History and SFF Storytelling: A New Monthly Column

On October 15, 2019, Tor.com published the following post, announcing the launch of  the column I will be writing for them. I am really excited about this column. Not only because it’s about history and the historian’s craft, but because I have been wanting to work with Tor.com for a long time.

Enjoy!

History and SFF Storytelling: A New Monthly Column.

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Welcome to Tor.com’s new column on History and SFF!

My name is Erika Harlitz-Kern, and I will be your guide during the coming months in discussing the ways that history is used in fantasy and science fiction. But don’t worry—I won’t be dissecting your favorite story digging for historical inaccuracies and judging its entertainment value based on what I find… The purpose of this column is to take a look at how authors of SFF novels and novellas—with a focus on more recent works, published after the year 2000—use the tools of the trade of historians to tell their stories.

When any scholar does research, they use a set of discipline-specific tools to make…

Click here to read the post in its entirety.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

TTR: Are We Really Global Citizens? Cosmopolitanism and Its Myths.

On September 18, 2018, fellow historian Vanesa Galindo Rodriguez and myself gave a talk at FIU’s Tuesday Times Roundtable on cosmopolitanism throughout the centuries and today. The Tuesday Times Roundtable is part of FIU’s Global Learning Initiative and is organized in co-operation with The New York Times.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Interview for Geek Dad/Geek Mom on Racism and Diversity in Speculative Fiction

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St. Maurice

On April 11, 2017, I was interviewed by the blog Geek Dad/Geek Mom. We talked about racism and diversity in speculative fiction, about the state of the art in historical research, and how to locate trustworthy sources when you do your own historical research when writing speculative fiction.

And of course, I recommended some books. And referenced Stargate SG-1.

You can check out the interview here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

10 Things You Need to Know about the Luttrell Psalter

On September 29, 2016, I published the following post on Book Riot.

10 Things You Need to Know about the Luttrell Psalter

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The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous manuscripts from medieval England because of the images that decorate its pages. Some of these images have been interpreted as the most accurate portrayals of medieval rural life while others seem to make no sense at all.

However, if we dig deeper into the layout of the images on the page, the Luttrell Psalter reveals itself to be a magnificent example of political satire and wordplay of the highest level.

Here are ten things you need to know about the Luttrell Psalter and its images.

If you would like to read the entire post, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

12 Things You Should Know about the Silver Bible

On December 1, 2015, I published the following post on Book Riot.

12 Things You Should Know about the Silver Bible

The Silver Bible


The Silver Bible, or Codex Argenteus, was created in Italy in the early sixth century. Soon after its creation the book went missing. One thousand years later, it resurfaced in Germany. The story of the Silver Bible is a remarkable one that involves war, theft, unpaid librarians, book collectors, kings, emperors, and queens. On top of all this, the Silver Bible provides insight to the culture and language of one of the most enigmatic ancient peoples, the Goths.

Here are twelve things you should know about the Silver Bible.

If you would like to read the post in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

Wesley Chu’s THE LIVES OF TAO and the Spanish Inquisition

Wesley Chu’s novel The Lives of Tao is the first part of a trilogy that tells the story of the Quasing, an alien race who crashed on Earth and who need to live inside a host to survive. By merging science fiction with alternate history, Chu takes us through the history of the Quasing on Earth, explaining how the alien species split into factions—the Genjix and the Prophus. When Chu introduces us to the Quasing in the twenty-first century, these factions are at war with one another.

Tao of the novel’s title is the Quasing Tao of the Prophus faction, who merges with slacker Roen Tan when Tao’s previous host Edward is killed in a confrontation with the Genjix. In an effort to get to know the alien who now resides within him, Roen asks Tao to tell him about his previous hosts, which enables Chu to roll out an alternate history of the world of epic proportions.

This alternate take on history is interesting for several reasons, e.g., it is revealed that every major event in Western European history has been caused by the Quasing, such as the Mongol invasion under Genghis Khan (1162–1227), the Black Death (1347–1350), the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), and even World Wars I (1914–1918) and II (1939–1945).

The one part of Tao’s life story that I found particularly troubling, and therefore would like to discuss here, is the Spanish Inquisition. According to Tao, he and his friend Chyiva felt disillusioned regarding the Quasing’s approach to humans. Together, Tao and Chyiva decided to work for this approach to change. Soon, they attracted a following among other Quasing. The backlash against these betrayers was the Spanish Inquisition. According to Tao, the Spanish Inquisition came about in the following way.

