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The Last of the Time Machines

My favourite time travel story is in fact my own, which I'm in the process of writing. I think the approach is unique: although Daphne du Maurier comes close in her novel The House on the Strand, with the idea not that one actually travels in time, but that the past leaves an imprint on a place which can be accessed---but in the present time, with all the limitations of the present environment. What follows is part of the opening (draft only) of my own novel, The Last of the Time Machines.


'It was suprising how many people were at the lecture—or perhaps not, since the press had a field day in announcing it: at least George had managed to insist on a meaningful title, “Observing the Past; Travelling Back in Time,” which meant he got the attention of a number of serious historians like himself, even if they were probably expecting the normal type of dry academic lecture.

                He started by going into a lot of technical details that I won’t bother with, but his main point was that actual traces were left behind by all events, going right back to the beginning of the earth, and that, with proper calibration of dates and times—which of course could be done only by computer—one could tune in to whatever time one wanted. Rather like tuning in to a radio. This he was still working on, it was all very rough and ready, and so far he’d made advances only with the visuals and had yet to sort out the sound.

                “And of course,” he explained, “there are limitations because of the whole development of the earth. Try to go back too far and you’ll only find yourself in a solid mass of ice, and before that fire and vulcanoes, which might be exciting to try once but with no practical purpose. And of course you can’t see into the future, since its traces haven’t yet been recorded. The best thing is to think of the machine as a tape recorder, recording what’s already happened—and then you have to find your place on it—but obviously it is unable to play back things you haven’t yet been able to record.”

                All very pompous for something that wasn’t that difficult to grasp.

                “But what you must realize is that, just as with a tape recorder, you’re listening to it or observing it in real time: if the recording takes an hour to play, it will take an hour to watch, you don’t go actually into the recorder. You can, of course, fast forward through the boring bits (that’s something I’m still working on) but often you can’t be sure you haven’t missed something important. Say, as a historian, you’re observing Richard III, one of my own passions, to see if he gives instructions to some murderer or murderers to kill the young princes in the Tower of  London. You’d have to follow him through every day of the dates in question (after research into which the most likely ones would be) and then he gives instructions to the murderers, if indeed he did, for perhaps five minutes! Very easy to miss if you’re fast forwarding. And if he never ordered the execution at all: well, you’d be sitting there for days on end with no result. Like a police stakeout, where they never see the criminal.” 

                He then went on to an even greater difficulty. “Richard, of course, didn’t confine himself to one residence. At various times he travelled all over London, so you’d have to follow him all over the place, indeed all over England, everywhere he went: quite apart from the difficulty of understanding medieval English. And then, the final, greatest, difficulty, is that the landscape has changed between then and now. You’d either need a modern road to get where you want (since you won’t be travelling on horseback as then), or your path might be blocked by modern construction: Bosworth field is now a housing estate and you don’t want to be ploughing into the middle of it. So you’d need an observer outside the machine to drive you and tell you of the encumbrances. And even if you take the Tower of London itself: well the machine won’t go up the narrow staircases, so you need a kind of moving gantry to get to the higher stories. You wouldn’t be obstructed by walls that have been destroyed in the interim, you could move right through them, but again you’d be obstructed by any modern buildings erected since. And what of the river? You’d need boats capable of carrying a huge machine without capsizing.”

                Well that was it. Initially there were very few people who had the money and the energy to cope with all the difficulties. Some tried, of course, for there were many unanswered questions in history and not only in England. A few scholars of enormous means or with huge grants from universities and other foundations set off to Russia, the Far East, China, Israel, wherever their research took them. It was only with miniaturization of computers that a wider use of the machine became possible. But then it was mainly the police who used them for solving crimes, and others who simply wanted to spy on unfaithful wives, or husbands,. The whole matter of privacy became an issue... you  could set them up anywhere to watch others...until finally the machines were banned outright.

            And George himself... well, he was a sad case. Look, there he is, driving his one remaining machine across a field. Without help: he just has an outside mirror, like a car’s, with a small gap to view it, so he’s managing by himself. Difficult, of course, and like others he’s had many accidents. He’s still never found a clear answer to his two main obsessions: was Richard responsible for murdering the Princes in the Tower, and did Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, really write the plays attributed to him? I doubt if he’ll ever find the answers now.