Three Short Stories With Stranded Time Travellers

I’ve been writing a lot and not reading much that isn’t research and so not posting much—though if you want to hear about my research books I could go on for a long time! I thought I’d look at some short stories, because they’re shorter.

A long time ago I wrote about five short stories with useless time travel, and today I was thinking about three short stories that are all about stranded time travellers. The first is H. Beam Piper’s “He Walked Around the Horses” which is free on Project Gutenberg, the second is Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early,” also old enough to be free online, and the third is Robert Silverberg’s “House of Bones.”

“House of Bones” is about a twenty-first century time traveller who gets stuck among early humans and Neanderthals. It’s haunting and powerful—Silverberg at his best. It’s one of those stories that does what SF does best, showing a new angle on what it means to be human. But it’s also the story of a modern man who has something to learn from the people he finds himself among. It’s told entirely from his point of view, and we see the customs of the early humans in their bone house as we would be likely to see them.

The other two stories are told largely from the points of view of people within the world. In Piper’s “He Walked Around The Horses” it isn’t really a time traveller so much as a man from a parallel world—ours—who appears in a very different version of 1815. From their point of view he’s mad—he thinks Napoleon is a problem, and to them he’s a loyal minor soldier. He’s stranded out of his context, which they can’t appreciate but we can. It’s a lovely use of alternate history to shine light in both directions—as they examine his version of history we discover theirs.

“The Man Who Came Early” is about a time traveller stranded among Vikings, and it’s told entirely from the Viking point of view. It does the Viking worldview brilliantly, and again it shines a light both ways. The time traveller is a typical twentieth century man—for instance he has a job and he rents an apartment, and both of those things horrify his hosts. He knows a lot more than they do about some things, but not about how to survive in their context. (By the way, if you like Vikings and the Norse world, check out this awesome Kickstarter for the Sundown project.)

The thing these three stories all share, apart from the stranded protagonists, is the way they establish their contexts as valid. Silverberg does it by showing us a modern man adapting to something he’d never expected. Piper and Anderson show us men failing to adapt to worlds more different than they imagined.

It’s possible they might have been written in reaction to Lest Darkness Fall type stories where a modern person overturns the past with their technical know-how.

Of course, this makes me think of Tarr and Turtledove’s Household Gods, where the stranded protagonist has to make the best of the Roman Empire without changing anything, and of Connie Willis. Almost all of Willis’s time travel novels require people being stranded. Willis has an elaborate theory of how time travel works and strands people. None of these stories explain what happened at all—it’s a malfunction, and tough. Tarr and Turtledove do it by divine intervention, which is different. Tarr and Turtledove and Willis’s characters also get rescued—none of these do, once they’re in their new contexts they have to cope with them… or not.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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