Episode 11: Transcript
Transcription by Keffy Kehrli
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about the inner meaning of science fiction. I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:10] I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer, and I kinda think about science all the time.
Annalee: [00:00:15] It’s true. She’s like, never not thinking about science. And this week we’re gonna be talking about how there’s just a kind of feeling going around that we’re in the wrong timeline. And, I think we all have been feeling a little jarred out of the time that we thought we were in, and so, what we’re going to do in this episode is think about alternate timelines, real history, fake history, alternate history, and what it tells us about our actual lives. Our actual present.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:49] Yeah, so let’s go back in time.
[00:00:51] Intro music plays: Guitar riff over snare with bass line, followed by synth.
Annalee: [00:01:02] So, some of this got started actually because I was thinking a lot about Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, which are not history at all, so, they’re not in any way—They’re not an alternate history. They’re not even pretending, really, to be on Earth, and I think that we often forget that these kinds of stories actually kind of function as medieval history for us in a certain way, even though we know they’re fake.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:32] I mean, Game of Thrones draws heavily on things like the Hundred Years War and other real historical events, but also embellishes a lot and has this kind of somewhat idiosyncratic view of what the middle ages was like.
Annalee: [00:01:46] And of course, Tolkien, who wrote Lord of the Rings, was actually a medievalist, and did study the medieval period and the many different dialects in the UK that people spoke, and so when he made up languages, like elvish and dwarvish, he was actually thinking about Middle English and Anglo-Saxon to a certain extent. So, one of the terms that is used for these kinds of stories is that they’re secondary world stories. So, what does that mean, Charlie?
Charlie Jane: [00:02:17] I mean, a secondary world is basically—it’s a version of our world but we’ve changed enough stuff that it’s not Earth anymore. Often the continents have a different shape, and major historical circumstances are different. Sometimes the climate is different, like in Westeros where they have these long winters and long summers. There are often, like, huge changes and yet you can kind of sort of recognize our world. Like, Westeros looks a little bit like England, or like Great Britain, and you know—there are other secondary worlds—
Annalee: [00:02:47] Middle Earth is clearly supposed to be England in some way.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:52] Yeah, there’s often, in the Jacqueline Carey books, there’s like, basically France, and Germany, and stuff.
Annalee: [00:02:57] The Phedre books, yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:59] Yeah, the Phedre books. So, you know, there’s often some recognizeable qualities of our world. But it’s magical and basic stuff is really different, and it allows you a certain freedom to be ahistorical while also kind of playing around with real history.
Annalee: [00:03:12] And secondary world fantasies have become, I think, really popular over the past five years. We have people like Ken Liu writing secondary world fantasies. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is another secondary world fantasy. Max Gladstone is writing secondary world fantasies, and Rebecca Kuang, who we’re going to talk to in a few minutes on this episode, wrote The Poppy War, which is also a secondary world historical work, and one of the things that strikes me as being compelling about these stories, or one of the things that draws me to these stories is that I think they function kind of like the way history did hundreds of years ago, or even thousands of years ago, when, for example, in Rome, when Virgil writes the Aeneid, that’s the official history of Rome, even though it’s just a bunch of made-up shit. It’s basically like, these guys were raised by a wolf and like there was this great hero, and like, it’s not actual history, but at the same time, it served as a history of the nation. And I think that things like Lord of the Rings, especially, for me, anyway, it kind of functions in the same way and it feels like when you’re reading it that—or when you’re watching the films, that you can gain a kind of solace from feeling like people like you back in historical times faced the same kind of dark horrors and terrible decisions that we do today, and that, even though we know it’s made up, it feels like, no, it’s going to be fine because other people have faced even graver dangers.
LotR Clip: [00:04:56] Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:16] Yeah, I love that clip.
