Chronic ArgonautsThursday, December 28, 2006
That was the original title of H.G. Wells' Time Machine.
In these days before the end of them for 2006 (and in other years at this time, as well) I, too, am a chronic argonaut and I go back and revisit the past. There are four books that I sometimes re-read about now, or at least think about. In all of them there is a chronic argonaut who goes back in time, unlike Wells' whose visitor goes forward.
In The Dechronization of Sam Magruder written by that most famous paleontologist of the 20th century, George Gaylord Simpson, our traveler finds himself the only human being, inexorably stuck 80 million years into the Jurassic era. His loneliness in knowing he will never meet a fellow human being nor to ever be able to tell his coleagues of his time (February 30, 2162), that dinosaurs are cold blooded is sobering for the reader. I prize this little book that has a forward by Arthur C. Clark and an afterword by Stephen Jay Gould with the others, my favourite time travel novels.
In L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall a bolt of lightning transports an American history professor from 1939 Rome into the period before it falls ( 1288 Anno Urbis Conditae). The unusual premise of this book is that the professor does not pre-invent gunpowder or teaches Romans the use of electricity. His sole modern convenience, a wristwatch serves no purpose. But with knowledge of double entry bookeeping and the making of brandy from wine through the distillation process, Dr Padway not only saves Rome from the barabarians, but he rules it and changes history.
In 1989 I had to photograph accountant Dennis Culver who then lived on Eagle Island. It told him about Lest Darkness Fall. He was so interested I lent him the book. He mailed it back with a pleasant note that read:
Many thanks for the loan of your book "Lest Darkness Fall" which is returned herewith. I found it both enjoyable and interesting and am now more appreciative of the valud of double entry bookeeping and distillation, especially in the hands of a frenetically exploitive individual.
I was charmed in 1970 when I first read Jack Finney's Time and Again. Being able to travel back in time (New York City in the 19th century) by ensconcing oneself in the Dakota and using the imagination and will to transport oneself into the past is more plausible to me than the chemicals used in Daphne Du Maurier's The House on the Strand. But the latter book is really my favourite of the four, perhaps because, even after repeated readings (my first was in 1970) I have never figured out the twisted ending.
Our time traveler, Dick Young lives in the Cornish setting of so many of Du Maurier's novels. He travels back to the 14th century and invisibly (he cannot be heard nor can he affect anything with his presence) participates in a cloak and dagger soap opera that involves three wealthy families, the Champernounes, the Carminowes and the Bodrugans. Dick Young's travels become addictive until he can barely exist in the 20th century. It ends:
The telephone went on ringing, and I crossed the room to answer it, but a silly thing happened as I picked up the receiver, I couldn't hold it properly; my fingers and the palm of my hand went numb, and it slipped out of my grasp and crashed to the floor.