by Timothy Doyle

#68, 7 May 2006

The Lie Agreed Upon
The Secret History Book in Science Fiction

Collecting Science Fiction

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This month's column focuses on a theme that has rapidly grown into one of my favorites - the Secret History. In a Secret History story, the author takes the commonly accepted understanding of some historical time or event and proceeds to redefine it through the introduction of fictional elements. Done properly, the end result is still completely compatible with the facts of history as we know them but fundamentally different to the reader, who is now in on the secret.

In a Secret History, the events that diverge from our accepted historical record are deliberately covered-up or somehow forgotten by way of a kind of cultural amnesia. Cover-ups are an element common to many secret history stories and are often linked to a Secret Society, with perennial favorites including the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and unnamed branches of the US Government (sometimes referred to as the Men In Black or simply The Shop). Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is a mainstream thriller example of a secret society within the Catholic Church (the Opus Dei) charged with keeping a secret that, if revealed, would fundamentally change our present day understanding of two thousand years of Western history.

If we think of history as a vast and well-ordered building with each room representing a specific place and time, then the Secret History is an Escher-scape of twisting stairways and doors in ceilings. Both buildings appear identical from the outside, but there is a world of difference inside.

Secret History stories are closely related to the Alternate History story. See "Living in Parallel: Alternate Universes in Science Fiction" for a discussion of parallel universes and alternate histories.

In fantasy and SF genres, Secret History stories incorporate fantastical elements that have shaped our history while remaining outside of the historical record. Popular media examples of this theme are television shows such as Stargate, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Roswell, and The X-Files. In addition to the link between Secret History and Secret Societies, there is an obvious link to Conspiracy Theory. In his Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute refers to this theme as "Fantasies of History" and draws additional connections to Secret Masters and Hidden Worlds. One last cross-topic is Cryptology, since the path to hidden knowledge in Secret History stories is often encoded, usually in an ancient manuscript or book. As a fascinating example, try searching the Internet for "Voynich Manuscript."

Titles of Interest related to the Voynich Manuscript:

The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich "Roger Bacon" Cipher Manuscript. Robert Sherrick Brumbaugh, Editor. Southern Illinois University Press, 1977. ISBN: 0809308088. Hardcover. Resale value: $100+.

The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma. M.E. D'Imperio. Aegean Park Press, 1981. ISBN: 0894120387. Softcover. Resale Value: $50+.

Solution of the Voynich Manuscript. Leo Levitov. Aegean Park Press, 1987. ISBN: 0894121499. Hardcover. $50+. ISBN: 0894121480. Softcover. $35.

The Friar And The Cipher: Roger Bacon And The Unsolved Mystery Of The Voynich Manuscript. Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. Doubleday, 2005. ISBN: 0767914732. Hardcover. Resale value: $10

Another interesting take on the themes of encryption and Secret History is Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomican.

The title is Latin for "Book of Hidden Names" and appears in the novel as a fictional book described as the "cryptographer's bible." The plot bounces back and forth between World War II and the efforts of a secret military unit to crack the German Enigma code and the near-future activities of a small group of private individuals to create a "data haven" where the flow of information can occur free of governmental interference and censorship. The key to the data haven's success lies in the good guys recovering two Nazi secrets: a sunken treasure in gold and an unbreakable encryption method developed too late in the war to make a difference. A heavy book at over 900 pages, so adjust your shipping accordingly!

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