Annalee: [00:05:17] I know. I think about Gandalf saying that all the time. Like, whenever I’m at a moment where I’m just feeling like overwhelmed by political issues or overwhelmed by Supreme Court decisions, I am like. Okay. You know what Gandalf said. He said that you know, we don’t have a choice of when we live, but just how we live in those times.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:40] Yeah, and that is kind of a perspective about history, that you’re living through a particular historical time which might be terrifying or challenging, but you still have to stick with it. And the thing that I find fascinating about these secondary worlds is often they’re a little bit larger than life. There’s the conflict between good and evil that’s more clear-cut, or in some cases, just more epic. Like, I think Game of Thrones, good and evil are not as clear-cut, but it’s epic and larger than life, and there’s some terrible people.
Annalee: [00:06:03] Its’ still epic. I mean, there’s frickin’ dragons.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:03] There’s frickin’ dragons, and often part of what happens that kind of makes them more big and exciting and weird is that religion is changed. Like, one of the big things that happens is that, I don’t know when I’ve seen a secondary world that had the middle ages with the Catholic church. Like, Game of Thrones, there’s some version of the Catholic church, but it’s only in Westeros and the rest of the world doesn’t have Catholicism. And even their version of Catholicism is not really Catholicism.
Annalee: [00:06:34] Yeah, I was gonna say, like, maybe the His Dark Materials trilogy, except even there, it’s a very transformed version of Catholicism. Like, it’s not our world, and you mentioned Jacqueline Carey’s Phedre series earlier. And that has a really—just a wacky version of Christianity.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:53] It’s like a version of Christianity where Jesus had a son who was very sex-positive and basically just went around telling people to love however they wanted to, and he had all these companions who were like, supporting sex workers, and like everybody’s incredibly sex-positive, and it’s awesome.
Annalee: [00:07:08] And bisexual. It’s like Jesus’s bisexual son founds a religion.
Charlie Jane: [00:07:13] Yeah, and it’s super awesome, and it’s sort of wish-fulfillment for those of us who wish Christianity was more liberal and permissive in real life. But it’s also like the middle ages, like the Catholic church was a big deal in the midddle ages, and when you remove it, you just have a very different political and social context all around.
Annalee: [00:07:32] Yeah, and I think one of the exciting things that’s happening in secondary worlds now, I mentioned Ken Liu earlier, a lot of writers are coming in and saying like, oh, by the way, you know that whole European middle ages thing with Christianity, like, that was only actually happening in Europe and all of the rest of the world was like dealing with other issues. And so we sat down at Devner Comic Con who wrote The Poppy War, which just came out. It’s getting tons of critical acclaim and it’s a secondary world fantastical retelling of the Sino-Japanese wars. So it kind of sweeps through Chinese history in the late 19th century and early 20th century and the trilogy is going to take us all the way up through the present day. And she’s changed—as you’ve said—she’s changed a lot of the religion, so there’s a shamanistic religion where characters actually can call down gods by smoking opium, because you know, you gotta have a little drugs in there. And there’s actually a whole host of political reasons that Rebecca chose to use opium in this way, as something that’s empowering. And she talked to us about how her work as an academic—she’s about to go to grad school and study this exact historical period in China, the sort of late 19th, early 20th century, and how that research played into how she tells her fantasy stories and how much her secondary world is really related.
Rebecca: [00:08:58] What I study is a lot of fun because it’s not just military history. It’s also war memorialization and collective memory and collective trauma, a lot of which comes down to stories, right? Like the narratives that we tell each other and the way that we remember things, which is linked so intricately to how I approach fiction. Right? Like, who do you make the main character? How do you illustrate what happened? Who’s the victor and who’s writing the history. So, it’s a lot of historiography, and it’s a lot of public narrative and memory, etc. So, like I wrote my senior thesis on the commemoration of the Nanjing Massacre. So, not the Nanjing Massacre proper, because at this point we—there’s like sufficient consensus on what actually happened. People are still bickering over the numbers and that’s unclear. I’m like fairly convinced that 300,000 people actually died. What people don’t talk about is that this horrible thing happened and then the Chinese Communist Party sort of just did not publicly commemorate it or talk about it until the 1980s/1990s when it became a convenient political narrative to tell. And the standard argument is, oh, the communists didn’t want to seem weak. They didn’t want to keep bringing up this narrative of atrocity and weakness at a time when they had just gotten control of the country, and they didn’t want to admit that. But, once they were in a position of relative power, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, like, compared to like the rest of the world. Or like, ascending power, then they were like, oh, we need like a moral upper hand against Japan, and this is one way to do it.
