History is More Like Science Fiction Than Fantasy

I’ve been slow-reading Bettany Hughes’ Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities for months now, ever since I visited the city (on Kindle, so I didn’t realize when I started that it’s 600 pages plus another 250 odd notes). It’s dense and absorbing and I’ll probably do a reflections post when I’m done, but the fact that I’ve stuck with it made me think about how good history books scratch the same itch as good science fiction. The past is an alien planet. They do things differently there. Yet you recognize signs of the same lawfulness in the universe that governs life in your own time. You can feel kinship with people in 18th century Istanbul. Or 6th century Constantinople. Or Trantor in 47,000 AD.

Though history has a stronger cosmetic resemblance to fantasy (the past had actual knights and wizards, and unironic belief in magic), I think it has a deeper kinship to science fiction. Ted Chiang’s much discussed distinction between science fiction and fantasy (he’s made versions of this point in different speeches and interviews but I can’t find a canonical source or quote) makes this kinship legible. He argues that science fiction posits a lawful universe that may have strange laws but they apply to everyone, while fantasy posits a universe that recognizes some people as “special,” with special laws applying to them. Chosen ones. This is the essence of “magic” as the chosen mode of escapism, as opposed to “time travel” or “hyperspace jumps.” I almost made the same point in a 2007 post, Harry Potter and the Concept of Magic, but ended up making an adjacent less provocative and less interesting one.

At a certain level, science fiction is more true than fantasy. The universe really is lawful (though not in ways we might prefer in our idle speculative fancies). The universe really is not magical, in the sense of recognizing specialness in some living beings and responding differently to them.

Aside: I think the appeal of the Three-Body Problem is that it posits not just a lawful universe, but an inconveniently lawful one. Instead of fun affordances like time travel, the universe lobs 3-body chaos and dark forest shittiness on its living beings. Not only is nobody special, everybody is actually worse off than we imagine because the universe is lawful in a shittier way than we imagine. It’s a sort of hyper science fiction.

Good history may not offer clean-edged lawfulness, but it at least obliquely suggests a universe that’s some mix of noisy lawfulness and path-dependent arbitrariness. There is no room for magic. There is no room for Chosen Ones. Or Chosen People. Or Manifest Destiny type narratives. While there is of course plenty that is uncertain in any work of history, it is not uncertainty of the sort that opens the door to magic. Despite the desperate belief in magic that suffused Istanbul through the millennia, the city never actually enjoyed the workings of magic.

In good history books, as in good science fiction, there are no Chosen Ones. There may be characters who believe other characters are Chosen Ones, but you as reader don’t have to (to really appreciate and enjoy Dune, you kinda have to recognize Paul Atreides is not actually special, whatever the Bene Gesserit nuts and Fremen think, but to enjoy Lord of the Rings, you kinda have to buy into the specialness of elves and wizards, even if Frodo is not that special).

There is a genre of history, if it deserves that label, that resembles fantasy: hagiography. Any approach to history that posits the existence of “greatness” of some sort (Great Man theory, Great Nation exceptionalism narratives, One True Religion, One True Ideology) is hagiography. Unsurprisingly, hagiography sells better than history, just as fantasy sells better than science fiction.

Not surprisingly, I don’t enjoy fantasy much, and can’t stand hagiography at all. To fans of those genres, this probably comes across as some sort of weak-spirited reluctance to recognize greatness or Chosenness, and resentment over my own ordinariness, but that’s really not it. Greatness is simply deeply unsatisfying as a feature of an explanation for anything. It’s a deus ex machina. I’m happy to acknowledge and admire exceptional accomplishments by individuals and groups. I’m happy to admit I’m in the wrong half of distributions of many, perhaps most, desirable traits. I just don’t find explanations in terms of greatness (or Chosenness, or Specialness) to be explanations at all, let alone satisfying ones. In both natural and human laws, if you’re forced to posit two kinds of laws for two kinds of people, you’ve basically failed to make sense of your world. (There are two kinds of people in the world — those who divide people into two kinds and those who don’t).

There are kings, knights, gods, saints, and wizards aplenty in Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, but it is not a story about magic or their specialness. There are many characters parading through the book who had “Great” attached to their names (Alexander, Catherine, Suleyman…), but the account of history does not rest upon a presumption of axiomatic greatness possessed by some actors. That many saw them (and continue to see them) as “great” certainly affected the course of history somewhat, but it’s not part of the explanation. It’s not even particularly important as a feature of the story needing explanation.

