The Time traveler

Leaving aside all the contradictions about killing grandfathers (and not just in nursing homes in New Yuck) time travel ( a once major staple of sf – and as these things tend to cycle, probably will be again. It’s full of fascinating conundrums.

Two of the classics of the genre would be L. Sprague de Camp’s novel LEST DARKNESS FALL in which ‘Mouse’ Padway – an archaeologist – who finds himself transported back in time to Rome of 535 AD and Poul Anderson THE MAN WHO CAME EARLY (a short story) about an American Army MP Gerald Samsson (IIRC) who is transported back in time to 10th century Iceland.

Now, LEST DARKNESS FALL is one of my comfort-reads, one the 10 books I took to the Army with me, that lived in my magazine pouch. I can quote sections of it. That said, I suspect THE MAN WHO CAME EARLY is probably more realistic as to what would happen to the time-traveler. It too may be too gentle.

Mouse Padway, a small man with a great deal of knowledge, arriving in a relatively peaceful, tolerant society (for the time, exceptional) which had all sorts of peoples from across Europe and North Africa mingling (so he didn’t stand out) with a grasp of Latin and Italian (thereby meaning he could work out the language) sets about trying to stop the dark ages falling across Europe, by introducing 20th century inventions. De Camp being De Camp some of it is probably satire, as what he introduces may well not be our finest! But he changes the course of history with what he knows.

On the other hand, Gerald – despite being an engineering student and having a gun, and being sure he can use his 20th century knowledge to ‘uplift’ the Icelanders. He fails dismally. He lacks the practical knowledge and skills, and his ideas rest on a huge bed of prior-existing skills, equipment and knowledge. He doesn’t understand the culture he finds himself in and assumes that his is superior, and more relevantly, that the Icelanders will find them superior and accept them. He ends up failing and getting killed.

They’re both good stories, but LEST DARKNESS FALL requires a sequence of special circumstances to work. De Camp didn’t make success too easy, but firstly, his character was much more au fait with history than most people would be, secondly, was put into an era when people of many cultures mixed fairly safely under the Gothic rule of Italy, and thirdly Padway was much more cautious about ‘fitting in’ with the people -fishing for their beliefs and positions and claiming to share them) Gerald seemed to open his mouth to change feet, knowing little and coming from a diametrically opposed set of cultural values. Think about it, that’s probably where most of us sit, dropped back into 99% of human history. Even the Taliban are more similar than people a thousand years back.

It’s an interesting exercise to imagine how you would cope dropped back in an earlier time and place, with just what you have on your person. I suspect the right answer might be ‘very briefly’. And if you did… just what could you do to change things, to improve things, even just for yourself. Or even just to survive.

What do you do? where would you go? How do you try to survive? You’re a computer programmer in the Neolithic. A bank clerk in 3000 BC Australia. Or a HR manager in Ancient Sparta…

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

40 thoughts on “The Time traveler

    1. I’d be better off on a desert island than in among most of the human settlements of history. At least i can make fires and things from scratch. I’d be a slave or dead in most of the rest.

  1. A fairly bleak example of the type is KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. American black woman is shifted back in time to the early-to-mid 19th century, and of course she finds herself on her (white) ancestor’s plantation. Of course he’s a brute and a rapist. Eventually she kills him, but presumably after he’s raped her foremother. Which appears to be the reason for her time-travel in the first place.
    Read it once, NOT a comfort book. But I always had to take Butler in small doses and I gave up completely on her later works.

  2. Oddly, I re-read “Lest Darkness Fall” a few weeks ago, and “The Man Who Came Early” (for the first time) a bit before that.

    > You’re a computer programmer in the Neolithic. A bank clerk in 3000 BC Australia. Or a HR manager in Ancient Sparta…

    They’re stoop labor, for the most part. Medical doctor? Marine biologist? Oceanographer? Astronomer? How about highway worker, truck driver, carpenter, forester, even farmer? All are at the apexes of different technical pyramids, and useless when separated from their civilizations.

