On the Mundanity of Time Travel

As adopted from the Clifford D. Simak School of Thought.

Time travel is not as uncommon as you might think. We, all of us, can time travel. Only, we can time travel in a very limited manner… which is to say forwards, and at a rather steady pace.

‘Project Macedon’ is a short story by Clifford D.Simak about the exploits of Wesley Adams, John Cooper, and Chuck Hudson; three men who become obsessed with time travel and eventually succeeded in it. The trio decide to use this power to go back to America, 150,000 years before 20th century. Their plan is to lay claim the past. They will occupy an unpopulated America as if it were their own, and after that send a delegate back to the future to inform modern day America of their sovereignty.

The genius of this charming tale is in the things that the three men are made to think about. Time travel, so it turns out, can be quite a mundane gig.

For example, the three men’s overarching problem is a financial one: how best do they cash-in on this miraculous technology? Their answer is Four Point Aid, as they decide that the only way to avoid the various trappings and pitfalls of private enterprise is to essentially become a vassal-state. Only once this recognition is achieved can they fully begin to capitalise on the abundance of resource.

And having poured all their savings into the project, they desperately need to make a return. This, then, is time travel on a budget. Even their time machine is hotchpot, relying on a helicopter to work because it cannot manipulate where they appear, only when they appear, and because of this appearing airborne is a great deal safer than appearing under a mountain or inside a tree or waist deep in the middle of a herd of wild animals. The idea of a time machine relying upon a helicopter also raises the question – what would happen if the helicopter became in any way compromised? Would they turn into ‘Robinson Crusoes of the Pleistocene’, for no grander reason than a lost ignition key?

Of course, this being the long-distant past, there are a host of other humorous problems. Some, the more obvious ones, Simak deals with very briefly, such as sabre-tooth tigers and mastodons, but there are other less obvious animal associated problems too. For example, you could try break in a horse to solve the problem of travel, but what if you were to break a leg in the process? There’s no Pleistocene General Hospital. For the three men in this story, they live simply, in tents, and all they have to hand are sleeping bags, rifles, a chainsaw, and a camera.

This is a sci-fi story that invites you to imagine yourself in the situation the characters find themselves in, and such a thing is easily imagined when the three characters operate with such basic equipment and are competing with such day-to-day problems. The story isn’t overbearing on the science fiction either. The time machine just is, and there is no explanation for it – no general relativity, no quantum theory, no wormholes, no aliens. It’s only occasionally that Simak gets into the gritty, and such lines of enquiry go something like this: what about the cultural collision, our history could change… if we took the resources, wouldn’t we be robbing ourselves of our heritage(?)… not if uranium turns into lead, because we can catch it before it does… and that doesn’t apply for pastures either, or crops, or even trees… etc. etc. But even this one longish example isn’t overwrought – philosophical ramblings are shut down by General Leslie Bowers who, exasperated, exclaims: “That’s all poppycock!”

This is a story which makes you think of all the little things you don’t think to think of when you think of time travel.

Here’s a conversation between Adams, Cooper, and Hudson, having returned to the past after having been cast aside as crackpots by the American Secretary of State.



“We aren’t licked yet,” said Adams. “There’s a lot that we can do. Those river hills are covered with ginseng. We can dig a dozen pounds a day. There’s good money in the root.”

“Ginseng root,” Cooper said, “is peanuts. We need big money.” 

“Or we could trap,” offered Adams. “The place is alive with beaver.”

“Have you taken a good look at those beaver? They’re about the size of a St.Bernard.”

“All the better. Think how much just one pelt would bring.”

“No dealer would believe that it was beaver. He’d think you were trying to pull a fast one on him. And there are only a few states that allow beaver to be trapped. To sell the pelts – even if you could you’d have to take out licenses in each of those states.”

“Those mastodon carry a lot of ivory,” said Cooper. “And if we wanted to go north, we’d find mammoths that would carry even more…”

“And get socked into the jug for ivory smuggling?”

They sat, all three of them, staring at the fire, not finding anything to say.

The moaning complaint of a giant hunting cat came from somewhere up the river.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