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I’ve mentioned before that my pal Jesse and I have been working on a podcast about classic Doctor Who. We’re currently five episodes in to our first season and if you like the classic era I think you will enjoy our show. You can find all the previous episodes here.

One of the things that’s been really interesting about this process is the way in which Doctor Who is a little showcase of the traditions of historical fiction.

Kind of relevant? 

And one of those traditions, of course, is being cleverly self-referential. If you look at a lot of early Who episodes, you’ll see that they’re not even so much about going into different historical periods as they are about exploring different genres of historical fiction. So for instance The Gunfighters isn’t about going back to 19th-century Arizona, it’s about being in a Western. The Romans has elements of farce — really weird, murdery farce. Most of the rest of the historical episodes are more or less straight old-fashioned historical adventure fiction.

Fair enough, right? But in our most recent episode, The King’s Demons, the reveal hinges on the fact that the Doctor and his companions turn up in 1215 and find King John acting like … well, like Bad King John. In some episodes, this would just be his characterisation, but in this one it’s a clue that all is not as it seems, since the Doctor “knows” that the historical King John wasn’t like that at all. As it happens, I don’t agree with his assessment of what the historical John was like, but that’s another story.

So which is it? Is this an anthology show of adventure fiction or a witty deconstruction of it? With Doctor Who it’s sometimes both.

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Just stick some cogs on it (and we’ll call it racist?)

So, some time ago there was one of those brief kerfuffles over calls for more diversity in steampunk fiction and art — some steampunk fans want more people of colour in the genre, while others read this as people calling them racist just because they like a fictional genre that tends (nowadays) to take a (more-or-less) uncritically positive view of 19th-century Europe.

This made me think of three things:

  • Steampunk celebrates (loosely) European, particularly British, history and culture without having an overt racist element. That is pretty rare, and you can see how that might appeal to people who are attached to their cultural heritage but don’t want either to give house-room to racists or constantly beat themselves up.
  • But the way in which steampunk (in its modern meaning) does this is to elide the context within which technology developed in the 19th century. And that context is one of colonialism; kind of unavoidably so.
  • But that’s the nature of historical or historically-inspired fiction. If you don’t focus on some aspects of the history and ignore others, you don’t have fiction, you just have a history lesson. Take Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance. No one (that I know of) objected to the lack of a scene where Jack Sparrow cruelly tortures some Catholics.

Of course, there are grounds for complaining about the way in which historical texts focus on things — so, for instance, most westerns dodge the presence of African-American cowboys like Nat Love. And that sucks. If people want to point out that most steampunk fiction elides the nasty aspects of a 19th-century setting while sort of dishonestly retaining its surface trappings, that’s fair. And if you’re going to ignore racial injustices in that era, the easiest way to do so is to remove their effects. So there’s no grounds for complaining if people want cyborg Ghost Dancers who really are bulletproof, or an elite regiment of Sikh mech pilots.

I’m not necessarily convinced about that first point, that the sanitisation of Victorian history is why steampunk appeals to people, mainly because a) not all steampunk is like that at all, and b) I think most people are attracted to it at a very simple aesthetic level. After all, this is the main criticism of steampunk fans — that they’re attracted to the appearance of technology but don’t really care about how it functions; that’s the “stick some cogs on it” meme. If people don’t care about how machines work full stop they’re hardly gonna care about how they work in their social context.

Anyway, yeah. Just thinking out loud again.


Just stick some cogs on it (and we’ll call it racist?)

TV Tuesday: Turn — Washington’s Spies

Having ploughed my way through various other historical series over the last few weeks, I turned to Turn, which has been sitting on my watchlist on Amazon since forever. The show is based on Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose, which I picked up the last time I was in the US and then seem to have somehow left behind. So I know not as much about the specific history as I should, although I’m pretty up on my American War of Independence, having read it up a year or two ago.

So the show follows a farmer from a Loyalist family, Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) who becomes a spy for the Continental army. He teams up with some childhood friends and his former sweetheart, while a shitheel British officer (Burn Gorman) and various other ruffians pursue him. The organisation is what would go on to be known to historians as the Culper Ring. And the show … it’s OK, I guess.