[00:10:28] And my thesis actually finds that the narrative of the Nanjing Massacre was not as suppressed as people argue through the 1950s to the 1980s and it actually crops up quite often, but in direct response to diplomatic crises with the United States or Japan. So, during the Korean War, Nanjing becomes a whole thing, and people are like—Oh, and the other funny thing is that the narrative back then was the American soldiers and the American missionaries who were complicit with the Nanjing Massacre and they covered it up, and the missionaries there allowed it to happen and gave people away to Japanese soldiers, so that’s used as a—to incite anti-American sentiment and then by the 1980s/90s, like, the Americans are suddenly the heroes, and Japan is the enemy.
[00:11:14] So it’s really interesting to see how that narrative has changed politically, according to people’s needs and motivations. Which, like, is so deeply related to why and how we tell stories, right? And that’s something you always have to think about when you’re writing a novel. Who does this narrative serve? And who does it make happy? And who is it giving the moral high ground to?
Annalee: [00:11:35] I think it’s so interesting that she says that part of the way we narrate actual history particularly around these horrific events like the Nanjing Massacre plays into how she writes novels. And how, when she’s writing a novel, she’s thinking about, “Who does this story serve?” I think that’s such an important question.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:55] Yeah, and you know, we always say that science fiction or whatever that’s about the future is really about the time in which it was written. Like, people might write something that’s set in the 30th century and it’s really about the 20th century or the 21st century when they wrote that book. But I think the reverse is true. People who write history, whether actual history textbooks or fictionalized versions of history are really writing for the present and about the present. So you have things where like in the US at various times, we’ve had textbooks and history books that were like, “Slavery wasn’t so bad. Slavery was good. It was all fine.” And then—
Annalee: [00:12:32] And also, by the way, there was no genocide of Native Americans. That was—that is so exaggerated.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:38] And you have different history books at different times, kind of downplaying or erasing unpleasant parts of history or massively exaggerating and overemphasizing other parts of history because that narrative serves the people in charge. And then you have corrections to that. But history’s always filtered through the prism of the present.
Annalee: [00:12:55] And it’s always under revision. And so, in a sense, these secondary worlds, as I said, they really are serving the function of history. Except, they are actually flagging themselves as fantasy. So, in a sense, they’re more honest than history itself, because they’re saying, “Actually, I really am just telling a story, and this really is just made up.” But at the same time, it resonates with our actual experience as a civilization.
[00:13:22] So, I talked to Max Gladstone a number of months ago about Three Parts Dead, which is the first novel in his amazing Craft Cycle, which is very much a secondary world full of magic. Magical lawyers, actually, so it’s not that much of a secondary world because some lawyers are magical. Three Parts Dead is explicitly about the financial collapse in the late ‘10s. He specifically created this character of a god whose body is dying and each piece of that body has been leveraged into a financial instrument and all of these different groups are fighting over who is going to get the pieces of this dying god and how they’re going to turn it into profit. And so it’s very much about the financial industry and this is a way of using recent history in these secondary worlds.
The Matrix 3 Clip: [00:14:11] The Matrix is older than you know. I prefer counting from the emergence of integral anomaly to the emergence of the next in which case this is the 6th version.
There are only two possible explanations. There were five Ones before me. Either no one told me, or no one knows.
Annalee: [00:14:32] Another thing about science fiction and fantasy is that an on-going theme is this idea that everything that we’ve seen has already happened before. So there’s been six versions of the Matrix, and like—
Charlie Jane: [00:14:47] Yeah, and Battlestar Galactica is this has all happened before and it will happen again, and it becomes like a big theme.
