Say you had a time machine. Not a Delorean, but a real, honest time machine under your control with no strings attached. Say it just makes doors from the modern world to whatever time you like – you can pop back and forth, like commuting. Also, given that time is not linear, you don’t actually have to worry about altering your current timeline if you go back and, say, step on a butterfly or something. Quantum theory accounts for all that stuff – if your timeline gets messed up for whatever reason, you can just travel sideways in time. Time, no matter what the Doctor says, has no fixed points we know of.
Anyway, say you had one: where would you go?
Time machine stories usually answer this question by sending their protagonists to a point in time that is crucial to their character development. Marty McFly winds up in the 1950s because his unresolved issues with his parents are what is holding him back and preventing him from reaching true maturity. The Time Traveler of HG Wells goes to the distant future because the Time Traveler is an Upper-class British Imperialist sent to witness and experience the (proposed) endpoint of the British social system and imperialist doctrine if extrapolated through the aeons. None of this, of course, really helps us in making our decisions. Ultimately, where each of us goes would be a facet of our psychology and personality, perhaps settled upon by factors we are not even consciously aware of.
For my part, I always think about going back to the Middle Ages and becoming a wizard.
I don’t mean to say that I think magic is real – of course it isn’t – but science and technology sure are real and would appear to be as magical as anything else in the context of medieval Europe. Now, mind you, this plan is almost certainly a bad idea. The dangers are tremendous – disease and violence alone would account for most of the reason not to go. Even assuming you weren’t murdered by a bandit or burned as a witch, you’d probably catch something nasty, like the Plague or Smallpox, and wind up in pretty deep trouble. Now, granted, you’re just one short time-machine trip from the good old 21st century, but still it would be a pretty crazy risk. Even all of this stuff wouldn’t be much help.
It would be cool, though, right? To see a medieval tourney, to walk the streets of medieval London, to see the castles when they were still operational – all the stuff of fairy tales. Of course, you’d see the ugly side of it, too: filthy people, suffering and starvation, barbarism and ignorance. You’d be pretty badass, though, with your layer of high-tech body armor under your robes, a stun-gun up your sleeve, and a whole bunch of scientific and technical knowledge to impress the locals. Once you learned the language, you’d be a pretty important and dangerous guy.
Me, I’d build myself a tower off in the wilderness somewhere. I’d fortify it against attack (reinforced concrete, steel doors, tear gas emitters, strobe lights, etc.), stock it with all the supplies I’d want, and let the rumors of my existence spread. I’d be a legend. Hell, even at my age (mid-30s), I’d be pushing old age anyway. I’d get to entertain knights and priests, peasants and kings. I’d give them wise counsel, impress them with my ‘magical’ knowledge, etc.. Perhaps they’d write legends or stories about me.
Of course, at this point in my little fantasy I usually realize something: man, how self-centered! Is my only reason for travelling back to this time to exercise my ‘power’ over the people of that era? Is it all about me? Wow, talk about egocentrism. One might think I don’t feel powerful enough in this world so therefore I’d feel the need to go to another better suited to realizing my ambitions. Its purpose, ultimately, is an ego-boost.
Come to think of it, is such egotism all that far from the vast majority of time-travelling stories? I mean, even if the time traveler eventually realizes he isn’t superior to the people he meets in the past (or future), all too often the storyline involves the feeling of superiority or, at least, of a higher level of cool. Marty McFly is cooler in the 50s and also cooler in 2015 than those he meets there. Sylvester Stallone is superior to the future he encounters in Demolition Man and Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the story of a guy who goes back to the court of King Arthur and modernizes the whole operation (even if, in the end, he regrets doing so). One wonders, given the prevalence of such a theme, if the very idea of time travel itself is, essentially, egotistical. We, the blossom of modern humanity, wish to travel back (or forward) to a time and place in need of the enlightenment we can bring them and, in turn, hope to receive the adulation of the benighted masses. No imperialist or colonial power of any era could have goals any more selfish, right?
So, on second thought, let’s scrap the time machine idea for the nonce. Let’s see if we can’t clean up the now before we go prancing off to the then.
What is it with fantasy novels and the Middle Ages? I mean, seriously, think about it for a second: you have a genre in which you can do anything, anywhere, with anybody, and where is it always set?
12th-14th Century England. Every damned time.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good medieval fantasy world as much as the next guy, but it does get old. To some extent I need a break from knights and castles and monarchies and so on. I need something fresh. Something more exotic, with perhaps fewer old Europe overtones. There are authors who have done this, and done it well (Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World comes to mind), and those works serve to remind us that Tolkien didn’t set any laws about where we could go and what we could do in fantasy. Just because he pirated Saxon lore to make Middle Earth doesn’t mean you need to follow in his footsteps.
Of course, that doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of Europe as a whole. As much as we need more African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Native American fantasy worlds (boy howdy, do we!), there is a reasonable argument to be made that fantasy literature is traditionally rooted in European myth and, as it is primarily marketed to Europeans, it seems reasonable that Europe and its reflections will remain a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre for a long time to come. Fine then.
So why does it need to be the middle ages all the time?
When I say ‘all the time’, I mean that literally. So many fantasy worlds are apparently frozen in a kind of permanent quasi-feudal society. It never changes, never grows, never evolves. Go back a thousand years in the world’s history, and they’re doing the same things – wearing the same armor, using the same technology, building the same kinds of places, farming the same kinds of stuff. Why is that? Are they just incapable of technological advancement? Are the people in that world just stupider than the ones in ours? Seems improbable to me.
The fantasy world should grow and change like our own. It should have shifts in culture and history and technology and religion, just like we have. It should change, and the way it reflects our world should change with it. Why not fantasy set in the High Renaissance? The Victorian Era? The 1950s? The Napoleonic Wars? The Ancient World? Why not have cultures based more on Renaissance Russia or 3rd Century Turkey?
The answer comes back to my old belief that fantasy novels are, at their heart, conservative. The fantasy genre is so often about the prevention of change, the preservation of the old in the face of the new. New is almost always bad in fantasy worlds. Change takes the form of conquerors and monsters, evil curses and world-shattering magic. The heroes, meanwhile, must dig up something ancient and powerful or listen to the counsel of the aged and the wise in order to prevail. Their victory is the preservation of the status quo or, perhaps, the reinstatement of that which was unrighteously usurped. Are we not all waiting for Daenerys to regain the Iron Throne? Do we not pine for the fall of the Old Republic and the doom of the Jedi? Are not the elves and old Gandalf the wisest voices in Middle Earth? Is not the existence of the Dragon Reborn proof positive of the cyclical nature of existence – nothing new under the sun, just the same old stuff come again? If the young save the world, it is not to remake it, but rather to restore it to the condition their forefathers maintained before them. There is always the attempt to return, to go back, to undo.
And yet we have the potential to explore so much more in fantasy literature. We can explore the repercussions of the new and the revolutions of thought and belief that go with it. We can shape a world that reforms itself, that learns from its mistakes, that leaves the past behind it and moves on to a brand new day. Perhaps this treads on the toes of science fiction too much – that has always been the genre of those who would look forward – but in an era where science fiction is increasingly obsessed with our society’s demise, maybe it should fall the fantasy to pick of the slack. Maybe fantasy can show us a way forward that science fiction, so tied down by the negativity of modern society, has forgotten how to find.