Thu
Aug 15 2013 9:00am
Parachronism, Possibility, and Penny-Farthing Futurism

“Peace! Count the clock.”

It isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. But it is one of the Bard’s rare chronological mistakes. When the clock chimes in Julius Caesar, most readers wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Except the chiming clock wasn’t around in 44 BC, so Brutus and Cassius were far more likely to be looking at a sundial than counting chimes. Shakespeare is by no means the only writer to have made such an error.

In Titanic, Jack mentions ice fishing on the manmade Lake Wissota in Wisconsin—which was finished in 1917, five years after the disastrous shipwreck. While we’re on the subject of Leo DiCaprio, Baz Luhrmann recently ruffled a few feathers by scoring his adaptation of The Great Gatsby with modern hip-hop, despite the film being set in the Roaring Twenties—an era lauded for its jazz. When Myrtle Wilson’s character turns on a gramophone and Kanye West comes leaping out, it represents an opportunity lost—I’m speaking as someone whose favorite singer is Billie Holiday—and does considerable damage to Luhrmann’s attempt to make this feel like 1922.

Anachronism (or prochronism) is, in general, something we criticize in art. It refers either to an erroneous dating of a historical event, or a person or object that appears in the wrong era—for example, a mobile phone in 1630, or Marilyn Monroe in 1984. It knocks our sense of immersion if people or objects are out of clock. This particularly applies to books that embrace realism—books that aim to capture the atmosphere of a period—but it extends even to historical fantasy. It almost makes you shudder to imagine Ned Stark sitting down to watch TV, or Bilbo Baggins checking Facebook. We might argue that fantasy overrides and defeats temporal concerns—there are no agreed limits in fantasy, which is part of what makes it so exciting—but good fantasy is often rooted in a particular historical period, whether medieval, like Game of Thrones, or late twentieth century, like Harry Potter. There’s something wonderfully nineties about the wizarding world.

A lesser-known variant of anachronism is parachronism. The key difference is possibility. It is impossible for Marilyn Monroe to realistically turn up in 1984—she died in 1962. But it is possible for a man to be wearing a ruff or using a quill in 2005—just not very likely, given how silly he’d look. This is a parachronism. The Greek root of the word is παρά, or “on the side.” It’s a less defiant word than anachronism, the root of which implies going against time, resisting its natural course. Parachronism is more of an oddity than an error.

When I was constructing the world of The Bone Season, I initially envisioned the Scion citadel of London as a high-tech, futuristic cityscape, appropriate to its setting in 2059, and Sheol I—the Oxford of the book’s future, which has been converted from university to penal colony—as the polar opposite: an “old world,” fossilized, frozen since September, 1859. In that year, in my narrator Paige’s world, the Carrington Event—a massive solar storm—changed the course of history. It is at that point that her timeline diverges from ours.

The two worlds were supposed to be distinctly different—yet as I designed Scion, I found myself giving the citadel a nineteenth-century feel, as if 1859 had spilled onto its streets. Scion denizens wear clothes that, while not from the nineteenth century, are inspired by the style of that era: lace-up boots, blazers, pageboy hats and waistcoats. Its criminal underclass uses slang based on thieves’ cant. They even eat like Victorians—Paige’s favorite snacks are roasted chestnuts, a popular street food in nineteenth-century England. Yet there’s also the sort of technology you might expect from a novel set in 2059. Denizens read off “data pads,” and when Paige is badly injured, her wounds are numbed with a miracle painkiller called “scimorphine.”

The real symbol of parachronism in the book is the gramophone in the Founder’s Tower, where Paige is imprisoned. It’s not impossible for a gramophone to appear in 2059, but it’s unusual, given the technology we’ve replaced it with over the years. The songs it plays—including tunes from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby—remind Paige that the past is inescapable. Every event in her story takes place because of that day in 1859.

We have many genre classifications based on temporal features, but when I was looking for one that might fit The Bone Season, none of them seemed to work. It’s not quite steampunk—despite the Victorian influence, there’s no steam. (We could also argue that steampunk inserts futuristic technologies into a Victorian setting, rather than Victorian features into a futuristic setting.) It’s not quite cyberpunk, which is far more high-tech. It’s the wrong era for dieselpunk, which is rooted in wartime aesthetics. Maybe it’s something like retro-futurism, if we take that term as literally meaning “retro future.” However, in its proper form, that term evokes a more specific epoch: writers in the 1960s envisioning the future, inspired by the rapid technological advances of that era. So I was relieved when Gurdeep Mattu at Bloomsbury came up with “penny-farthing futurism.” Characters in my book would raise an eyebrow if they saw a penny-farthing, but not for very long—they expect hints of the Victorian era in their lives.

