A few months back, I churned out a little piece concerning a few clichés of the Galactic Empire strand of science-fiction. Now I turn my attention—possibly with a little more vigour, possibly not; it depends how lazy I feel—to another great staple of the genre. Time travel. Specifically travel into the past. Not the physics of the actual travel, you understand. That's way too heavy for my limited science. When it was purely the haunt of SF writers, 'explanations' consisted, if they appeared at all, of a few sentences of gobbledygook, a twist of the Time Dial, punch the big red button and off we go! Nowadays, with actual physicists getting in on the speculation, we get black holes and white holes being pasted together before the black hole is towed around the scenery at relativistic speeds. We get wormholes being threaded with exotic matter, whatever the hell that is. We get energy budgets that drain galaxies. Sod that!
Nope, I'll stick with the three main vehicle-types, which we'll call the Wellsian, the Tardis and the DeLorean. How they do what they do will not be discussed; they just do, okay?
Another thing we'll take as a given is the position in space on arrival. Especially with the Wellsian and DeLorean models (which we'll get to shortly), there's absolutely no point in leaving Tunbridge Wells in July 2012 only to realise that our arrival date in December 1550 means that the whole damn planet, let alone Tunbridge Wells, is now several million miles away on the other side of the sun. And the solar system's moved, as has the galaxy. Oops! So let's agree that some sort of jiggery-pokery with the antediluvian trimasticated bullshitometric confabulator matrix means that we arrive at the same place on the planet that we left, no matter the position of the Earth in its orbit (etc) at the time of arrival.
Right, so that's the basic physics sorted then. Easy, wasn't it. Ahem. Now let's take a look at the three commonest forms of vehicle. First up is your basic economy model, the Wellsian.
This one doesn't move at all in the three spatial dimensions. On the plus side, that means we can make it any size we like, from a large building to a broom-closet. On the down side, we do have to be a little careful where we put it. Do not build this in your fourteenth-floor apartment, as the fourteenth floor isn't going to be there when you arrive in the middle ages or whenever takes your fancy when you twist the big Time Dial. You'll find that although the machine doesn't usually travel in space, it can briefly manage a quite respectable a = 32′⁄s2. Very briefly. Don't put it in the cellar, either. If there's been erosion in the area, you'll find yourself underground. Ground level's no good though; chances are very slim that ground level now is the same as ground level then.
Sorry, but you're going to have to do some archaeology. You need to find the historical ground surface from the time you plan to visit and build your machine on that. Do not do your archaeological dating by looking for datable pottery shards and such. If there's human habitation (hence the pottery) at a particular spot in the time you're heading for, that spot is not where you want to appear. Being burned as a witch, a demon or some such after your sudden appearance from nowhere, is not likely to be a good beginning for your temporal vacation.
The DeLorean, ie ground-manoeuvrable, has all of the disadvantages of the Wellsian, plus being size-limited and rather hard to hide, what with self-powered vehicles being a bit of a rarity through most of history. And if it's based on a road-going vehicle, as was the one I took the name from, well think about the term 'road' for a second. Your car is likely to be a suspension-less wreck within just a few miles, even if you can find an example of what passes for a road in the era of your choice that's wide enough to drive it along in the first place.
The best bet, it seems to me, is the Tardis option, by which I mean it can fly as well, not that it's bigger on the inside, with swimming pools, bathrooms etc. Though they'd be rather nice too. In any era before ubiquitous street-lighting, you'll be able to fly about with relative impunity and it makes your arrival much easier. You're actually better off building it on the fourteenth floor. As long as your Time Dial is accurate enough to specify a night-time arrival, the chances of being spotted are pretty low. Even better, if you can do so, you should fly the thing a few miles out over the sea before heading past-wards, then fly back in at night. Using your trusty Infra-Vision Night-o-Scope Scanner™ you can pick a decent hiding place at leisure, assuming, of course, that you don't have the deluxe Doctor model with a disguise circuit. If you do have the deluxe, well park it anywhere you damn well like, old chap. Just make sure it isn't stuck on 'police box,' or you're going to have to add a whole nother layer of techno-psycho-babble to 'explain' why people don't notice a bloody great blue box that wasn't there yesterday.