Annalee: [00:14:53] It’s this idea that history is cyclical and no matter how far we go into the future or if we all upload our brains into computers we will still be at some point meeting some old white guy in a room who says, “Actually, this is the sixth version of your self, Neo.” And Neo will be like, “Dude, but I have really awesome sunglasses this time.” And that will be like the whole movie. But I mean, this goes back to, for example, the classic scifi novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz, which is basically about how far in the future we have a medieval civilization again because we just can’t seem to escape from that kind of structure and I was also thinking about how this is fundamentally what Planet of the Apes is about. That both the first film series and the recent film series are both about how history is cyclical in this incredibly broad sense. Like, it’s not just that humans keep making the same mistakes, but it’s that if humans are replaced by another species, they will make the same mistakes that we did.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:56] Yeah, and actually Planet of the Apes becomes fully cyclical because they send Caesar back in time in the original movies and he starts the cycle over again, like literally as a time loop. There’s also the thing where King Arthur is supposed to come back as like the once and future king, you know, he’s asleep somewhere and he’s gonna come back. And a lot of King Arthur stories have him coming back and the whole Camelot legend starting again, like all of the old characters come back. There’s a Doctor Who episode, I know I mention Doctor Who a lot, where that happens—
Annalee: [00:16:23] Yeah. We can’t have an episode of Our Opinions Are Correct without correctly identifying Doctor Who as the most important narrative.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:30] And there’s a comic book called Camelot 3000 where it’s like the year 3000 and King Arthur and all the knights come back and Mordred comes back and Morgaine comes back.
Annalee: [00:16:40] You know that—so, you bringing that up was making me think about how the Cthulhu mythos is also about that idea of this deep cyclical time where, of course, if you have delved into the original H.P. Lovecraft stories, or even modern takes on them, the whole idea is that there was a fight between different alien groups at this super ancient period in history, probably during you know, like, proto-history. Like, maybe half a billion years ago. There were a bunch of aliens who were super classical antiquity on earth. They were like the ancient Romans, and they were super—according to Lovecraft—super awesome. They were fighting the Cthulhuian type aliens who were like all tentacly and like were really into miscegenation and stuff. Not that it was in reference to any actual racial politics, geez. I am saying that fully sarcastically because I think we all know that H.P. Lovecraft had a very racist agenda, and in fact identified himself as a white supremacist. But any any rate, his ideas that Cthulhu will come back, and this is going to be the rise of something really dark, and he often associated the rise of Cthulhu with immigrants coming into the US, and with people of color intermingling with white people, and that is again—I mean, that’s a conservative view of that, but—
Charlie Jane: [00:18:02] Yeah, I mean. First of all, I now understand the Cthulhu mythos, which is something that I’ve never fully understood before, but you explained it really clearly. But, also, I think that you know, if you grow up studying history—like, I grew up, my mom was a historian, and I grew up very aware that even though the United States was in a period of relative prosperity and relative ease, that it wasn’t going to last. And that good times never last. Empires fall. Civilizations fall. You know, it’s that thing in Asimov’s Foundation, where it’s like people know that this amazing civilization they’ve built is not going to last because they’ve read Gibbons, I’ve guess.
Annalee: [00:18:39] Who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:40] Exactly. And so, if you know about that, you know that your wonderful civilization, you’re great empire will also fall. That anything that is beautiful and shining is going to fall into disrepair, that there’s going to be some kind of Ozymandias thing where you go back and there’s just like some shattered remain of something with this “Look upon my works ye mighty” kinda thing written on it. And that’s just inevitable, like, nothing lasts. And, you know, bad times always come.
Annalee: [00:19:06] One of the things that Rebecca talked to us about when we were talking about The Poppy War was how there’s the cyclical nature of history that is at the civilizational level that you’re describing, but that it’s also—it can be very personal. Here, you’ll hear her talking about that, and about how repeating history is also very similar to repeating trauma that we think of as kind of an intergenerational psychological thing also plays itself out on a historical scale.
