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Literature / Time Patrol

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Time Patrol is a series of works, mostly short stories, by Poul Anderson. They take place in a universe where the resolution to the Grandfather Paradox is that you now exist without ever having had a father, and the Time Police relentlessly work to keep time nevertheless on the same path — while ruthlessly expurgating futures, filled with living beings, that do not conform to it. Doing this often requires the sacrifice of time travelers or those they love.

Most of the stories feature Manse Everard, a 20th-century American and Unattached agent, as the main character, or as a secondary one. Many crucial incidents feature lesser-known history, such as the Punic Wars.

Works included

  • "Time Patrol" (1955)
  • "Brave to be a King" (1959)
  • "Gibraltar Falls" (1975)
  • "The Only Game in Town" (1960)
  • "Delenda Est" (1955)
  • "Ivory, and Apes, and Peacocks" (1983)
  • "The Sorrow of Odin the Goth" (1983)
  • "Star of the Sea" (1991)
  • The Year of the Ransom (1988)
  • The Shield of Time (1990)
  • "Death and the Knight" (1995)

Tropes featured

  • Above Good and Evil: In the very first story, the instructor, describing how the Danellians (our far future descendants) insisted on the founding of the Patrol, said they were neither benevolent nor malevolent, they were so far beyond us.
  • Always Save the Girl: In "Delenda Est", Van Sarawak drags Deirdre along when Everard rescues him, without regard for what it does to the rescue.
  • Ancient Astronauts: Used, with time travelers rather than aliens, in "The Sorrows of Odin the Goth". The time-traveling historian Carl knows that his travels among the Goths are liable to make the natives think he's a god, so he dresses in such a way that stories of his exploits would be folded into the preexisting mythology of Wodan (aka Odin). It doesn't work out quite how Carl intended it...
  • The Atoner: Harpagus in "Brave To Be A King". Dying, he confesses that he had forced a time traveler to become Cyrus because he had been sent to kill the true Cyrus, and he had done all of it to atone. When Manse figures out how to keep the true Cyrus alive, one thing he uses to motivate himself is that Harpagus will no longer suffer from the terrible guilt, even though Manse will remember it.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Typically, because the Patrol will sacrifice anyone to preserve the time line. Manse struggles to save Keith in "Brave To Be A King" — after a Love Triangle resolved with Keith as the winner — but only manages to get him back after years and years of his life, which leave him a Stranger in a Familiar Land, and Manse still remembers the men he killed, and how one died begging for Forgiveness and citing all he did as The Atoner, even though his efforts had written those out of history.
  • Blue Blood: Deidre in "Delenda Est". She has an estate she can bring Everard and Van Sarawak to when making their imprisonment less onerous.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Everard derides such people in his own century while back in Dark Age Europe, wishing that people from his time who talked of the "noble Nordic" could see the Dark Ages peasants he is seeing.
  • Briar Patching: In "The Only Game In Town", Manse warns his Mongol captors that the modern distilled liquors he's carrying are too strong for them. They disagree, take it as a dare, and find out the hard way that he wasn't kidding.
  • Children Are Innocent:
    • In "Brave To Be A King", Manse prevents an infanticide by telling the king that, among other things, that he must not shed the children's innocent blood.
    • In "Delenda Est", when they threaten revenge, Deirdre pleads not the children, they had nothing to do with it.
  • The Chosen One: Invoked in "Brave To Be A King" to restore history, where Manse prevents an infanticide by telling the king that, among other things, the child is favored of the gods.
  • Color-Coded Patrician: Invoked in "Ivory, and Apes, and Peacocks", where none of the famous purple dye is visible for sale at Tyre. Everard reflects on how its expensiveness caused that, and led to this trope.
  • Creepy Crows: "Delenda Est" has them flying over the battlefield.
  • Culture Clash: All those eras. "Gibraltar Falls" in particular has, Feliz, from a Matriarchy era, who has to fight to see men as equal — just as men from other eras have to fight to see women as equal, Thomas notes.
  • Demythification: In "Brave To Be A King", Manse finds that the Moses in the Bulrushes legend is being told about Cyrus the Great in his lifetime, and learns that the actual Cyrus was exposed and killed, and the recovered one was actually the time traveler Manse was looking for. To keep history on track, they go back and intimidate the grandfather out of trying to kill Cyrus — so that the legend must have become attached to Cyrus at a later date.
  • Dirty Business: Several things done to keep the time line in order.
    • In "No Truce With Kings", a newly arrived alien finds the deaths resulting from their manipulations horrible; the old hand explains it's minimizing them in the long run, though nothing will wash the blood off.
