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The Seeds of Time Travelling
Written: May 20, 1999 - by Jonathan Deber

If you can look into the seeds of time

And say which grain will grow and which will not,

Speak then to me ... (Macbeth, Act I, Scene 3)

Time is not symmetrical, and the mistakes of the past cannot easily be undone. Although Banquo did not believe it possible to accurately judge "which grain will grow," humans, in their effort to make sense of the world around them, often construct narratives in which current problems do indeed result from apparently simple "causes." How tempting it would be to fix the present by avoiding blunders of the past. Writers are able to do so, by the simple expedient of a time machine. At their simplest, such writers as L. Sprague de Camp (Lest Darkness Fall) write straightforward narratives in which a single individual is capable of profoundly altering history; de Camp's hero introduces technology in order to prevent the onset of the Dark Ages. More nuanced writers, such as Orson Scott Card (Pastwatch) envision the need for multiple changes before the time travellers "get it right;" instead of exploiting the natives, Cristoforo Colombo (Columbus), in partnership with a woman from the future, catalyzes the creation of the Carib League. At the other extreme, Stephen Fry (Making History) uses elaborate stylistic devices to reinforce his theme that humans are incapable of creating a better present; his hero prevents the birth of Adolf Hitler, only to find him replaced by an even more horrific German leader, requiring the time travellers to cancel the intervention. Through their plots, their styles, and their underlying philosophies, these novels thus reveal not only a view about what dilemmas are threatening to society, but also a theory of history and a view about the extent to which humans are capable of purposive action in order to improve matters.

The perceived problems with society and the perceived solutions that each author presents reveal a great deal about what the authors feel is troubling contemporary society. In Lest Darkness Fall, de Camp sees the greatest danger to our society to be ignorance; Martin Padway, de Camp's protagonist, travels back in time to sixth century Rome, and attempts to avert the Dark Ages by preventing the Roman empire from falling. Fortunately for the plot, Padway is an expert on all of the events of sixth century history, and even speaks the Latin and Gothic languages of the period. The era in which this novel was written was one in which complete faith was placed in the 'gung-ho' progress of science. To de Camp, those who did not embrace science were clearly inferior, and presented a serious weakness to society as a whole. However, it is quite simple for Padway to ameliorate this dilemma; he merely introduces several inventions, and utilizes his combined understanding of modern technology and ancient history. Like the flow of technology, the flow of time can be completely revolutionized by a single innovator. The writing also reveals the casual arrogance of the American male in the era before women's liberation. In one striking statement, the hero accepts the ending of his momentary romance with the following statement:

But she was not extraordinary in these respects; there were plenty of others equally attractive. To be frank, Dorothea was a pretty average young woman. And being Italian, she'd probably be fat at thirty-five. Girls were okay, and he'd probably fall one of these days. But he had more important things to worry about. (de Camp 208)

Similarly, Padway reveals a rather philistine view of knowledge:

I'm going to try to start a school. We have a flock of teachers on the public payroll now, but all they know is grammar and rhetoric. I'm going to have things taught that really matter: mathematics, and the sciences, and medicine. I see where I shall have to write all the textbooks myself. (de Camp 154)

These comments are made without irony. Indeed, de Camp ends the book on a note of triumph:

Maybe he could keep it up for years. And if he couldn't -- if enough people finally got fed up with the innovations of Mysterious Martinus -- well, there was a semaphore telegraph system running the length and breadth of Italy, someday to be replaced by a true electric telegraph, if he could find time for the necessary experiments. There was a public letter post about to be set up. There were presses in Florence and Rome and Naples pouring out books and pamphlets and newspapers. Whatever happened to him, these things would go on. They'd become too well rooted to be destroyed by accident.

History had, without question, been changed.

Darkness would not fall. (de Camp 208)

In this novel, the protagonist takes a simple view of the causes of his problem, and is easily able to correct matters to create a better future.

