Time Travel Tuesday: Steven Utley’s “Where or When”


Steven Utley

This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story is from Steven Utley, an American writer who died from a brain tumor in 2013 at the age of sixty-four. Utley was a prolific storyteller whose work was often found in magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Galaxy. “Where or When,” today’s story, is part of a series of time travel stories started by Utley in 1976 featuring a method of time travel he called “chronopaths.” This 1991 story first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and was also included in Where or When, the 2006 compilation of the chronopath stories.

As implied by its title, “Where or When” tells of a time travel trip that went wrong for two travelers right from the start. The two travelers, (one man, one woman) were part of a group expecting a soft landing in 1851 London, but after somehow getting separated from their fellow travelers, the pair experienced a rude crash landing in the middle of a thick forest. Now they no longer have any idea where they are – or, for that matter, when they are. What they do know is that two huge armies are fighting a pitched battle just a few hundred yards from where they are hiding amidst the thick trees.

wild03Our lost travelers are not at first particularly concerned about their predicament because they know that their guide will almost certainly be able to track them down as soon as he notices that they are no longer part of his group. But when bullets start scarring the trees near them, they realize that it is time to run for their lives – despite their guide’s instruction not to wander if they ever find themselves lost. And when the whole forest starts to burn (Civil War amateur historians will now know exactly where the lost travelers have landed), they can only hope it’s not too late to save themselves.

Despite the horrors of battle Utley describes in “Where or When,” the story is not without its humorous moments, especially the scene in which the male traveler is trying to extract the female traveler from the small tree into which she has crash-landed. The woman, already unhappy about the period undergarments she is wearing, is not feeling particularly cooperative at this point:

“Who in eighteen fifty-one’s gonna get to see what I wear under my dress?

“Well, you just never know do you?” and I gave her a wryly apologetic grin that absolutely failed to endear me to her, took out my trusty pen-knife again, and got around behind her. View from that side, she rather resembled an enormous blossom. Her legs, sheathed in long, lace-trimmed drawers, were the stamens, and her numerous petticoats, the petals.

I said, “Good God, how many petticoats are you wearing?

“Eighty or ninety.”

“There’s enough silk here for a parachute battalion”

 Steven Utley was a talented fantasy and science fiction writer, and “Where or When” is a good introduction to the author’s work. Utley managed to pack a whole lot of plot into this thirteen-page story that I have not touched upon here – curious readers can perhaps find the story most easily in the more recent (2013) compilation from Tor titled The Time Traveler’s Almanac.

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