So okay, you've parked the Tardis a little way outside a town and left it disguised as a haystack, a boulder, a crispy-fried witch in a gibbet or something equally olde-rustic, you've donned the appropriate clothing and you're walking into town. I'd pick a large market-town if I were you. Strangers will stand out less. And anyway, if you're going to become a mass-murderer, you might as well go for the most impressive body-count you can.
Murderer, did I say? Yep.
Viruses and bacteria (henceforth 'germs'), as we all know, mutate very fast. That's where the idea of 'superbugs' comes from. When we develop an immunity to a particular strain, or come up with a clever way of killing it, like penicillin, Darwinian selection swings into play, allowing the few examples that we're not immune to or able to kill, to massively out-breed the more normal variant until their offspring become the dominant strain, leading to the evolutionary arms-race so beloved of natural-history documentary makers. Add this to the fact that, wherever you are in the world, you've been exposed to a huge number of diseases that never even existed there until relatively recently, with the arrival of trans-oceanic trade, jumbo jets and cheap travel. The upshot of all this is that you're carrying germs, right now, that don't even give you a sniffle, but would knock a medieval village, for instance, on its arse in no time flat. You are, quite literally, Typhoid Mary. Oh dear.
Back to the Tardis for the Hazmat suit? Well that'd be a tad conspicuous. Luckily the technobabble department have come up with the Germoblast Immunoboost Senso-shower (gives a good back-rub for an extra £15, too), so hop into that for a minute, and all is solved. This is science, Jordi La Forge style.
So off you head into town to have a look around. If all you want to do is gaze at the Splendour of History in all its mud-spattered glory, and perhaps take a few snapshots with your trusty hidden micro-camera, all is fine. If you actually want to interact with the locals, there's more problems lying in wait. For starters (skipping, for now, a much greater barrier), how well do you know the customs regarding politeness (and, more to the point, not getting skewered on a sword for rudeness) at the local time and place? And by local, I mean very local. Fifty miles away is almost another country for most of history. It doesn't really make any difference how well you've studied the scant records of courtly manners in the court of king Eric, or whoever, because you can bet your life (and you might well be doing just that) that customs and etiquette in Upper Codswollop on the Marsh, pop. 300 (2,000 including pigs, cats and dogs), aren't going to look anything like what you've studied.
To take an obvious example; if you're male how do you speak to an unaccompanied woman? Indeed, do you speak to her? Then again, would it be rude to pass her without a formal 'good day' or some such. And keep in mind that although unaccompanied, she may well belong to another man, and that the further back in history you go, the more literally you should take the word 'belong.' It's easier if you're a woman, mind. Less productive, but easier. Eyes down, speak when spoken to, and don't contradict any man, and you'll get along fine in most cultures. At worst you'll seem overly meek, but even that will probably be taken as a sign of your good grace and feminine humility. Treat every man as a would-be tea-party republican and you won't go far wrong. (This is known, by fundamentalists, as the golden age of Christian virtue. You have been warned.)
But I mentioned another, greater, barrier to communication. To misquote L. P. Hartley, "The past is a foreign country: they speak another language there." Indeed they do. Most authors and script writers get around the changes in language by use of a kind of faux Olde English. Throw in a few wilt thous and miladies, delete modern-sounding contractions, so that can't becomes cannot and so forth, and the impression is given that you'll be easily understood in any historical culture where English is spoken. Alas, sirras and miladies, it be not so. Make what you will of this:
Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum,
Sī þīn nama ġehālgod.
Tōbecume þīn rīċe,
ġewurþe þīn willa, on eorðan swā swā on heofonum.
Ūre ġedæġhwāmlīcan hlāf syle ūs tō dæġ,
and forgyf ūs ūre gyltas, swā swā wē forgyfað ūrum gyltendum.
