There’s that wonderful feeling when you try an author for the first time, and as you read you realize you need to seek out much more by them. (If your ‘to read’ pile is as large as mine, this may also cause frustration at there being so few hours in the day.) Someone recommended I try Paul Park, this story was free online, and within the first few paragraphs I knew I had to include this here.
Time travel is plentiful. “I would have liked to have gone early, when it was first opened up. Nowadays whenever you go, you’re liable to be caught in the same pan-cultural snarl: We just can’t keep our hands off, and as a result, Cuba has invaded prehistoric Texas, the Empire of Ashok has become a Chinese client state, and Napoleon is in some kind of indirect communication with Genghis Khan. They plan to attack Russia in some vast temporal pincer movement. In the meantime, Burger Chef has opened restaurants in Edo, Samarkand and Thebes…”
It doesn’t matter that the narrator doesn’t turn up for eight paragraphs, because I love the descriptions of the fully colonised past. “First-century Palestine is like a cultural ground zero: nothing but taxi cabs and soft-drink stands, and confused and frightened people.” “Adolf Hitler, for example, has survived attempts on his life every 15 minutes between 1933 and 1945.” “These days it requires diplomatic pressure just to get people to do what they’re supposed to. It is only by promising the Confederate government $10,000,000 in new loans that the World Bank can persuade Lee to attack at Gettysburg at all.”
Anyway, the rest of the story. The protagonist travels to Paleolithic Spain, where there’s the dictatorship of San Juan de la Cruz. He’s trying to track down his ex-girlfriend Suzanne for a reconciliation, but he hasn’t been able to reach her for a while and the signs aren’t good.
The story and the tactile descriptions are effective. This could have been a perfectly good story set in the modern world, with the protagonist tracking down an ex-girlfriend who’s working in a less developed environment. But the time travel aspect takes one of the themes of the story, the protagonist trying to rectify a past that can’t be changed, and has this theme seared into the very setting. Because you’re always seeing throwaway details of the time travel, the protagonist’s actions are seen as a microcosm for the universe as a whole. Just as Lee must go to Gettysburg, no matter the impediments, the history between the protagonist and Suzanne will always be there.
Plus, as I might have intimated already, the descriptions of this time-travelled setting are great fun.
The Tourist by Paul Park
Availability: free online, print
Word count: 7,400
First published: Interzone #80, Feb 1994
Where to find it: freely available on Infinity Plus here
The Best of Interzone, edited by David Pringle, 1997, Voyager / HarperCollins
If Lions Could Speak and other stories, collection, 2002, Cosmos Books / Wildside Press