Saturday, 24 October 2009

People of Fact in Fiction

There's an interesting article on the Aqueduct Press blog regarding the use of real - dead or alive, historical or celebrity - people in fiction. This has apparently been kicked off by AS Byatt's comments on Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Byatt has said in an interview that it is "appropriation of others' lives and privacy", and "I really don't like the idea of 'basing' a character on someone, and these days I don't like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead."

As a writer of science fiction, how relevant is this to me? After all, sf is set in the future, right? In space. With aliens. It's not real.

Well, yes it is.

Science fiction is as real as any other genre. Sf is not just spaceships and robots. Sf is not divorced from, or irrelevant to, the real world.

I don't have a problem with fiction writers using real people in their stories. I've done it myself. I've even had it done to me - I've been horribly dismembered in at least two stories by writer Jim Steel.

But I do have a problem with writers who confuse their fact with fiction.

On my Space Books blog, I've reviewed a number of books about the space race. And some of them have been written in a style which dramatises their subject, makes it more immediate, a more readable book and not a dry academic tome. It is presented almost as if it were fiction. When the non-fiction author describes what a person is thinking or feeling, with no citation or quote to show that this is what the person has said they thought or felt, then the author is writing fiction. But since their book is presented as fact, they're misleading the reader. I think that is wrong.

But for a fiction writer to use fact? It doesn't even require the "ironic distance" discussed in the Aqueduct Press piece. The text itself is fiction, and is pretty much always labelled as such. There may be other clues in the story - especially if it is alternate history.

Take, for example, my own flash story 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' (available here). The story has three characters: Stuart A Roosa, Gerald P Carr and Paul J Weitz. It mentions two other people by name: Neil Armstrong and Iven Kincheloe. All five are real people. Three of them are still alive.

The story describes Apollo 20, a mission to the Moon which never took place. So it's alternate history. This might not, of course, be obvious to everyone. The US went to the Moon eight times, and landed twelve men on its surface. That it happened is known to everyone. The details of each mission may not be. So a lunar landing with Stuart Roosa and Gerald Carr could conceivably be misread as fact, if a reader didn't know the names of the twelve men who walked on the Moon.

Even the line "Apollo 20, the first mission to visit the dark side of the Moon" only really signals that 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' is alternate history to someone who knows that the last Apollo mission was Apollo 17 (Apollo 18 was actually the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), and that no Apollo mission visited the dark side of the Moon.

But 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' is clearly labelled as "fiction".

I could have invented astronauts for the story - Commander Stu Bobbington and Lunar Module Pilot Gerry Freddison. I didn't have to use real ones. I could have crewed Apollo 20 with entirely made-up people.


I used real people because I find it interesting when fiction intersects the real world. 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' is intended to read as feasible - its plausibility rests on its feasibility. By referencing real people, I bolstered its feasibility. Iven Kincheloe really did die in 1958. He was a test pilot, and had been selected in 1957 - along with Neil Armstrong - for the USAF Man in Space Soonest programme. Conspiracy theories have been built on less.

I didn't make a serious attempt to capture the characters of Roosa and the others - it's a 1,000 word story, after all. Some might consider that an unfair appropriation of their names. In fact, I'd originally written the piece with Jack R Lousma as the LMP - he was the most likely candidate for Apollo 20. But I had to read out the story and Roosa and Lousma sounded too similar, so I replaced Lousma with Carr, who was actually the planned LMP for Apollo 19.

When I made the change, I didn't rewrite the dialogue. As I said, the story is not an attempt to present real versions of the people. I've no idea if they talked the way I portrayed them. I don't especially care. It's their career baggage which interested me, and which added an additional dimension to my short story.

'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' is not the first time I've used real people in a piece of fiction. Another features World War I soldier-poet Wilfred Owen (it will be published next year). I'm sure there'll be other stories - some have to be told from the viewpoint of a real person; some real people need to have stories told about them. I see no reason why a writer should limit themselves by only using invented characters.

Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't research - the character needs to resemble the real person, or the reader won't recognise them for who they are. You can't just appropriate their names - Roosa's career mapped perfectly onto the plot of 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams; I didn't simply pick a random member of the astronaut corps. And besides, the final line simply doesn't work if I'd used a made-up name instead of Neil Armstrong. My Wilfred Owen story references his poetry and writings, and the plot hinges on the fact that he did not survive World War I.

There should be no limits on fiction. Start telling writers what they can and cannot do, and the readers will suffer as well. Imagination works best when it is unfettered.


jimsteel said...

That gives me the perfect excuse to direct all of you Ian Sales completists out there to Supernatural Tales 16, available from


Jack Deighton said...

Pedantry alert.

Oh, Ian.
The dark? side of the moon. Did you mean the side not visible from Earth? Because it isn't dark. Not for 50% of the time anyway. Come to that, the visible side is dark for 50% of the time too.

I liked Pink Floyd's metaphorical take on the phrase, though.
"There is no dark side of the moon really. As a matter of fact it's all dark."