The Council did not tolerate our dissension, and in retaliation called for a cleansing. The Spanish Inquisition spread across Europe, a cover for the Council to rid itself of the hosts of renegade Quasing. They called us Prophus, betrayers. They referred to themselves as Genjix, the old order. (Wesley Chu, The Lives of Tao, p. 274)

There are several problems with Tao’s relation of events. First, let’s take a closer look at what the Spanish Inquisition really was.

Within the Catholic Church of medieval Europe there was a need to stamp out what was considered heresy and instead enforce Church doctrine upon the population. The judicial process through which this was achieved was called an inquisition, from the Latin verb inquiro. In other words, the Spanish Inquisition was preceded by several other inquisitions,  arguably the most famous ones being the inquisition that eventually led to the destruction of the Knights Templar, as well as the persecution of the Cathars in southern France, both taking place during the thirteenth century.

The Spanish Inquisition was established through the issuing of a Papal bull in 1478 by request of Spanish king and queen Ferdinand and Isabella. The Spanish Inquisition was different from previous inquisitions in that it was the most organized. It has been argued that unlike other inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition took the step from being a judicial process to being a judicial institution.

The Spanish Inquisition according to Monty Python

The Spanish Inquisition according to Monty Python.

Another reason why the Spanish Inquisition was different is because unlike previous inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition did not target fellow Christians who failed to follow Church doctrine. No, the Spanish Inquisition was created to target Jews, in particular so-called conversos, i.e., Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to avoid persecution.

The purpose of the forced conversion of Spanish Jews was to eradicate them as the political and religious threat they were considered to be towards Ferdinand and Isabella. The only problem was that once enough Jews had succumbed under pressure and converted, the conversos were deemed an even greater threat. Indeed, they were suspected of continuing to practice Judaism in secrecy. Enter the Inquisition and its infamous methods to extract confessions and conversions through the use of torture.

The most famous of the Grand Inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition is Tómas de Torquemada (1420–1498), who is believed to have been personally responsible for the torture and execution of at least 2,000 Spanish Jews. In the history of European Jewry, the Spanish Inquisition and the actions of Torquemada, which culminated in the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492, is a wound that has never healed.

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The Spanish Inquisition according to Mel Brooks.

Moreover, Spain itself is grappling to come to terms with the atrocities committed against the Jewish population of Spain by the Inquisition. On June 11, 2015, a new law was passed granting citizenship to more than 4,000 descendants of the Jews who were expelled in 1492.

With this knowledge of the Spanish Inquisition in mind, Chu’s decision to include the Spanish Inquisition in the war between the Prophus and the Genjix becomes most unfortunate. This sentence is particularly problematic.

The Spanish Inquisition spread across Europe, a cover for the Council to rid itself of the hosts of renegade Quasing. (ibid.)

In other words, according to Chu’s alternate history, the Spanish Inquisition was a cover-up for an internal conflict within an alien species, not a systematic persecution of Spanish Jews that cost over 2,000 people their lives and an estimated 160,000 people their homes. Or perhaps we are to believe that the Jewish victims were mere collateral damage that need not be mentioned?

Overall, The Lives of Tao is a highly entertaining read and I do recommend that you read it. As an historian, I support all inclusion of history in fiction, be it in the form of historical fiction, alternate history, or speculative history. However, as I have stated several times before here on The Boomerang, it is of utmost importance that an author is aware of the many complicating aspects of the historical process he or she decides to include in their story.

Sources
Wesley Chu, The Lives of Tao (Angry Robot, 2013)
Britannica Online, “Inquisition.”
Britannica Online, “Spanish Inquisition.”
Britannica Online, “Tómas de Torquemada.”

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

Book Riot: Reading Old Cookbooks (For History, Not Recipes)

On August 28, 2014, I published the following post on Book Riot:

Reading Old Cookbooks (For History, Not Recipes)

Do you enjoy reading historical nonfiction?

Have you ever thought of reading an old cookbook to satisfy your cravings?

Now you might be wondering, can a cookbook be a historical document?

Let me explain.

At my parents’ house, in the room where the book scorpions live, there is a cookbook from 1886. The title is… If you would like to read the rest of the piece, please click here.