    • In "Delenda Est", Everard lies to Deirdre about his presence in her Alternate History, and then about their ability to go back — they will not return her to it, to be blotted out with the rest of it, but he feels guilty about both the lies and the way they are consigning everyone in that history to non-existence.
  • Distressed Dude:
    • "Brave To Be A King": Finding where Denison is in time and extricating him.
    • "Delenda Est": They deduce the deaths of the Scipios in battle caused the Alternate History and go to rescue them.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: In "Brave To Be A King", Manse is told of how a neighboring king dreamed that his grandson would be the death of him, and is plotting infanticide as a result.
  • Exposed to the Elements: Discussed in "Delenda Est" — a Cro-Magnon guide is dressed rather like an Eskimo, and Everard derides the way no one credited them with enough sense to wear lots of clothes in a glacial period.
  • Fear of Thunder: In "The Only Game In Town", the Mongols refuse to be afraid of the Time Patrol's technological gadgets because the only thing a Mongol should fear is thunder.
  • Fish out of Water: In "Delenda Est", Deirdre is this after their rescue. They tell her You Can't Go Home Again but lie about why: they are obliterating her Alternate History. At the end, one rescuer has her brought to his era on Venus, as the most like her own; Everard doesn't argue the point.
  • For Want Of A Nail: The series carefully explains that this is not a problem, because the timeline can absorb quite a number of changes without really changing. Of course, by the same token, if someone does change it, it's hard to move back.
  • God Guise: All the time. Babylonian recruits are told the Time Patrol is about a war of the gods. Two agents go to Dark Ages England and leave their hosts with the claim to be gods (checking on Sacred Hospitality, no doubt). Two agents appear as angels and tell a king not to try to kill his grandson.
  • Home Sweet Home: Many members of the Patrol have more than a touch of this, and work in a given era, checking for problems and providing other agents with what they need to operate in them.
  • In Harm's Way: All members of the Patrol have some of this to a greater or lesser extent, Manse and other Unattached Agents in particular.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: In "Brave To Be A King", Manse, having lost in the Love Triangle, wrestles down the temptation to obey the Time Patrol rules in the easiest way, which would leave his rival stuck in the past.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: In "Gibraltar Falls", Manse admits that Thomas succeeded correctly, and he had resisted not because it was wrong but because he had seen too often when it could not be done.
  • Lady Land: In "Gibraltar Falls", Feliz is from an era of a Matriarchy. She has to struggle to view men as equals — just as men from other eras struggle with the women in the Patrol.
  • Lies to Children: Or rather, to non-time travelers. Justified in-universe, as an instructor tells the recruits that they can get it because they come from industrialized eras; a Roman could not handle the idea of machines, and as for Babylonians, they have to be fed a line about a war between gods. When one recruit asks what they are being told, the answer is "the truth, but only as much as they can handle".
  • Light Is Good: Invoked in the Persian setting of "Brave To Be A King", where a beggar urges, "Alms for the love of Light!" Later, two time travelers makes themselves glow to convince a king that they are heavenly messengers.
  • Love Triangle: In "Brave to be a King", Manse had lost out in one in the Back Story. When Cynthia comes to him to help save her husband, Manse wrestles with the temptation to follow the rules easily — at Denison's expense — because of this. At the end, Denison realizes that his years in the past with Cassadane meant more to him that his brief marriage with Cynthia, even though he had chosen Cassadane because she reminded him of Cynthia.
  • Macguffin: In the very first story, it's the chest of radioactive materials found in a Dark Ages tomb during Victorian Britain. They don't merely have to get it back, they have to get it back before it was buried.
  • Make Wrong What Once Went Right: The villains often are after this. Once, the heroes have to do it, and Manse realizes that they are not protecting the "real" history but the history that leads to them.
  • Meaningful Rename: In "Gibraltar Falls", Manse explains at the end that Feliz can't return to her own era under her own name, that's recorded history that she never did; she can, however, change her name and shift to a different one. Thomas offers "Mrs. Thomas Noruma".
  • The Men First: In "The Only Game In Town", the Mongol commander starts to object to the men sharing the distilled liquor, but stifles it: officers share equally with the humblest of their men.
  • Moses in the Bulrushes: In "Brave To Be A King", the story of how Cyrus was like this was brought up and dismissed. A time traveler was taken for the abandoned infant, now grown up.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: In "Brave To Be A King", Manse feels the temptation, when he doesn't even have to kill the man. According to Time Patrol rules, leaving Denison in place, which would preserve history, is the right thing to do. He'd live out his life, and his widow would doubtlessly grieve and recover.
