Science (and History) Marches On…
There are perils in writing historical novels, science-based novels, and speculative fiction. One peril involves the impossible task of pleasing the unpleaseable, for disagreements involving the simple truths of science and history are rife. That is because there really are no simple truths, particularly in history; facts (which sometimes prove not to be facts at all) are subject to interpretation, making sense when seen from multiple viewpoints. Occasionally, incontrovertible evidence arises. With science, one particularly runs the risk of seeing accepted knowledge overturned, but that is the nature of the beast; even then, some scientists go kicking and screaming to their grave while holding on to disproven theories. But how does this affect the writer?
It affects the writer in the same way that it affects the scientist and historian. However, the writer might not have the option of discarding old theories, no matter how willing. These “facts” have been committed to paper; figuratively set in stone if the book is published. Jean Auel used the best research available at the time when she wrote Clan of the Cave Bear. Now, over thirty years later, genetic and archaeological evidence have exploded much of what she knew in regards to Neanderthal man. Her books may be no less enjoyable to her fans (I am not one of them,) but they are no longer based in reality, and she does not have the option of revising them.
Alternately, when I wrote my novel, a major plot point hinged on the fact that Richard III’s body was never found. As many of you probably know, they recently went and found the bastard under a parking lot. Amid the cognitive dissonance caused by the facial reconstruction, where he proved to be younger and better-looking than widely imagined, were the now solid facts that the “hunchback” was merely scoliosis and the withered arm was an invention. Those revelations were irrelevant to me, but the fact that there was now a body was not. However, I have more than one way out; first of all, I am writing speculative fiction involving alternate realities, so a believable cop-out is highly possible. Second of all, I am technically my own publisher, and I have the power to revise something that has already been published.
But that brings up a dilemma: should an author, if they have the power, revise a published work? In my case, I will not, for I only revise when small mistakes or typesetting errors are found. Furthermore, the power to revise opens up the possibility of abuse, for authors are notorious for their inability to stop fiddling, and some of their changes may be ill-advised or unfair to the readers of their original work. But what if they can make a scientific or historical work more relevant by updating the facts? Should they? Or should they simply trust their readers to forgive them, knowing that they used the best information available at the time?
In a further cop-out, I must admit that I don’t know the answer to this. But comments and opinions are welcome.