Time Story Story Time: The Accidental Time Traveller

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

Last installment, I wrote that The Time Machine was the grand-daddy of time travel stories.  But that doesn't mean it's the first of the genre.  Time travel stories usually employ some kind of device which propels the time traveller on his journey.  From Mr. Peabody to Doc Brown, vehicles of various forms have become customary in temporal adventure stories.

But there is another type of time traveller, one I shall call the "accidental" time traveller--a person (or persons) who enter into a state of suspended animation, only to awaken years, perhaps centuries, later, to find a world very different from the one they remember.

Many cultures have folktales of a character who either falls asleep, or spends a few hours in a fairyland, only to return to the real world and find that years or centuries have passed.  And one could make the case that the Book of Revelations is something of a time-travel story.

The fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, and the Germanic folk tale of the Valkyrie Brynhild, both feature a young woman who is put into an enchanted slumber. And in both cases, the women are awakened by cads who betray them--Sleeping Beauty is raped while asleep and left with twins, while Brynhild is tricked into marrying another man.  The girls were probably too miserable to give much thought to how much the world had changed in the years they were asleep; in any event, we never find out how they feel about having slept for one hundred and for twenty years, respectively. 

Although Sleeping Beauty never experienced temporal disorientation, Rip Van Winkle certainly did, and his time jump was only twenty years.  But what years those were!  When he fell asleep at that otherworldly party in the hills, King George III's likeness was on the coinage and when he awoke, some guy named General George Washington's likeness was on the pub sign.  Washington Irving's classic tale, published in 1819, is an early story about time travel and the culture shock associated with it.

The story has precedents in the folklore of many countries.  In Germany there is the similar tale of Peter Klaus, written by Johann Karl Christoph Nachtigal, and Christian, Islamic, and Talmudic traditions speak about men who have slept for many years, as well.  The Japanese have the stories of Ranka, and Urashima Taro, who spends three days among the dragon-people under the sea, while three centuries pass above.

Most of these stories do not end happily.  The accidental time traveller is lost and disoriented in the unfamiliar world of the future, and often dies of the sudden onset of extreme old age.  Such was the case with the Irish hero, Oisin, who left his faerie lover in Tir Na Nog, only to fall off his magical horse and to instantly age the three hundred years he'd been away.

It could be argued that Ebenezer Scrooge was a time traveller, for he was taken backwards to the days of his youth, and then into the future, to see his eventual fate.  Clarence the Angel experienced a similar journey as Saint Peter had him review the life of George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life.   While these examples are more in the realm of fantasy than science fiction, they have inspired dozens, if not hundreds, of similar stories over the years.

While neither Scrooge nor Clarence could have any effect on the visions they were shown, in other stories, the protagonist takes an active part in the events of his new time period.  In Armageddon 2419 AD, written by Philip Francis Nowland in 1928, a man named Anthony Rogers is rendered unconscious by a strange gas in a Pennsylvania cave, waking up five hundred years later; the story became the comic strip and movie serial Buck Rogers.  In the novella, Rogers is working for a gas mining company when he falls into his sleep, awakening in a world where the Mongolian Hans have defeated the United States in war and turned the country into a vassal state.  Using tactics he'd learned in the First World War, Tony Rogers helps the rebel Americans battle their overlords.  The comic strip concentrates more on the fantastical adventures Buck and Wilma Deering have while battling an assortment of bad guys.  The tale has been turned into radio shows, movies, and TV series, and inspired numerous imitators.

On a lighter note, we have Futurama, Matt Groening's animated series about a hapless dimwit named Philip J. Fry who gets trapped in a cryogenic pod on New Year's Eve, 1999, and revived a thousand years later.  Possibly some of the best and funniest science fiction ever made, the slacker Fry stumbles his way through a New New York built on the mutant-infested ruins of the one he remembers, working with sassy robots, mad scientists, aliens, and rich, spoiled little grad students from Mars.  A lot of the humor comes from how much things have changed, and yet have stayed the same.

Another comedic story about an accidental time traveller is Red Dwarf.  Set aboard an enormous mining spaceship, the story begins when good-natured but lackadaisical Dave Lister is put into a stasis chamber as punishment for bringing an unquarantined cat aboard; shortly thereafter, a radiation disaster wipes out the entire crew, leaving only Lister and the pregnant cat alive.  The ship sails on for three million years, during which time the cat's kittens' descendants evolve into humanoids; Lister is eventually revived by the ship's now-senile computer to learn that he is the last living human being in the universe.  For companionship, the computer recreates Lister's annoying bunkmate, Arnold Rimmer, as a hologram, and later they pick up a butler android named Kryten who had been dutifully serving a long-dead crew aboard a derelict starship.  Really, it's a funny show.  

Not all accidental time travellers wind up in the future. Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan, accidentally time-travelled into the past.  After a severe blow to the head somehow transports him to sixth-century Britain, he introduces all manner of modern, nineteenth-century technologies to the gullible locals, becoming the smartest and most powerful wizard in the realm and earning the jealousy and enmity of Merlin (who himself becomes something of an accidental time traveller, after he gets imprisoned in a tree by the enchantress Vivien.).  A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court, published in 1889, is an early exponent of the time travel story where the traveller actively attempts to alter the past.

And that is an entirely different type of time-travel story.