Monday, January 4, 2010

Eyewitness to history


I wish I could claim that phrase for myself, but I can't. 

Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, Harvard Press, is an absolutely fascinating book -- and yet not one to read from cover to cover. It is better to browse, and sample, and savor.

Carey has assembled something unique: snippets of reporting from 430 BC (Thucydides on the plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War) to 1986 (James Fenton on the fall from power of Ferdinand Marcos). The book holds more than 250 eyewitness accounts, from every imaginable time and (Earthly) place in between.
Many of the accounts deal with famous events.  All are extremely vivid, like the report by Bartolom√© de Las Casas, a Dominican missionary, on the atrocities of the conquistadors. I expect the eyewitness accounts on the liberation of the WWII German death camps to be equally grim.

What has this to do with science fiction? In a way, nothing. And in another way -- everything.

In a literal sense, there are lessons to be learned -- and sources to be mined -- for any number of time travel and alternate history books. 

And in a more general sense?

The best SF makes exotic situations somehow come to life.  How better to learn the art of making far-off times and places real than from the eyewitnesses who knew the art?

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