Greetings, Time Scout!
You've just stumbled upon one of the finest archives in the timespan: the Time Scouts Book Club! In this selection from the archives, you'll find a reading guide for selections from The Time Traveler's Almanac, the premier anthology of writing about the great art of time travel. We chose some of our favorites from authors like Douglas Adams, Nalo Hopkinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, and many more!
You can use this guide, originally shared in the Time Scouts Newsletter over 8 weeks in 2020, for a reading group or to read on your own!
Why wait? The time is now!
"Young Zaphod Plays it Safe," Douglas Adams
Adams is best known for writing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its ensuing "five book trilogy," but among a dizzying number of other credits, he is one of only two people to ever get a writing credit on a Monty Python sketch without being one of the original members.
Fans of Adams may notice that "Zaphod" is a prequel to the Hitchhiker's Guide series, but newcomers will find a story that is equal parts chilling and hilarious, and works perfectly all on its own. And most importantly it is "perfectly safe."
Without further ado, let's discuss!
1. This story opens on a group of unnamed island residents witnessing a spaceship spectacularly and unexpectedly arrive, then dive into their ocean. They respond by immediately and obliviously shrugging off the event and going back to their day.
We then learn that inside Zaphod's ship are two officials from the Safety and Civil Reassurance Administration, who are much more concerned with making sure things are called safe than making sure they actually are.
The islanders and the officials are both using obliviousness as a tool to make the world appear as they want it to. How are they using it similarly? How are they using it differently? Can you find other instances in the story of the utilization of obliviousness?
2. As the ship dives deeper and deeper into the ocean, they reach a part of the ocean where, according to the narrator, "nature keeps its most heated imaginings."
Ocean fauna are referred to variously as "two-foot-long nightmares [that] loomed wildly into the bleaching light," and "guilty secrets [that] flitted by with their eyes on stalks."
How did you picture these when you read them? How does a secret manifest differently in your imagination than a nightmare? Now, use your own heated imagination to come up with a different description for them.
3. The cargo that the officers first appear worried about are rods that hold energy mined from the past, called "aorist rods." Aorist is an ancient Greek verb tense often used for telling a story, indicating the entirety of a complete action or event*.
What does this tell you about the otherwise mystified process of "mining the past" alluded to by the existence of these rods?
(*This is a bit of a simplification. If you're inclined to put your brain through some past-linguistic gymnastics, feel free to read up on it more here).
"Message in a Bottle," Nalo Hopkinson
We loved Nalo Hopkinson's "Message in a Bottle," even though it completely turned our minds upside down and inside out about who can or should assign value to art!
If you were as blown away as we were, check out some of Hopkinson's other writing, including Skin Folk, a short story collection that won the World Fantasy Award and was one of New York Times' Best Books of the Year.
But for now, let's decode that "Message in a Bottle!"
1. In the opening scene, well before he knows Kamla's true identity, Greg comments to himself about the eeriness of adult features and sensibilities that seem to peek out of young children:
"She frowns up at me with that enfranchised hauteur that is the province of kings and four-year-olds."
"She looks at me over the top of her cup. It's a calm, ancient gaze and it unnerves me utterly."
By the end of the story, we've learned the truth. Kamla is not a precocious 4-year-old, but a genetically modified 20-something future clone on a mission.
What does the eventual revelation say about these early details? Does the truth within Greg's observations break down when they morph into sly narrative clues? Or is the eeriness Greg senses only underscored when it turns out that, yes, some children do literally have wisdom beyond their years?
2. Oftentimes, time travel technology exists in a vacuum. We follow either the first person to time travel or the most powerful person currently using it. In "Message in a Bottle," that's all brushed aside when Kamla explains why her mode of time travel is so logistically complicated:
"They wanted to send us here and back as full adults, but do you have any idea what the freight costs would have been? The insurance? Arts grants are hard to get in my world, too. The gallery had to scale the budget way back."
Kamla reveals here the horrific-but-totally-believable reality that humanity will be able to widely utilize time travel before being able to effectively fund the arts (we screamed in acceptant agony).
