Using Science Fiction to Teach History (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Distant Future)

I have been reluctant to use fiction in my courses.  This is despite the fact that my own high school and college educations introduced me to most of the fiction I know; as a recalcitrant and noncommittal reader of non-nonfiction, I still find it difficult to get through even the best literary prose.  But the diminutive and terrifying Sharia Isenhour got me to read Crime and Punishment and Cry the Beloved Country in 10th grade—this was a woman who was utterly distinguished by a mien somewhere between drill sergeant and Communist re-educator. My college courses, at a public university not much different from the one where I currently teach, demanded an ambitious diet of literature; at UNCC, for instance, Kathleen Donohue’s American Political Culture exposed us to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, and Edwin O’Connor’s wonderful The Last Hurrah (still one of my favorite novels), as well as numerous films (State of the Union, Birth of a Nation) and academic monographs.  To this day, I remain thankful that my teachers took the risk of expecting a lot and forcing me to read and see many things I would never have encountered otherwise.

Yet I can’t quite imagine asking my students to read 400 pages of fiction for a class discussion on any given Tuesday.  I try to keep in mind that our overworked, overburdened, sometimes undermotivated students find it difficult to squeeze 30 pages of academic prose into the challenges of their everyday lives—much less a whole novel that is only tangentially related to whatever historical period we are meant to be studying.  I’d love to assign John Dos Passos’s The 42nd Parallel in a class about the Progressive Era, but I don’t know how well 448 pages of experimental fiction will help students understand the early twentieth century, at least in contrast to the other sources I could assign for that amount of pages—about 13 thirty-page journal articles?  The Catcher in the Rye says a lot about the 1950s, but is it something you would assign in a twentieth century course as your main reading on the period?

Despite these anxieties, I tried one experiment with fiction that worked well in a History course: for my undergrad methods class, I assigned Peter Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers as one of the first readings of the semester.  Ackroyd’s novel is set in a distant future, which is at least one entire epoch away from our own.  It concerns the life of Plato, a sort of lecturer or professor in a nearly unrecognizable London of the future, where he holds forth on his discoveries of the distant past (our time).  For people in his time, history breaks down into a few distinct periods: the Age of Orpheus, which is the age of classical antiquity, of myth and the gods; the Age of the Apostle, a period of suffering and agony that stretches more or less from rise of monotheistic religion to 1500 (the onset of the ages of exploration and imperialism); the Age of Mouldwarp, which is our own time, a period of science and secularism apparently named for some person who has not yet arrived on the scene by the early twenty-first century; the Age of Witspell, which began in the twenty-fourth century as humans attempted to piece together the remains of a destroyed industrial society; and the present, where Plato and his friends live in a world very different from our own.

The wonderful thing about The Plato Papers is that it shows a historian, in effect, groping for truth based on his incomplete and often insufficient sources—just like every History student and scholar does.  Over a millennium from now, it is very difficult to comprehend the way we live today, yet Plato has to try to do the best with the evidence he has.  That evidence is woefully, and comically, inaccurate.  He reads The Origins of Species, thinking it is a darkly comic novel by the celebrated writer Charles Dickens, because everything but the “D” in Darwin’s name has been gouged out by a critic who also wrote “Vile stuff!” on the cover.  Plato assumes that the book is simply the story of a character who becomes increasingly paranoid as he sails on a ship to a set of remote islands and begins to believe that everything in the world is out to kill everything else—a notion that is totally foreign in the society in which Plato lives.  One of his only surviving artifacts of American culture is a volume by E.A. Poe, which he assumes means Eminent American Poet.  Most Americans lived in large, dark houses and suffered from depression and anxiety, Plato understandably concludes.  This is the best portrait of a longlost American society that he has to go on.

Much of the humor of the book derives from Plato trying to understand the age of Mouldwarp—a period when people believed themselves to be covered in “nets” and “webs”—from a fragmentary source base.  A film by Hitchcock is understood to portray exactly how Mouldwarpians perceived everyday existence, as if the disjointed and discontinuous imagery of a horror film represented actual human perception.  He is trapped, like all historians, by his sources.

