What reading science fiction taught me about historical fiction

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Ok, folks, I’m about to admit to something I’m not proud of. There was a time when I would look down on people who read historical fiction. Ok, that’s not completely accurate: I didn’t care if someone would read historical fiction purely for its entertainment value. What would bug me would be the people who’d read a work of historical fiction and then go on about how much they learned about something simply by reading this one novel.

Fiction – historical or otherwise – is first and foremost fiction, I reasoned. It’s made up; it isn’t real. Just because a novel is based on historical events doesn’t make it factually accurate. For the longest time, I’d be annoyed with people who insisted they learned something about a historical event because they read historical fiction.

And then I discovered science fiction.

I’d been watching science fiction on television and in films for a while, but until this year, I hadn’t really read much science fiction aside from the random dystopia or post-apocalyptic novel.

I should take a moment to explain that math and science really aren’t my forte. In fact, I’m pretty hopeless when it comes to the academic study of either discipline. Conversely, I’m much more comfortable with history. I’m not a historian or any sort of historical expert by any stretch. But, I have been known to read works of historical non-fiction – including works that others might find dry or boring – and enjoy every minute of it.

My lack of scientific background is part of what draws me to science fiction. I may be ignorant when it comes to science (what I like to call “science stupid”), but I’m interested in learning more. Because I don’t have a scientific background, I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of picking up a non-fiction text about science. I’m not even sure I’d understand it even if I did. So what’s someone like me to do?

For me, I feel like reading science fiction has helped a lot. I don’t expect the science in my science fiction to always be absolutely correct. It is, after all, fiction. But science fiction has made it possible for me to get my toes wet in a fun, less intimidating way. And maybe, as some point, I’ll give non-fiction about science a try.

My experience with science fiction has got me thinking about historical fiction. What if some of the folks reading historical fiction are people who don’t have a background in history? What if reading non-fiction about history intimidates them the same way non-fiction about science intimidates me?

I think I’ve officially developed a new appreciation for historical fiction. One of the great things about books, I think, is their ability to meet you where you are. I still want to remind you that while reading fiction is great, reading The Other Boleyn Girl doesn’t make you an expert on Anne Boleyn any more than my reading The Martian makes me an expert on space travel. I believe that everyone should be able to read what they want. I just also think it’s important to think critically about what you’re reading.

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