Visitors from the future

This is a common subject of science fiction: a fraction of our modern world falls into the past and is stranded there; divergences ensue. Harry Turtledove dropped South African racists into the American Civil War (Guns of the South); Reddit dropped a battalion of US Marines into the Roman Empire; John Birmingham dropped a twenty-minutes-to-the-future multinational navy into the Pacific WWII (Axis of Time); and of course Eric Flint et al dropped a doughty West Virginia village into Germany, 1632 AD (the 1632 series).

This is a nice scenario with endless room for showing one’s inner history buff and speculation junkie; but what of the reverse?

* * *

Air shimmers over the Potomac river, 2011, and a sonic boom sweeps over Washington, D.C., as something vast and shiny rolls out of thin air, and drops into the river.

As the president is herded into an underground bunker, as fighter jets take flight and blue lights converge on the object steaming in the river… a hatch in it pops open, and a human being looks out, all three eyes wide, silvery skin dull with shock; and whispers, the whisper carrying to all three thousand inhabitants of that housing marble: “Cut the speculation, people; it’s not the where that is wrong, but when… because this looks like Second Medieval-period America to me.”

The police are the first to arrive. Most shy away from the silvery sphere, and the flood it is causing by blocking half the river, hissing and steaming. Most policemen and -women run to evacuate the locals, though from the danger of the flood or of the object, they don’t know, and don’t particularly want to guess.

One policeman, not having watched enough science fiction movies, raises a gun at the silver-skinned red-edged stranger, who is now out, wading towards the shore, out of the mists round the sphere.

“Stop!” the policeman yells, the yell coinciding with his first shot.

The stranger flinches as the bullet hits; flinches, and then straightens, incredulity showing on her (?) face. It’s a human face, though it has one additional eye in the forehead; a human face, though it is silvery, smoothly nude and without any hair. Then again, that slim, tall person is smoothly nude all over the unclothed body; where hair would be expected, dark red tentacles of varying size sprout: scalp, armpits, crotch and eyebrows.

All this shows; what doesn’t, is the wound. Instead, a flattened metal slug shows against that silvery person’s hip, before sliding off and falling into the river.

The stranger looks at the policeman; but if the look is meant to communicate something over the rushing water, the hissing steam, the blare and blink of sirens and all manner of screams… it does not communicate that.

This does not surprise the policeman; it seems to surprise the person in silver.

The policeman squeezes off a few more shots; as his hands shake, these go wide, and go angrily hissing into the steaming river.

“What the holy is concerning to you?” the stranger yells, her (?) voice hoarse and heavily accented. The red tentacles that are her hair are now standing straight in a crimson sunburst round her face. She waves a silvery arm, and a similarly silvery disc flies off her hand, screaming like a fire alarm, arcing like an arrow, a sparrow — and hitting the ground in a blinding flash of light.

The policeman drops his weapon, and fall to his knees, screaming, clawing at his burning eyes; the same procedure, sans gun, is repeated by a dozen or so curious bystanders.

By the time the tanks arrive, the people of the silver sphere are ready, and angry: the ways of these violent metal-pellet-gun-carrying, processed-oil-burning, electricity-using primitives are not to be tolerated. It’s the time to bring some superior 29th-century civilization to these 21st-century savages!

* * *

— where I need to break off, to consider things.

If you send modern people into the past, you root for the modern people, because they’re familiar to you. They’re the generic well-adjusted good people. (Well, not in the Guns of the South…) The past is a misogynist, superstitious, poverty- and disease-ridden hellhole not as quaint as its reputation; whatever our modern people do, will be an improvement. (It’s not that they will surely succeed; but the reader will tend to root for their success, rather than that of Holy King Rotfang Bitchkiller the Second.)

If future people come into today, how do you root for them, the strangers? When you give them morals and values, they will be either ridiculously vague or, even more ridiculously, the same as we have right now — or they will be in some specific direction away from our current overall consensus; and that can’t be a direction that will sit well with all readers.

What do the people of the 29th century think of abortion? What about drugs? Euthanasia? God? Nationalism; sexuality; childcare; and so on and on. If you don’t stay vague, or vaguely where the debate is right now (“In the starry future, there are Creationists and moderate Christians and some shrill atheists…”), a large portion of the prospective audience will go, “Aaah! This gross moron shows his political, ideological colors! I might have guessed!”

And if you don’t give the future people any specific morals and values, how are they to do anything, except stereotypically evil-alien-conqueror stuff? The stranded-in-the-past plot is about the conflict between two ways of looking at the world, not just about two different levels of technology.

In the Axis of Time, you have multicultural, gender-equal people of today-plus-twenty-years, versus the racist misogynists of the Forties.

In the Guns of the South, you have a twenty-years-to-the-future minority of uncouth, frustrated racists, versus the gentrified fulfilled racists of the American South.

In the 1632 series you have Americans that have certain basic assumptions of human rights, fairness and sod-the-nobility; versus the post-Medievals whose givens include the pissing pyramid of authority, no rights at all, and a world that not only isn’t fair, but isn’t supposed to be, and can’t be made to be fair.

