RogerBW's Blog

The Ivanhoe Gambit, Simon Hawke 25 July 2021

1984 SF, first of a series. In the 27th century, the economic benefits of war are realised without danger to the warring countries themselves, by sending soldiers into the past to join in historical conflicts: referees count the killed and wounded. But time travel is never simple…

I mean, all right, even the basic premise has some problems. But the idea that humans could take a look at temporal physics, consider the possibility of massive catastrophe if the timestream should ever be disrupted enough to split and rejoin… and say "eh, it'll probably be fine"… is alas just as plausible now as it was nearly 40 years ago when this was written.

What's rather odder is that, when our heroes are told to try to catch a referee who's gone rogue and is planning to impersonate the returning King Richard… is that the referees have found, without any apparent difficulty, the actual Robin Hood and Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and have knocked them on the head ready for our heroes to impersonate them. Nobody ever mentions that Ivanhoe is a work of fiction, but they are at least aware that the Robin Hood legends are a thing, and they don't seem at all curious about the ease with which this specific guy was tracked down…

This ends up working a bit like fanfiction: big historical events must be unchanged (which includes big events from the book), so we have the arrow-splitting and the kidnapping of Rowena and so on, but they can have different reasons and personalities behind them. So for example Bois-Guilbert still drops dead during the trial by combat… but he does it because of a well-placed laser rifle shot, rather than as "a victim to the violence of his own contending passions". And the future soldier playing Ivanhoe, not wanting to cause ructions by choosing the Saxon Rowena as Queen of Love and Beauty, picks a dark-haired lady instead… only to find that this is Rebecca of York.

(OK, there's a mention of the 82nd Airborne having "a long and extremely colorful history, dating back thousands of years", when the current date is 2613 and they were founded de novo in 1917, but never mind…)

While most of the time we have the usual conceit of time travel stories that the narrative-now moves meaningfully forwards (the fake Richard hasn't revealed himself "yet" and so the potential timestream split when he doesn't go to die at Chaluz hasn't happened "yet"), Hawke does at least remember that this is a time travel story rather than just a visit to the Historyland park: one of the soldiers is confronted with his own future garrotted corpse, and one conflict consists of two time-travellers jumping back and forth to the same battle so that dozens of them are present in the same moment, each trying to take advantage of potential mistakes made by an instance of the other reacting to an earlier instance of the first… and that sort of thing is why I stuck with this whole series in the first place, and why I thought it might be fun to revisit them now.

These are fluff, don't doubt it. But they're entertaining fluff.


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:27am on 25 July 2021

    I'm baffled by "the economic benefits of war ..." When there are any, they come from expansion of production, But surely they don't send 2600-era military hardware into the past?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:12am on 25 July 2021

    No – they have, for example, high-tech armour that weighs less than the period stuff and protects better, and when the protagonists are sent on a covert op they're given all sorts of spy gadgets, but the basic idea is that nobody in the earlier time should be aware of anything weird happening.

    Given the actual size of many historical battles, I suspect that even significant numbers of future troops would start to qualify as "something weird" in a lot of them. (It's implied that they're sending troops into WWI and later - "Belt Commandos" get mentioned in passing - but this whole unworkable system gets stopped before the series has gone very far and it's never explored in detail.)

    So relatively few people, in relatively cheap gear – I suppose the only thing in its favour is that you can send soldiers to lots of wars at once.

    Being fair to the author, this is presented as part of someone's memory of a recruiting event:

    It was a brilliant multi-media production complete with stirring music and holographic effects, all about how history had proved that nations always prospered when they were on a wartime economic standard, how war was an inevitable fact of human nature and how the advent of time travel had made it possible to avoid the "inconvenience" of the physical presence of a war in present time. There was a barrage of information about how international disputes were settled by evaluating the performance of soldiers of the present in conflicts of the past, a tour de force that looked and sounded very glamorous, even if the information did flash by so quickly that it was impossible to absorb it all.

  3. Posted by J Michael Cule at 12:33pm on 25 July 2021

    I read those. I even read all of them, I think. They were... literary popcorn. "Nibble, nibble, nibble Oh it's finished! Where's another?"

    I have the feeling it influenced the writing of a lot of GURPS TIME TRAVEL and TIME TRAVEL ADVENTURES and certainly a lot of INFINITE WORLDS. Not necessarily for the better.

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