But we also noticed that neither Kamla nor Greg felt any need to go over the wider world that Kamla comes from. Kamla, a curator, and Greg, an artist, stay hyper-focused on discussing the intricacies and needs of this future art world. What is this saying about Kamla? About Greg? About the way "art people" talk about art in general?
3. We end on Greg, a self-important and self-conscious artist on the rise. He is fresh with the knowledge that a National Gallery curator has come from the future to procure a seashell from one of his installations to include in a mega retrospective deep into the future.
The twist? They don't want it as an example of Greg's work. They want it as an example of the mollusk who lived in the shell's work. And these future curators only value that mollusk's work because other mollusks' shells appeared to be derivative of this one mollusk's shell.
So... what should Greg do? If he acquiesces, he cements his art legacy, but only as a footnote to a much "greater" artist's story. If he doesn't, he has no legacy.
And... does the mollusk care about any of this?
"Delhi," Vandana Singh
This week's selection, "Delhi" by Vandana Singh, put into sharp relief the many different ways that time travel can be explored as a motif or device.
Singh is a physics professor who writes in her "nonexistent spare time" so we were expecting her story to be the type of sci-fi heavy on the sci!
But the way our protagonist Aseem interacts with time, witnessing apparitions of people from the past and future at random, is presented without any sort of jargony explanation. As far as anyone--the reader or Aseem--knows, his anomaly may be scientific or it may be spiritual.
This makes more sense when you hear Singh talk about her writing and the universe (and we highly recommend that you do!). In this 2018 interview with WIRED magazine, Singh says:
“I have a one-line ad for a modern physics course I teach which is that ‘The universe is much more like a hippie’s pipe dream than it is like an accountant’s ledger. And that’s really true, I think. It’s just so incredibly strange.”
Uh, did Vandana Singh just become an honorary Time Scout? We just hopped to the future to check, and... she did! Now, as we all scramble to figure out if we can sign up for her courses, here are some discussion questions to tide you over!
1. In the WIRED interview, Singh mentions that Ursula K. Le Guin was a mentor. Singh says of Le Guin:
"She was definitely an inspiration for me to realize that cultures matter, that science fiction isn’t only about thinking about alternate technologies or science concepts and so on, but it’s also about re-fashioning or re-imagining our futures, and the way we live. Imagining, for instance, what if things weren’t this way? And that can be a really revolutionary question."
This idea that science fiction is about reality, not alternate reality, is at the core of "Delhi." Through Aseem's chance encounters with people from other times, we ping pong between history lessons and social discourses on widening income inequality.
The vehicle is Aseem's fictional power, but we explore the very real places that Delhi has been and where it will go if it stays on the same path. Singh engages us in the history and culture of her hometown in a more compelling, concise way than any history textbook or critical essay could dream of.
What place or culture would you like those around you to better understand? If you placed a character with Aseem's temporal anomaly into that place, what people from the past would you want them to encounter? What visions of the future would you have them witness?
2. Aseem says at one point that he likes that Delhi "breaks all the rules."
"At major intersections, where the rich wait impatiently in their air-conditioned cars for the light to change, he's seen bone-thin waifs running from car to car, peddling glossy magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Amid the glitzy new high-rises are troupes of wandering cows, and pariah dogs; rhesus monkeys mate with abandon in the trees around Parliament house."
Are these contradictions more or less stark than the temporal contradictions Aseem experiences when he sees someone from centuries ago in his present day?
Why do you think he focuses on whether he can change the present by interacting with a past that only he can see, instead of whether he can do anything about the clear contradictions everyone can see in his present?
3. At Aseem's lowest and/or most existential moment, "He wonders whether complexity and vastness are sufficient conditions for a slow awakening, a coming-to-consciousness."
What does that mean to you? Is it Aseem's attempt at self-care? Telling himself that, even though he has an analytical tool that nobody else in his timeline seems to possess, it's not the right tool to help Delhi and therefore he should stop worrying so much?
Or is he still strategizing? Taking a step back to consider how he can use his tool differently?
As always, we would love to hear your thoughts! If you want to read more of Vandana Singh's work, check out her Philip K. Dick Award shortlisted collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.
"Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea," Ursula K. LeGuin
If you enjoyed this story, Le Guin spent decades writing stories and novels set in the vast universe that includes Hain.