I like using The Plato Papers because it reveals the incommensurability between our understanding of the past and the past itself.  Ultimately, they do not align perfectly, no matter how hard we try to be faithful to the sources and read the silences.  It also conveys a sense of how radically different the human experience can be—not by looking back to a primitive or traditional society that embraced starkly different precepts than our capitalist, consumerist, democratic and individualist society, but a future one that looks back on our assumptions as strange and alien.  (In Plato’s future, they have some idea of what a “consumer” is, but it is a defective or psychologically deformed individual who can’t resist consuming as much as possible.)  The scientific and individualist world of Mouldwarp makes as much sense to Plato as the mythological world of randy gods and nymphs believed in by the Greeks—less so, even.

This, of course, is one of the greatest gifts of studying history—understanding that humans can live in dramatically different ways than what we perceive as normal and inevitable, whether a pre-Columbian Native American community or an Israeli kibbutz.  There are other ways to convey this message through fiction; I’ve often wanted to assign David Mitchell’s postmodern epic Cloud Atlas in a class, as it offers a tour de force of historical thinking, speaking in a variety of different voices and genres and showing how humans from the nineteenth century through the distant, post-apocalyptic future try to preserve the past.  They yearn to maintain some thread from what came before, even if their stories become botched, garbled, or mutated in the process—the story of a journalist in the 1970s or a genetically-modified clone/slave in the future becomes the stuff of myth and memory in a still further future.

I don’t know if I could ask students to read Cloud Atlas purely as a thought experiment about historiography and storytelling.  But I think it conveys a similar message to The Plato Papers, albeit with a clearer emotional kick: humans desperately want to understand what came before them, and they will do so even at the risk of getting it wrong.  Sustaining a continuity from past to future means everything to people, whether it’s preserving the memory of passed-on grandparents or the truth of a historic event that shaped their lives, or conveying the world as they understand it to their children, in the hope of maintaining some kind of narrative or legacy.  History matters, and profoundly so, as books like The Plato Papers and Cloud Atlas illustrate.

The other good thing about Peter Ackroyd’s book is the way it matches up with so many other wonderful historical texts. I decided to include the book after realizing that my methods class already included numerous sources about people bucking the norm and resisting authority: Carlo Ginzburg’s classic The Cheese and the Worms, about the irrespressible heretic Menocchio in early modern Italy; The Confessions of Edward Isham: A Poor White Life in the Old South, about the autobiography of a bruising, gambling redneck brawler who was executed for murder in 1850s North Carolina; Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning, about the gay and transgender people of color who braved social repression and violence to express their exuberant critique of Reagan’s America in the late 1980s; and so on.  I reorganized the class around the theme of rebels, rogues, and renegades, as Plato’s story resonates with all of these stories of rebellion.  In the distant future, his growing awareness of what life was really like during the Age of Mouldwarp puts him at risk of censorship and oppression.  Like the original Plato’s mentor Socrates, he becomes the subject of persecution for his heterodox teachings.  At this point Plato’s Allegory of the Cave also provides a valuable reference point to tie together all the oppressed and misfit protagonists of history, who suffer for their disobedience or simply advocating an unpopular point of view.

Indeed, The Plato Papers reads like a primary source, a document of the unfortunate career of London’s Plato in the 3700s—not unlike The Cheese and the Worms or The Confessions of Edward Isham.  They all reveal the painful limitations of historical consciousness: the fact that we can’t truly understand what an Italian freethinker or a redneck murderer really experienced, even if we try to scrutinize all the available sources from every angle.  But they also underline the profound duty we have to try to understand people whose lives and experiences and ideas differed drastically from ours, to see their experience as best we can see it—whether they are in the sixteenth or thirty-eighth century or the 1980s or 1850s.  There is something about studying the future that can help us understand the past, if we are willing to look.