    Gerald Roberts in Anderson’s story was a trainee or student engineer. (the story isn’t clear about that) But he was obviously poorly trained, in that he’d been taught a bunch of things, but not the basic how-and-why and how-we-got-here. Which is the norm nowadays, but much different from my engineering textbooks from the 1850s to the 1920s. Roberts didn’t even know what he didn’t know, which is what kept tripping him up.

    Anderson saw the problem clearly in 1955, but “The Man Who Came Early” was likely too much of a downer for most readers to see the lesson. He could write some outstanding stuff when he chose, but way too much of his output was “the universe sucks and you might as well give up.”

  3. Tim Powers pretty much owned the genre with his “The Anubis Gates”.
    I don’t think it’ll ever be bettered.

    (His “Three Days to Never” is also good, and kind of encroaches into the same territory, but it’s weird enough to be niche. And the historical reality of Einstein as a person is warped enough to be extremely off-putting to people who have only encountered the myth, which pushes it deeper niche. But I did enjoy how the publisher billed it as “a postmodern masterpiece” when it was partially a brutal beat down of postmodernism.)

    1. Not one, but *two* people who also liked “The Anubis Gates!”

      I first read it all night, finished it about four in the morning, flipped back to the beginning, and started it over again, reading until I had to get ready to go to work… I’ve bought many copies and passed them out to friends, who were much less impressed than I was.

      Powers knitted a bunch of seemingly-random threads together, a piece at a time, moving steadily from “random WTF?” to “well, of course, that was obvious”, so smoothly it seemed inevitable. It was quite the trick, and one Powers never quite managed to pull off again. His later books went through the motions, but he never made things jell like the Gates.

  4. You didn’t mention Leo Frankowski’s ‘The Cross-Time Engineer’.

    Modern mechanical engineer Conrad Schwartz was finishing up a hiking holiday in the Tatra mountains when he got drunk, stumbled into a time machine while looking for the bathroom, passed out, and woke up in Poland in November 1229. He went on to have many stirring adventures while kicking off the Industrial Revolution 600 years early.

    1. That series IMO was “wish fulfillment” on the part of Frankowski.

      Of course, the series was also full of Deus ex machina provided by Conrad’s Uncle(?) who invented the time machine that took Conrad back.

      Oh, I threw the last book across the room. Hated the main character of that book.

  5. Never went out of style in Korea. Seems like nearly 1/4 of all k-dramas that my wife and I have watched over the past several months have some sort of time travel mechanism in them. Actually just finished a Japanese one a couple of days ago that used it too.

  6. Assuming something didn’t kill me right away, I’d focus my efforts on teaching handwashing and boiling water.

    After all, we all know that water is filled with invisible, miniature demons that can kill you! You get them on your hands all the time. They make you sick. Washing your hands washes the invisible demons away and boiling water kills them, at least temporarily. Saying prayers while washing or boiling water improves the effectiveness.

    1. Washing your hands with *strong soap* helps keep the demons away. The kind of soap that actually kills bacteria, which until fairly recently wasn’t so good for you/your skin either.

      And find a way to protect yourself from accusations of witchcraft and curses, too. Because your admonitions about demons saved this person, but you just moved the curse to someone else.

    1. I liked some others better, but I admit “Lightning” was pretty good. Better than Koontz’ usual output, too.

  7. “It’s an interesting exercise to imagine how you would cope dropped back in an earlier time and place, with just what you have on your person.”

    I used to dress for that. ~:D Proper boots and a decent coat figured prominently in my planning, as did a magnifying glass and a proper jack knife. With those basics you can survive at least a little while. As to “fitting in with the locals” that would not be happening. I don’t fit in here. Drop me in ancient Somewhere and it would be awkward.

