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Guest Post: Catherine Schaff-Stump on Acceptable Anachronism

Cover art for Pawn of IsisAcceptable Anachronism

By Catherine Schaff-Stump

Sometimes when you look at visions of the future, you cannot help but see the past. The two examples that come immediately to my mind, child of the 1970s that I am, are The Jetsons and EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth. The future comes in flavors of mod miniskirts, polyester jumpsuits, and Blade Runner’s giant 1980s shoulder pads. I could go on about what the future gets right and what it gets absolutely wrong, but this is not an article about the future. It is an article about the past, just as tricky an undiscovered country for the writer.

If the future is really our past, or at least a time forward extrapolated from a particular point, the past is a marriage of reasonable research and what is acceptable in the now. There are branches of fiction where accuracy is vital and paramount (a particular brand of Regency romance never fudges), but for the most part, we authors have to use what we find, and at the same time find ways to keep that from being objectionable to the reader who lives in our time.

What do I mean by this? Well, let me bring up a particularly objectionable problem from the past as an example. If you’ve read any of the original Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers, you know there are delightful depictions of everyone’s favorite Disney-ized nanny Mary Poppins. There are richly imagined fantasy characters for the Banks children to interact with, and there is … an incredible streak of racism so bad that I quit reading instantly when I stumbled upon it. I’ve had similar encounters in the work of P. G. Wodehouse (black face anyone?) and in Roald Dahl (don’t even get me started on the origins of the Oompa Loompas.)

As a modern reader, I couldn’t stomach any of this. It was unacceptable to me to read it. I know these sorts of problems pop up in representations of the past in modern writing. How do you represent a pseudo-Victorian society in your steampunk novel if you don’t address the repressed roles of women, and racist ideas that permeated society? Are you doomed to use your characters as mouth pieces for ideas that you find offensive? Will you fall prey to the stereotype of the one exceptional, say, woman, who isn’t like all the other repressed women? How do you handle it?

I contend there are acceptable anachronisms in historical fantasy, things we are going to do because a modern reader won’t like our work otherwise. While we are writing about the past, we must also write in the now to our audience of now. Take a look at a show like Downtown Abbey or the 1995 Pride and Prejudice if you want to see creators grapple with issues of repression well, if not perfectly.

In my series, The Klaereon Scroll, the magical families of the world operate with full knowledge that while individuals can be intolerant of each other, as magicians, they must band together to their mutual benefit. Women keep their own family names. Magic is available to all, in spite of its initial appearance of being a classist construct. I have no hope of recreating the past. I am trying to write a fantasy flavored by the past, which will also appeal to a modern reader.

As fantasists, we have the added bonus of reinventing our societies because we are not entirely re-creating the past. Nisi Shawl’s Everfair begins with heinous history, but extends from that history a pluralism, which amazes and excites the reader. Stephanie Burgis’ series The Harwood Spellbook explores gender in a reversed society where women are considered strong and serious, and men are the more emotional sex. We do not have to recreate an imperfect past. Recreating the past is probably impossible anyway. We can only approximate it, and as speculative fiction writers, we can improve upon it.


Cath Schaff-Stump writes speculative fiction for children and adults, everything from humor to horror. She is the author of the Klaereon Scroll series, the most recent of which is The Pawn of Isis, coming in March 2019. Cath lives and works in Iowa with her husband. During the day, she teaches English to non-native speakers at a local community college. Other recent fiction has been published by Paper Golem Press, Daydreams Dandelion Press, and in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Cath is a co-host on the writing and geek-life fan podcast Unreliable Narrators. You can find her online at Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, @cathschaffstump, cathschaffstump.com, and unreliablenarrators.net.

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