We really love the intersection of hard science and an appreciation for the arts that Le Guin builds into her worlds. Her stories, this one especially, play less like pieces of fiction about a far-flung world, but rather historical artifacts or primary documents sent from that world.
This attitude of hyper-realism in science fiction is indicated in the introduction to Le Guin's Hain novel, The Left Hand of Darkness:
"The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the "future," on the quantum level, cannot be predicted – but to describe reality, the present world.
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive."
So with that in mind, let's get to some discussion questions!
1. Considering Le Guin's idea that Science fiction is not predictive, but descriptive, what about her world or life do you feel she was describing with "Another Story?" What about your life did you see described in the story?
2. Hideo begins his transmission with the warning: "Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time, but in the great rapids and the winding shallows, no boat is safe."
This seems to indicate that Hideo believes stories to be imperfect transfers of information. A message can become garbled. Intent can be warped.
How do you think this affects Hideo's feelings about the story he is telling now? What about his attitude towards the titular story that he always begged his mother to tell?
And what about the fact that, at the end of the story, Hideo "sails on the river of time" himself by accidentally transporting himself 18 years into the past? Does this disprove his poetic thesis, or is Hideo considering his own existence a story in itself?
3. Though it is never stated outright, Hideo hints at the fact that his mother is from Earth (The story his mother tells is the Japanese fairy tale of Urashima Tarō, and his sister is named after the Japanese word for kitten).
It would have been possible for Le Guin to have Hideo explain his culture through the lens of an earthling, but she chose rather to have him do very little hand holding.
How did that choice affect your reading experience? Did the ambiguity make it more immersive? Were there things you wish you'd know about Hideo's culture that went unexplained?
"A Sound of Thunder," Ray Bradbury
These days, chronosphere explorers like us are so bombarded with reminders to tread carefully that it's hard to remember this was a "new" idea at one point.
And even though ideas like "new" and "first" get muddied for time travelers, Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" was one of the temporally earliest mentions of this idea.
It has been referenced, remixed, and rebooted in the nearly 70 years since its publication, endlessly but not always effectively:
Roger Ebert said of the mid aughts film adaptation in his Movie Yearbook 2007, "Although I cannot endorse it, I can appreciate it. There's a fundamental difference between movies that are bad because they're willfully stupid... and movies that are bad because they want so much to be terrific that they explode under the strain."
That's why we were excited to get back to basics this week, and revisit the story that had a pretty drastic effect on all of its successors!
So let's Time Safari back to the Cretaceous Period and ponder some questions!
1. Even though we've seen this trope replayed over and over again in the 68 years since "A Sound of Thunder" was published, Bradbury finds fresh ways to describe the most basic facets of time travel. We were particularly moved by this description of time’s reversal:
"all, everything fly back to seed, flee death, rush down to their beginnings, suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eat themselves opposite to custom..."
What time travel descriptions felt particularly timeless to you?
2. When Eckels and his safari finally meet their targeted Tyrannosaurus Rex, the beast's arms are described as "watchmaker's claws" and "jeweler's hands." What do you believe Bradbury is trying to evoke with the occupationally specific descriptions of the T-Rex's small hands? An eye for detail? Some sort of animalistic craftsmanship ?
3. When the group arrives in the past, Eckels becomes nervous and fidgety. He can't understand why he shouldn't walk off the path and he's eager to get to the dinosaur. The Safari leaders quickly explain the then un-coined concept of the Butterfly Effect, followed by the admonition, "You see how careful we are?"
But of course, if they had been careful, they would have explained all of this to Eckels back in the present, perhaps made him pass an assessment proving he understood the dangers to the timeline, and never allowed him to smush the butterfly that ruined the future.
So the question is: what is Bradbury saying about individual greed? Corporate greed? Is Eckels more at fault or Time Safari Inc.? If either one had been more careful, would they have wound up where they are?
"Fire Watch," Connie Willis
this feels like the first time we’ve read about another group of Time Scouts: the time traveling historians of the Oxford University History Department in “Fire Watch.”
This Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novelette comes from Connie Willis, who has won more Hugo and Nebula awards than any other writer, and is a Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master. That’s a thing?! That’s a thing.
