Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Harry and the Teens
An Appreciation of The Cross-time Traders by Harry Turtledove

Like many grown adults, I freely admit to enjoying “cross-over” books: These are young adult (YA) books enjoyed by adults too. I enjoy being carried away to worlds where, say, preparing for the senior prom is Real and Earnest. Even more, I like the fantasy world of the Harry Potter series, yes, and the science fiction (sf) world of The Hunger Games trilogy, too. What about a time travel book? Would it be experienced as an adventure of fantasy or of science fiction? It would depend on the author. I really appreciate the “Cross-time Traders” YA series by Harry Turtledove. It’s always a pleasure to find a new one.

Every new book takes place on a new “timeline” with new characters. Harry usually portrays two teenagers: one girl, one boy; one time traveler, one native. Both teens are putting energy into questioning and understanding the world they are growing up into. It’s this driving urge to know that makes the series science fiction, not fantasy. I hope schoolteachers and librarians are aware of the Cross-time Traders series.

The gimmick is simple: One of the teens is with parents or an uncle or something, all posing as merchants running a little store, while surrounded by locals who mustn’t ever learn their secret identity. In the series, inventing cross-time travel is just as momentous as inventing the A-bomb, only it’s much, much easier. If the natives ever learned such travel was even possible, they would soon figure out how to do so too. Hence the time-travelers are sworn to lonely secrecy.

These traders are “out of time,” shipping desperately needed grain and resources back to their own world through a portal in the basement. Cool! Secret rooms and concealed technology! The twist is the people travel not to different “times” but to different “earths,” to alternate worlds that have the same date as back home, but are not so advanced. The traders, as it happens, are in the late 21st century. Some of the worlds they trade with have computers with silicon chips, computers as advanced as late 20th century earth, but still not as good as back in the home timeline. Why not?

Various reasons. And here is where Harry’s rollicking good plots disguise “teachings” that could help his young readers gain perspective on the world, just as the heroes are gaining perspective too. As I see it, maximum “progress” over the generations happens when everything goes just right. But lots of things can go wrong. Progress can be delayed, since human societies, alas, are imperfect. My high school history textbook was divided into sections such as ‘The quest for security,’ ‘The quest for freedom’ and so on. God bless our children: They don’t realize yet what it means to be a responsible citizen.

As you know, today’s privileged school kids usually find “the past” boring. They don’t understand how things of “right now,” including things as vital as, say, the War On Terror, are easier to manage if one has an historical understanding of what conditions nurture the public and democracy, and what conditions are abusive to the public.

Harry offers modern lessons. The fear today on the streets of Islamist Iran is like on the streets in the world where the Kaiser’s army got atomics first. Today’s child indoctrination by the Saudi’s exported “madrasses,” or religious schools, (Islam is under attack, Jews are ruling, etc.) is like the California boy, some generations after an atomic war, believing everything he’s been told about the folks over in the next valley. Today the mullahs (priests) of the Arab world are contorting themselves to combine old Arabic words to describe new things, while discouraging innovation and free thought. They are acting like the bureaucrats in the world where the Roman Empire never fell… hence there was no dark age… a world where nevertheless, in the 21st century, they haven’t gone beyond muskets and slavery yet. (An application of the thick best seller Guns, Germs and Steel)

As for slavery, in one of the worlds the US, having advanced into the industrial age, no longer has racial slavery, but they have two levels of citizen, based on race. And in one state--oh irony!--the levels are reversed: Mississippi. In this world the civil rights movement, with the federal transport laws supporting the Freedom Riders, never happened. As well, the locals have a technology that is still a hundred years behind the home timeline. Their divergence in “fortune,” in both senses of the word, came some time after 1776 when, for federal taxation and representation, they couldn’t manage to find the right balance between going by State or by population. (States like Wyoming have fewer people than New York City) And so they couldn’t manage to have a Union. This would echo certain far-reaching mistakes today in the Constitution the US has foisted on Iraq. History matters.

