Tag Archives: time travel

437. Steampunk Clockwork

A great deal of the charm of typical (if such a thing exists) steampunk is that it replicates the sense of wonder of early science fiction, something that is missing 147 years after its beginnings. My math refers to the publication of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870. There have been a lot of stories in that century and a half, so it is just a little hard to come up with something new.

Fortunately for science fiction, there is a new crop of readers every generation. Things that seem old and overdone to long-time readers, seem new to them. When I first saw Weir’s The Martian I thought, “Again?”, but a half million readers on Goodreads rated it highly.

In old fashioned science fiction, the hero could do anything. And therefore, so could the reader.

Among that “anything” was a world of inventions that any boy genius could whip up in his basement. When I first read Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle (published 1911; it was left behind by my grandfather and I found it in the early fifties), Tom was just putting the finishing touches on his electric rifle, but before he headed for Africa with it, he whipped up a new flyer which was half aeroplane and half dirigible to use on the trip. Easy; any boy wonder could do it.

I haven’t seen that schtick since I was a kid in the fifties, and then it was usually in books from the thirties. I think we can blame Apollo. We all saw an entire nation spend a decade of time and billions of dollars to get to the moon. Thousands of workmen (and women) in all parts of the nation made the billion parts it took to undertake a moonshot. It no longer seems possible, even in science fiction, for Sheldon to build a moon rocket in a shed out back of the house.

When I was a kid, if I wanted to build a robot, it would have been made from tin cans, old sewing machines parts, and imagination. Now kids can build real ones (if their parents have enough money) out of plug and play components. Is that better? Is it worse? Decide for yourself, but it is different in a fundamental way.

It is all part of the digitalization of the world. And no, I’m not complaining. I’m writing this while sitting in front of a computer that makes my present life not only better, but possible.

Let’s hop into our time machine and watch it all happen. Let’s make it an even century.

In 1917, if you wanted to listen to the radio, the first thing you would do was build one, out of wire, a variable resistor, a capacitor, an appropriate piece of crystal, and a set of earphones. If you were really ambitious (or more likely, really poor) you could build the variable resistor and the capacitor as well. Everything would be in plain sight there on a pine board in front of you.

The next step was tube radios (that’s valve radios in the land of Britain). Tubes were an offshoot of incandescent light bulbs with more parts inside. Like light bulbs, you could see everything through the glass casing. Things had become more complicated, but you could still see the parts and follow their wiring.

Televisions worked like this as well, and as late as my childhood, hardware stores had a device with hundreds of sockets on top where you could plug in a tube from your TV or radio and check to see if it was burned out. They burned out frequently. If it was bad you could buy a replacement right there and fix the radio or TV yourself.

Then came printed circuits. You could still follow the wiring, but you had to turn the board over and look at the back side.

Then came transistors. They took the place of tubes, but they were tiny, anonymous nuggets with three wires and you could no longer see what their guts looked like. It was the beginning of major progress, and the beginning of the end of understanding.

Finally, integrated circuits arrived, and now you could no longer see the parts or the wires that connected them.

Now if something breaks, you throw it away. That isn’t really a problem, because things are cheaper, and the replacement is usually better than the thing discarded. In terms of practicality, things are better than ever.

In terms of understanding how our machines work, much has been lost.

But steampunk brings it all back. (more Wednesday)


423. 85 Pages: a review

This was supposed to be a review of The Map of Time, by Felix J.  Palma, a book of 609 pages. Instead, it is a review of the first 85 pages because I am going to bail, give up, leave; because life is short and Time is precious.

Mind you, there is some quality in this book. If it were irremediably terrible, I wouldn’t waste a post on it.

Heinlein did time travel, often and occasionally well. Let me retrodict (retrodict: neologism, the opposite of predict) how Heinlein would have written the first 85 pages of this story in, say, 1955.

A___ stood over the torn body of his lover, heartbroken, feeling that his life was over. Then C___, his cousin said, “You can fix this. Just go back in time and kill her killer before he can kill her.

That, folks, is the entire thrust of the fist 85 pages of The Map of Time.