In each, the surface plot is about the guns of the future going “bam!” and the people of the past going “splat!”; but the plot beneath is about worldviews. How will Robert E. Lee handle knowledge of future history, and the future faces of racism? How will 17th-century Europe deal with the concept of democracy? And if the future navy dropped to the middle of WWII includes German, Japanese and American elements, how will each past party deal with each of the future ones, and vice versa? Each plot would go “splat!”, if it was just about killing the pasties until the futuries win.

I, as a totally impartial observer, naturally think the future would be in the direction I’m leaning towards, i.e. leftie liberal-permissiveness with a eunuch nanny state one world government, lots of skepticism, atheism, science worship, space travel and screaming uninhibited shameless hedonism, a largish dose of cyberpunk and a mindset that will consider George Carlin “tame”.

Oh, and body modification for aesthetic and practical purposes, removing the idea of hereditary features and skin color, and blurring the idea of gender: a skin that is as a bulletproof vest, just for safety; and tentacles instead of hair because who doesn’t like tentacles? On your scalp, they’re extra hands, a fan, or a shapeshifting sunroof hat; in the groin, they are extra entertainment for you, and those close to you.

* * *

Also, “bring civilization to these savages”? There are people who blanch at the idea; but (say) bringing democracy and equal rights for women and sexual and racial minorities is an idea that I think would not be very distasteful cultural imperialism to most readers.

What the future people would bring, would by definition be something that the powers of our day consider unthinkable, heinous, weird and/or evil; otherwise, it would be the law already. (“Equal rights for women? Don’t you know women are weak, unintellectual, easily tempted sin-vessels? Who would have the babies if women had vocations?”)

Think of arguing about the position of women with someone whose all experience, and all “data”, support the conclusion that women are weak, servile baby-making machines, and can be nothing else. Your contrary idea would seem outlandish to them; your data to the contrary would seem like a fairy story or a fabrication.

Then imagine our 29th-century people expressing horror at our opinions on… what? Take any social opinion which seems obvious to you; that’s the one. Maybe schools are really a bad idea. Maybe two parents raising a child is a suboptimal solution, a relic of our animal ancestry. Maybe romantic and sexual love should have nothing to do with each other, and there should be separate “marriages” for both. Maybe soldiers should be reviled and feared, and barely tolerated as a necessary underclass. Maybe people shouldn’t have a right to have children, or to raise children, just because they want to.

Whatever the idea, don’t think 2011 is the ultimate pinnacle of moral evolution, and the future is just us with the wrinkles ironed out. That’s what the Victorians and the Medievals thought, and they were wrong.

* * *

That problem aside, the best, most self-indulgent part of that fantasy would be… future history.

Future history, told from the viewpoint of eight centuries after us. With encyclopedias showing the deaths of every important person alive in 2011, except for the possible effects of the coming of these Arriveds. To think of it! To play with the fates of every person and enterprise of today! What will come of Apple and Microsoft, or Google? How will Iraq go, or Libya? Who will be the pre-eminent artistic talent of our times, from the perspective of centuries? How did history judge Bush Junior, or Barack Obama? You must tell, for the people of today will ask!

Settle grudges — entertain speculations — shock your readers!

(Of course the time travelers will have encyclopedias with them. What do you take them for, a culture of paper-based encumbrance people? Their bodies are computerized to contain all data ever produced in each of them!)

Future history, with data showing all earthquakes, and meteor flybys; all accidents and terrorist attacks waiting to happen (until that data’s arrival changes things), every decaying support beam, every catastrophic collapse or tidal wave…

Future history, with files containing all “historical” novels, movies and the like. Including all the books Stephen King ever wrote, including those he hasn’t written by 2011, and thanks to the disruption of the Arrived, may never will. All of Hollywood’s summer hits from 2011 on, until Hollywood’s demise. Every single blockbuster, bestseller and more; every book J. K. Rowling wrote, all the works of Charles Stross, all the works of your favorite living authors, actors and directors… which wouldn’t be at all good for the mental or fiscal health of these artists. (On the other hand, yay! All the volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, and the Concordances! And the Prequels, and the stories of King Tyrion’s reign!)

Future history, with book-analogues full of eight centuries of future science, making every single scientist, theorist, engineer and mathematician alive today obsolete… some by their own future works. (Hello graduate student! This is the discovery for which you would have won the Nobel Prize! Shame, ain’t it!)

All that, without even considering the obvious: future technology, and its applications to warfare…

It would be a scary story.

(Disclaimer: Not an original idea; John Birmingham explored the impact of c. 2020 archives on a c. 1942 society, but (as I recall) was more concerned with the copyright and monetization angle of it — with a very young Elvis Aaron Presley being met by a very slick lawyer type, gabbling something about music. Me, I’m thinking of an author leafing through a book with a familiar name on the cover, muttering: “Who… who wrote this? How can this be my work, if I never wrote it? Will I? Why bother… how could I? If this is my… my magnum opus, the one I will be remembered for… what chance do I have of writing anything better?”)

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