But boy oh boy, this is the least tense spy show I have ever seen. I have not risen above historical curiosity at any point in the proceedings. It’s like nobody told them that espionage shows were supposed to be deadly games of cat and mouse; I do not give a shit if Abe Woodhull gets on with his father or the gruff Scottish officer tracks down Seth Numrich’s idealistic young dragoon, especially not if he’s going to take umpty-million episodes to do it. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but damn. Things start to pick up around episode 6 or 7, with some intrigues and battles and stuff, but that is way too far into a 10-episode season for things to start to pick up.

And yet I keep watching it with apparent enjoyment. Why is that?


Partly it may just be that I have a certain amount of historical drama that I consume to stay happy. Often I’ll be painting, or tidying or doing something else that doesn’t require too much language, and I’ll just throw a bland historical show on, or a cop show where two people bicker while they solve a crime. I know it’s not high drama, but I’m OK with that fact. So maybe I just like my usual dose of old-timey houses and muskets and so on. Also Stephen Root.

Partly I think that this show is good with a few things that I like in my history, namely ambiguity and fun details. So, for instance, Anna Strong (Heather Lind) is outraged by the government confiscating her family’s property because her husband is a rebel. But the scene where this happens is interwoven with a scene of her slaves receiving the knowledge that they’re going to be freed. And when she goes to complain to Major Hewlett, he just tells her that slavery is bad, mmkay, and is illegal in Britain (since 1772!). One of the pro-British characters is Jordan (Aldis Hodge), an ex-slave who gets the usual tough-guy soldier story, complete with dazzling likable baddie Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) with his mad capoiera-or-equivalent-thereof skills. I’m not sure that’s quite historical exactly, but it’s the kind of exciting stuff a white guy would get to do in a show like this one, so hey.

Anyway, I guess I’m just saying that it would be possible to do a show like this one as a conventional heroes-and-villains thing, and this programme doesn’t. There are decent, civilised British officers, there are thugs and bullies on both sides, and the issues of the war are not ignored.

I think I like the little details quite a lot more, though. I’m trying to think of some good examples, but the only one that really leaps to mind is that when Anna turns up to infiltrate the drunken party that Abe is also infiltrating, they’re singing a drinking song with a familiar melody:

There were a few niggles, I felt:

  • I wasn’t wholly convinced about some of the language. Did 18th-century people really say things like “all clear” (possibly) or “chunder-bucket” (less sure)? Other examples: “the way forward,” “cross-reference,” “one-time deal.” Maybe these really are all Georgianisms; I haven’t checked.
  • The story of the Culper Ring has been moved back in time slightly; the show is set in 1776 and 1777, although the ring wasn’t actually formed until a little later. I guess this is to fit in with well-known historical moments like the battle of Trenton, so fair enough.
  • The usual simplifications and make-this-seem-like-a-new-idea-isms.
  • Jamie Bell’s leather coat may be authentic, but it looks idiotic. By contrast, his little woolen hat is amazing.
  • Also, either he is minute or he has been put next to some huge actors, like Samuel Roukin, who plays Simcoe and just absolutely towers over him.
  • It is not OK to put the Turtle submarine in the opening credits and then not have it in the actual show. What the hell.

I’m definitely going to give Season 2 a watch; it’s not the world’s greatest thing, but it has some good moments despite its overall lack of tension and drama. Apparently the second season is better than the first, which is the wrong way to go about it. I just worry that the things I like about it are the things that actually make it frankly pretty uncompelling television.

(Edit: Jamie Bell, not Jamie Bamber. I always get those two mixed up.)

TV Tuesday: Turn — Washington’s Spies

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is set in 5th- or maybe 6th-century Britain, in a world where Britons and Saxons live in an uneasy peace after the death of Arthur, and ogres, fairies and dragons are all very real threats. The story follows the journey of an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village to set out and see their son, accumulating a group of misfit characters along the way. Axl and Beatrice’s journey is complicated by the mist that covers the land, robbing people of their memories.


