The power of historical fantasy: Tim Powers speaks to UCR


In the Bible, God created the world in seven days. For science fiction and fantasy writers, this can take an entire lifetime. The most important thing to remember in these genres is that there are no such things as limits: Writers have complete control over the story they want to create. They can take readers to the vast lands of Middle Earth, or send them up into space to a galaxy far, far away. But as the writer, you are responsible for building the world your reader will reside in, and this can take a lot of time and energy, if not more than the actual story.

This past Friday, the Science Fiction Collective Mellon Group hosted, “History and the Fantastic: A talk by Tim Powers.” Anyone who was interested in writing in fantasy and science fiction got a crash course on how to make their world-building more potent. Powers discussed the relationship between history and fiction in his works and explored how and why real historical periods and characters are an important foundation for effective fantastic fiction.

Powers is a multiple award-winning author who has written such influential novels as, “The Anubis Gates,” “The Stress of Her Regard,” “Last Call” and “Declare,” receiving some of the highest awards in field. Powers is best known for his use of “secret histories” — revisionist interpretation of either fictional or real (known) history. He weaves supernatural and science fiction elements into the gaps of documented historical events featuring famous people.

On the second floor of the Humanities and Social Sciences Building, Powers stood in front of a group of no more than 30 individuals, which transpired as an intimate discussion among writers. “I had discovered that there are a lot of advantages to writing a book set in a historical period,” Powers started. Powers explained that historical resources are readily available to help writers fully immerse readers.

Powers explained why the method of using the “here and now” is a better setting than building a world from scratch. One of the advantages to writing fantasy is the ability to staple it onto reality. According to Powers, “The problem with writing fantasy is that if you give the reader a moment to reflect, the reader will remember that — ghosts, ancient gods, vampires is all this nonsense … I try to make the reader think it’s happening in the same world they live in.”

He went on to discuss his method of operation when writing one of his novels. “What I am looking for usually is an interesting, colorful situation, but also, I’m looking for historical characters whose actions are irrational and counterproductive,” Powers explained, “and in what supernatural context would this not be irrational behavior.”

The conversation took a comedic turn as Powers explained how he began to wear his “paranoid goggles” sarcastically as he begged the question: “What were they really up to?” Powers talked about meshing timelines with natural disasters, political movements and even assassinations, filling in the blanks with his own events. “It begins to fit together really smoothly and if it’s very late at night, I’ll find something that confirms it,” Powers joked. He continued to joke about the NSA being aware of his “research” and how indiscreet he had been with his emails.

The conversation continued on its comedic roll, as Powers talked about how the supernatural can still affect even the most logical nonbeliever. “Even the most rational, sensible, adult readers have a capacity to be pulled in by supernatural events of a story because we’re wired that way.” He described that if anyone heard a knock on their door at three in the morning and a dragging on the floor, there would be a thought something supernatural was going on in the back of a person’s mind. “You only have to give them a little bit of a nudge,” he said.

Powers then opened the floor to questions for those sitting in the audience. At this point Powers took the time to explain that it is easier to tell a person’s story if their lives are not completely chronicled — but if every second of that person’s life is written, then it becomes difficult to fill in your own blanks.

Powers compared his work to doing “brilliant card tricks in a perfectly dark room” and in this case that rang true. When talking about “secret histories” and alternate universes, Powers explained that it’s all about the interpretation. Doing the research inevitably told the story, and the fact that it was real instead of being completely made-up is what made it so effective.

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