Monday, 24 February 2014

Reality And Interpretation

Poul Anderson, Time Patrol (New York, 2006).

Early in the first Time Patrol story, called "Time Patrol," Manson Everard has been at the Time Patrol Academy in the American Oligocene, in a warehouse in 1947 and now in a gas-lit private office with oak furniture and a thick carpet in 1894.

From the office, he emerges to travel through London in a hansom cab. This is his first experience of a public place in a past era. For the first time, he, a time traveler, must move among people of an earlier period and pass as one of them. Poul Anderson devotes just over half a page to telling us how this affects Everard:

"This was the first moment when the reality of time travel struck home to Everard...Now, clopping through a London he did not know in a hansom cab (not a tourist-trap anachronism, but a working machine, dusty and battered), breathing an air which held more smoke than a twentieth-century city but no gasoline fumes, seeing the crowds which milled past - gentlemen in bowlers and top hats, sooty navvies, long-skirted women, and not actors but real talking, perspiring, laughing and sombre human beings off on real business - it hit him with full force that he was here. At this moment his mother had not been born, his grandparents were young couples just getting settled to harness, Grover Cleveland was President of the United States and Victoria was Queen of England, Kipling was writing and the last Indian uprisings in America yet to come...It was like a blow on the head." (p. 24)

This is the Jack Finney take on time travel: just imagine what it would be like to be there then. And, to convey this, the author must present details; smoke, bowlers, navvies, not actors but real people.

That is description. The rest of the page is Whitcomb's interpretation of "...this day of England's glory." (ibid.)

"'I begin to understand...They never have agreed whether this was a period of unnatural, stuffy convention and thinly veneered brutality, or the last flower of Western civilization before it started going to seed. Just seeing these people makes me realize; it was everything they have said about it, good and bad, because it wasn't a simple thing happening to everyone, but millions of individual lives.'" (ibid.)

Everard agrees and says that this must be true of every age. I would remark further that, although no age is a simple thing happening to everyone, some historical generalizations are valid nonetheless. 1894 was only twenty years before 1914 so something was going wrong.

Back at the office, the local Patrol agent had consulted his Bradshaw (he had to do that) and told them to time hop to the following morning, allowing half an hour to cross London, and get the 8.23 out of Charing Cross. They travel in an almost familiar train to a sleepy village station. Guided by Bradshaw, they are very much in Sherlock Holmes territory and will soon be in the presence of the Great Detective. Having accepted the reality of the 1894 London as experienced by Everard, we must now suspend disbelief and accept the reality of that famous inhabitant of Victorian London as well.

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