Tinkering in your cellar to build a time machine, as many of our readers claim to do, you’ll eventually require an operator’s manual. Much frustration can be avoided by reading a clever short story that is in many ways opposite to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, often as fun and infinitely wiser.
In Twain’s immortal yarn, of course, a dynamic Yankee entrepreneur is transported into a make-believe Arthurian England, where he triumphs over metaphysical, governmental, and technological backwardness with his up-to-date Victorian gadgets and modernist ideologies. It ends in mass slaughter by Gatling guns as the purportedly evil forces of magic and Catholicism triumph, but otherwise it revels in an infectiously optimistic scientism. It’s akin to the modernist daydream of showing the jungle “natives” your radio and being worshipped as a god. Real conservatives will get as much pleasure, without the retrospective guilty feelings, from Poul Anderson’s 1956 short story, “The Man Who Came Early.”
Anderson (1926-2001), with only Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clark as long-lasting peers, published through science fiction’s “Golden Age” of early Heinlein and Asimov, into the 21st Century. His many dozens of historical and sci-fi novels and short stories are uncommon in that they usually lack “bad guys,” instead focussing on two sensible forces propelled into collision. His work embodies the moral nature of that genre at its best; and while he is commonly identified as a libertarian, his tales often contain profoundly conservative principles.
This story opens with an old Viking chieftain on his deathbed. The Icelander has converted to Christianity because he believes it is Truth, but he disputes that the world will end any time soon since he once met a man from the distant future. That American time-traveller, Gerald “Samsson” was an engineering student drafted as a mid-20th Century GI and stationed in Iceland during the Cold War, who somehow appeared one thousand years into the past. (The setting enables their communication, for Samsson spoke modern Icelandic which is substantially unchanged over the past millennium).
The dying chief recalled finding him while gathering firewood on the beach, when relations between clans were so peaceful that their excursions “only” required a dozen swordsmen and spear-carriers to ward off their murderous neighbours. The chieftain realised that the dazed visitor would not live long: Samsson asked what people were doing as they picked one another’s nits and lice, for he had none, and the leader observed sadly that a man too sick to support lice has little time left.
Samsson tried, again and again, to repay his benefactors by introducing modern technology, and always failed. The Vikings understood the new principles easily enough, but there were always technically mitigating factors that the 20th Century engineer failed to anticipate. Available medieval hand-tools, and specialised skills needed to construct small wooden bridges, made Samsson’s plans for larger bridges impossible. He failed to improve Viking metallurgy when befuddled by a surprisingly complex medieval smithy. Improved sails, rigging and bigger ships were stopped by unforeseen problems such as the volumes of drinking water and rations needed by more men in more populous ships over longer voyages. As disappointing as every rebuttal was to the American, Viking technical reasoning was always sound given the physical limitations of the time.
The cocky Connecticut Yankee’s technology and modern management skills overcame every problem, while the Vikings proved otherwise. Ostensibly a century before Bernard of Chartres described us as “dwarves riding on the shoulders of giants,” Anderson’s Vikings sensed that technology’s giants hadn’t grown tall enough. It’s the truth. Indeed, the only fairly recent complex invention of which I am aware, which could have been made 250 years earlier, is Edison’s mechanical gramophone using clockwork familiar to early 17th Century Germans. The rest rides on the shoulders of many more recent giants.
Yet as Anderson implies, so-called primitive people are often well aware of their practical options. An industrial ecologist tells me of his best pal, who, 25 years ago, fixated on visiting one of Indonesia’s most remote tribes. He spent a small fortune on an early hand-held digital video camera through which he obsessively recorded his several flights, then motorised river voyages, then travel by canoe into deep jungles. At his destination, a depressingly sunless rainforest village of mildewed grass huts, the chieftain came to greet them; a man looking 70 years old who was probably only 40, Neolithic in appearance. He stared transfixed at the white-skinned visitor who, like a space-alien or cyborg, had a mechanical device where one eye should have been. The native hesitated, squinted and finally spoke through a translator: “JVC! They say Sony has a better macro lens.” The Vikings, too, knew the technology available in their time.
Meanwhile, Samsson told of the future and the Vikings grew depressed. The American lived in an apartment back home, meaning he was landless and hence of very low status indeed; even Viking peasants owned land. Everyone in Samsson’s full-time army was told by the barons what clothes he must wear; uniforms were a demeaning sign of servitude. Even American farmers were involuntarily conscripted into military service, even during harvest time. Worse and astoundingly, men of the future were sold, or sold themselves, into their ruler’s military for several years at a time, a prospect revolting to any Viking freeman. When Samsson tried to defend himself with fisticuffs the Norsemen were appalled, because only slaves fought without weapons (That notion also prevailed in America’s Wild West, where “men” fought with lethal firearms while, chiefly, only “Negroes” threw punches—so who won that IQ test?). The reminiscing old Viking sighed deeply; what was the point in having sailed hostile seas and settled in miserable Iceland, making such vast sacrifices for freedom and human dignity that would only be abandoned and forgotten in the future?
While Samsson, a useless curiosity, merely depressed them about the future, he met his end to the approval of his hosts. You must read the story to learn how, but even so hopelessly inept and demeaned a figure as a modern American can win Viking admiration. You too, the author implies, can perhaps become a hero worthy of Norse Sagas.
Neither technologically nor sociologically do Anderson’s Vikings appear backward or demeaned. They are sophisticated and inquisitive spiritually, enough to begin trading ancestral religion for the new Christianity. They know precisely how best to use the only technology available to them, and its limitations. As importantly in their warlike world, they recognise the sacrifices required to sustain their ancient virtues and keep free from perceived tyranny. Shocking at first to modern readers, soon we can sympathise with the Vikings although perhaps we’re unwilling to join the savagery. We also come to see the freedoms surrendered in what we unthinkingly call our ultimate modern liberty. Thus Anderson vivifies a distant past in a lesson that would work as well for the times of Achilles and Odysseus, and in contrast today.
It’s a far cry from Twain’s straw men, pasteboard mockeries of allegedly backward Medievals: recall how the Yankee ties strings to a Christian anchorite bowing endlessly on his rock pedestal (mimicking the pre-medieval St. Simon Stylites) and uses the “wasted energy” to power sewing machines. Such japes are comedy, cloaking materialist pride and distain for tradition and faith. While the Connecticut Yankee’s dreams end in bloodshed, Twain’s main object of satire is Medieval Man debased for effect; while in Anderson’s story the butt of the joke is always us and our smug superiority. Anderson’s Vikings are plausible while Twain’s medieval men are not.
Read Twain’s tale for fun, and Anderson’s for wisdom and fun. Then, when we ride our time machines, we won’t be such fools.
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