Every time you read a book, or a story, or even a newspaper article, you are time-traveling. You are going backward, to the point where the author wrote the book/story/article. Anything that happened after the piece was written, no matter how relevant it is to that story, was unknown to the author at the time of writing. It’s part of the perceived problem with newspapers–they’re old news by definition, even if it’s only a few hours old. Today’s reader’s want today’s news.
Well, guess what? They ain’t gonna get it. Even tweets are dated by the time it hits your stream. It can’t be helped: You know how the stars you see at night are only light that’s thousands of years old? Even what you see in person is only a picture of something that happened micro-seconds ago. You may judge it on what you know now, but it’s a product of then.
It’s gotten to be popular to judge past people by current mores. In our field, the World Fantasy Award is being changed from a bust of H.P. Lovecraft to something to be determined, because Lovecraft was a blatant racist. (I leave it to anyone who is interested to decide whether his racism was normal for the era, and whether he should be judged by contemporary standards.) This has lead to calls for others to be so judged, a slippery slope because most fiction written more than a couple of decades ago is racist/anti-feminist/anti-something by today’s standards. (Heaven help us who will be judged by tomorrow’s standards. We don’t know what they will be.) Some writers back in the day, of course, held views ahead of their time, and some simply addressed issues obliquely, if at all. Everyone needs to be his own judge and read what he feels comfortable with.
The question I have yet to see raised, however, is how we contemporary authors handle writing fiction which is set back in the day. The past has a flavor, and sometimes it doesn’t taste so good. Obviously, we can try frame our narratives in a way that is sensitive to cultural/racial issues, and it’s easy to avoid some of the crass stereotypes (the black man whose eyes roll up in his head when he sees a ghost, for example, or a woman whose only role is to wait around and be rescued). But while we may be creatures of the present (supposedly enlightened) day, our characters are not.
For example, I have written books where the hero is a WWI army officer, or lives in the 1930s. However progressively I want to portray these people, there are limits. If I make them too modern, I lose the historical feel. On the other hand, if one of my heroes refers to a black man as “boy,” because that’s how people spoke, I could lose my reader in a flash. (Nor would I be comfortable writing that–but it would be true to the period.) Now if I’m writing a villain, that’s one thing; you’re not supposed to like him anyway. But heroes? Maybe I could avoid the problem by avoiding black characters, but that’s a cheat, at best–and what about women? How can I portray the casual sexism of the era and preserve my hero’s likeability?
It’s a fine line, and so far (I think) I’ve managed to walk it because of the circumstances of those particular books, but if I persist in writing in those universes, it’s going to become a problem. The answer, for me, will be to be as true to the story as I can without being so insensitive that I can’t stand myself. In the end, I believe it’s all any of us can do. If anyone has a better answer, I’d love to hear it.