Rebecca: [00:19:39] But The Poppy War deals a lot with the cyclical nature of pain and trauma and dehumanization. So an oft-made argument about the Holocaust is like, “Never again,” right? If by confronting what has happened this will never happen again. And Japan’s treatment of the Rape of Nanjing has been compared badly to Germany’s treatment of the Holocaust, because Japan did not make that part of like, mandatory public education. There was no formal governmental apology, etc. And I really believe the argument that unless we examine that painful past, it will crop up again, but at the same time, like examining trauma, trauma also means examining the other side’s trauma. And part of the story that doesn’t get told is the brutalization of young Japanese boys who were forced into the army to serve as like mindless soldiers for the emperor, and there has to be an asknowledgement of pain and hurt on both sides in order for us to move on. Because I really don’t like this moral high ground argument that you were so horrible to me so it’s all on you. Often that’s the case but like, oftentimes people in the conquering empire or country were hurting badly as well and it’s important to understand all of these power structures and how they were suffering jointly in order to move on, because then you form—you form unions or alliances between people who never want that to ever happen again.
Annalee: [00:20:59] I love how she finishes up that comment where she—it’s a very hopeful moment where she says, “You know, look, if we can remember that there’s trauma on both sides, that’s when we begin to break out of this cycle of repeating and it made me think of the TV show version of The Magicians, actually, which is about a secondary world, Fillory, and it’s also about a kind of fake history—but it’s also about the cycle of trauma from child abuse, because the big bad in the first season of the show, and I think in the books as well, is Martin Chatwin who becomes like the super scary beast in Fillory, and the reason why he’s become the beast is because he was sexually abused by the dude who wrote the Fillory novels. And so, his sexual trauma gets visited onto the next generation in the form, often, of sexual trauma, and so there’s this whole mishmash of historical trauma, but also very personal domestic trauma that comes from sexual abuse.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:59] And I think that is a feature of trauma, is the idea that it’s cyclical. That people who are traumatized inflict trauma on others which leads them to inflict trauma on others, and that’s how the vicious circle gets continued, and breaking that circle is a major concern in a lot of fiction. And figuring out ways to not keep hurting each other when we’ve been hurt ourselves. And I think that is a thing in the national consciousness, too. When you have horrible historical injustices that are still very much in the present, how do you keep those from making people unable to live together peacefully going to the future.
Annalee: [00:22:37] And I think that’s the argument behind things like reparations, absolutely. Reparations are about trying to break out of that cycle by acknowledging the damage that was done. So, the question is: we have this history of trauma. It’s historical trauma. It’s civilizational trauma, it’s like intergenerational trauma, how do we break out of it? Like, what does fiction tell us about that?
Doctor Who Clip: [00:23:02] Now, wait a minute. The Doctor’s put us down right in the middle of the French Revolution.
The Reign of Terror.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:12] The reign of terror. I love how she says that. It’s just like—the Reign Of Terror.
Annalee: [00:23:19] So that was from an old Doctor Who episode.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:20] That was from an old Doctor Who episode called “The Reign of Terror,” actually. That was the title of the serial, and it’s about visiting the French Revolution, and back then, back in the ‘60s, Doctor Who used to just visit historical times and kind of hang out. And like, they would meet regular people. Sometimes they would meet like Marco Polo and Napoleon, and stuff. But half the time they were just meeting random people in history who are just hanging out and trying to surivive, and that’s something that a lot of time travel narratives do, in part, where they just hang out in history, and you get invested in the lives of people who are living at a time when you’re like, “Oh, are they going to really be able to get through this? Is it going to be bad? Are they going to get killed in that volcanic eruption in Pompeii? Or, you know, this genocide that we know is coming.
Annalee: [00:24:09] Are they going to escape?
Charlie Jane: [00:24:10] And, you know, being invested in the lives of ordinary people living in history, and kind of understanding what it was like to live through a terrible time in history from the point of view of someone who is just trying to stay alive is one of the best ways to kind of understand the power of history and how we can survive it.