I realise the setting of The Buried Giant is only nominally historical, but let’s talk about it anyway. And only partly because I started reading it because I was told “it’s set in the middle ages.”

Like many people, Ishiguro envisions the post-Roman period as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, its depopulated landscape strewn with ruins and inhabited by people who wear rags or rusty armour, huddled behind palisade walls or living in cramped underground warrens. I am not a specialist in this period, but I don’t think that’s where the current consensus is? The naming is also a bit … the Saxon characters are called Edwin and Wistan, which I suppose is fair enough, but the British characters are called Axl and Beatrice, which actually mainly bothered me at the beginning when I realised they were “A” and “B.”

But it’s OK, right? Because it’s all a metaphor.

(As an aside: newspaper articles have engaged in the usual middlebrow handwringing about whether this is fantasy. Even Ishiguro is quoted as wondering whether readers will “think it’s fantasy.” Of course it’s fantasy, dipshit. It’s about a dragon whose breath covers the land in a magical mist and then a rag-tag party of mismatched characters goes to slay it. You’re going to have to work hard to fit that into the middle-class adultery genre. One of these articles even said that some people defined Never Let Me Go — a novel where the main characters are clones — as science fiction. As opposed to a realistic depiction of modern life, I guess? I just hope it doesn’t get the usual “oh, now it shows fantasy can be literary” since this is basically a Gene Wolfe novel but without any of the bold imagination. But critics who think fantasy is all Terry Brooks have never read a Gene Wolfe book, I guess. Which is not a reason to dislike the book, but geez, these people.)

So our heroes wander around the landscape, encountering only and always people who have something relevant to say about the loss of their memories, and each of them has a different perspective on amnesia. Beatrice wants to remember her life and love together with Axl. Axl is afraid that if he remembers who he is, he’ll realise he’s actually not a very good person. Wistan wants memories to come back so that people can be held accountable for what they’ve done, while Gawain thinks that the past is better left buried, forgetfulness having brought peace. Etc., etc. This summary sounds a bit schematic, but it isn’t; the comparisons to the Spanish Civil War or the Yugoslavian crisis or whatever are not as blatant as they might be.

There are a lot of quite good uses of this device, like a group of people who keep doing bad things knowing that they’ll forget about them and thus never feel guilty. And it’s nice to see the usual format of Saxons as unequivocal bad guys and Britons as doomed good guys messed with.

The biggest attempt to create “period” atmosphere is the dialogue, and it’s … odd. Everyone speaks in a very verbose, roundabout kind of way, none of them ever really listening to each other, and with elements of sort of cod-Irish occasionally creeping in. It works, I think, in that it feels all odd and dithery and uncertain, which is how I think it’s meant to feel. But if it’s meant to feel “historical,” well, I dunno. Here’s an example:

“What is it you have to say, Axl, and before I’ve had time to rub the sleep from my eyes?

“We talked before, princess, about a journey we might make. Well, here’s the spring upon us, and perhaps it’s time we set off.”

“Set off, Axl? Set off when?”

“As soon as we’re able. We need only be gone a few days. The village can spare us. We’ll talk to the pastor.”

“And will we go to see our son, Axl?”

“That’s where we’ll go. To see our son.”

So there’s a hell of a lot of talking, but not a lot of saying things, which I think is intentional.

You may choose to see a clever idea in the fact that this is a book about the uncertainty and double-edgedness of history, set in a historical period that isn’t really historical at all. I’m not sure. I think the choice of a legendary period works; having the two sides be Britons and Saxons gives it a heft it wouldn’t have if they were elves and dwarfs or some other imaginary equivalent. But at the same time, it’s jarring because there are all these things that argue against it being the post-Roman period, so you keep getting snapped out of a sense of the world as real. Which obviously it isn’t, but.

So yeah; it’s about history, but although the setting has historical elements it’s a fantasy about history rather than a piece of historical fiction.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro