval times.
  4. Too Like the Lightning by Renaissance historian Ada Palmer. Prepare to have your sense of what is “ancient” and what is “futuristic” scrambled in this mind-boggling novel in which cars fly, gender is taboo and discussing religion in public is illegal. Despite the 25th century setting, this genre-bending mystery is deeply rooted in the past thanks to a (quite possibly insane) narrator who sounds like an 18th century philosopher, as well as a political structure in which geographic nations have been largely abolished in favor of voluntary citizenship to “hives” based on shared values instead of physical borders. The book is the first in a complex, four-part series. 
  5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. What if the underground railroad that brought so many U.S. slaves to freedom was an actual railroad, built and operated by abolitionist engineers and conductors? This fantastical premise cracks open what is essentially a literary thriller that follows two escaped slaves and incorporates real-life horrors from the U.S. pre-Civil War era through the 1930s Tuskegee Experiment.
  6. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. This detective story is set in an alternate history where Jewish refugees from World War II settled in Alaska. It’s a gorgeously written murder mystery that’s dark in the most thought-provoking way.
  7. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. For a lighter, inspiring read try this novel in which the effort to colonize space is kicked off after a meteorite strikes earth in 1952, forcing Earth’s evacuation and the early inclusion of women into the space race. (It’s the first of a three-part series. You can also read the novelette that inspired the novel, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” for free. It’s set decades after the novels and is one of my all-time favorites.)
  8. The Weight of Sunrise by Vylar Kaftan. This Nebula-winning novella explores what would’ve happened if the Incan Empire held off the Spanish conquistadors’ initial attack. Incredibly, it’s also free to read on the author’s website. (Knowing how much work goes into shorter fiction, I feel super-guilty just typing that.)

Do you know any great speculative novels that pull heavily from history? If you’re on Twitter, send them to me @JmeBoyd sometime.


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