Wednesday, 3 October 2012

In The Past

For anyone who has traveled into the past, particularly into the far past, there must come a moment when the reality of where and when he is suddenly hits him in the face. He is seeing and hearing neither a dream nor a drama but the real world in real time. He is here and now physically present in a period that he previously regarded as historical. It is his home era that has become unreal. In fact, not having happened yet, it lacks even that degree of reality that we can ascribe to events that have occurred and thus have become safely embedded in the partly known past.

A few thousand years before his own birth, a time traveler has become part of a period when it is possible that what he remembers of the twentieth or twenty first century might never come to be. How does he know that he is not a temporal anomaly? Is the future that he remembers definitely predetermined or merely potential? Anyone around him would, if asked, deny the possibility of skyscrapers, supersonic aircraft, subway trains, space probes, satnav, solar power or the Soviet Union. How confident is he in his recollections of them? How likely are any of them in the first place?

Several of Poul Anderson's characters have this experience. In The Corridors Of Time (London, 1968), Malcolm Lockridge calculates that he is now alive about four thousand years before his own birth. He mentally reviews the world that he has entered:

a Cretan sea king;
the General Grant Tree a seedling;
bronze in the Mediterranean region;
Northern Europe neolithic;
a dolmen raised only a few generations ago;
before Christ and even before Abraham, he is in a Denmark not yet entered by the Danes.

"The strangeness seeped through him like a physical cold." (p. 34)

At about the same time but in The Dancer From Atlantis (London, 1977), Duncan Reid is "...stunned by an avalanche of experiences and impressions like none he had imagined - for no historical novelist could give him the total reality..." (p. 51)

Reid sails past a Crete ruled by the Minos in his Labyrinth towards an Athens where he will meet Prince Theseus, yet he remembers as a boy reading " a hero named Theseus slew the gruesome Minotaur..." (p.52). Theseus will tell him that the seven youths and seven maidens of Athenian nobility are not sacrificed to the Minotaur but kept hostage "...till the next lot arrives." (p. 76) Thus, they spend nine years at an impressionable age under Cretan influence before returning home to rule. Anderson reasons towards a realistic political manipulation of the hostages by the Minos.

Jack Finney wrote high quality nostalgic time travel fiction focused on turn of the century New York. Anderson matches him with this scene in Victorian London:

"This was the first moment that the reality of time travel struck home to Everard. He had known it with the top of his mind, been duly impressed, but it was, for his emotions, merely exotic. Now, clopping through a London he did not know in a hansom cab (not a tourist-trap anachronism, but a working machine, dusty and battered); smelling an air which held more smoke than a twentieth-century city but no gasoline fumes; seeing the crowd which milled past - gentlemen in bowlers and top hats, sooty navvies, long-skirted women, and not actors but real, talking, perspiring, laughing and sombre human beings off on real business - it hit him with full force that he was here. At this moment his mother had not been born; his grandparents were young couples just getting settled to harness; Grover Cleveland was President of the United States and Victoria was Queen of England; Kipling was writing and the last Indian uprisings in America had yet to was like a blow on the head." (Guardians Of Time (London, 1964), pp. 23-24)

I felt obliged to quote that passage in its entirety. In fact, I had to stop short of the following paragraph where the two Time Patrolmen discuss the significance of the scene. As in many of his descriptive passages, Anderson mentions details, lists human activities and appeals to several of the senses, telling us what Everard sees, hears ("...clopping...") and smells. And, as I said at the beginning, the experience hits him hard.

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