Does the book’s world feel like a realistic 2059? Probably not. After all, it’s spliced with fantasy. But that’s the beauty of fiction, especially fantastical fiction: we can suspend our disbelief when it comes to most things, even the passage of time and the limits of space.

Authors shouldn’t be afraid to experiment when constructing imaginary worlds and timelines. So long as you’re consistent—not neccearily realistic, but consistent enough to be believable—you can do whatever you like. Fiction is a playground. The root of the word is the Latin fictionem, meaning “a fashioning or feigning,” and the Old French ficcion, meaning “dissimulation; ruse; invention;” and “something invented.” All these meanings give authors license not only to create, but to bend the rules and redefine truth. Let’s do it more often!


Samantha Shannon was born and raised in West London, where she started writing at the age of fifteen. She recently finished a degree in English Language and Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Her first novel, The Bone Season, is available August 20th. Follow Samantha on Twitter and visit her blog.

9 comments
Joe Pace
1. Joe Pace
My new novel Lost Harvest is a retelling of the Mutiny on the Bounty set in 2187, in the context of a British Empire that never eroded - the United Kingdom of Earth. There are endless homages to and echoes of Bligh-era naval traditions and language in the Royal Fleet - interesting to hear of a phrase that could effectively describe what I'm trying to do. Parachronism. Got it.
Joe Pace
2. Lindsay Leggett
Great article, Shannon.

Though I slightly disagree about Gatsby (Mainly because Luhrman's worlds take on their own reality in my mind), I think anachronisms can be some writers' biggest oversight while building their work. In my editing especially I find a lot of the developmental issues in manuscripts have to do with "logical" issues relating to anachronisms and other issues that don't quite fit.

But (as you know), I completely loved what you did with SciLo and Sheol I. I got totally lost everytime we were in Scion and hope to spend more time there in the future!

Great article. Keep it up!

**And for readers, The Bone Season is fantastic, so don't miss it!**
Joe Pace
3. MJSS
one of the Bard’s rare chronological mistakes

Wait, what?

Hamlet is set at a time when England was paying tribute to Denmark; Hamlet goes to the University of Wittenberg (est. 1502), and makes jokes about the Protestant Reformation. The battle at the beginning of Macbeth takes place in the year 1040, and includes cannon. A Midsummer Night's Dream gives the mythological Theseus the title of Duke of Athens, which was established during the Fourth Crusade. In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra plays billiards, a game invented in the 15th century.

Anachronisms in Shakespeare aren't rare; they're the normal state of affairs. He simply didn't care about chronological consistency.
Joe Pace
4. DrPedanticStrikes!
Except the chiming clock wasn’t around in 44 AD, so Brutus and Cassius were far more likely to be looking at a sundial than counting chimes.
Of course, Brutus and Cassius weren't around in 44 AD either... seeing as Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. But what's a century or so among friends?
Joe Pace
5. Josh Buechler
The use of modern music in period films makes sense if the music is intended to set a mood. We associate the music of the 20's with a far gone past. For the characters and the people who lived at the time though, it was just music. It was the music of their present, something to dance to, not a nostalgia motivator or period indicator.
Joseph Newton
6. crzydroid
It was my understanding that the anachronisms in Shakespeare were intentional. So much so that the movie version of Titus Andronicus went so far as to have things like remote control lights.
Del C
7. del
The biggest anachronism of all must be The Winter's Tale, set ninety million years ago or thereabouts, when Bohemia last had a coast. They should do a production with plesiosaurs some time.
Tian Kai (Thompson) Gao
8. tkThompson
Parachronism, interesting. It would probably depend on the culture too, wouldn't it? For example, roasted chestnuts (which is pretty good by the way) still exist as a street food in China, I'm not sure how popular it is but you can certainly find it, even in major urban areas.

@7: exit, pursued by a dinosaur.
Birgit
9. birgit
Roasted chestnuts are sold on German chrismas markets.

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