The story captures equally the absurdity and necessity of academia as we follow a history student who has prepared for four years to travel back to the time of St. Paul the Apostle… only to learn that the history department’s time machine is accidentally sending him back to St. Paul’s cathedral during the bombing of London in World War Two.
And he has only two days to prepare. Talk about a pop quiz! We, of course, at the Time Scouts would never think of springing a bunch of questions on you without preparation. So here are the questions you were most certainly expecting.
1. After reading the protagonist’s ordeal, do you believe it was completely intentional that he was sent back to a different practicum than he’d prepared for? How would the experience have been different if he had prepared to serve on the fire watch of St. Paul’s Cathedral? What would have remained unavoidable?
2. Much is made of short-term versus long-term memory. Because the protagonist has had so little time to prepare, he uses a futuristic technology to embed necessary information in his long-term memory. It’s a much more efficient way for him to store information quickly, but the drawback is that he can’t recall it until jolted by an external stimulus.
He spends much of the story stressed about recalling these pieces of history embedded in his long-term memory, but ultimately they don’t serve a purpose. It is the pieces of short-term memory, the observable aspects of the present, that help him survive. And when he saves Langby’s life and, together, they stop the incendiary, it is without thinking at all. What is Willis saying about the utility of memory, of history? How do you value your long-term memory versus your short-term memory? Can they hinder as much as help?
3. When the protagonist concludes that “being an historian is not some saintly burden after all,” he is remembering first laying eyes on St. Paul’s, indicating that the moments of tranquility and peace should be preserved forever just as much as the events of destruction. Do you feel that way about history? About memories? Do you think this idea is from a future Willis aspires to, or that she believes it’s already here?
"Thirty Seconds from Now," John Chu
This week's story from The Time Traveler's Almanac is none other than John Chu's "Thirty Seconds From Now," a love story that plays with time travel in yet another new way!
And for Book Club members who never got their own copy of the Almanac, this story is still available to read online where it was first published inThe Boston Review!
It's a quick story about Scott, a college freshman who overthinks his relationships. But don't all college freshmen do that, you might wonder? Maybe, but Scott's the only one with a sixth sense to instantaneously watch every possible version of his future play out at once.
Stressful, right? So don't overthink it! Read Thirty Seconds From Now, and then about fifteen minutes from now, read the discussion questions!
1. Would you want Scott's ability to see all potential repercussions? It seems to stress him out, but he also lets himself get excited about the clarity of his future with Tony. What decisions in life would you be excited to see all the outcomes of? What would you be least excited about?
2. The furthest Scott looks into his future with Tony is when Tony suggests their affair will end soon with the ironic: "But us, it’s going to end in six months. You have lots of possible futures and they probably don’t involve me." After seeing (and feeling) this heartbreak, Scott stops looking into the future, but still decides to meet Tony for the first time.
Do you think Scott was unable to look further to see whether they actually do break up? Or did he want to leave something unknown?
3. Scott is pursuing a future as an actor because of how rehearsed everything is in theater. On stage, everything is inevitable and calculated and therefore neat in Scott's premonitions. Are there downsides to Scott's choice of profession? What job or other lifestyle choices do you think you'd make if you had Scott's "time-skewed senses?"
"The Weed of Time," Norman Spinrad
This week, we're discussing Norman Spinrad's short story "The Weed of Time," which begs the question: what counts as time travel, and what even counts as a story?!
So let's discuss!
1. While the protagonist of "The Weed of Time" doesn't necessarily time travel, he does perceive every moment of his life simultaneously. By his own account, he doesn't have the language to adequately describe it. What sense do you think temp-consciousness is most like? Sight? Hearing? Smell?!
2. The short story is formatted more as a description of the protagonist's state of mind, but it still tells a story with his life, ending with the moment at the age of 20 when he eats the "weed of time." The protagonist believes that there never existed a past where he hadn't eaten the weed, that it was erased by his temp-consciousness. Do you think this is true, or is this another "convenient lie" told by the protagonist to reconcile the mistake that trapped him this way?
3. Though only alluded to, the protagonist says that, at some point during his life, weed of time is outlawed as a dangerous narcotic and "Temp addicts will become the most sought after criminals in the world." How do you think addiction to time manifests itself? What sort of crimes are they committing if any?
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