Unlike de Camp, Card's view of causality is complex and intertwined. Card's main concern is genocide and slavery. In Pastwatch, Earth in the late 21st century has recovered from horrendous wars and destruction which have killed 90% of the population. The small surviving population is now living in harmony with nature. However, environmental damage to the planet has been so severe that the Earth is no longer capable of supporting a population greater than a few million in the long run. The forecasts are dire; in the coming ice age, humanity will revert to the Dark Ages, and without readily available metals and fossil fuels (which have already been exhausted by preceding generations), may never be able to 'rise' again. However, this population has also developed a technology ("the Pastwatch project") which allows historians to observe the past. The novel begins with historians deciding that Columbus was responsible for "the devastation of our planet" (Card 47), supporting their reasoning through an elaborate causal chain; access to the wealth (and slaves) of America allowed Europe to impose its culture and technology on the world. Although "Europeans didn't invent pillage", "they invented the machines that made their pillaging so madly efficient. The machines that sucked all the oil out of the ground and let us carry war and famine across oceans and continents until nine-tenths of humankind was dead" (Card 48). While watching with dismay an attack on natives by European sailors who had accompanied Columbus, the Pastwatchers discover that those being observed can perceive the watchers from the future; it soon becomes apparent that the observers would also be capable of altering the past. Doing so, however, would also irrecoverably alter the time line's "future" (and therefore alter the Pastwatchers' present). They discover that what they (and the book's readers) perceive to be the actual time line itself represents an alteration of history; Columbus had originally intended to lead a Crusade to the East. In the time line in which he had done so, however, the violent human sacrifice-oriented Meso-American culture had developed sufficiently (in the absence of European explorers) to allow them to reach and conquer Europe, with horrific and disastrous consequences. A previous Pastwatch project in this parallel time line had accordingly sent a holo-imaging device to urge Columbus to travel west to the new world, a message which Columbus had interpreted as coming from God. In the process of altering history,this group of observers had erased their own future, because any major change to the time line would modify all subsequent events. As such, these prior Pastwatchers had knowingly ceased to exist. The citizens of the novel's "normal" future, knowing that their own long-term prospects are relatively bleak, selflessly decide to send back three messengers to alter the past; again, a society chooses to destroy itself in order that humanity may live. The messengers make selective modifications, which allow Columbus, as well as other characters, to see how they should behave. At the end, one of the women from the future, Diko, marries Columbus; together they create a new peaceful semi-Utopian society in North America, and begin to introduce beneficial change to the feuding proto-nationalist struggles of Europe. This view of history is far more nuanced than the linear progression of events envisioned by de Camp. History is seen as fluid; it is possible to change it for the better, but it may be necessary to make multiple changes in order to do so.