    Once upon a time I read about the Smith & Wesson Airweight Scandium. With the .38 caliber round, it could pass as an unremarkable pistol all the way back to 1927 when the Colt Detective’s Special was first sold. Seen in a holster or even in somebody’s hand, it would look like a normal revolver. But if a local picked it up, they would instantly know it was wrong. The gun would be half the weight of a regular steel framed snubbie. If it were examined by “Scientists” as we usually see in movies and pulps, they’d be faced with an impossible alloy of aluminum that was far stronger than it ought to be. Perfect time traveler’s gun.

    1. The movie Timestalkers: the plot hinges on a historian who noticed the pistol carried by a man in an Old West photograph was a modern revolver in .357 Magnum…

  8. I’d never make it. 1) very bad eyes. 2) I bleed too easily 3) stand out in 90% of the world [only northern Europe is safe-ish]. I do have skills that I could probably parlay into survival, at least short term, but long term? Nope. And being female? Well, we know how that goes in 99% of the world before the Industrial Revolution.

  9. Well, now, some HR managers that I have encountered would do just fine in Ancient Sparta.

    Unlimited supply of Helots to terrorize? Check.

    Palace intrigues? Check.

    Stabbing people in the back (with added bonus of using a real knife)? Check.

    For them, what’s not to love?

  10. I’d probably die quickly if traveling to the past. Traveling to the future, I think would give me better odds.

  11. And, speaking from experience, as a writer, keeping track of multiple time jumps is difficult, *using* multiple time jumps to manipulate short term issues take much logicing and planning, and basically sprained my brain. I am trying hard to avoid doing that again!

    1. When you think you’ve finally figured out this plotting thing, it is inadvisable to decide on a next project that looks like a three goatgagger volume epic, with parallel Earths, multiple kinds of time travel, and divination chess. Plotting things out in the final timeline, with an MC who doesn’t time travel, or really make their important decisions based on future knowledge, helps some, but does not reduce the project complexity to sane, reasonable, or tractable.

  12. My idea for a time-travel story: An irritating professor-type guy gives lectures on the nobility of the Native Americans and the badness of modern America. He is transported to a Sioux tribe in the Dakotas, circa 1850 or so.

    The story is told from the standpoint of the tribe’s chief, a decent sort of guy. His problem is *what to do with the new arrival*…he can’t ride a horse very well, he refuses to fight (and wouldn’t be very good at it anyway)…maybe make him the storyteller? No, the tribe already has one of those, and also, this new guy’s stories are *boring*.

  13. A bit OT but if the time travel could be managed back and forth and wasn’t just a one-way trip, I remember thinking that I could probably make some good money. Just buy whatever I could afford from the local supermarket spice section and take it back to medieval Venice or wherever for sale. Small pocket mirrors might be good too.

    1. I would do things the other way, go back and buy up things like the first issue of Action Comics or The Shadow and return to sell them in mint condition.

      1. Also, STORE those things and jump back yourself. Nothing will arouse more suspicion that a BRAND-NEW copy.

        1. Guess that means you’d better find a good law firm or bank that will still be around however many decades to centuries later.

      2. Go back in time, sell your goods, buy items like the above and return home with them.

  14. A good time travel starts in the middle continues to the end by way of the beginning, and is utterly satisfying bwhen it concludes. Thus. entirely unrealistic.

    My two favorites of this sort are Diana Wynne Jones’s Hexwood, which I thought the sine qua non, until John Wright topped her story with City Beyond Time.

    The “goes back in time” Romances (think Arthurian not bodice-ripping) that I still go back to are Time at the Top by Ormondroyd (“skirts that go ‘swish”), A Traveller in Time by Uttley which mixes the fatalism of Anderson and the hopeful spirit of DeCamp in Elizabethan England, Crusade in Jeans by Beckman about a teenage boy who ends up in one of the children’s crusades, and, of course, the Doomsday Book in which nothing gets changed in time travel, but that bit that is beyond time, one’s soul*.


    Now that I start thinking back, so many more come to mind… Court of the stone children (Time is a River without banks), Forerunner Foray (time travel on an alien planet)… Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Time,..

    (*such a shame about Connie Willis)

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