And that’s not all. We already knew exactly what was going to happen by the second or third page. How? Because Palma spends most of his pages foreshadowing events. And, since he calls in every cliché known to Victorian England — Jack the Ripper, ruthless rich father, cowardly wimp of an heir, H. G . Wells and his Time Machine, a hero who thinks he is sensitive but is actually just a clod chasing whores in Whitechapel — we know from the start where this story is going.

The only surprise along the way is that there wasn’t one single surprise along the way.

The writing style is Victorian appropriate. The “hero” never becomes quite so bad that we don’t think he might be salvaged. The “Dear Reader” asides are cleverly handled. The description of London carries the story well. These are all the reasons I stayed around as long as I did. I thought it might get better. I thought something would eventually reward me for my perseverance.

No luck. I’m out of here.

Did I leave just before the story got good? I’ll never know.

If you stuck with The Map of Time all the way through, and you think I’m wrong, tell me. But, spoiler alert, I’ll be hard to convince.

243. On Fantasy: Archaism

Marion Zimmer Bradley is well known for her fantasies, but she cut her teeth on science fiction. Her Darkover series was a massive best seller in its day. Darkover is a planet in our universe, populated by humans from a stranded starship, whose powers of the mind come (quite scientifically) from the pollen of psychotropic plants and from interbreeding with non-human natives. Lost and out of contact with their technological roots, they evolve a feudal society. They create an archaic world from a purely science fiction starting point.

Of course this is a reductionist view of a complex and massive series of novels and short stories. But it makes the point that archaism in fantasy is easy to achieve. You could almost write a formula:


Of course it takes more than that to achieve good fantasy.

The time before known time is an ancient idea. Atlantis and Mu fit into it. Tolkien’s Middle Earth came before recorded history. So did the world of Conan. The worlds of Michael Moorcock seem to be of this nature, but a closer reading will have to follow them sideways in time. Alternate histories allow access to archaic worlds coexisting with our modern world. We can go to other 2016s, where the Native Americans are the only Americans, or Rome still rules, or Muhammed became an atheist. Take your pick, and if you can’t find what you like, you can write your own.

Remnant stories also let the past live on. Professor Challenger found dinosaurs still living deep in the Amazon. Hilton’s characters found Shangri-La. Even Rick Brant, in the favorite series from my childhood, found a lost remnant of an earlier age hidden in the Himalayas in The Lost City.

You could go sideways in time, or backward, or to some lost valley and find dystopian, crowded cities, but that almost never happens. Archaism is about escaping modernity, crowding, complication, and life in cities. Back to simpler times. Back to the good old days. Back to the land of childhood. Back to the middle ages where knights in shiny armor rode pretty horses and rescued damsels with big bosoms and pearly teeth from dastardly villains – or dragons.

Does anybody believe this? Of course not. Does anybody want to believe? Of course. And in the friction generated when those two truths rub together, the fire of archaism is born.

So our hero goes back (or sideways) and he/she finds the land of her/his heart’s desire and it isn’t what she/he expected at all. But it isn’t bad. There are problems to overcome, heartaches to endure, and villainy to face, but so what? That’s true in Portland, and Austin, and New York City as well. In the new/old world  there are beauties and wonders, in addition to troubles. And it’s probably green, with trees and meadows, even if it also has rain and snow instead of eternal sunshine.

Above all, there aren’t any traffic jams. And the cell phone never rings.

Wait a minute. I’ll get my backpack, and we can go.

199. Lost in Juarez

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post. You really should read it first.

Chapter 1

I spent my first week drunk in Juarez. Or rather, drinking steadily; a controlled drip of Corona that kept me looking and smelling intoxicated while I watched the other Gringos and learned their ways with the natives. Then I moved north to El Paso and spent a few days learning how men treated American barmaids in 1944. I moved on to Austin where I learned how to talk to waitresses and librarians and store clerks. 

Sure, America was my native country, but my year of birth was still in the future. I remembered how Dad and my uncles had acted when I was young, but they were always on their best behavior – married church-going Christians in front of the kid. How they had talked and acted when I was not around, or when they were younger, was another matter. There are subtleties, and the subtleties will trip you up.