At most, in good histories, belief in “greatness” helps explain the actions of some actors, just as belief in god helps explains the actions of others. Neither god, nor greatness, is necessary for good history writing, and in fact unironic belief in either on the part of the historian weakens, often fatally, the quality of the history. The effects on fantasy literature aren’t as bad. Positing greatness (or Chosenness or any of many equivalent traits that divide humans into two types based on laws that apply to them) can make for fun narrative premises. Preferring hagiographic histories centered on greatness suggests intellectual weakness to me (the primary failure of Straussians), but preferring fantasy over science fiction seems more like a harmless preference for a particular mode of escapism.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Fascinating. Would I be correct in inferring that you believe (or at least fear) that the Three Body Problem describes our actual universe?

    > Instead of fun affordances like time travel, the universe lobs 3-body chaos and dark forest shittiness on its living beings. Not only is nobody special, everybody is actually worse off than we imagine because the universe is lawful in a shittier way than we imagine. It’s a sort of hyper science fiction.

    And I can’t help but wonder: is that linked to your inability to believe in any sort of Specialness?

    > I just don’t find explanations in terms of greatness (or Chosenness, or Specialness) to be explanations at all, let alone satisfying ones

  2. Just sense that there is an ongoing relation with the 3 Body framing that I just came across in a movie by that title and playing out with Mao’s cultural revolution and science while reading an awkward novel Solar by an “awarded” writer from the UK. Anyway, now you writing about fantasy, fiction and specialness, laws of the universe have no timeline, they just are and now and again we get enter the thread. Thanks.

  3. Beautifully written. Has anyone ever suggested that you become a writer?


  4. How do you feel about techodeterminist histories? I think they often fit into your category of hagiographies where the technology in question plays the role of the great man and letting the chosen technology’s unique Specialness become the ultimate cause beyond which no further systemic analysis proceeds.

  5. Maybe Steve Jobs was the LGM ( Last Great Man ) and hagiographies are an extinct genre anyway? The Zeitgeist seems to prefer anti-hagiographies, work of pure resentment without even Christ being a permitted hero. We get Ridley Scotts dark and depressed Napoleon instead of the young, charismatic and energetic guy depicted by Jacques Louis David. Same goes with Alexander, Caesar … and all the other “problematic” dudes. This goes clearly beyond the structuralism / deconstructivism of my youth with its Marxist inspirations, or the straight scientism you seem to prefer.

    • This intense drive for leveling strangely corresponds with a media prosumer narcissism. What really matters are the simulacra and the feelings of the cave dwellers watching the shadow play. The overrated Straussians are supposed to be the media-managers at least that’s what they want to make-believe and maybe they believe this too.

  6. I think what Chiang says in that interview about a personalized vs. depersonalized universe is more accurate than saying fantasy necessarily posits some people are more special than others…it’s about personhood being recognized at all, not relative status between persons. But I don’t think that’s the fundamental difference, just one result of fantasy being more subjective and expressive and sci-fi more objective and analytical.

    Fantasy is without a doubt less about asking “why”, about mystifying more than demystifying (or at least about experiencing more than analyzing). But for the sake of argument this can in some ways make it more informative, not less. In its escapism, fantasy offers something fundamentally different from how our universe works; hard sci-fi, when it fails, offers something only cosmetically different, because while the particular physical laws or technological conditions may be different, it still operates by the same logic we use to navigate our everyday world. So it doesn’t really offer a mental change or escape at all — it’s just exotic realism. Fantasy vs. exotic realism is a better way of phrasing the divide IMO. I feel like fantasy vs. realism is like poetry vs. prose. In poetry (at least the kind that is more than just verse) you’re asked to think in a different way, you enter a world where language works differently than the everyday language you know. It becomes flexible, subjective and experiential in a freeing and stimulating way.

    Real stories are a mix. If you don’t have some level of objective consistency it stops being a story at all. But I think that to be satisfying, even a hard sci fi story also needs poetic glimmers where it at least feels like logic is being bent, even if it isn’t. All the hard scifi stories I like have that but it may be a matter of taste.

    • Basically, in regards to the universe recognizing personhood, yes, I think fantasy tends to be humanist, but not necessarily in the provincial sense of putting humans at the center of the universe (although it may)—rather in the sense that it’s coming from a place of subjectivity.

    • I believe the distinction is simpler: there is a naive realism to the supernatural in Fantasy. The reason why there are “chosen ones” is that a world in which psi-powers are democratized and rings of power are mass produced goods forged by Sauron Inc. is just as stable as a polity where everyone has access to nukes. The author has to impose some access control to powerful forces, which doesn’t preclude that he chooses a normie ( me & you ) to be special.

      Mystery is another genre where the supernatural is present and here it is beyond control but instead of destroying the universe it vanishes behind the veil of plausible deniability.

  7. This is a very good explanation why Star Wars fans hated the addition of Midi-chlorian counts to the lore. Pseudo-ScFi instead of magic.

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