Annalee: [00:24:29] Yeah, I think that when we look back, we—in real history, or allegedly real history, we often focus on the big names. You know, it’s what did Joan of Arc do? What did Napoleon do? And we know what they did, and we know that they either survived or didn’t survive, and it doesn’t help someone like me, who is not Napoleon, hopefully, as far as I know. It doesn’t help someone like me imagine how I would make it through a tough time in the present, because I’m like, well, I’m not actually an emperor, so what’s at my disposal. So, I love that Doctor Who goes back and meets just regular people. And that’s something that we see a lot in the work of Connie Willis who is one of our most celebrated historical fiction writers. She does great time travel stories. She also does just historical fiction, she does science fiction, she’s done everything. She’s won every award. She’s amazing. And we were lucky enough to catch up with her on the floor at Denver Comic Con, which means that we’re gonna play a couple clips of her, but you can hear in the background like, crazy amounts of people yelling and freaking out because like, it’s Comic Con, so.
[00:25:36] One of the things that Connie pointed out is that her goal as a writer is to introduce readers to regular people, and one of her most famous historical novels is called Doomsday Book. And it’s about a time traveler historian who wants to go back and see what it was like during the first wave of the bubonic plague in England, which took out about 50% of the population. And, so it was incredibly devastating, and what we see is that—Of course, it’s a novel, so there’s like, some schenanigans and the character gets trapped in history. So she has to live through a much longer period than she thought. But she’s also been innoculated against the plague, so she knows that she’ll survive. She takes refuge in a village and throughout the course of the novel, we get to know all the people in this village. They become very human to us even though medieval life is of course very different from modern life. But they still have squabbles, and domestic triumphs, and they do silly theatrical productions and then they all fucking die. And it is so devastating to watch that happen, and it’s a really long novel. I’m not giving all spoilers, because there’s so much stuff that happens, but what we learn is that surviving such a thing is really difficult. So, here’s Connie talking about how she hopes that we can avoid repeating history.
Connie: [00:27:07] The only hope we have of changing and not repeating history is if we really go back and imagine what this was really like to live through. And I grew up reading, for instance, Leon Uris’s books, where he was writing about the Holocaust and the start of Israel and all those things. I felt like they were so much more valuable than any historical book that I could read because it was like how it really was, what the people suffered, and what they went through and stuff. So, I think that’s our only hope ever in literature, too, is connecting with other people and thinking what it was really like.
Annalee: [00:27:44] Recently, Connie Willis published a duology about World War II, the two books are called Blackout and All Clear, and it’s a similar kind of scenario to Doomsday Book. It’s the same… some of the same characters in fact, who are historians, who are going back in time. The main character wants to study this period and winds up getting stuck there, and it’s the same kind of thing where we see her encountering all ordinary people. There’s no famous fancy people except at the very periphery of the narrative. It’s mostly about girls who work in department stores and how they dealt with the bombing of London. It’s a lot less dark than the Doomsday Book for sure. She really feels like that’s how we get out of these feedback loops of history, is by starting to identify with regular people. Realizing that ordinarly people lived through these times. It wasn’t just Churchill. You know. Who cares about Church—I actually literally do not care.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:40] I liked Churchill, he’s cute.
Annalee: [00:28:40] I’m way more interested in the women who worked at Selfridges. Like, honestly. And that’s why I love those books, because I was like. Yeah, I know what Churchill did. He grew up to be Gary Oldman or whatever. I don’t know.
[00:28:54] So, what are some other examples of stories where we kind of just meet regular people?
Charlie Jane: [00:28:59] I mean, I think that one of the things that I love about a lot of alternate history recently, like The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, is that it creates very compelling characters who are in a kind of tweaked version of the actual history of slavery. And really makes you identify with them and deal with the complexity of their lives, and then horribly twists the knife and makes you feel how unjust and brutal and barbaric that system was. And I think that that’s the kind of history we need, now. And also, history of ordinary people who are surviving terrible things and who are getting through it somehow.