Harry Turtledove’s stories, by encouraging thought experiments, can teach in the way “games” do. As for games, in one novel, Gladiator, the cover shows a hand holding up a typical multi-sided Dungeons’nDragons die. In Italy the teen hero is posing as a typical high school student, helping to run a gaming store, selling Gladiator.

In this world the Soviets have won the contest for “the hearts and minds.” Here Western Europe has joined the east in being under a planned economy. And the children are true believers. At least, supposedly: Just as today’s Islamists need capital punishment for “blaspheming,” so too, the Communists need their scary thought police. The hero is brave. Besides selling Gladiator, he is doing something more: Under the noses of the Reds he is also selling a game about capitalists building railroads. How subversive. This in a world where anyone from Russia automatically has high status.

I don’t think Turtledove is deliberately trying to teach young students, not exactly. He reminds me of an excited developer who once scribbled on paper to describe to me how he would buy and sell hotels to own more and more. I think of the car lover experimenting with fuel mixtures, the old military historian playing his WWII board games, or the starving college business student manipulating a computer spread sheet. What if? Whenever you are fascinated by something you want to get involved. Plainly, Turtledove loves history. And therefore, like a science fiction writer, he asks, “What if--?”

Possibly he has learned old skills like riding a horse, or grinding his own wheat (Sore shoulders!) and then baking his own bread. (Easy to burn!) Perhaps he boils soap. Maybe he even dresses as knight in the SCA. (Society for Creative Anachronism) More likely, I suppose, Harry is a typical English literature guy, feeling most at home curled behind his desk. What strikes me most about literary folks, as compared to my friends who write science fiction, is how they are very unlikely to subscribe to Scientific American. Instead, for them, the most fascinating thing in this world is people. While history looks at characters wholesale, with persons being embedded in their culture, writers look at character retail. Individuals vary. Not all adolescents grow up to be clones of their parents—thank God!

I found one of Turtledove’s cross-time novels to be especially literary. In The Disunited States of America, a girl travels alone with just her grandmother—in a world with no federal Interstate Highways. It’s hard. Not the physical travail, but the emotional. While her dear mother, left back home, is really nice, (why?) her mother’s mother is horrid and immature. Why? The girl begins to look at people to imagine what their choice points were: How did they become who they are? I thought this imagining of “alternate people” was a delightful variation on alternate earths.

The Cross-time Traders series deserves more notice. I look forward to a re-issue of them, this time with matching covers—so I can read them all again! Then maybe they would be noticed by the general public. I suppose a movie might launch the series, but then again, no, for I don’t see how a movie could ever work…

After all, they can’t film Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield, either. The enduring value of Finn, and the Cross-time Traders, is their youthful inner thoughts. It’s something the “moving pictures” can never capture. And it’s something I never tire of reading.

Sean Crawford
Living in the best of all possible worlds,
(Except for some hanging chad and butterfly ballots)
Calgary, 2012
Footnote: It’s neat how Gladiator takes place in Italy, because as a boy I read a (translated?) collection of amusing short stories about a poor village in Italy, written from the viewpoint of the village priest, stories where the priest and the local union leader keep competing for whether the villagers will convert to communism.

Sidebar: The mother of all US time travel stories is Andre Norton’s 1958 novel The Time Traders. The hero begins as a lonely juvenile delinquent unsuited to a near-future society. But he ends up wearing furs in the prehistoric Bronze Age, as part of a little team of traders, one of many little teams intently searching along the timeline. Everything they carry or wear must be authentic or disguised. And for good reasons: They don’t want to change history, of course, and besides: they don’t want to be noticed by the Reds, who also have teams. The Americans desperately need to know where the Reds are getting their lost technology. As the cover shows, it turns out to be ancient aliens. It’s quite a story. I once met an anthropologist and sf writer, Joan D Vinge, whose interest in prehistoric civilizations had been started by that book.

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