A lot of fiction relies on secret history—a hidden world filled with danger and wonder that often explains the “true” way the world works. While you stand in front of the cashier, choosing to pay for your groceries by debit or credit, great battles are being fought by…vampires? Sexy Russian spies? Harry Potter? If only you weren’t such a Muggle maybe you would be able to take part in this glamorous world. The closest you can come is to read it in a book.
I don’t like secret history very much.
I just finished reading Kraken by China Miéville, a novel in which magicians race through the streets of London, secretly preventing the end of the world. It bored me silly. London is absurdly empty; after the first few chapters there are literally no characters that aren’t a part of this world of shadows. It’s a terrible cheat; we never see how these wizards and spirits blend into the “normal” world. We never see them grocery shopping. And—spoiler alert—at the end everything goes back to normal and the world at large doesn’t suspect a thing. Thanks, wizards! I’m glad you kept us safe from…whatever that was.
A secret history got added to Star Trek a while ago, but it’s grossly unnecessary. I don’t watch Star Trek and think “Wow, technology! Exploring alien worlds! I want to know more about the guys who assassinate people to make this possible!”
Just think of our our real-life secret histories. The CIA would like us to believe that they keep America safe from nuclear horrors and insane fanatics—and they do it all while flashing George Clooney’s winning grin. However, every time we get an account of their actions, it involves repeated torture and drone killings. It’s worse than inhumane—it’s dull.
That’s why I didn’t dwell on the details of magic in As You Wish. We see King Solomon and the Magician gloat about their studies and their power, but we’re never obligated to be impressed by them.
I’m now doing research for a play that will require a secret history of sorts for its central cult of evil. As these things go, a “normal” person—Just like us!—will be brought into the cult. If I can help it, though, their fantastic version of history won’t be as important as how they operate day to day. It will be a cult that works.
More importantly, I want their actions to mean something to the world at large. Their momentous secret actions must have great, obvious consequences. Our real-life secret histories are never tidy. Why should our fictional ones be any different?
BONUS MIKE-IS-FORCING-HIMSELF-TO-READ ROUNDUP: It’s ridiculous to write fiction without reading it—Laura Miller told me so! So in the past few months, I have worked my way through several less-than satisfying science-fiction novels.
I almost got suckered into buying William Gibson’s Zero History. The free first chapter has a great hook: “Hey, Hollis Henry; I’m rich financier Hubertus Bigend, and I want you to take part in an exciting mission!” But then I remembered his last book had the exact same opening and after that nothing happened. After Spook Country, I don’t trust Hubertus (or Gibson) to take me anywhere.
After reading Philip Palmer’s Debatable Space, I read his follow-up novels Red Claw and Version 43, which were both decent, though not as charming as his debut novel. I hate Palmer’s bloody, genocidal rampages, but I love the big, weird worlds in which they take place and I love his varied storytelling perspectives. Unfortunately, it seems that Palmer loves violence and murder. Oh well; at least he’s willing to put some effort into writing it and doesn’t neglect readers who don’t care how any one particular arm is ripped off.
I also read Snow Crash for the first time. It was fun and almost got away with its own secret history of Sumerian myth-come-true, but after a great setup the mythical system seemed to operate by sorcery anyway. That’s the real trick—once you demystify magic, you can’t let it take the mystery back from you!