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Secret Histories: Procopius, Powers, Tidhar and Griffin

Hide-Me-Among-the-GravesThis week's title - inspired by Tim Powers and fellow guests Lavie Tidhar and Kate Griffin - is "secret histories". The name was rather unashamedly lifted from John Berlyne's masterful bibliography and appreciation of Tim Powers (you can leer at it here), but, like all of our Kitschies events, we've chosen the term as it represents a certain thematic approach to speculative fiction.

The term "secret history" stems from the Sixth Century historian Procopius. While fussing about in an official capacity for the Emperor Justinian, Empress Theodora and their (fairly legendary) general Belisarius, he wrote a survey of their military successes (History of the Wars) and a glowing treatise on the buildings of the day (On Buildings) - both volumes filled with effusive praise for powers that be.

Yet Procopius also wrote the Secret History (or Anecdota), in which he shreds his sponsors to pieces - accusing them of everything up to (and including) being demons in human form. 

Procopius' introduction explains not only his reason for this sudden reversal, but also details exactly what is a "secret history":

"It would not have been expedient for me to describe these events fully while those who were their authors were still alive; for, had I done so, I could neither have escaped the notice of the multitude of spies, nor, had I been detected, could I have avoided a most horrible death; for I could not even have relied upon my nearest relatives with confidence. Indeed, I have been forced to conceal the real causes of many of the events recounted in my former books.

"It will now be my duty, in this part of my history, to tell what has hitherto remained untold, and to state the real motives and origin of the actions which I have already recounted.... I reflect that what I am about to write will not appear to future generations either credible or probable, especially when a long lapse of years shall have made them old stories; for which reason I fear that I may be looked upon as a romancer, and reckoned among playwrights.

"However, I shall have the courage not to shrink from this important work, because my story will not lack witnesses; for the men of today, who are the best informed witnesses of these facts, will hand on trustworthy testimony of their truth to posterity."*

The key definition is buried in the second paragraph - the idea of recounting "what has hitherto remained untold". Not only does this reflect on the idea of secrecy, but it implies that a "secret history" is, in some way, going to contradict the "known history" or official record of events. Although he addresses his own safety in the first paragraph, Procopius' primary concern is that his book will be dismissed as incredible, improbable or simply outright fantasy.

Extrapolating from the above, we effectively have three levels of secret history, separated by their relative distance from the historical record.

First, the (positive or negative) revisionist recounting of recorded historical events. Procopius' own work, for example (er... not counting the literal presence of demons).

Second, a plausible, but fictional, story that incorporates recorded historical events as part of the narrative. For example, Caleb Carr's The Alienist or Frederick Forsythe's The Day of the Jackal.

Third, a fictional explanation for recorded historical events. For example, James Ellroy's American Tabloid. This also includes most historical thrillers and fiction, and, by extension, contemporary thrillers as well. (Take, say, most serial killer fiction - plausible, takes place in our world and may/may not alter the course of recorded history.)

All of the above take the historical record as an unchangeable absolute, but provide revisionist or alternative explanations. 

The Violent Century

Of course, the great benefit of speculative and fantastic fiction is that authors are no longer limited by historical reality. If Procopius has the courage to provide revisionist explanations, other authors have had the bravery to revise history itself. Once we cross this boundary, we have two additional levels to add:

Fourth, a plausible, but fictional, story that revises historical events as part of the narrative. For example, Lawrence Block's Killing Castro

Fifth, an implausible story that incorporates or revises historical events as part of the narrative. For example, most alternate histories, and any that include a fantastical or speculative element, especially magic: Elizabeth Bear's Promethean Age (magic), Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus (more magic), Naomi Novik's Temeraire (dragons) and many others. Again, by extension, most contemporary fantasy that's not set in a secondary world would fit into this category as well - Kate Griffin's Matthew Swift, for example, or Christopher Farnsworth's Nathaniel Cade.

These areas are suspiciously broad - especially our third and fith layers, which could be extended to include pretty much any piece of fiction ever written. But they're all united by the underlying sense of, if you'll forgive the redundancy, secrecy: secret histories subvert a status quo that is assumed by both the reader and, quite often, the book's own protagonist. At the bare minimum, they are informing the reader (and, again, the protagonist) of a level of detail that had gone previously unnoticed. At their most extreme, a secret history directly contradicts our understanding of the world around us.

The glass godSecret histories are seductive as well, as they try to convince us that their explanation is the correct one. Some of the best secret histories - the three authors we've chosen to feature - all face, and achieve, Herculean tasks: they persuade the reader of the impossible. 

Tim Powers' Last Call and Hide Me Among the Graves both contain magical systems that are internally consistent, weirdly plausible and almost frighteningly viral in the way it influences the reader's perceptions of reality and causality.

Lavie Tidhar, in The Violent Century, adds a science fictional overlay to the catastrophic events of the past hundred years and then investigates the change (if any) it makes. Century, like Last Call, also has a recurring theme of the 'observer's bias' - simply by witnessing events, one shapes them; by reading a secret history, we become part of it. 

Kate Griffin's Matthew Swift series (including Stray Souls and The Glass God) uses that same persuasive effect, but more joyously. Matthew Swift and Sharon Li both unveil the hidden, magical truth of the world around them; again, an irreversible process that infects the reader and leaves us eternally optimistic that we too will be let in on the secret.

All three authors interweave the imaginative potential of the fantastic with the recognisable and everyday, providing new ways of perceiving and understanding the world around us. While Procopius claims his Secret History 'will not lack witnesses', Powers, Tidhar and Griffin create them. Their stories that manage to achieve the impossible by convincing us of the implausible; secrets that change the way we see the world.


*From The Secret History of the Court of Justinian, this translatation from the Greek was privately printed by the Athenian Society in 1896 and limited to 250 volumes.

Secret Histories - a week of guests, content, reviews and other treats - culimating in an evening at Blackwell's Charing Cross with Tim Powers, Lavie Tidhar and Kate Griffin