The Forrest Gump Syndrome: Soft History, Full Of Famous People

Illustration for article titled The Forrest Gump Syndrome: Soft History, Full Of Famous People

We tend to idealize the past. We file off a lot of the rough edges, imagine everybody having better teeth, and generally tone down a lot of the ugliness. This can be problematic — especially when we soften the depiction of past atrocities. And science fiction and fantasy contribute to this.


Science fiction and fantasy are full of stories where someone visits the past (via time travel or magic.) And stories which are set at some point in history, either real history or an alternate history. And all too often, these stories run into what I call the Forrest Gump Syndrome: everything is softened, everything is boiled down to a few famous people (that present-day audiences remember), it's all sort of cozy.

That's how you end up seeing the same handful of historical figures over and over again. And why you end up with idealized depictions of Medieval Europe in which everything is all happy castles and shiny knights, rather than feudal squalor (which George R.R. Martin has attempted to correct). There's been a running debate over whether Steampunk tends to idealize imperialism, as well. I suspect that there is a link between these two problems: the focus on a few "great men" (and women) and the tendency to idealize the time they came from.

So you know what would be cool? If instead of meeting Leonardo Da Vinci for the 100 billionth time, the next time traveler met the obscure tinkerer working as a blacksmith in the nearby village. Or instead of meeting the same handful of famous kings and knights, we spent more time with the peasants who were stuck cleaning up after them. This is something that general historical fiction has tried to do more of, but I still don't see enough of it in SF and fantasy — not in books, and definitely not in movies or television.

So consider this a plea for more "realness" and focus on the people who were fucked over in history, rather than just the people who already have statues and pictures everywhere. Not just because it would be good to represent other types of people — but also because it would help us get past the dreadful dullness of Forrest Gumpification.

Welcome to Afternoon Mini-Rant, an irregular feature in which we rant for no more than two or three paragraphs. Because it's the afternoon, and we're all worn out.




While I broadly agree, describing the Middle Ages as 'feudal squalor' is blisteringly inaccurate, and, as a Medievalist, I must protest. Both pictures of the so-called Middle Ages (several centuries that encompassed hundreds of different cultures, societal movements and vast distances) are precisely the kind of soft history against which you complain

Rather than seeking out some obscure, generic feudal peasant , perhaps tell the story of a steward in a neighbouring city state, a merchant who travels to the Baltic, a young child sent to a monastry as an oblate, a midwife from Salerno, the wife of a mercenary who is away fighting for the Holy Roman Empire....

'Cos, yeah, I'm sick of this "go back in time, meet famous people thing", but but not so sick as I am of total misrepresentations of the Medieval Period as people sitting around waiting for the Renaissance (or that the broad cultural shift which we term as such hadn't already started in Da Vinci's lifetime )

There, that's my rant for the day.