This column, on ‘Let’s Go to Golgotha’ by Garry Kilworth, was intended as a companion piece to the column on ‘Standing Room Only’ by Karen Joy Fowler that had appeared in the previous issue. This was first published in Vector 277, Autumn 2014:
I’ve been thinking about time travel a lot recently. This is partly because I was reviewing The Time Traveller’s Almanac edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer; an anthology that I found ultimately unsatisfactory because it included too many stories that I did not believe deserved their place, while missing out too many stories that should have been there. Which, of course, set me thinking about the stories I would have included had I been editing such an anthology. There are obvious ones: ‘Great Work of Time’ by John Crowley, ‘A Little Something for Us Tempunauts’ by Philip K. Dick, ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson, not to mention ‘Standing Room Only’ by Karen Joy Fowler which I wrote about last time. The Fowler inevitably reminded me of ‘Let’s Go to Golgotha’ by Garry Kilworth, because the two act as a perfect counterpoint to each other.
‘Let’s Go to Golgotha’ won the Gollancz/Sunday Times Science Fiction Competition in 1974. The competition was for previously unpublished writers (among others for whom this marked the beginning of a literary career were Chris Morgan, Daphne Castell and the joint-winner of the novel prize, Chris Boyce), but if I read Kilworth’s autobiography correctly, he hadn’t even attempted to get anything published before this point.
It is a sophisticated piece for a first story, though it does have the odd sign of a writer unsure of how much or how little he can say. The first line of the story, for instance, tells us that ‘The Time-Travel Agency was the third room along one of the branches of a Banyan building’ (125). Banyan building tells us everything we need to know about what this future looks like, but, nervously, he has to spell it out in a little more detail on the next page: ‘Earth was a solid block of brick and concrete flourishing with Banyan buildings’ (126). What we have, therefore, is a typical science fictional setting, familiar from Aldous Huxley or Isaac Asimov: an over-urbanised world in which there is no space for the human. This is the future as machine in which people are nothing more than cogs, which Kilworth dramatizes as a lack of holiday options: ‘he could not afford space travel … and ocean cruises made his children ill’ (126), so the only choice available to him is time travel.
As in Ray Bradbury’s much-anthologised ‘A Sound of Thunder’, time travel has been domesticated, made available to the general public for their holidays. But unlike the Bradbury story, time itself is not seen as fragile. When time travellers are warned to ‘follow our little instructions’ (126) it is not to prevent them changing history, but simply to keep them from harm. ‘The agent wagged a finger playfully. “We’ve never lost a customer yet.”’ (126) Right from the start of the story, therefore, we know that this is not time travel as adventure but as something safe and ordinary, and a simple misadventure, like stepping on a butterfly, is unlikely to have far reaching consequences.
For a while, as Simon Falk and his wife Mandy bicker over possible destinations – perhaps taking the children to ‘Pompeii the day before it erupted – and leave them there’ (127) – Kilworth plays up the ordinariness of the situation, and perhaps also the fragility of the relationship. Then two friends, Harry and Sarah, show up with the perfect solution: taking the kids to see the Crucifixion. ‘If [the children] could see exactly how Jesus died to save us – or our souls or whatever it was that he saved – it might have a profound effect on them. At least, we hope it will.’ (128) There is no great religious sensibility on display here, as Simon scoffs: ‘You’ve not mentioned going to church in ten years’ (128), but rather a very middle class concern with how the children are brought up. And this is very much a story about middle class complacency.
(Parenthetically, we might wonder how there are still places to see the Crucifixion if ‘the Coronation of Elizabeth the First is fully booked’ (126), but we’ll let that pass.)
But all of this is just set-up. The story really gets going when we move to the offices of Pan Time-Tours Limited in Southend (a location that adds to the impression that time travel is a normal, mundane activity). The holiday begins with an orientation lecture:
We do not lay down any rules, but it is important you should know how to act because on this tour, as on many others, you will be mixing with the locals. You must be inconspicuous – this is the primary rule. (129)
Around the time that this story was written, package holidays had started to become accessible for and popular with many people in Britain, and one of the tricks that Kilworth pulls off in this story is to equate a trip to first century Judea with a fortnight on the Costa Blanca. The past is not alien and incomprehensible, it is not a place that can be entered only with great difficulty and after elaborate procedures. Here the only imperative is not to be strange. So appropriate clothing is issued, a simple, reversible treatment means you don’t look out of place, and ‘A few days before the trip you will be invited to visit our language laboratory, where you will be taught Hebrew by the knowledge-injection principle during one afternoon’ (130). Even the language is domestic and unthreatening: language laboratories for learning foreign languages came into our schools during the 1960s. And when one of the holidaymakers asks to be a Roman soldier he is turned down because ‘a soldier is too vulnerable’ and ‘we would be sure to give ourselves away’ (130). Again the emphasis is on providing a safe family holiday with nothing too strange or too risky, the potential impact upon the past does not come into the equation at all.