Like Card, Fry also comments on the problem of genocide, focusing his attention on Hitler. A history doctoral student at Cambridge, Michael Young, befriends a physics professor, Leo Zuckerman, who has developed "an artificial quantum singularity of no more use than an electric pencil-sharpener" (Fry 83) which enables a viewer to look, and even to send an object, back into time. Young and Zuckerman find that they share a common interest; Young's thesis is about the life of Hitler, while Zuckerman obsessively uses his machine to observe his own father at Auschwitz. Together, they decide that they will use the machine to send a male contraceptive pill (that Young's girlfriend, Jane, a biochemist, has conveniently been developing), into the past; by putting it in the town of Brunau's water supply, they could sterilize Hitler's father and ensure (without resorting to an act of violence) that Hitler is not born. It is also revealed that Zuckerman's father was at Auschwitz as an SS doctor, not as a prisoner, and was responsible for the death of countless Jews. Meanwhile, within the narrative, Fry has interspersed scenes dealing with an entirely different set of characters, Alois and Klara (who are Hitler's parents), and a German solder, Rudy Gloder, fighting alongside Hitler in the trenches of World War One. Gloder is "cheerful, handsome, and blond" whose "sparkling blue eyes and generous wit charmed and delighted all the men of the company" (Fry 87). However, through his diary entries and actions, Gloder is eventually revealed to be a monster hiding under a gentleman's facade. He has no compunctions about killing innocent comrades in order to further his own goals. In the real time line, this fictitious character is killed serving with Hitler, on a mission suggested by Hitler. Young and Zuckerman transport the pill into the past, and Young awakens in a new reality in which Hitler was never born. In this new reality, Gloder was not killed; instead, he assumed control of the Nazi party, but unlike Hitler, he was considered to be "reasonable" by many in the outside world. He was thus more easily able to assume control of Europe, and a state of nuclear Cold War exists between the United States and the Nazi hegemony of Europe. Furthermore, the "secret" of the Brunau water (from the well in Hitler's home town) has been discovered by German biochemists, and used to cleanse "the filth of Europe". In this reality, Zuckerman's father was the scientist responsible for uncovering the chemical compound in the water supply, and is thus responsible for the deaths of several orders of magnitude more innocent civilians than in the previous time line. There have been countless more deaths on both sides of the American-German Iron Curtain, and Western society has failed to reach the same state of liberal democracy it obtained in the "normal" reality. Young, now a student at Princeton and suspected of being a British spy since he has retained his mind and memory from the unaltered time line, and hence is no longer acting "American", meets the Zuckerman in this reality, who for some reason has not retained his memory from the previous reality, but who has, coincidentally enough, built a time machine in this reality as well. Together, with the help of Steve, a homosexual student with whom Young has fallen in love (Fry, himself a homosexual, wrote this book in the late 1990s), they transport a noxious substance into the Brunau water supply before Alois can drink from it. The town's well is thoroughly cleaned, causing the proper time line to be restored. Fry has created the epitome of "easy solutions"; all of the horror of World War Two is averted through one easy step to stop the birth of one man. However, history and causality are not that simple. This seemingly straightforward solution brings with it innumerable consequences. Furthermore, there are aspects of time that cannot be avoided. In both realities, Zuckerman's father is responsible for the death of thousands of innocents, and Auschwitz is the location of this bloody work (the biochemistry research centre was located in Auschwitz in the alternate reality). Here, the protagonist is incapable of purposive action, and unable to effect the desired repairs to the time line other than by undoing the "beneficial" change as well.

The complexity of the style used in each novel closely parallels the view taken in that book of the complexity of history. de Camp, who has the most simplistic view of history and causality, also employs the most linear and straightforward writing style. In the middle, Card, who takes a nuanced but ultimately hopeful view of history, writes in a compelling but nonetheless traditional style; his book seems to be penned by a masterful story teller. Fry, whose view of time is complex and playful, employs a wide variety of entertaining and even glib literary devices which tend to distance the readers from the characters.

de Camp uses little beyond terse prose; the plot is advanced in short passages, and there are few literary devices. Throughout Lest Darkness Fall, the narrative is revealed in chronological order; it begins with a short (four page) prelude in which the protagonist is transported back in time from 1930's Rome by an unexplained, narratively convenient, weakening in the "four dimensional web [of history]" (de Camp 2). The narrative then unfolds without any wrinkles; time passes in a normal manner, at a normal pace. Occasionally, de Camp makes effective use of rather heavy-handed humour, although this often appears to be an afterthought rather than an integral part of the story. For example, at one point, Padway, the protagonist, is discussing job prospects with a deeply depressed former bodyguard:

"When my money is gone, I don't know what will become of me. Perhaps I will kill myself. Nobody would care... You aren't looking for a good, reliable bodyguard, are you?"

"Not just now," said Padway, "but I may be in a few weeks. Do you think you can postpone your suicide until then?"