By comparison, my stop off in San Francisco in ’67 has been a cakewalk. Everyone was crazy, or expected craziness. The weirder you were, the more you fit in. Not so this era.

I wasn’t the only spy in America in 1944. Posters said it in four words:  Loose lips sink ships. The stock answer to excessive curiosity was, “Whadda you need to know that for, Buddy?” That didn’t cause me problems because I wasn’t gathering military information. I already knew how the war was going to turn out. I was just learning how to pass as a native of the era.

In Tulsa I pissed in Whites Only toilets and drank from Whites Only water fountains. It gave me chills. Linda had been black; cafe au lait, actually. Marrying her in this era would have landed me in jail – or worse.

I had acquired a limp and a scar that all but closed one eye, and a feigned irritability that kept people at a distance. The shirt I wore was khaki with stitching scars where the sergeant’s stripes had been. I was a wounded veteran who just didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t claim that identity; I wore it like a second skin and no one questioned me.

All in all, I used a dozen disposable identities during those days while I learned who I had to be for my mission. I made my mistakes under those other names.

How far can you joke with a waitress? About what subjects? What will be taken as humor, and what will get your face slapped, or win you a night in jail? What will a cop wink at, and what will get you a nightstick upside the head? I had to know because, ultimately, I had to become invisible.

I wandered west to the Rockies, then east to New York, and finally back southward toward Georgia.

It was odd to find out what felt the most strange. Segregation and Jim Crow depressed me, but did not surprise me. The absence of computers and instantaneous communication I took for granted. It was the heat that came as a sheer physical shock.

I used to think that Thomas Edison was the greatest benefactor of mankind, bringing light to dispel the darkness. After a summer in Texas, I changed my allegiance to Willis Carrier and his air conditioner.

By February of 1945, I was settled into Warm Springs, Georgia, under the relatively stable identity of Bill Taylor, electrician. I shaved my hair back at the hairline, gave it a hint of gray, let my stubble grow, and tinted it gray as well. I gained twenty pounds, walked with rounded shoulders and a forward slump, and wore clothes two sizes too big. That added twenty years to my age, and I no longer looked out of place in a country where all the young men had gone to war.

Now it was time to manufacture an electrical problem at the Little White House at Warm Springs, so I could plant the mechanism under the floor that would reach the dying Roosevelt and give him an extra decade of life.

Will you ever read the rest of this story. Maybe. I like where it’s going, but there are these dozens of other ideas vying for my time. We’ll see.

198. Waking up Dead

I often get a story notion and pop out a couple of opening chapters before I have clear idea where things are going to go. Then I leave things alone, there in the dark in the back of my mind, and visit them from time to time to see what kind of a mushroom crop I’m growing.

For this particular idea, spelled out in yesterday’s post, I wrote two different quickie openings. One was presented Monday, the second is presented today and tomorrow. Enjoy.


“Yes, I hear you!”

Aroused now from sleep, Fletcher tried to open his eyes but felt no response from his eyelids. Yet he could see, somewhat, mostly vague shapes and a bilious yellow color.  And movement – some kind of moving shapes beyond the yellow fog.

“Where am I?”

“What is your name?”

“Jim Fletcher.”

“What do you remember?”

That was also vague, and he wrestled with it for a while. There had been a wedding – his? No, he only remembered preparations for the wedding. There was to be a party the night before, but he could not remember attending it. He said so.

“I have no way of knowing anything about your life,” the voice in his head responded, “except that at some point you opted for cryogenic suspension.”

“Then I am dead?”


Fletcher thought about that for a while. It did not seem wrong. It was as if some hidden part of him had been aware of duration – great duration – since his last conscious thought.

He said, “Then you are about to revive me?”

“Hell, no.”

“But . . .”

“I can’t understand the arrogance of you people. Wherever did you get the idea that we would want more people, or that someone from your era would have anything to contribute to our world.”

“It was Linda’s idea. She said we could be together forever.”


“If the woman you are about to marry wants to love you forever, you don’t argue. I signed the paper.”

“And here you are.”


