Talk at the OUSFG Discussion Meeting of 29th October 2003.

The Lonely Planet Guide to the 4th Dimension
A Time Traveller's Guide to Surviving the Past

This discussion meeting is a bit different from the usual. Normally we start with someone presenting an argument, which everyone disagrees with. Violently. Or giving an overview of a topic, which everyone picks holes in. Enthusiastically. My problem is that I don't know enough to present an argument, but I do have lots of questions. Alex, on the other hand, is a historian and so takes a professional (OK, proto-professional) interest in this sort of thing, so I'm hoping she can enlighten us. Then you can all disagree with her. Violently and with enthusiasm, by preference.

Anyway, let me explain my problem. Last year I led a discussion meeting on the topic of Time Travel. I explained how time worked, how you could build a time machine, and how to avoid sleeping with any of your grandparents. As a physicist, I could do this in the knowledge that I was right, and all the contrary arguments anyone tried were obviously wrong.

But now I want to use my time machine and travel into the past. For reasons too sophisticated for non-physicists to understand (ho hum), The Laws of Time (that's capitalised!) stipulate that I can't bring anything with me (remember the beginning of Terminator?). Also, I'm about to be apprehended by the Time Police so I have to leave tomorrow. There's no time to bone up on techniques for the manufacture of gunpowder or useful facts like the sudden boom in tulip stocks in... whenever it was. Unfortunately I'm far too theoretical a physicist to have much special practical knowledge. I could probably knock you up the plans for a mean particle accelerator, but that wouldn't be much use if the only electricity available is what you get when you rub a piece of amber (unless you can remember exactly when the lightning bolt struck the clock tower).

So, will I prosper in the past? Are there any top tips that I should take with me (apart from checking the surnames of any potential sexual partners)? Should I send one of you guys in my place? Alex would certainly do better on the historical knowledge, but maybe a scientist or engineer would have more valuable skills. If I get a choice in the matter, what would be the best period to choose? (But maybe my time machine is knocked to a random setting when I have that last-minute struggle with the Time Cops before pressing the GO button in a desperate escape bid.)


In order to make the discussion a bit more concrete, I thought it might be a good idea to consider a couple of periods of history, as used in the two books I've brought along. (This is a good excuse to slip in a couple of my favourite SF novels.)

Doomsday Book

The first (chronologically by subject as well as authorship) is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

A normal historical field trip from 2054 to the Middle Ages goes horribly wrong. Kivrin is an Oxford student who goes back to 1320 to study Oxfordshire life and language.

Read page 385, `"No", Kivrin whispered, looking at the priest' ... `under the skin.'

While the future Oxford seemed rather unconvincing, this book is very convincing in its evocation of the Middle Ages. Unlike those around her, Kivrin knows what's going on. She can't stop the plague, but is able to bring some comfort to the desperate people around her.


My second book is Pastwatch: the Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card.

Diko, Kemal, and Hanahpu are historians in the "time of undoing" - our future, when the environment is so devastated that humanity is clinging to survival. They decide that Columbus's discovery of America was the critical moment of history that led to their downfall - but also that an even worse outcome would result if he hadn't sailed. They travel to meet him as he arrives in America and set history on a third course.

Read page 336, "But I tell you that here, in this place, there are millions of souls ... you will never be pleasing to God" This book is as informative about the real history of 15th Century Europe and meso-America as it is with speculation about how it might have been different.

The Anubis Gates

If there's time, I can also tell you a little about another excellent time travel book, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.

This is the story of Brendan Doyle, a literary scholar, who is part of a party who travels back to Victorian London to hear a lecture by Coleridge. Doyle gets stranded. Despite his intimate knowledge of the period, he ends up as a beggar, on the run from both his colleagues and some local sorcerers who want to know what he knows about the future.

This is a great fantasy novel, that mixes in elements of horror, mystery, historical romance, and time-travel paradox. In a wonderfully convoluted plot, Doyle meets Old Kingdom Egyptian sorcerers, romantic poets, a werewolf, secret societies, grotesques inhabiting the London sewers, and of course himself.

Read page 170, final paragraph to penultimate paragraph on next page.

Read page 225, final paragraph for two paragraphs.

Things to consider?

  1. Would I have a big advantage simply by having grown up with a good diet and few childhood diseases. Would a modern person be significantly taller, fitter, stronger, quicker, and more intelligent than someone from a previous age? Of course it's always nice to think that, in a past age, even us wimps could be considered hunks, but would the difference really be that noticeable? Would that be a good thing, or would I be considered a freak (more than normal, I mean)?
  2. The further back I go, the more difficult language becomes, even if I stick to England. How easy would it be to pick up the language? How much did the contemps know about foreign languages? Could I pass myself off as an Romanian, pretending that my modern English was Romanian? Would I be locked up as a spy or hailed as an ambassador? Obviously Latin would be useful in Roman and post-Roman Europe, but would any modern languages help in deciphering what people say?
  3. Would a basic knowledge of modern science, medicine, and technology be useful? Germ theory, how to make a battery. Would I stand any chance of acquiring a patron if I expounded on atomic theory?
  4. Would a basic fore-knowledge of history help? Who won at Hastings, the stock market crash.

    Both of these are hindered by my lack of knowledge of specifics. (I doubt I'm alone in this.) If I knew the names of William's courtiers, maybe I could ingratiate myself with his party before Hastings. If I knew the precise date of the crash and which stocks plummeted when, I could sell short.

  5. There are plenty of practical skills that a contemp would have that I don't. I have never had to shoe a horse or light a fire without matches, though of course I could rely on the extensive knowledge of such things I've obtained from films and TV. (I'm fucked, aren't I?)
  6. What about cultural knowledge? Will I be burned at the stake because I can't remember what the 10th Commandment is? (Remember The Crucible?)
  7. If someone tells me of an important event ("your ancestor lost all his money at cards on 12th January 1720"), I'd better remember when England changed over to the Gregorian calendar - or when people stopped counting the new year on March 25th.

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