September 2017 . . . .

“Magnificent Anachronism — Part One”

I have a summer cold. It’s just one of those things, but I have to admit that because I associate colds with winter, it’s probably troubling me more than it should. So I’ve just taken cough medicine with codeine, and you may read into that what you will.

I’m not alone when it comes to finding anachronism akin to literary fingernails on a chalkboard. But I do suspect that we’re a small club, not particularly chatty with one another and all behind on our dues. I understand. Anachronism just doesn’t occur to everyone as something needing attention.

Let’s define it, shall we? Here’s what pops up in a general online search: a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned. Well, first of all, that seems almost deliberately obtuse. And by that, I mean wrong. For a thing to be an anachronism, it must be unable to belong in the period in which it exists. So it must, by all logic, not be “conspicuously old-fashioned,” but the exact opposite of that — a new-fashioned thing that cannot be there. Like a fleeting glimpse of a Casio wristwatch on a child waving at the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers marching into Savannah in one of my favorite movies.

Apparently there is a cottage industry collecting snippets of video of all of the continuity errors, technical flubs, wandering grips and gaffers and time-and-place errors in the history of Hollywood. The implication being that at least a few folks actually have a grasp of what does and doesn’t belong historically in a movie and they like the humorous results. And some take their business very seriously. Umbrellas in ancient Troy and kilts in 13th Century Scotland. (I didn’t know that one. Hell, none of us knew there was a Scotland until the 1950s Gene Kelly movie Brigadoon, which is probably Gaelic for trousers, anyhow.)

But the truth is that movies suffer under the withering eye of historical accuracy, because that’s not even why they exist. If it can’t be told in two hours, scrap it. If it can’t be told to a wide audience, scrap it. And editing a movie to prevent Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes from ordering chocolate chip cookies in 1928 is expensive. I mean yikes expensive. Sorry, Toll House . . . .

Writers, on the other hand, have no such excuse. They inhabit a world of their own creation — even if they choose a real world, with real history and timeline and details. There is no committee that has to approve what their characters say, what they do and where they go. So an anachronism is unforgivable?

No, don’t be silly. It’s just a mistake.

But for me, the student of both writing and history, it’s . . . off-putting. The problem is, however, that discussing them is a perfect example of getting your panties in a wad. People who don’t know history well, and therefore don’t much care about the error, think you’re a

  1. Know it all.
  2.  
  3.  
  4. Jerk, for trying to spoil it.
  5.  
  6.  
  7. A bit of an ass who finds some fault in everything.
  8.  
  9.  

And that’s a problem, because they’re all . . . ahem . . . true. Or at least partially (read substantially) true. But it’s not my fault. Someone has to be that person who fixes mistakes.

Here are a couple of examples that have crossed my Christian Hulsmeyer invented (based on study and research by Heinrich Hertz from seminal work on electromagnetism by James Clerk Maxwell) radar.

I was reading a pretty good book about an alternative mid-20th century history. Don’t even get me started on what kind of goat-rodeo you create when you have pertinent smoking-gun details in an alternative history (in the subset of speculative fiction, it is the strange, backwards trousers wearing cousin to science-fiction. Ahh, but I love it so . . . ) because once you break the timeline with a “what-if” you have to suspend your planar thinking that many seemingly unrelated changes are also probable as well as possible. Anyway, in this volume it was the 1930s, and a major character was on a ship and feeling sea-sick, and took Dramamine. The alarum of curiosity went off in my head. Dramamine wasn’t invented in the 1930s. It existed, but not for motion sickness. And I looked it up. Bingo. Late 1940s.

Why on Earth, you may ask, would you look that up? Who cares when Dramamine was invented? And worse, just shut up, because you’re ruining the story for me.

I’m sorry, but there’s a point here, and of course and unfortunately it requires a bit of explanation. Did you know that Lord Nelson (the British admiral who fought the French in the Napoleonic wars) suffered from seasickness? If you’ve ever been even a little bit seasick, you will know that this had to have an effect on his . . . cognitive reasoning during difficult situations, just as migraines had an effect on George Patton. T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) suffered from motion-sickness riding camels. And there was no medicine for all of the men on ships on June 5th, 1944, in the English Channel storm just before D-Day, any more than there was a medicine for the Spanish army in the Armada in 1588.

How did I know about Dramamine? Because Pop didn’t have Dramamine (or scopolamine, before it was branded) available to him when he needed it to fly home from Guam in ’46, and, boy, did that change his life. Hated flying from that moment onward.

If you have some spare time, give scopolamine or hyoscine a google. Made from Deadly Nightshade. First written up in 1881. Lots of important uses. Lots of scary side-effects. But on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines. It’s also called the most dangerous medicine in the world. Holy crap. Kind of cool.

Anyhow, a major character can’t solve a problem with a solution that doesn’t yet exist. It was intended as a nice concrete detail, but it went wrong in the application.

So what? you ask. So it’s off-putting to me. What’s the big deal with such a minor mistake?

I guess my point is who’s reading historical fiction? People who ask “what’s the big deal about not knowing your history?” Or people who want me to find the mistakes and bring them to their attention.

Or some third set in the Venn Diagram that I haven’t even considered, because I was busy taking cough medicine. Yeah, that’s a possibility, too.

Oh, shut up, will you?