Annalee: [00:29:35] And that makes me think of Lovecraft Country which is about to be made into a TV series from Jordan Peele.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:40] Yeah, that book by Matt Ruff, which is super fascinating, takes place in the 1950’s and involves this cast of African-American characters who are just ordinary people trying to get on with their lives except that it turns out one of them is the illegitimate son of this rich family who have this kind of mystical power and connection to some kind of otherworldly force. And because he is one of their heirs, he is one of the few people who can control that power, so they want to control him. And it’s all about him trying to survive and take control of this historical—this power that he’s inherited. But it is also just about a group of ordinary African-American people trying to just stay in one piece during this sort of Jim Crow era where one of the features that comes up a lot is this thing called the Negro Motorist’s Guide that tells them where to stop that’s safe to get food and lodgings and things where they won’t be harassed.
Annalee: [00:30:37] Oh, man.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:39] And that apparently was a real thing, and there’s a lot of just like, how do you get through life in a society where people are constantly trying to destroy you, which unfortunately is very relevant now.
Annalee: [00:30:50] Yeah, it is. And I think it’s interesting in light of what we were saying earlier about that Cthulhu mythos that it kind of brings up Lovecraft as being part of the American cycle of repeated abuse and kind of face-planting of our values. That was a really tortured metaphor. But I also think there are a couple of other novels in that area, like Octavia Butler’s classic novel Kindred, which is about a black woman living in the ‘70s who finds herself transported back in time to the plantation where her ancestors worked. And what she finds out is that she’s there to protect her ancestor so that she can be born and it turns out that that ancestor is the creepy white dude who runs the plantation. And so she’s trying to protect both her African-American ancestor, but also this shitty white dude. Who’s not completely shitty, and that’s what’s really complex and interesting about the book is that she ends up forming this kind of relationship with him that’s very complex. It’s very Octavia Butler. She never gives you something that’s just one dimensional. It’s always like twelve dimensions. And its’ that same idea. It’s how do ordinary people deal with slavery. How do people survive under these extraordinary circumstances?
[00:32:11] One of the other things that Connie told us when I was talking to her is that one of the things that repeats over and over, one of the cycles, is that people always act like we’re in this time that’s unprecedented, and that we’ve never had such terrible circumstances before. And partly that’s because they don’t know that much about how ordinary people lived in previous times. So, here’s what she says about that.
Connie: [00:32:33] But it’s always been hopeless. I mean, we’ve repeated—I mean, this—everybody’s saying all these things about, “Oh my God, we’re in this awful age where the rich have all the money.” And I’m like, “Oh, yes. Like the Gilded Age and before that the French Revolution, and before that,” you know… But I do think, in a sense, history can educate us because I look at, say, the current administration, for instance, and I’m like, I’m saying this about twice a week. Have none of you ever seen a movie? Have none of you ever read a book? If you did, you would realize how this is all going to turn out.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:09] Yeah, and unfortunately I think there have been long stretches of history where ordinary people lived in [straight?] and terrible circumstances. Where they were completely powerless and abused, and part of what people worry about is that we will go through another long period like that again, but also just that it might even just be, you know, a relatively brief but horrible period of violence and oppression before we—
Annalee: [00:33:32] Yeah, I love that Connie just says, “Haven’t you ever read a book or seen a movie?” And I love that she says that because she doesn’t say, “Haven’t you read a history book?” She’s actually, I think, talking about fiction. And in fact, she later said that she really wished that Trump would read Sweeney Todd or go watch Sweeney Todd so that he knows how revenge turns out. Again, this goes back to the secondary world and how secondary worlds help us think about our real history, because what we learn from fiction is often the same lesson that we learn from real history. And fiction just fills in a lot of the emotional gaps that are left in non-fictional histories by saying, based on what we know, here’s how regular people would have dealt with this problem. And so, I often think about, if we could get people to read some books about history. Secondary world books, I’m not talking about non-fiction. Or even alternate histories. What would we want people to be reading to cope with the age that we’re in now, or to give them more context for the age? I mean, other than, of course, reading Connie Willis and reading The Poppy War by Rebecca Kuang, what else would you want people to be reading?
