Historiography (or Historiology) is a term that refers to the study of historical writing and its methods of interpretation. In science fiction, historiography plays a significant role in exploring the complexities of the past, present and future of a story.
Science fiction authors often use historiography as a world-building tool to create a fictional society that reflects humanity’s, or some other society’s, or an alien race’s historical and cultural evolution. Through the exploration of history, sci-fi authors can create a unique world with a strong sense of place while still offering insights into the human condition.
One of the significant ways sci-fi writers explore historiography is by looking at alternate histories, and timelines where one key event in human history occurred differently, but this topic is more about how historiography is weaved into the plot of a story.
Historians in Science Fiction
Characters who are historians can play a vital role in moving the plot in many science fiction novels, providing insight into the fictional world’s historical and cultural evolution. In some cases, the protagonist may even be a historian themselves, paving the way for a unique perspective on the challenges and events of the storyline.
One classic example of a historian is Hari Seldon, from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Seldon is a brilliant mathematician and historian who develops a new field of study called psychohistory, which he uses to predict the future of human civilization. His predictions lead the story through the centuries-long struggle to save civilization from imminent collapse, and his presence helps to shape the world of the future.
Another notable example is from the novel Dune by Frank Herbert. The history of the Dune world is shaped by the Butlerian Jihad, a great war fought against thinking machines long before the start of the story. The Jihad’s events and consequences are referenced constantly throughout the book, and the protagonist, Paul Atreides, studies ancient scrolls and books to understand the Jihad and its impact on society.
In other novels, historians play a more peripheral role, providing context and exposition for the story’s world-building. For example, in the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, the character Juanita Marquez is a historian and linguist who helps the protagonist, Hiro Protagonist, decipher old languages and symbols. Her knowledge of history is also used to explain the origins of the story’s virtual reality universe.
Historians as characters can play an integral role in science fiction novels, providing insight and context to the story’s world-building while also often serving as a driving force for the narrative and helping readers to understand and engage with the setting on a deeper level.
Hari Seldon in Foundation. Isaac Asimov
The Butlerian Jihad in the Dune Series. Frank Herbert
Juanita Marquez in Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
Siferra 89 in Nighfall, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov
The Colicos family, The Klikiss The Saga of the Seven Suns Series Kevin J. Anderson
Even though it’s a geologist recounting this story about the millions of years old Elder Things and Shaggoths, this landmark story delves deep into the past.
At the Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft