Yeah, I know I’m bent. Enjoy:
Students straggled into the lecture hall. The space was a bit cramped considering the size of the class, and the walls were generously scuffed around the bottom. There was a window high up at the back of the room that never seemed to let in more than a perfunctory amount of light. Professor Zeno opened his lecture notes. He usually did not need to look at them, but he kept them there just in case. He cleared his throat and began:
“I’d like to remind you all that your essays on Chronological Ethics are due today, and to please leave them on the front table on your way out.
“To recap last week’s lecture, we experience time in one direction only, in a steadily moving present, fresh from a fixed past and into an uncertain future. This is generally taken as representing reality, but it’s not clear that this perception is true in any sense. However, since we humans cannot experience the dimension of time in any other direction, it is pragmatic to take our perception and run with it. Especially when logging your field hours in a non-native time location.
“If you consult your syllabus you’ll see that today’s topic is Determining Your Time Location. While state-of-the-art time travel is often accurate within a decade or two of the target time location, locating oneself in history can be more difficult than it would appear. A good Chronologue can assess a time location in under 5 minutes experienced time.
“As a novice Chronologue, your main concern on the ground is orienting yourself in the time stream, in relation to your point of origin. If you are on solid ground and not inside the sun, nor floating in space where the Earth might have been if you’d arrived three months ago, then the space aspect has taken care of itself. So-called ‘prehistory’ is a popular destination but orienting yourself against long homogeneous stretches of slow time presents its own special set of problems which are better addressed in a separate lecture.”
Professor Zeno looked around the spacious lecture hall. Students listened half-heartedly, or pretended to take notes while covertly playing solitaire on their tablets. He sighed, and wondered when this institution had become little more than a degree factory, handing out credentials to any warm body whose cheque cleared. He pushed on though, there was always one student who cared about the subject as much as he did, and that one student made it worth showing up each day.
“The obvious solution is to ask someone what year it is. But there are a handful of decades and locations where this enquiry would get you arrested, or interred in a sanatorium, while failing to elicit an answer. We have learned through painful experience that this is the method of last resort for an unprepared Chronologue.
“It is always best to research your era of choice thoroughly before engaging with direct contact. You will have a good sense of the sensory clues you’ll need to orient yourself properly. It will also allow you to select a suit of clothes that is nicely inconspicuous. It is vitally important that you don’t interfere with the progression of history, or pollute the timeline with anachronisms. You are there to observe and record, not interfere. Let me reiterate that any interference, even if you think it is trivial, can disrupt the time stream. What we think of as the present could be irreparably altered.”
Professor Zeno spoke quietly in the windowless basement room. The handful of students listened intently, trying to memorise every word: they didn’t dare take notes.
“So again, orienting yourself in time. In the early 2010s, as an example, the presence of abundant plastic gives you a window of about one hundred years. Plastics became prevalent in the early 1900s and fell out of regular use by 2020 as petroleum reserves dwindled. Presence of wristwatches puts you no earlier than the 1920’s, a digital watch makes it no earlier than 1970 and no later than 2015 when most people switched back to analogue watches or to handheld devices, which only incidentally told the time.”
Professor Zeno tucked her hair behind her ear and addressed her open-air seminar. It was a beautiful spring day, and the fresh air kept the mind sharp.
“What are some other sensory clues that would help you assess your time location?”
The students raised their hands and called out their answers as she pointed to each one in turn.
“Presence of motorised vehicles?”
“Seeing animals with a known extinction date?”
“The main language, and the variety of it?”
“Visible religious symbols?”
“Favoured companion animals? If any?”
Professor Zeno put his hands together, smiled, and nodded. The tiny seminar room was comfortably full. Thousands more students watched at home.
“Yes. All possible clues. For your assignment this week I want you to think about the time location that you have chosen for your final project. I hope you’ve all picked one by now. Then I want you to research that period and present the sensory cues you would use to assess your location. Start with broad clues, that place you by century, and work to items or customs that would place you by decade or by year, if possible.”
The empty room was lit by a makeshift candle – just a wick set in a tin can of rendered pig fat. Zeno finished writing and closed his notebook. He hoped that one day, someone might read it.