So when the vicar giving this orientation lecture begins to talk about how they should behave, it is part and parcel of the same thing: blending in so that they don’t seem alien, and don’t put themselves in danger. Their holiday will begin just at the point when Pilate asks the crowd which of the condemned men should be released. ‘When the crowd begins to shout “Barabbas”, as we know it must, then you must shout it too. You must not appear to be different in any way from the rest of the citizens’ (131). They must behave as history records not because to do otherwise might change history, but because to do otherwise might endanger the visitor. History is simply assumed to be robust; in contrast to Bradbury’s story, the influx of time travellers at key moments in the past is understood to make no difference whatsoever to how things turn out. When the past is a holiday destination, it becomes a fixed place not a changeable process.
Behind this assumption that they know how history will behave lies another assumption, of superiority: ‘You will be sure to give yourselves away under stress – not because you are idiots but because you are clever. People in those times were simple.’ (131) Yet they behave as simply, as selfishly as people have always behaved. The treatment they receive in preparation for the trip is as simple and painless as promised, yet even on a practical level it doesn’t really prepare them for the reality of first century Judea: ‘None of them were used to walking on uneven ground covered in sharp stones’ (132). And then they come to the small square where a man we assume is Pilate is addressing the crowd. ‘He looked harassed and a little ill. He was speaking in Latin. “What is he saying?” whispered Simon to Harry’ (133).
This is one of the key moments in the story of the Crucifixion, but the crowd shuffles and remains silent until Simon’s son, James, daydreaming and caught off guard, blurts out: Barabbas. At once the crowd is spurred into action and begins to call out Barabbas in their turn, just as the Bible, and the tour leader, say they are supposed to. In that involuntary cry is the climax of the story, but neither Simon nor the reader realises it just yet. When James is unhappy about it, Simon reassures him: ‘It would have happened anyway. You just jumped the gun, that’s all.’ (134).
But that is not all. When the heat starts to make Simon’s daughter, Julie, feel unwell, he and Mandy take her away from the crowd in the hope of finding somewhere shady. When there is nowhere outside that will serve, Mandy looks inside the open doorway of a house, only to find a family ‘sitting on stools in the middle of the room with their hands clasped in front of them … it was obvious that she was intruding on something private’ (134). As they discover, all the people of the city who are supposed to be out crowding the streets, watching Jesus carry his cross along what would become known as the Via Dolorosa, are actually indoors, at prayer.
Realising, at last, that it was not the people of Jerusalem who were complicit in the crucifixion, but the time travellers who made it happen just the way they had been told it would happen, Simon rushes to the scene of execution. It is too late, of course. And when he begs his friend Harry to help him stop it, he is told, ‘It’s got to happen, you know. This is the way it is’ (136).
In my last column I wrote about what I described as America’s Golgotha, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, 1865. In Karen Joy Fowler’s story, ‘Standing Room Only’, we see the events of that day from the point of view of a person from that time, someone who is unaware that momentous events are about to happen, and does not understand that the crowds she is beginning to see in the streets around her are time travellers come to be spectators. ‘Let’s Go to Golgotha’ provides a counterpoint to that story, because it relates what are essentially the same circumstances from a different perspective. Here it is the original Golgotha, and this time the story is told from the perspective of the time travellers, but again they are here to be spectators and the locals are unaware of the broader significance of the events being played out around them. In both stories, historical knowledge renders the travellers hyper-aware but curiously unsophisticated; in both stories, contemporary dress makes the travellers clumsy, which acts as a metaphor for their deeper failure to take on the mores and practices of the time as anything more than a temporary costume.
And in both stories the travellers act on the assumption that history is robust, that they are there not to affect anything but only to watch as events play out with an inevitability that is part of the sick attraction of the experience. The past cannot be changed, must not be changed, nor would they wish to change it. They are an audience and no more, wishing to have just as much effect upon what they witness as they might on a film in a cinema. Fowler gives the lie to this assumption subtly in the effect her time travellers have upon Anna Surratt; Kilworth does so more strikingly. For in ‘Let’s Go to Golgotha’ we see that the time travellers are the event, that things only happened in the way they came to witness because of their presence. Perhaps history is not so robust after all, perhaps things might have turned out very differently if the time travellers had not behaved like sheep, obediently following the script they had learned from the Bible.
Quotations taken from ‘Let’s Go to Golgotha’ by Garry Kilworth in Let’s Go to Golgotha: The Gollancz/Sunday Times Best SF Stories, London, Panther, 1979, pp125-137.