"I don't know. It depends on how my money holds out." (de Camp 32)

On the other hand, the style of Card is, while conventional, quite complex. He makes heavy use of irony and satire throughout the novel, and his characters are realistic and multi-faceted. Card resembles a story teller; his work seems designed to be read aloud. There is extensive use of dialogue, although often one party of a conversation will reply in narrative form. Card also relies heavily upon rhetorical devices within passages of omniscient narration. In addition, the characters tend to be highly introspective, not only reacting to events, but also examining why they reacted in the way that they did. The effect is to cause the reader to know and care about the various characters. For example, at one point, Card tries to see the conquest of the Americas through the eyes of Columbus:

... They [his fellow Europeans] had no mercy.

These are the men I brought to this place, thought Cristoforo. And yet I called them Christian. And the gentle Indians, I called them savages.

... And the worst calamity of all: my shame at having refused the word of God because he didn't send the kind of messenger I expected. (Card 372)

The omniscient narrator continues to change perspective and see the world through the eyes of different characters, further broadening the scope of the novel. The chronology is also non-linear; Card frequently moves between his future observers and Columbus, as well as introducing other observed time frames en route. Yet one never becomes confused; the story always remains clear. In contrast to de Camp, Card presents the reader with plausible and realistic people, reacting to real situations, in a manner to which the reader hopes he or she would be able to aspire.

As Making History progresses, Fry begins to use many stylistic devices. From the beginning of the novel, he plays with words. For example, the title is "making history," and the book is broken into two parts. The first part (Book One) is concerned with the concept of "making" - with the chapters entitled: "making coffee", "making breakfast", "making good", "making news", and so on, until a chapter called "making history". The chapters in Book Two, unsurprisingly, are about history, with such titles as "local history", "military history", and "medical history", also ending with a chapter called "making history". An epilogue then helps to further tie the two sections together. Reinforcing the viewpoint of this book, Fry continually moves from one style to another. A number of chapters (beginning with "making movies") are even written in the form of a screenplay. Immediately after introducing this literary device, Fry has Michael, his protagonist, reflecting on it: "I fade from Hollywood screenplay format to dull old, straight old prose because that's how it felt. That's how it always feels in the end" (Fry 112). There are also large segments written in incomplete phrases and in itemized lists. All in all, Fry has presented some very interesting and unusual stylistic devices - especially the list portions. At other times, Fry satirizes his own writing by making it clear that the Alois and Klara passages come directly from Young's thesis. This is revealed because some of the more florid passages of writing, such as "a great soaring, all-powerful, all-seeing, all-conquering eagle with piercing eyes and mighty wings and talons that dripped with the blood of the pig" (Fry 34) get repeated and ridiculed by Young's thesis supervisor as the work of "a doped-out crack fiend hallucinating on comic mushrooms" (Fry 61) or "a May Week prank of some kind." Young argues that his hyperbole "are just linking passages. I agree they are unorthodox, but I thought they lent...you know...colour and drama" (Fry 61). The generally glib and light-hearted nature of Fry's writing contributes to the reader's understanding of his philosophy that there is little point to any action.

Although none of these books explicitly states a philosophy of life, assumptions about human purpose and nature clearly underpin each narrative.

de Camp has a simplistic philosophy, which seems very much of its time. "Invention was the mainspring of technological development" (de Camp 40). Good old American ingenuity would be enough to drastically alter history, particularly since, with casual racism, one could assume that all other people were inferior: "..he was not naturally a businessman, though he could hold his own well enough in competition with these sixth-century yaps" (de Camp 40). The philosophy resembles that described by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Padway is the ultimate colonial governor, helping to "civilize" the native savages. Just as the British believed that they were doing a favour to India and Africa by replacing their values with modern "improvements", de Camp's hero spends remarkably little time puzzling over the morality of his actions. No individual in his era is asked what they would like; it is assumed (perhaps in some cases rightfully) that they would gladly embrace "progress", as long as it is doled out by an American. The underlying philosophy is not an introspective one; salvation rests in acts, rather than in thoughts. Unlike religions which recognize that humans have good and evil characteristics, this American-style Protestantism does not take a complex view of human nature; God's grace was revealed by success. In other words, if an individual were successful, it was because God wanted this person to be successful. Nothing would be given to you; instead, you would have to help yourself. Given the right person, with the right skill set, one American would be capable of averting the Dark Ages by gifting the citizens of the past with such crucial technologies as printing and newspapers, Arabic numerals, double-entry bookkeeping, Copernican astronomy, distilling, pockets on clothing, and, eventually, "compasses and steam engines and microscopes, and the writ of habeas corpus" (de Camp 208). de Camp suffers from the naive short-sightedness common to those who place complete and utter faith in nationalistic stereotypes.