And ne ġelǣd þū ūs on costnunge, ac ālȳs ūs of yfele.
That, Gentle Reader, is the Lord's Prayer in what wikipedia calls 'the standardised West Saxon literary dialect.' Quite what relationship a literary dialect bears to a spoken one, I have no idea, especially when localised accents and slang terms get thrown into the mix, but this is, at best, proto-English, and probably sounded more like German or Dutch when spoken. You are not going to understand the natives, and they are not going to understand you. Not even if you speak modern German and Dutch. They've had just as long to evolve.
The problem changes a bit as we travel through history (I'm sticking to Britain, here) but remains in some form until surprisingly recently. For instance, a bastardized and increasingly Anglicised version of Norman French was spoken in English court circles until as late as the fifteenth century. I've read claims that regional variants, like Yorkshire, Midlands, and West-country, were so strong that they were virtually different languages right up until the coming of steam-trains in the nineteenth century. That would very much depend, I'd think, on the 'rusticness' of the person speaking, but I can well believe it to some degree.
Nope, throwing in the odd 'forsooth' isn't going to get you far in the communication field, I'm afraid. But there's another interesting aspect to the language problem, in English at least. Fortunately it seems to be well-documented, so a little study and some practice should see you alright, though how much use that'll be I don't know, when you can't even be sure what variant of English you're going to need. Ho Hum. It's called—and hence the rather awful pun in my title—the Great Vowel Shift, and it happened between the mid-fourteenth and early-sixteenth centuries.
No one's quite sure why it happened, but at that time, the pronunciation of most of the vowel sounds in the English language, as the name it's been given implies, shifted. Changed. The two theories I've seen most often are that it was started by workers, and crucially their accents, migrating around the country during the period following the Black Death, or that it began as a fashionable change in pronunciation of one vowel (think of HM the Queen's 'mai hasband and ai…', which reflects just such a fashion from the early to mid twentieth century). What then follows is a cascade, as further changes are made in order to avoid confusion. Even then, though, some words' vowels didn't change, which is why, for instance, break and beak don't rhyme, much to the confusion of students of English as a second language ever since.
And again we have to throw local accents into the mix. Britain, England in particular, has—or so I've read—a huge number of regional accents when compared to other English-speaking countries. Even today, when travel, radio and television have smoothed over the greatest of those differences, we can still trace someone to a particular sub-section of their home county, just by their speech. Take one word, bath. This is variously pronounced (to my knowledge; I might have missed some) as bath ('a' rhymes with that in apple and the theta is quite hard), baath (the same, but the 'a' is stretched a bit like pirate-speak, soft-ish theta), bahth, barth, baf, baaf, bahf and barf. Someone from Birmingham might say that something is bostin', where someone from my area might say tis proper-job (not a proper job, just proper-job). We'd both mean something is quite good, thank you very much.
(To give an idea of how localised such things can be, a mate and I once made up a 'traditional Somerset word,' sner, which we claimed originated from the Yeovil area, just thirty-odd miles away. It's a noun, meaning a bit of a failure, a flop; "that's bit of a sner." The first couple of people who heard us use it asked what it meant and received our carefully crafted explanation, but after that it snowballed (it wasn't, in fact, a sner). Within a couple of weeks most of the people we knew were using it without affectation, having 'always known it' as a Somerset/Yeovil-area dialect word. It's so natural to us English that a town less than a day's walk away would have such dialect-words of its own, that no one thought it unusual.)
All in all, the research and study needed just to visit one place at one time—not to mention avoiding becoming an unwitting temporal bio-terrorist—is huge, and even then would probably rely on an even huger amount of luck and an ability to extemporise one's way out of unforeseen traps. (Another would be your inability to perform what the people of the time would think the most basic tasks. How many of us have ever lit a fire with a piece of flint, some kindling and a knife, for instance? Or by rubbing two dry words together?) All of which, I'm sorry to say, rather rules out the casual century-hopping, if this is Thursday, this must be the twelfth century, time-tourist story, even with the technobabble physics that would let us do it in the first place.