Sunday, April 17, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Matter of the Pleistocene

And by "matter" I mean subject, as in "the matter of Britain," which is the Arthur legend, which has a lot less scope than the Pleistocene.

I went to Dr. Bradley's lecture on the Solutrean Hypothesis on Friday and I'm sold. The Americas were populated from two directions along similar ice fronts in the northern Pacific and Atlantic oceans; and this was not immigration, but migration, a maritime culture summering on continents and working the ice sheets in the winter. The Solutreans, hailing from the Bay of Biscay, appear to have gotten here earlier, but their descendants didn't survive as long as those of the Beringians, hailing from northeastern Asia.

Sometimes it makes me dizzy, thinking of the vast well of stories underlying history. We have been human for over 100,000 years even if you restrict the term to homo sapiens. For all that time we have been inventive, practical, improvident, irrational, emotional, political, cruel, compassionate, social, self-absorbed, and most of all, creative, just as we have been for the last six thousand or so years; yet look how shallow is the depth, and how patchy the coverage, of history found in our historical fiction!

We have written about feudal Europe, Victorian England, Victorian America, 20th century Europe and European America, to the point of satiety. Vikings and Romans and Egyptians make a pretty good showing. After that, the statistics drop off rapidly. Jean Auel and I are not the only ones who've written about the Pleistocene, but compared to the categories listed Pleistocene-based fiction makes a pathetically small showing, and the geographical range for this period (which embraces about 90,000 years of that 100,000) is even smaller. The painted caves of southwestern Europe have inspired more people than Catal Huyuk or the Venus of Wllendorf; what sense does that make? Presumably there's historical fiction I'm not familiar with in other languages beefing up the record for Africa, Asia, Australia, South America, and the Pacific islands; but I bet a survey of that literature would exhibit similar concentrations of attention on certain times and places at the expense of other, equally intriguing, ones.

It's not that one time or place is intrinsically more interesting than another. Every place and every time is interesting if you approach it correctly.

It's not that one time or place is easier to research than another, because very often the historical fiction we have doesn't rely on research anyway. Sad, but true. I acknowledge the necessity of nudging real people and places around occasionally in order to make room for the fictional characters; but some authors of "historicals" deliberately don't do primary research because they don't want their imaginations constrained! I won't name names because it's rude to spit on people in public; but anybody who has done research and then read related fiction knows the kind of historical fantasia I'm talking about. I don't know why some of these people don't just write secondary world fantasy and be done with it.

A subjective sense of aesthetic appeal is part of the problem. Look at how much fantasy fiction bases itself in the same historical times and places! Even science fiction is not immune, with their Roman-based Galactic Empires and their spaceships full of white folks. But a lot of that, I submit, is not so much "aesthetic appeal" as it is "aesthetic habit." We gravitate toward the familiar.

And then we complain that we're bored.

The solution to that is under our feet. Look at where you are. Dive into it. Go past the stories everybody tells. People have lived in the San Antonio area for 11,000 years or more, most of them dense with human drama; yet the only story most folks know about it is the story of 13 days in 1836, and most people know inferior versions of that story, lacking context and some of the richest, darkest moral ambiguity you'll ever find.

Great Auks, prior to their being hunted to extinction (they were an excellent food source), migrated yearly from southwestern Europe to North Carolina. During the height of the Pleistocene, the resource-rich edge of the glacial ice stretched from southwestern Europe to Newfoundland. Fish, seals, birds, and men exploited that environment.

Any environment rich enough in resources to be exploited by human beings is rich enough to be exploited by novelists.

Your home is just the same. Use it.


  1. Would you count Atlantis as a Pleistocene setting? If so, a lot of territory opens up.

    I also think of the fantasy world of Wendy Pini's ElfQuest, which has a lot of features of Pleistocene (and some Pliocene) America in its flora and fauna.

  2. Nope. Because Atlantis, though Plato dates it in about 10,000 YBP, is culturally contemporary with him. It's secondary world fantasy rather than historical fiction.