The meme theme continues with a challenge from plok to create a premise for a new television series about time travel.
The problem with loving time travel stories and reading every one you can find and then trying to think of an original idea is that you keep recognizing what's already been done! Heinlein did that already. John Varley covered that. I had one idea I really liked before realizing Trey Parker beat me to it. (South Park is surprisingly fluent with its time travel episodes.) What I've ended up with instead is a knowing and deliberate homage/rebuttal to one of my all-time favorite stories: "Vintage Season" by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Also a fair bit of influence from stories by William Tenn, namely "Child's Play" and "Errand Boy."
This one is called "Tourists."
Four people arrive at JFK Airport. Nothing about them gives any clue where they're from. They speak flawless unaccented English -- and, it turns out, every other language they encounter, with equal perfection. The first is an incredibly successful artist, hungry for authentic sensation and experience to be transmuted into her future work. The second is a jovial and friendly old man who has retired from his life's work and now indulges his passion for learning. The third is a graduate student in history whose trip was paid for by a wealthy patron. The last is their somewhat stiff-necked tour guide, showing the rest around and pointing out things of interest. His three charges look around gaping, awestruck by the sheer strangeness of their surroundings. They're charmed by how primitive and pastoral this airport and its inhabitants are. So many people! The jumbo jets -- people actually get inside those huge rickety things? How delightful!
They're a tour group from the distant future visiting the present day, here to fully experience the last phase of our culture before...that really bad thing happened and it all fell apart. Centuries later it simply isn't discussed in polite company but everyone knows how awful it was. The hints of it are all around but no one living at the time sees where it's going to lead. It's quite touching and tragic, really, how blithely they dance on the edge of the precipice without ever realizing it's there.
The behavior of the tourists is much like that of the wealthy person visiting the Third World today. They're friendly to the natives and absolutely charmed by our strange primitive customs and quaint way of life...but with a smiling condescension rooted in the assumption they're better and smarter than we are.
As they explore New York City, the group is supposed to stay together...but the student wanders off on her own. She's spent considerable time in the ruins, of course, but actually seeing the place when it isn't submerged under the ocean is amazing. Anyway, a history major certainly knows the rules of chronal disengagement and she hardly needs that supercilious Guide to instruct her on how to behave. She befriends a poor inner city child and asks the little girl to show her around, to see the 21st Century through the eyes of a typical crecheling. As a reward, the student entertains the little girl with a demonstration of some future gadgetry: the pantograft, the attolens, the gravisend -- it's so sweet how the simplest things dazzle them! -- and that's when the others catch up. The flustered Guide gives the student a warning on not contaminating the past with anachronistic displays of technology. They argue over what constitutes harmless fun.
This foreshadows the growing conflict within the tour group. As they travel around the world, the history student gets increasingly involved with our time: seeing how basically innocent and naive we are, and so totally undeserving of...well, you know, what's coming. How can decent people just stand by and watch? The kindly old man is sympathetic, but he also knows sometimes you just have to let things happen as they will. The conceited artist is unsympathetic: she needs to take in more unmediated misery and suffering in its purest form to make truly powerful art. Come on, people, there's a horrible famine going on: you can't honestly expect her to miss that! The Guide is caught in an awkward position: each of his charges represents serious power and wealth, and his impulse is to be subservient and win favor. Any one of these people could wreck his career and ruin his life if they become displeased; he has to act as referee without offending any of them.
The student, who's on our side and wants to help us, is essentially the bad guy here: she's talking about changing history, or at least helping ease the suffering of individuals if they must leave the vast flow of events intact. But how can she know what's acceptable meddling and what's too much?
Structurally I see this as episodic, not a story arc building up to a huge climax a la Heroes or The 4400, but still with continuing threads and character building. The student's desire to get involved develops slowly over a series of episodes, as does her conflict with the artist: the two of them would finally get fed up and have a big actual fight with future technology and gadgets, so ray blasts and force fields and anti-grav circuits ahoy...but it wouldn't really solve anything.
We would never get to see the future the tourists come from, getting our picture of it solely by implication from the things they say. (The budget department is welcome to send me flowers.) Weirdly enough, given the premise of this challenge, we don't ever see time travel take place: the tourists have just arrived as the story opens, and time travel itself is so expensive and power-expending that it isn't done lightly. You set off on your tragical history tour -- ha ha ha, I crack myself up! -- and you had bloody well better be finished when the Guide activates the recall signal that brings the group home.
And finally, we do not see or find out much about the big event that's so terrible in our future. That would erode the premise and destroy whatever mystique it originally had. The tourists will leave before it arrives, no fools they. (Whether or not the student decides to stay, marooning herself to eventually die here, is another matter. Or will she resign herself to the past being inevitable? Will the artist learn empathy? Will the old man find out something shocking about an ancient ancestor? Will they meet other visitors from the future? Are there contemporary people who know about the time travelers and serve as native bearers?) The real point here is to look at our culture and ways through the eyes of visitors who know how it all turns out, and give us the opportunity for poignant or humorous or satirical commentary on our failings...and while we're at it, to show how America and the West in general treats other cultures in our own time.
So whaddya think, sirs and madams?