Fantasy History: Deep Background for Philip Winsor’s Into Exile*

[*Due to certain parallels between the novel’s storyline and the Snowden matter, the following clarification is offered concerning the chronology of preparation. Final draft received and approved before 2 February 2013, when the novel was given its title. Preliminary cover material presented 12 June 2013; draft cover produced 17 August 2013. Copyright registration claim uploaded 12 November 2013. Date of paperback publication: 21 May 2015.]

The genre of Alternate History is often distinguished within the larger category of Speculative Fiction. One must also conceive of a sub-genre, fantasy history, where the historical landscape is altered not so much in order to describe the changed scene and attendant course of events, but to facilitate points being made about reality, whether present or past. Such alterations can challenge the reader to imagine the likelihood of various possibilities raised by current problems, and project the conceivable course of humanity from that point forward.

Evidence of alteration can be found in almost all historical fiction. The great resounding historical novels take events, such as military campaigns, that actually happened, and then spin off in a fictional manner. This is the underlying formula, for example, of a modern novel such as The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, where there is no intention to present history in any form other than the real. In many novels, however, historical details are altered, and sometimes the alterations serve a specific literary purpose. At some point the fantasy can lead beyond mere backdrop.

Birth of the historical novel

In an opportunistic rather than systematic utilization of history, the seventeenth-century Mme de la Fayette transposed her princesses from her contemporary scene to the sixteenth century, probably for the purpose of disguising the identities of characters. At the other end of the spectrum. Alexandre Dumas’ sprawling novels span the history of France from Renaissance to Revolution, often in profound detail. Dumas’ purposes included the education of his readers: history was made digestible for them and to all intents and purposes was experienced by them. The alteration of fact, when it arises, is noteworthy, because the alternative details must be measured against a responsibility to represent history faithfully.

Thus the historical Bussy d’Amboise was assassinated by his mistress’s husband at the latter’s provincial castle; his body was left exposed in the moat to mark the killing as justifiable homicide. The Bussy of La dame de Monsoreau could not die so, because the author required an optimistic view of his character and a pessimistic view of that of the duc d’Anjou, to whom the death blow is attributed. Facilitated by historical alteration, these character interpretations aid the effort to penetrate the historical individuals, where only limited historical source material is available.

In the next generation, Gustave Flaubert would create Salammbo in order to document the period of Carthaginian might, vividly surrounding his speculations with meticulous detail in order to sharpen historical insight. History and fantasy are woven into a single fabric.