Time travel can be fun.
In fiction, it is easy to time travel. As a plot device, only a couple of genres can pull it off. Science fiction writers have come up with a nice assortment of ways to accomplish it from machines to cosmic swirling clouds. Other genres have to resort to things like dream sequences where the protagonist wakens in another time period. Blows on the head have done this for many a poor hero.
But I am not talking about having the main character travel through time. I am speaking of the reader. By that I mean taking the reader from the comfort of his or her easy chair (or bed or beach blanket or wherever) and putting that person in another time. Whether you are talking about historical novels, romance period pieces, Westerns, or so on, the author can pull you into the chosen era and give you a feel for what it was like then.
In espionage fiction, there are two major ways to make the reader time travel. The most common way is to do just like the historical and romantic books would do it; place the action in another time and, voila, the reader is there. The spy-fi series that I cover have several instances of this. I Michael Koontz’s John Apparite series takes place in the mid 50’s. Tom Gabbay’s Jack Teller series has adventures in 1940, 1953, and 1963. There are a couple of others.
These series take the reader to another decade and present adventures that occurred then. Other series, not covered by me because of my current WWII cutoff, take the reader even further back to possibly other centuries or even millennia. Time travel in this manner can be a lot of fun because it is often enjoyable to forget the modern time for a bit and live in a different time.
However, there is another, often better, way to time travel and it is a way that, when the subject is brought up, usually does not occur to someone. That method is to read a book from another period.
This method is not thought of as much because most books from fifty years ago are no longer for sale in book stores. The James Bond series still sell and a small handful of others might be found but 99% of all series from, say, the 40’s or 50’s are gone from the shelves. Used bookstores, both brick-and-mortar and online, must be visited.
When you compare the two methods of time travel, a huge difference can be seen if you look carefully. That difference does not imply that one is better than the other. Most spy fiction written today has a lot more action in them than those from a half century ago and in our busy lives, action keeps you interested and keeps you reading and that is all very good. Still, books written in the previous period have one advantage that compensates for the often slower pace – authenticity.
Perception is everything, I once heard. In this matter, it certainly is, but the question of whose perception is important. In a period piece written in our present, the style of dialogue, the mores and attitudes, the bigotries and biases and patriotisms and social consciousness that takes the reader to that era, no matter how hard the writer tries, are the scribe’s belief as to how things were. In a book written during the period in question, those same items are depicted from a much closer and truer vantage point.
A few examples are in order and I apologize for any political incorrectness they may contain.
Racial relations is one matter that fairly leaps off the pages when you read an older novel and that does not mean that the author or the character was a bigot or considered himself a bigot or might be thought one by others.
In one novel I read recently from 1942, a murder had taken place in a mansion and the main characters were discussing who might have seen something. “The colored girl in the kitchen might have …” was a line I remember being said by one of the participants. It was not said in a way that was intended to be derogative by the character and it likely was not thought that way by the author. We now know it to be passive bigotry but back then it was not felt that by most of the population and therein lines the point of the matter. Would a modern-day writer, given the same scene, have worded the statement in the same manner? I doubt it. More likely it would have been “the maid in the kitchen” or just “the girl in the kitchen”. Both of these identifiers would have been as accurate for telling who might have seen something as the first but neither would have put the reader in the time period quite as effectively.
Social mores is another aspect of day-to-day living that is hard for a modern writer, especially one who never actually lived as an adult during an earlier period, to get write. Sex in particular. Men and women had sex out of wedlock and they had adulterous affairs and they involuntarily propagated the species, then as in now. However, the way an author today might discuss such events back then is probably very different from the way an author then would have talked of it. I would find it hard to believe any author today, no matter how good they are, could give the same emotion to the word “wayward” as someone in the 40s or 50s. Again, this is no criticism but rather the observation that to really feel like you have travelled back in time, you need to read a book from that period.
The last point out of several that could be made is technology. In a book written in the early 60s, the hero had to drive from Texas to Florida and he was amazed at the new highway system that had just opened up yet he pondered the danger that a lone driver could face on the Interstate late at night when fatigue began to set in. This was not told from the vantage point of many years of being told how dangerous it was as a modern writer would likely view it but from someone to whom the double lane straight road was something new and unusual.
Telephone service is another form of technology that is fun to read to take a reader back in time. In our modern world of ubiquitous cellphones, the idea of feeling trapped when tailing an enemy agent and knowing that to stop to find a phone booth to call for help means certain losing the agent is one that is terribly hard to capture and yet to the writer who would not know any other lifestyle, this frustration and uncertainty comes through perfectly.
One other aspect to telephoning someone that we, with our unlimited long distance instant dialing, can be taken into the past is reading when an agent, having checked into a hotel and needing to call Washington to report, gives the operator the number he wants and then hangs up the phone, knowing he will be called back by the operator if and when the call finally goes through. Very few modern writers would think of that happening and yet when you read a book from that period and it is told as a commonplace occurrence, it cannot help but make you feel you are there.
Many writers of today come up with good stories of things that might have happened decades ago and some incredibly good authors can really put you back in those periods. But to really and truly travel back in time, there is nothing better than reading a book from that period. And if that book has the old musty book smell wafting from its pages, so much the better.
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