  • Non-Linear Character: the Time Patrol operatives can’t “see” all times at once, but they know generally what’s happened and what’s supposed to happen at any point in the time-line. It’s their job to make sure the time-line doesn’t change. It’s also implied that the more experienced Patrol agents are much older than they look, since they have access to future health care and don’t live their lives in chronological order.
  • Ontological Inertia: There is a principle of "temporal inertia" which acts like this. It is very difficult to make substantial changes to the time-line, since most likely subsequent events will coalesce in a way that maintains the overall historical status quo. However, the flip side of the principle is that once changes are made to the time-line, it is similarly very difficult to undo those changes and return the time-line to its original status.
  • Prime Timeline: Zigzagged. While the Time Police are working to protect a timeline, it's not the original, and there's eventually action to prevent the original from re-asserting itself.
  • The Reveal: In "Delenda Est", the jump forward in time reveals tampering with history has created an Alternate History.
  • Sacred Hospitality: In "Time Patrol", two agents claim to be Woden and Thundor and to watch over the family henceforth as they leave — in an obvious nod to the many myths.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Possible. But dangerous. This is both a villain's motive, and a constant temptation to the members of the Patrol, who can sometimes even pull it off with carefully enough handled Tricked Out Time.
  • Sherlock Holmes: In "Time Patrol", where the Victorian era office would like to hire a contemporary detective, but the only one clever enough is probably clever enough to figure out the Time Patrol. Other clues make it clear that this unnamed detective is Holmes.
  • Street Urchin: Pummairam in "Ivory, and Apes, and Peacocks".
  • Take That!: In one story, Everard wishes that people from his time — the author's own — who talked of the "noble Nordic" could see the Dark Ages peasants he is seeing.
  • Talk About the Weather: In "Time Patrol", Manse observes that talking about crops and weather in Dark Ages England is much like twentieth-century Middle Western America.
  • Thicker Than Water: In "Delenda Est", per the goal of the meddlers, both Scipios die in an early battle in the Punic Wars because of this trope - the son came to the rescue of his father.
  • Time Machine: The members of the Patrol use vehicles ranging from one- or two-person motorcycle-like "time scooters" to larger, multi-passenger time transports.
  • Time Travel: The Time Patrol was founded by time travelers, and its goal is to prevent people from abusing the technology to change history.
  • Time-Travel Tense Trouble: Averted by inventing an artificial language, called Temporal, which allows Patrolmen to discuss such matters without any of the tense problems raised in this trope. Since only Time Patrolmen learned and used Temporal, it also served as a way that Patrolmen could speak between themselves without risk of being overheard (or more accurately, understood) by others.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: The stories are historically well-researched and confusing as hell. Among other things, the future is "uptime" and the past is "downtime," which makes it sound counterintuitively like time is a river that flows uphill. (This is consistent with convention in geology and archeology, where an earlier period is "lower" because its evidence is in deeper strata.)
  • Tricked Out Time: Features such wonders and abuse of the self-consistency principle as when a man sees his lover falling off a cliff, he turns his head, so that he doesn't see her hit bottom precisely so he can come back and rescue her later.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: Persians in "Brave To Be A King" are fanatical about this. Manse listens to a story that is clearly Moses in the Bulrushes and so a hero legend — but from a Persian, so he knows it has to be the truth.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: A major theme of the stories. One character summarizes it: "Against time even the gods are powerless. I did as I was doomed to do."
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Deirdre in "Delenda Est". She comes from an Alternate History that the Time Patrol will eradicate.
  • You Will Be Beethoven:
    • In one story, a time-traveler gets pressed into taking the place of an assassinated Persian royalty; history remembers him as Cyrus the Great.
    • In "The Sorrow of Odin the Goth", a time-traveling anthropologist is trying to find the source of a particular legend involving the god Odin. He visits a dark-ages Goth community several times over the course of decades, and the locals, noting that he never seems to age (among other reasons), decide he is Odin. At the end he has to close the Stable Time Loop by doing what Odin is described as doing in the legend, even though it means killing two of his grandsons.