Will time travelers please announce themselves at the front desk

It’s time to start training time travelers.

Picture the scene at the NATTA (National Aeronautics and Time Travel Administration).  There is the time traveler (NATTATT) in period costume, and surrounded by his or her advisors who give advice on language, usage, accent, on local history, on the anthropology and sociology of life in the time period, on politics, family life, food, clothing styles, on built form, material culture, and popular culture.

Our NATTATT must “pass.”  He or she must escape detection.  For the consequences of detection are cataclysmic.  The NATTATT would be quizzed, perhaps tortured.  Secrets of the future would be revealed.  People would begin betting on imagined scenarios.  The past would go ass over tea kettle and so would the present.  Imagine leaving in a present that had new turbulence in its past.  We think we live in a turbulent world now.

My assumptions:

1) time travel will someday be possible. We will move through time as we move through space.

2) even if time travel is not possible, we should prepare for it anyhow.  Why?  It is, I believe, the single best way to teach history at high school and college.

NATTA colleges will be a lot of fun.  Deeply grumpy historians will begin each term with a new cohort of recruits.  Kids with more daring than brains or skill.  The instructors will take them through the exact details of life in, say, 19th century London or 18th century New York.  The students will be smart alecks who believe themselves invincible.  Our grumpy instructors will have to persuade them otherwise.  They will have to soak these kids in knowledge.  And unlike some history courses, this will be knowledge with an edge, a purpose, an urgency.

Training a NATTATT will be like training an actor, spy, historian and improv artist.  They will want deep resources of knowledge.  It will take ‘just in time’ recall and, when necessary, daring and imagination.  They must work with what they know and fake what they do not. They will have to swim like fish through conversations that are barbed as anything.  We can craft our time traps to elicit breathtaking acts of improv (or failure).  "Sorry, kid.  You are not ready.  One more failure and you must ring the bell."   

Look at it this way.  That person sitting beside you.  She could be a time traveler. She is doing a wonderful job of passing.  You would never guess.  But what if she is, a time traveler?  Certainly, it would explain why she choose to combine that scarf with that sweater. And that’s the thing, even tiny errors can be telling.  (I have a friend who speaks English perfectly but he speaks it as a second language.  He was "found out" when he said he was putting a billiard ball in the "middle" of the table instead of the "center" of the table.  I know.  This is a distinction too subtle for me.  Still, he claimed it gave him away.)

After a term of exhaustive instruction, we will send the NATTATT into a “time trap” to see if they are ready.  The time trap will be furnished with every kind of puzzle and temptation.  The NATTATT will need to be able to spot the anomaly.  The NATTATT will have to manage conversations at the bar, hotel, shop, and opera house.  Is this person dressed in a way that signifies mourning, status, eccentricity, or fashion?  The NATTATT will have to know how to respond.  He or she will have to perform flawlessly, finding their way through conversations as if their lives depend upon it. 

Of course we may never invent a time machine.  But we can fund our preparedness out of an educational program that will achieve great things even if our students never get out of the 21st century.

12 thoughts on “Will time travelers please announce themselves at the front desk

  1. hitsamty

    Dubai Press Club, circa 2005:

    I was attending a Q & A panel with the very British,stiff-upper-lip gent, Sir Nigel Smithers (I’ll admit, I’ve totally forgotten the name and just inserted an appropriate substitute).

    Well, the panel`was in Arabic, and suddenly, this bloke was transformed. He wasn’t merely speaking Arabic, he became Arab. We focus so much on speaking correctly and saying the right things, often forgetting that true mastery comes from what is not said. His gestures, expressions, and most impressively, his “Ahhs and Umms” were perfect. Native speakers of English will say “Umm or Ahh” when pausing or stuck, Arabs emit a more guttural “Wahhhh”, which is what he did.

    It’s something that really stuck with me, and your tale of camouflage brought me back to it.

  2. Pingback: Grant McCracken: Will Time Travelers Please Announce Themselves At The Front Desk - PSFK

  3. Virginia Postrel

    My intuition is that the “middle” of the table assumes only one relevant axis while the “center” assumes two. But maybe it’s a billiards thing. Either way, it hardly seems like the kind of variation that would reveal foreign origin. For all the audience knows, it’s a regional variation.

    1. Grant Post author

      Virginia, maybe it’s a Peruvian thing. Or maybe it’s a distinction that matters more in Spanish. Grant

  4. Greg G

    In my opinion time travel would completely change history as well as the future. People would have the opportunity to change minuscule events hoping for a certain result. Perhaps the people get the result they are looking for but who knows what would happen in other parts of life and how it would affect all those involved. However from the stand point of being able to teach a history class through time travel I think it would definitely make the educational experience more exciting for students as well as make it more exciting for teachers to teach. For me it would have made the learning process much more interesting. Having time travel as a resource will make the learning process more correct and less open to interpretation. History is facts and now we will have all the facts.

  5. SSean Crawford

    Regarding Dr. Who, the very first episodes saw him and his companions going back to the caveman days. The next adventure –let me inturrupt to say that the Dr. Who annual with the old doctor (sans companions) had the Daleks on the planet Skarro,– the next adventure saw the group going to the future, one with humans and Daleks on a ruined earth. I later learned the studio got away with it by claiming it was still history, only in the future! It must have been about then that the Tardis became a time AND psace machine.

  6. SSean Crawford

    I find it charming that sf writer Joan D. Vinge majored in anthropology after reading The Time Traders by Andre Norton, 1958. In that one the government has futuristic resources, almost a holodeck, for training the travelers to stay in disguise. All the adventures are bronze age, i.e. prehistoric. Something I noted, strange for a pre-feminist publication date, was how the hero meets a follower of the earth goddess who was being overtaken by patriarchy gods.

    1. Grant Post author

      Sean, thanks for two comments that add tons to the post. Much appreciated. I will have a look for Time Traders. Best, Grant

  7. SSean Crawford

    Please forgive me for not thinking of this earlier. http://essaysbysean.blogspot.ca/2012/11/harry-and-teens.html
    Here is a link to a thoughtful appreciation-essay I wrote at length to entice teens and teachers about Harry Turtledove’s series The Cross-time Traders. Not only is there disguises, but there are various alternate time-lines, sure to interest anyone who likes anthroplogy.

    As you know’, the way to follow the link is not to laboriously type it out but to hi-light it, copy and paste to the title bar and click enter.and then click

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