“That, I will not tell you. In fact, it is imperative that you never learn anything about here/now. All that remains of you is a head, badly decayed outside the skull, with one eye, virtually no skin, and a brain that is basically intact. We bought you as biological waste, at the same price per kilo as manure, and revived you to this point. There were about four hundred of you in the lot, and only three came back to consciousness.”

“Why did you do it . . . if we are so useless?”

“I am going to make you an offer. You will think yes or no. If no, you’ll be fertilizing a vegetable garden tomorrow. If yes, you will be fully revived and given a chance to live again.”


“Wait for the rest. Either way you choose, you will never know what year this is, nor anything about our civilization. For you to learn those things would make you less useful for our purposes.”

“And your purposes are?”

“You will be trained and sent back to an era near in time to the one in which you lived. This is why we are willing to revive you. You have knowledge and instincts which will let you survive where none of us could. An explosive device will be implanted in your skull to insure compliance. You will go where you are sent and do what you are told.”

“I would be a slave.”

“You would be alive. Now decide.” continued tomorrow

197. Alternatives to History

I am not always a fan of science fiction based on alternative timelines. They can be superb, but they are often pedestrian, and too often deeply dumb.

I’ll give you two examples – best and worst. Pavane by Keith Roberts is a powerfully written novel set in a fully realized alternate world. It’s premise, spelled out in a prolog, is that Queen Elizabeth was assassinated, leading to a conquest of England by Catholic Spain. That shows a lot more imagination than the typical, “What if Lee Harvey Oswald had been hit by a bus on the way to Dallas?” setup, but the story didn’t need the premise. If the prolog had been left out and the story had been marketed as fantasy, it would have been just as good.

My candidate for worst alternative timeline story is Mirror, Mirror from the original Star Trek. While it is fun to see an alternative Spock, the notion that the entire course of human history had gone down a different and dystopian path, yet still the Enterprise was the Enterprise and all its main characters were still there doing the same jobs is too silly to even laugh at.

Actually, scientific accuracy is rarely invoked. Most alternate timeline stories are just an excuse to explore a situation contrary to fact, and there is nothing wrong with that. It has obviously excused Mirror, Mirror to its many fans. There is a sub-genre of historical novels called alternate history which doesn’t claim to be science fiction at all.

All this is a tortuous route to Heinlein and the novel fragment I posted yesterday. Heinlein’s short stories from the thirties and forties build up a future history that I would have loved to be a part of, or at least to write stories in. Time, however, eventually caught up to them. In our world, Leslie LeCroix was not the first man on the moon. As Heinlein continued to mine his old works, he eventually cast what had been his future history as an alternate timeline. He added more timelines, and eventually let them all blend together into a view of multiple universes. This was great fun for me as a reader, but it held nothing for me as a writer. I was interested in writing about a robust exploration of the solar system in the near future, informed by astronomical information Heinlein did not have.

I asked myself how the world Heinlein wrote about was different from the world we live in. The answer was simple; his culture developed nuclear powered spaceships, and ours didn’t. That begged the question, “Why not?”. We developed nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, so why not nuclear spacecraft?

Not denying the technical difficulties involved, the answer seemed to be fear. Somewhere on the road to the cold war, nuclear power became the enemy. Nukes took out Hiroshima; nukes gave us Godzilla. Nukes gave us fear, and fear does not deal with reason; it has a logic of its own.

What if that fear had not developed, or had developed differently. It would be easy to envision a timeline in which they developed nuclear space propulsion technology, so we had to follow suit, and to hell with the consequences.

So when and where could we tweak reality, and how should it be done? Should we simply present the chosen future as fait accompli, or should we create a character from the present who would go back in history and cause the change?

Heinlein came to the rescue again. In one of his late novels, in a throwaway line, he mentioned an attempt to change history by sending an agent back, not to kill a horrid dictator, but to give a condom to his father, an acne-faced teenager, on the night the dictator had been accidentally conceived. Beautiful!

