Time Travel and Loss

Posted on April 5, 2007 under public history

In my recent sojourn to my childhood home, I reread my old Connie Willis novels.  A number of them take place in a future Oxford where history is practiced through time travel, with historians going undercover to observe the “contemps.” Willis spends much time on the logistics of temporal physics, but readers also glimpse a new kind of academic formation, in which the courses and archival work that are the bulk of current training become just background research–a travel guide–for the trip into the past.  But it’s more dramatically interesting when someone totally unprepared is thrown into history and has to adapt to the alien world.  Sf has always been good at highlighting the foreignness of the past, while history practice, especially in public history, tends to emphasize the past’s relevance to the present. 

We can see this foreignness particularly well in Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, a screwball mash note to Three Men in a Boat, where our hero, working on a reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral (destroyed in the Blitz), is sent to Victorian England, about which he knows nothing.  His fellow historian tells contemps that he hails from America to excuse his poor manners.  Hijinx ensue, involving cats, excerable architecture, jumble sales and ‘time lag,’ with our hero stumbling, sleep-deprived, through the unfamiliar manners and landscape.  A professor character is unfortunately dispatched every few pages to reiterate how important individual people and decisions, as opposed to grand schemes, are to history.  We do get the point. 

What I’m most interested in is how Willis portrays this practice of history, where personal observation takes the place of documentary evidence.  I’d love to travel to St Paul, 1901, to find out how the place really looked and smelled and sounded, and watch my characters open their medical institute, with the wax figure of the nurse cradling the syphilitic baby in the front window, talk to them, find out who their patients actually were…  This by necessity makes history more personal and less seemingly objective. 

William Turkel has recently proposed ‘history appliances,’ which would surround the viewer with cultural sources from a given era.  This kind of time travel is a lot more practicable than doing immersive social history, living history museums included, since it will never be possible to talk to the dead.

Tom Scheinfeldt recently posted about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and the ways in which histories of the future reflect actual history–and KSR’s own Years of Rice and Salt is another illustration of this, with its continuing (endless?) cycles of reincarnation and progress.  Even after death the characters and ideas are not lost.

A recurring theme in time travel sf is the preservation of lost treasures, of historians rescuing, for example, the Library of Alexandria from the flames.  It’s in To Say Nothing of the Dog, and it’s the basis of Kage Baker‘s Company books (Baker, interestingly, worked as a historical reconstructionist for many years, and taught Elizabethan English as a Second Language).  In these books dear things are never really lost.  Objects are removed from the past right before they would be destroyed–the medieval linens pulled out of Coventry Cathedral right before the bombing–so that no contemps notice, that they live with the loss.  We can steal something from the dangers of the past.  It’s a reflection, I think, of a pervasive cultural denial of the reality of loss, the idea that anything–everything–can be restored, replaced.  As a historian, though, I understand how amazing it is that anything survived.

(And regarding my last post, april fools.)