Card is a practicing Mormon, and many of his books are replete with issues of moral complexity. His ultimate view of human nature is optimistic; people can succeed in attaining grace. However, Card recognizes that humans are also fallible, and can stumble many times. This book implies that, despite previous failures, it is important to try again. As one character states: "They [the previous interveners in history] were thinking only of the history they wanted to avoid, not of the history they would create. We must do better" (Card 192-193). The novel includes a number of moral viewpoints, introduced through dialogue. The characters often debate the morality of influencing others without consent. "It was one thing to ask humankind of today to choose to give up their future in the hope of creating a new reality. That would be hard enough. But to also reach back and kill the dead, to uncreate them as well - and they had no vote. They could not be asked" (Card 220). They also reject easy answers; Tagiri, one of the leaders of the Pastwatch project, states: "Which just goes to show ... that one can always find language to make the most terrible things sound noble and beautiful, so you can live with doing them" (Card 224). However, the characters ultimately agree on a course of action. "Truth is all I have, and truth is never a comfort. But understanding truth, that is what you taught me to do. So here is the truth. What human life is, what it's for, what we do, is create communities" (Card 223). Although the protagonists seek good, the book suggests that evil is also an inherent characteristic of some humans. Columbus' soldiers rape and murder. Even in the new time line, some are determined to prey upon the natives, and are themselves killed for it. Yet Card's hero even then gives them the chance to repent: "If you kill all the white men, even the ones who did no harm, then you are just as bad as they are... I promise you that if you kill in haste, you will be sorry..." (Card 371). The cadences are almost Biblical. Diko says to the tribesmen, ready to kill the Spaniards:

If they are heading up the mountain, I ask you not to hinder or hurt them in any way. You'll know when the only ones left are the evil ones. It will be plain to all of you, not just to one or two. When that day comes, you can act as men should act. But even then, if any of them escape and head for the mountain, I ask you to let them go. (Card 372)

The philosophy is very similar to that of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments). There is an emphasis on the importance of repentance. For example, the Day of Atonement service of Judaism continually urges the congregation to atone for their evil deeds, and promises that God is anxious to spare them. However, there is also a Christian-influenced emphasis on sacrifice in Pastwatch. Two Pastwatch societies voluntarily die so that a better world might live, and the three envoys from the future leave their era and sacrifice themselves to reform Columbus. Even the extremely (even artificially) happy ending has a wistful tone to it. As Columbus lies dying of old age, he observes that "[t]here is no good thing that does not cost a dear price... Happiness is not a life without pain, but rather a life in which the pain is traded for a worthy price. This is what you gave me, Lord" (Card 394).

In contrast, Making History rejects most ideas of progress or superiority. "The point is there is no point. That's the point" (Fry 311). In contrast to the idea that history progresses forward, Fry begins his story with the opposite image - a circle. "This story, which can start everywhere and nowhere, like a circle, starts, for me -- and it is after all, my story, and no one else's, never could be anyone else's but mine - it starts with a dream" (Fry 3), going on to add "I have said that it is like a circle, approachable from any point. It is also, like a circle, unapproachable from any point" (Fry 4). Indeed, the book is reluctant to agree that any reality is superior. In an interesting segment, Young and Steve debate which alternate reality is best. Steve insists that "[t]he world you wake up in can't be worse than this." Young disagrees, citing "Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch and fundamentalists and infant crack addicts with Uzis. I haven't told you about lottery scratchcards and mad cow disease and Larry King Live. Maybe we should just forget this whole thing" (Fry 367). Steve, in return, is intrigued by aspects of our time line:

... political correctness and gay quarters in towns and rock and roll and Clinton [sic] Eastwood movies and kids not having to call their dads "sir" but saying "motherf[-]r" and "no way, dude" and chilling off in Ecstasy dance clubs. I want some of that. I want to be cool." (Fry 367)

The book finally concludes with a 'cop out' ending that allows Fry to 'walk away' from some of the questions raised in the novel. "So simple. The whole rushing tornado of history funnelled to a single point that stood like an infinitely sharpened pencil hovering over the page of the present. The point was so simple. It was love. There just wasn't anything else" (Fry 387). Young destroys his thesis, declares that he is "[s]ick of history. History sucks. It sucks" (Fry 382), but then, to his delight, finds that Steve, with whom he has fallen in love, has also been transported "with [his] old consciousness in another country with the wrong accent" (Fry 368). It also appears that they will live happily ever after, regardless of whether they have jobs or futures. Steve says to Young: "What are we waiting for? Give me some Ecstasy and let's get out there and dance" (Fry 388). This present-oriented philosophy is followed by the last lines of the book, in capital letters, "THE BEGINNING" (Fry 388). Ultimately, Fry continues to emphasize that he does not believe in anything, and that the present is the only time period of any consequence.

L. Sprague de Camp, Orson Scott Card, and Steven Fry all utilize the plots, styles, and underlying philosophies of their novels to shed light not only on what they perceive to be the dilemmas that are threatening our society, but also to present their theories of history and their views regarding the extent to which humans are capable of meaningful action in order to improve matters. de Camp sees ignorance as the bane of society, but believes that one talented American can single handedly restore wisdom and civilization. Card focuses on slavery, cruelty, misuse of technology, and genocide; he recognizes that mistakes can be made, but ultimately portrays a successful redemption, both of Columbus and of the world he creates. Fry is far more modern in his approach; he firmly believes that Hitler was evil, but is completely unconvinced that people are capable of finding an intervention which would not make matters worse. The underlying styles closely parallel the view taken in each book about history and causality. de Camp is not introspective, and writes in a very linear manner with remarkably few literary devices. Card emphasizes characters; his devices are mainly used to advance plot and characterization. Fry employs a dazzling array of devices, many of which begin to resemble rather shallow tricks, and tend to distance the reader from the characters. At root, each novel can be seen to reflect an underlying religious view which speaks of its era. de Camp is entirely oriented towards the future, and displays no doubts as to the righteousness of whatever actions his protagonist decides are necessary to ensure continued technological progress. Card shows a deep religious sensibility; he is extremely introspective, but believes in the possibility of salvation. Fry is the most modern; he loudly proclaims that he does not believe in anything. Although people cannot change the past, they are constantly attempting to influence the future. On the eve of a provincial election, one can see these philosophies prevalent in the outside world. de Camp represents the advocates of thoughtless action; he portrays a "strong leader" who moves ahead without consultation or introspection, confident that he knows best. Fry represents the "nothing makes a difference" nihilism of the apathetic which is all too common within contemporary society; his characters would not even bother to vote. Card represents a voice from the past; he clings to the belief that people can indeed make a difference if they act with humanity and thoughtfulness. In the long run, this philosophy appears to provide the best guide, not only for past history, but for ensuring that the seeds of time will grow a better future.


de Camp, L. Sprague. Lest Darkness Fall. New York: Ballantine Books. © 1939 (initially appeared as short story in Unknown Science Fiction Magazine, 1939)

Card, Orson Scott. Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. New York: A Tom Doherty Associates Book, 1996.

Fry, Stephen. Making History. London: Hutchinson, 1996.

[Copyright © Jonathan Deber, Toronto, Canada, 1999. Reprinted with permission.]

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