Fri
May 24 2013 11:00am
Three Short Stories With Stranded Time Travellers

Three Short Stories With Stranded Time TravellersI’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.

28 comments
James Nicoll
1. James Davis Nicoll
Anderson did the hapless time traveller thing in the other direction, too. I cannot recall the title but a man of our time is frozen until such time as his terminal disease can be cured. The cure does show up but only after enough time that society has changed so much there is no niche for the fellow except as an outcast.
Kit Case
2. wiredog
Piper's Lord Kalvan stories have Our Hero successfully integrating into the society he ends up in. To the point where he becomes a King and marries the Beautiful Princess.

And despite any snark, I really enjoyed that book. The sequels by other authors were awful.
Russell H
3. Russell H
Re "hapless time-travelers," there's also the protagonist in Tim Powers's THE ANUBIS GATES. He's a modern-day professor of English literature stranded in London in the year 1810. Despite his erudition, the only "job" he can get in order to survive is joining a gang of beggars.
Clark Myers
4. ClarkEMyers
Poul Anderson's story makes an interesting contrast with Randall Garrett's Frost and Thunder. The time traveller has a nice bit of modern technology for more or less inferior shaggy dog story that can easily be classified as someplace between a Marty Sue and a competent man under any circumstances story.
Russell H
5. Tehanu
Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon has an early-20th-century man who (as I vaguely recall) is resurrected from cold sleep or a stasis box (or something) and finds himself in the future society of the book, where after some confusion he introduces the sport of football, with the penalty for missing a touchdown being death, and makes a zillion dollars.

There's also Woody Allen's Sleeper....
scott hhhhhhhhh
6. wsp_scott
I was wondering where you had been, just looked up your livejournal page to see if you were posting there (that sounds a lot like stalking). The repeated mentions of "Thessaly" make me hope your book is set in ancient greece. I would be interested in hearing about your research books :)

Based on this, I just ordered the 6th Year's Best SF since House of Bones is in it. Piper's story sounds great, can't wait to read it.

p.s. just finished Nobody's Son and really enjoyed it, thanks for the recommendation
James Nicoll
7. James Davis Nicoll
Piper's story sounds great, can't wait to read it.

Wait, does that mean you are unfamiliar with works of H. Beam Piper? That's one of his better known stories.
Colin Bell
8. SchuylerH
@6: You can get the Piper story on Project Gutenberg, I believe.
Colin Bell
9. SchuylerH
@2: I've just finished Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. I'm amazed it took me this long to get round to it. It has got to be his best novel.
James Nicoll
10. James Davis Nicoll
A lot of HBP's work is in the public domain:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/8301
Pamela Adams
11. Pam Adams
Wait, does that mean you are unfamiliar with works of H. Beam Piper?
Ooh, have you got a treat in store!!! My personal favorite short story is Omnilingual.
Russell H
12. Gardner Dozois
LORD KALVAN OF OTHERWHEN may be Piper's best novel, and is my personal favorite. The only other novel which is in a similar range is LITTLE FUZZY. Most of his other books are considerably weaker.

The conflict between cultures at widely different levels of technological expertise is also at the heart of Poul Anderson's novel THE HIGH CRUSADE, in which technologcally advanced aliens prove no match against knights and yeomen from the Middle Ages.
Rich Horton
13. ecbatan
James -- I think the Anderson story you were thinking of is "Time Heals", Astounding, October 1949, one of his very earliest stories.

I read "He Walked Around the Horses" very early in my SF reading career (because it was in Adventures in Time and Space) and it blew me away.

As for "The Man Who Came Early", it's truly a classic, perhaps Anderson's best story. (For me, "Starfog" is the other candidate.)

--
Rich Horton
Colin Bell
14. SchuylerH
@11: I agree. "Omnilingual" is probably the best short story to start with. It was, as I remember, one of Eric Flint's selections in The World Turned Upside Down.

@12: Little Fuzzy was my first Piper novel but I agree, Kalvan just edges it out. The High Crusade is one of Anderson's strongest novels and, I suppose, the ultimate expression of the Campbellian dream: "there exist minds that think as well as you do, just differently and at a higher level of technology, but they can still be conquered by people who think alchemy is the future."

@13: I'm not too familiar with Anderson's short work (I'm waiting for Gollancz's SF Gateway to release their ebook versions of NESFA's collected stories) but "The Man Who Came Early" certainly deserves a place as one of SF's best stories. In particular, telling it from the viewpoint of the Icelander is so much harder to do than the viewpoint of the time traveller (as he did in "The Sorrow of Odin the Goth") but the result is worth it.
Russell H
15. Gardner Dozois
My favorite Anderson story is "The Longest Voyage," but certainly "The Man Who Came Early" is right up there.
Colin Bell
16. SchuylerH
@15: I haven't read that one but it looks interesting.
James Nicoll
17. James Davis Nicoll
Time for an overview on the works of the late Poul Anderson?

(At this second in time, I am inclined to like "Uncleftish Beholding" best)
James Nicoll
19. James Davis Nicoll
I've read 54 of the 73 (?) novels listed on isfdb and about 40 of the collections. Anyone top that?
Colin Bell
20. SchuylerH
@19: I've read 35 novels and 11 collections with several more TBR, including The Corridors of Time, Maurai and Kith and New America.
Russell H
21. PhilipGordon
Piper's "Little Fuzzy" also had a sequel, as I recall. Delightful little books.

I've been looking for a short story (I think) for years concerning stranded time travelers. They would seek other stranded travelers by placing want ads and posting words, names, and phrases that would only make sense to someone else from the future. Someone trapped in the 1960's would post something like "Bill Gates, Nokia, Pac Man, Hurricane Katrina, 'Use the force, Luke.'"
Any one know the story / book this is from?
Pamela Adams
23. Pam Adams
I know Replay had something like 'Remember FlashDance?'
Russell H
24. wiredog
@21,
Heinlein had that in Time Enough For Love. I suspect it's a fairly common trope.
James Nicoll
25. James Davis Nicoll
I distinctly remember someone whistling a Beatles song in one time travel story...
William S. Higgins
26. higgins
I distinctly remember someone whistling a Beatles song in one time travel story...

"Yesterday."

James, that would be the aforementioned The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers. A signal to locate other lost time travelers, should they be hanging about in the same crowded marketplace.
Russell H
28. CHip137
@21: the earliest use I can think of was in _The End of Eternity_ (Asimov), in which somebody dumped in the 1930's runs an apparent brokerage ad:
text:
All the
Talk
Of the
Market
over graphic of an abstracted mushroom cloud.

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