I decided to save Franklin Roosevelt’s life, or at least prolong it for an additional several years, to make things come out differently in a different timeline. opening chapters Wednesday and Thursday

196. Timelines

Here are a couple of pages out of a novel that never could make up its mind where it was going. There is another opening as well, which actually may become the story. At present I have two main characters vying for lead. This fellow Davos is probably not going to get the part. I’ll show you the other version on Wednesday and Thursday.

But first . . .   As I write this, it is July 26, one day into the Democratic convention. Many things are happening, primarily email leaks, which came out of left field and may or may not cause major changes in the outcome of the election. Everything is in flux, but one storyline will emerge. You know much more about it there-then as you read this than I know here-now as I am writing it. Reality isn’t science fiction – quite.

But what if . . ..

There are a thousand events this week whose occurrence, or non-occurrence, or even timing would allow a science fiction writer to generate a thousand different timelines, from utopian to dystopian and every shade between. This is true every day of every year, (see 173. BREXIT is Science Fiction) but at times like this, when the future seems poised on a knife’s edge, we realize how many ways our lives could come out. It goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of alternative history novels, something we will talk about tomorrow.

For now let’s look at the opening chapter of a novel-that-never-was about a timeline-that-never-was, and see what trouble Davos has gotten himself into.

Chapter 1

The headlines were about the Soviet victory at Königsberg, three days earlier.

Jim Fletcher, who now went by the name Davos, felt a chill. Not panic, not yet, but definitely the beginning of fear. He checked the date on the newspaper, April 12, 1945. That was right, but the headline was wrong. He checked his wristwatch – an intricate mechanism of cams and gears and springs that would have been welcomed in any historical museum in his home time. April 12th was the first of three ticks that would verify his target timeline. It was no small item; not something any newspaper would have missed.

Davos folded the newspaper and sipped coffee, staring out the window of the diner and waiting for his breakfast. No need to panic. No need to hurry. Time was something he had an unlimited supply of. Cultivate patience. 


He ate, paid, and left. Two blocks toward downtown, there was a news stand that would have the New York Times.

These headlines revealed sketchy news about the battle near Okinawa. It should have read, “President Roosevelt dies in Warm Springs.”

Davos expressed an obscene opinion and headed back to the hotel. Tim Murray was behind the desk reading Life magazine. He was a friendly guy. Davos had only known him since he first checked in four days ago, but Murray looked up and asked, “Did you forget something?” Davos just waved.

Inside, with locked door, security chain, and a few considerably more potent devices out of place in this time to back them up, he said, “Kerbach,” and his mechanical companion woke up. Davos said, “Translate!”

It did and they faded. “THQ. Take us back, Kerbach, we’re in the wrong timeline.”

“No, shit. You sure?”

“Got to be the wrong line. This is the day Roosevelt died, and two newspapers did not report it. What are you waiting for?”

Kerbach did not reply and the knot in Davos’s stomach tightened.



They waited in a sphere of luminescent fog. As they were between timelines, only his own impatience gave the duration color and meaning. It smelled of sweat and was beginning to taste like panic.

“What’s happening?”

“I can’t make contact. I’ve run my diagnostics eight times. Nothing. Whatever is wrong, isn’t in me. Maybe at THQ?”

“Maybe. We’ll try again later. Right now, I want you to review what you did when you translated us to Armageddon Four. How did we end up in the wrong timeline?”

There was a long pause, then Kerbach said, “I find no errors.”

“Take us back.”

“Are you sure?”

“We can’t just stay here in this fog for the rest of eternity.”

The fog receded and Davos was standing at the foot of an unmade bed, in a cheap hotel, talking to a battered leather suitcase that was much more than it seemed to be. The wristwatch said eight minutes after ten and the clock on the dresser said the same. He had neither gained nor lost time in the translation. In other words, he had never left. For good or ill, he was tied to this place and time.

         *          *          *

Two days later, FDR was in the news again. He would not confirm or deny rumors of large scale fire-bombing of Tokyo. He should have been two days dead and lying in state. Vice-president Harry Truman was still an unknown. Presumably he still didn’t know that America had atomic bombs – bombs he would order dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in forty-one of the sixty-seven timelines in sheaf alpha.

There was no known timeline in which FDR did not die on April 12, 1945.