Time travel considerations.

Sprague DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall was first published in 1939. It was one of the first coherent time travel stories and quite well written. The author created a humorous,and informative tale of a history professor who ends up in 6th century Rome and ends up changing the flow of events. The genre has become extremely popular recently, especially with Russian writers. Some send back whole battleships and countries full of knowledgeable people, others use a single protagonist, naked, unarmed and ignorant.

In Lest Darkness Fall, Professor Padway falls into the past while on vacation in Rome. Once he figures out that something isn’t right, he starts by taking an inventory of his pockets.

He strolled up an alley to be out of sight and began going through his pockets. The roll of Italianbank notes would be about as useful as a broken five-cent mousetrap. No, even less; you mightbe able to fix a mousetrap. A book of American Express traveler’s checks, a Roman street-car transfer, an Illinois driver’s license, a leather case full of keys-all ditto. His pen, pencil, and lighter would be useful as long as ink, leads, and lighter fuel held out. His pocket knife and his watchwould undoubtedly fetch good prices, but he wanted to hang onto them as long as he could.He counted the fistful of small change. There were just twenty coins, beginning with four ten-liresilver cartwheels. They added up to forty-nine lire, eight centesimi, or about five dollars. The silver and bronze should be exchangeable. As for the nickel fifty-centesimo and twenty-centesimo pieces, he’d have to see.

I am going to compare these to what a “modern man” of 2012 might have with him. Bank notes, credit cards, house and car keys would all be of limited use. Today’s coins have little bullion value, though might bring some money as art objects. Cell phones, flashlights and PDAs would hold out until the charge would go away, unless it’s a rare solar powered device. I doubt many people could make a phone or a laptop charger from scratch. Pens, notepads, watches, knives would all be quite handy, as would multi-tools.

If a man knew he was going to be whisked back into the past, he would load himself down with all sorts of useful junk in preparation, an encyclopedia, texts on metallurgy, mathematics, and medicine, a slide rule, and so forth. And a gun, with plenty of ammunition.But Padway had no gun, no encyclopedia, nothing but what an ordinary twentieth-century man carries in his pockets. Oh, a little more, because he’d been traveling at the time: such useful things as the traveler’s checks, a hopelessly anachronistic street map, and his passport. And he had his wits. He’d need them.

Padway has the most useful thing in his head, the knowledge of Latin. In my case, the knowledge of English and Russian could be extrapolated to other languages but not well enough to make a difference at first. Even those same languages changed greatly in both written and spoken forms even in the last three hundred years, much less fifteen centuries.

The wish for a gun is entirely reasonable and quite likely satisfied in case of a modern American. A sidearm with one spare magazine would give somewhere between 15 and 35 rounds, hardly enough for anything but emergency use. And this is where fiction and real life would diverge: most of us live a lifetime without firing a shot in anger, and I suspect the same could be true of the hypothetical time traveler. So a neat narrative trick might be to omit the mention of the sidearm at first and introduce it later as something no less obvious than shoes and a shirt. We didn’t specify that the time travelers wore shoes, so why would we specify going armed. Both, in the ideal world, would be so typical of all adults that a special mention would be unnecessary.

The main safety devices remain the linguistic abilities and the attention to body language and expressions of other people. Treading lightly — even if walking heavy — is almost always the best policy. The weapon should be available but it’s the last resort in the past as well as in the present. In the meantime, learning languages and gaining a more classical, practical education are the best hedges against unexpected time travel.

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12 Responses to Time travel considerations.

  1. Neva Li says:

    Oleg, that was well-stated. I recently listened to Steven King’s latest book on the subject, but the time difference was much shorter, of course. Your last paragraph, while smile-worthy makes good sense and certainly applies in whatever time one travels in. Situational awareness – absolutely invaluable.

  2. Rob Reed says:

    Yep, that’s a classic I should reread. What do you think of Eric Flint’s 1632 series, if you’ve read it?

    Btw, HI NEVA! Long time no talk. I’ll see if I can dig out your e-mail and send you a message to see what’s up or if you find mine contact me.

    • Oleg Volk says:

      Flint’s commie outlook spoiled that book. Between his editorializing, his ignorance on some matters in which he deems himself an expert and the poor grade story-telling, I wasn’t very impressed and skipped 1633.

  3. ankle says:

    “The wish for a gun is entirely reasonable and quite likely satisfied in case of a modern American.” Not so much, if that American also carries a drivers license from Illinois…

  4. Jenny says:

    One fun time-travel book I recall from years ago had a gentleman who had just a little bit of warning before popping into (I think) 10th c. AD Ireland or so.

    … he cleaned the corner store out of sewing needles and found himself quite the rich man his arrival. 🙂

  5. LarryArnold says:

    “The wish for a gun is entirely reasonable and quite likely satisfied in case of a modern American.”

    Partcularly one who knows how to make gunpowder and revolvers, as did the Connecticut Yankee.

  6. Paul Koning says:

    …or who has read “The Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne.
    It also helps to have a copy of “The way things work” (the original, not the comic book one with the mammoths) — I got mine after reading Lucifer’s Hammer where it gets prominent mention.

  7. BLAMMO says:

    Just think what you could do with a double-barrel shotgun, a chainsaw and a Buick.

    • Grayson says:

      You, Sir, are a strange, weird fellow with a somewhat twisted sense of humour.

      I LIKE that.
      Remind me to buy you a beer if we ever meet. 😀

  8. Jason Roberts says:

    I read 1632 a few years ago. I found it to be an enjoyable read with a lot of thought put into it. I’m not sure what you mean by “commie outlook” unless you’re referring to the fact that some of the characters are union members?

  9. Yuri Mataev says:

    Actually, olden times had substantially more casual violence than the modern day, so you would be much more likely to have to fire a shot in anger if you ended up back then. I highly recommend the book “The Better Angels of our Nature: How Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker.

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