Charlie Jane: [00:34:45] I mean, I would actually want people to read a lot of alternate history. I already mentioned The Underground Railroad and Lovecraft Country. I think people should be reading The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, which kind of conjures this world where the nazis won and the United States is under the domination of the nazis and the Japanese, and it kind of depicts a very realistic and plausible version of the United States under fascism that I think is super relevant right now, unfortunately. And I think in general, like, histories that show us how easily things could have turned out worse if we hadn’t succeeded in struggling and fighting back. And also, histories that kind of give us that glimpse of how things could have been better if we had just had more empathy and more compassion and more positivity. Like, the Phedre books by Jacqueline Carey. I wish everybody would read those, because it’s this wonderful vision of a world where instead of this kind of anti-sex, anti-queer religions hegemony, we have something that’s very sex-positive, and very accepting. And it’s really beautiful.
Annalee: [00:35:48] And religion is bound up with sensuality. I would definitely say reading Kindred is a great idea, the Octavia Butler book that I mentioned earlier. It’s incredibly beautiful and smart. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, which is, again, specifically about the cyclical nature of history and it’s tied into climate change, so it has some of the same elements of Game of Thrones where the characters are enduring a cyclical political problem of authoritarianism, but that’s exacerbated by the fact that they live on a planet that has these cyclical periods of extreme climate change and—mostly due to vulcanism, but other problems as well. And, I also keep returning to the movie Brazil, which is a goofy ‘80s movie from Terry Gilliam that’s also incredibly dark. And it’s about the future of the UK and how easily consumer capitalism merges with this horrific bureaucratic authoritarianism to create this kind of nightmare landscape of people being really focused on TV ads, but also being—having every aspect of their lives surveilled and regimented by this government. It’s kind of like—it’s a little bit of 1984, but it’s Terry Gilliam at his best, so it’s just nutty and beautifully shot, and really disturbing. And it’s definitely a great film to kind of revisit.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:12] So, I guess my final thought is that we always say that people who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it as if knowing history means that you won’t be doomed to repeat it, and I think it’s more accurate to say that knowing your history and understanding what it was like to live in historical times will help you to survive when history does repeat itself. Because, it will.
Annalee: [00:37:31] It helps you to prepare. And it was interesting because until really recently, I had been one of those people that thought you know, if you just knew enough about history, you just wouldn’t do it again. And I don’t think that’s true anymore. And when we talked to Rebecca and Connie, and you know, other people, too. They kept saying things like, “Well, of course we always repeat history.” Like, that’s not even a thing. You can’t—it’s not that you stop repeating. It’s that you do it again, but better. You try to repair some of the damage, and that was why I really loved what Rebecca said about trauma, where you can deal with that history in a way that’s more productive and you can acknowledge how both sides were harmed in a particular battle, for example, or in a massacre in this case. And that that can help you move on. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be good and pure and wonderful, from then on. You’re never gonna have another war, you’re never gonna have another massacre, but you can still become—you can be, as you said, you can be prepared for it. You can learn how to survive it, and also learn how to recover from it better.
[00:38:33] Thank you so much for listening. We’ll be back in two weeks. Thanks to Veronica Simonetti at Women’s Audio Mission for producing this episode. And you can find us on Apple Podcasts, on Google Play, on Libsyn, on Stitcher, on all the nice places that podcasts are found. Please subscribe. Please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Follow us on Twitter at @OOACpod.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:02] Yeah, thanks also to Chris Palmer for the music, and thanks to Rebecca Kuang and Connie Willis for talking to us. And we’ll talk to you again soon.
[00:39:11] Outro music plays. Synth over snare followed by a guitar riff.