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One author, two genres: history and science fiction

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 13, 2012 - Lots of people work two jobs. Carolyn Ives Gilman just happens to have two very cool ones.

By day, she's a special projects historian at the Missouri History Museum specializing in 18th and early 19th century North America with an emphasis on frontier and Native Americans.

She is also an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author.

Gilman first made an impact in sci-fi literary circles with "Halfway to Human" in 1988. The novel explored gender roles in contemporary science fiction in a fresh way and set the stage for a prolific two-decade career in the genre.

She is no slouch in history either. In 2003, she published "Lewis and Clark: Across The Divide" to high acclaim. She has appeared on PBS’ History Detectives as well as on NPR. She’s been a guest lecturer at Harvard, The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian and curated several museum exhibits, most notably Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition in 2004.

As a writer who lives in two worlds, Gilman sees the 18th and 19th centuries she studies as ideal models for writing contemporary science fiction. Those two centuries feature a rich tapestry of ideas, movements, ideologies and trends that resonate in our popular culture today.

“This is particularly true right now, because there is a fad for Steampunk, a retro science fiction that speculates about what if Victorian science had developed modern technology ahead of its time,” Gilman says. “Steampunk is as much an aesthetic as a topic: a marvelous, imaginary world built around clockwork and Zeppelins instead of semiconductors and airplanes. Why this should be popular right now is as mysterious to me as why zombies are hot. Maybe we’ve lost faith in the future, and taken refuge in an imaginary past where the technology is easier to grasp.

"On the other hand, it is based on an optimistic notion that history is not inevitable, and things could have turned out very differently — and still might,” she says, noting, “I have never written Steampunk. I have never written alternative history, either.”

Worlds complement

On working in two so very different genres, she says, “It’s not easy, because the two types of writing take very different brainwork, if you do them ethically. Fiction is all about letting your mind wander into speculation and imaginary chains of causation, something you have to be very careful not to do if writing history.

"A nonfiction writer has to be cautious to say only what the evidence shows," Gilman says. "I have to partition my brain to resist the temptation to make up stories about historical people. I do find some of the techniques of fiction writing very useful in writing history. You don’t need to make up fictive stories — the compelling narratives are already there, if you just tell them right.”

Her new novel, "Isles of the Forsaken" features familiar themes that have shaped Gilman’s work as a writer and historian: colonialism, fighting oppression, exploration and discovery. Its rich characters are set against the familiar backdrop of imperialism. Gilman says her interest in this subject predates both of her careers and has affected her ability to create new worlds and develop plots.

“Having studied colonial history definitely informs my fiction," she says. "Several reviews of 'Isles of the Forsaken' commented that, even though it is technically fantasy, it reads more like science fiction. I think that is because it is based on extrapolation from fact. Studying history gives me a feel for the way imperialism actually works, and it is far more flawed and complex than fiction normally shows. I have also shamelessly borrowed facts from actual North American history. For example, my characters use the strategy the Ottawa and Chippewa used to capture the British fort at Michilimackinac in 1763.”

Rich frontiers

Another recurring theme in Gilman’s fiction is the idea of conquering a frontier -- a theme she knows well from her work as a historian. “Frontiers and borders throw cultures into high relief: People are forced to define who they are when confronted with people unlike themselves,” she notes. “That makes borderlands rich cultural laboratories. Studying the American frontier also gives you the chance to see the past and this land through different eyes. Familiar stories are completely transformed when seen from the Native perspective.” 

Gilman is currently working on "The American Revolution on the Frontier," an exhibit that will open at the Missouri History Museum in 2014. In explaining the lead time, Gilman says, “Enormous amounts of background research go into exhibits. The curator has to become expert in the topic, track down the best examples of what she wants to show, do research into the provenance and context of each artifact or image, and then re-imagine the topic as it is told by the artifacts. Mounting an exhibition is a giant collaborative artwork; the curator, designer, educator, media producer and others have to work closely together with a shared vision. The process is most like making films, and it is similarly expensive.”

To do what may be one of the coolest jobs in town, she has traveled around North America and Europe gathering amazing things to include in museum exhibits.

“I spent years tracking down the surviving artifacts of the Lewis and Clark expedition,” she says. “I went everywhere from the Library of Congress, where I measured and photographed Jefferson’s letters, to an obscure museum in Montana where I found the bloodstained Masonic apron Meriwether Lewis was carrying when he died. Recently, I’ve been tracking down artifacts related to the American Revolution on the frontier, which includes Native American collections brought back to England by British officers. One day I found myself walking past dumpsters down a graffitied alley in London, to knock on an unmarked door into the warehouse where all the treasures of the British Museum are kept. It was like being in 'The DaVinci Code'.”

Having a “respectable” day job as a curator and historian has both helped and hurt Gilman shed the stigma of being a fantasy or science fiction author that often haunts others in the genre. “I publish history under a slightly different name than my fiction, because I want readers to know which kind of book they’re buying. I play down my fiction when I’m in professional mode, because it can undermine your credibility as a historian to be known as a wild-eyed sci-fi author. I have to reassure historians that I am living up to the standards of the profession. But being a historian isn’t a problem with science fiction readers. Many SF writers are scientists.

"I do notice that Google has started to catch on to the fact that there are two of us, Carolyn Gilman the historian and Carolyn Ives Gilman the SF writer,” she says.

Gilman has been nominated three times for one of science fiction’s highest honors, the Nebula Award (presented annually by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). The Nebula nominations came in 1992 for The "Honeycrafters," in 2009 for "Arkfall" and again this past year for her novella, "The Ice Owl."

When she writes fiction, "I generally go through a long period after getting the idea when I simply think and take notes. I call this ‘staring at the wall.' I find it’s useless to sit down at my computer until I have a critical mass of ideas. The thing that makes everything gel for me is finding a voice to tell the story in. After the ideas have built up, the voice is what ignites them.”

Gilman’s passion for history is just as intense and may be genetic.

“My mother was a historian, and I grew up on intravenous infusions of history,” she explained. “Still, I didn’t think I was interested in it for a long time. While I never wrote a book I wasn’t interested in, I also did not get to select the topics. Then, about 10 years ago, it dawned on me that I was actually interested in it. History gives you a payback that fiction doesn’t: The stories you tell are actually true. The people really existed, and what they did affects us.”

Coming up

Her latest, "Ison of The Isles," a sequel to "Isles of the Forsaken," is due out this April. She also is working on a nonfiction title dealing with the American Revolution on the frontier.

The latter book stemmed from her discovery that the Missouri History Museum held an unpublished collection of papers by George Rogers Clark, one of the great  heroes of the Revolution in the American West. Determined to tell all of the perspectives, she relentlessly tracked down stories of the British, Indians and French habitants involved in this panoramic story. She is optimistic that Yale University Press will publish the book.

If that were not enough, “I have an idea for a science fiction novel about explorers landing on a planet that is very strange indeed,” she reveals. “It’s going to be a rollicking adventure about epistemology (the study of knowledge). Only in science fiction could you do that.”

Despite the success of her writing career, Gilman shows no signs of slowing down or giving up her day job. She considers herself fortunate because both of her professions allow her to explore the bold worlds of the past and future while letting her imagination run rampant. She is creating new ideas, places and characters while walking in the footsteps of our historical past.

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