MIND MELD: The Tricky Trope of Time Travel
In which we get a lovely and diverse panel to discuss the best and brightest genre uses of time travel.
Why use time time travel in stories? That part is easy: it’s because time travel, written about properly, engenders the most exquisitely intellectually pleasurable paradoxes that a cognitive being can experience. All paradoxes do some of that. Consider “this statement is a lie”. If it’s true, that means it’s a lie. But if it’s a lie, that means it’s true.” You struggle, like a fish trapped in a net, to break free. But you cannot. And, for some people – like me – your eyes water with tears of pleasure as you continue to struggle.
Time travel’s paradoxes are just a tad less inextricable, and that adds to the fun. How can an older, familiar-looking man appear to me, to tell me how to time travel, when I am that man? One way out is you can posit two universes. In U1, someone other than my older self teaches me how to time travel. That turns the universe into U2, in which my older self goes back in time, and teaches my younger self. Both universes exist, simultaneously. In another enjoyable, well-known scenario, I go back in time, and prevent my grandparents from meeting. So, how did I come to exist in the first place, and travel back in time? One answer: In Universe1, my grandparents meet, and I am eventually born. I travel back in time, prevent the meeting, which creates Universe 2, in which I was never born. At that point, I am Version1 of myself, living in Universe2.
In all time travel stories, there is the question of whether or not trips to the past can change the future. If they can, then part of the fun is shaking up all of the characters in the future, and mapping out the new universes that come to exist. The other approach – that nothing can be changed – leads to one of my favorite kinds of time travel stories, in which an attempt to change something bad in the past actually is the thing that makes the bad event happen.
In writing, Asimov’s The End of Eternity and Heinlein’s Door into Summer are the best time travel novels, in my view. Heinlein’s “By His Boostraps” and “All You Zombies” do it for short fiction. In movies, 12 Monkeys takes the paradoxes the most seriously, and the most enjoyably. Deja Vu does a pretty fine job too. In television, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” from Star Trek: TNG, and the “The City on the Edge of Forever” from Star Trek: TOS are the single best time-travel episodes on any series. I also thought Journeyman, last year, had some superb time travel episodes near the end of its too-short run, and Lost this year and last year has had some outstanding time travel threads – see my http://InfiniteRegress.tv for detailed reviews.
I’ll leave it to the public to decide how well I handle time travel in The Plot to Save Socrates, in my Loose Ends story saga, and, some time in the future, in The Genesis Virus on the screen.
I think time travel is, or ought to be, such a great science-fictional device. The trouble with using it in a novel is that it too often becomes difficult to see beyond the device itself. More than any other literary device I can think of, a very precise set of conventions have accrued to time travel, and it is all too easy for the reader to become distracted by the need to check that all the chronological loose ends have been tied off, and to be distracted if they haven’t. It often seems as if the only way for the writer to get past this dilemma is to acknowledge it by trying to do it as well as possible. which can lead to a very self-conscious kind of fiction. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife is beautifully constructed in the way it moves back and forth through time but even its final chapters are inevitably predicated on the reader knowing that there are loose ends to be tied off, during which the novel fell off the cliff of restraint and into the abyss of sentiment. I think Niffenegger uses time travel with considerably greater panache than many writers, and I especially liked the way she deals with the immediate difficulties of her male character’s plunges through time (though not the ‘scientific’ explanation for them), but the constructional problem remains.
The big question, of course, is what is time travel for. The SF Encyclopedia talks of it as a ‘literary convenience’, and there is this sense of it being a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I personally find that very problematic. Wells used time travel to go into the future, to speculate about the collapse of society, and William Morris’s protagonist in News From Nowhere travels into the future to make a plea for (ironically) a return to the kinder ways of the past. Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’ seems to me to be emblematic of the kind of time-travel story in which a tiny event can have huge ramifications much later on, though one wonders why it is invariably bad; are there any stories where someone treads on a prehistoric insect and comes back to find that a liberal regime now pertains? No, I couldn’t think of one either.
However, I think time travel too easily and too often ends up being an excuse for a jolly romp in the historical past, with the plot driven by a need to ensure that the future is not damaged by the past being disturbed. There is something inherently conservative about that form of time travel, in that it looks constantly towards either restoration or restitution of the perceived status quo, and you ideally get a nice little history lesson along the way (though both Wells and Morris touched on precisely the same sort of thing with their movement into the future). Didacticism and time travel often go too closely hand in hand for my taste.
It is also very difficult to get away from the historical romp, with the pleasure theoretically deriving from watching historical events being twisted and restored; the only novel I can immediately think of which uses time travel and manages to escape that is Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, which starts very badly in terms of ‘romp’ but eventually becomes one of the most harrowing novels I’ve ever read as a ‘modern’ protagonist comes face to face with the full horror of medieval plague. Much of time travel into the past is about verification (and the Willis works for me because it so graphically illustrates how much history and reality can be at variance, even if you do the research), whereas travel into the future as a modern literary trope seems to me to be …not pointless, precisely, but why would you do it when you can set your fiction in the future to start with?
My current favourite time-travel story is Ted Chiang’s ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, which explores the philosophical implications of time travel with exquisite precision, and frames the concept itself in very different fictional terms to those we are used to. As a contrast, and as a comment on the ludicrousness of so many time-travel stories, I point to Garry Kilworth’s ‘Let’s All Go to Golgotha’, where the audience at the Crucifixion turns out to be mainly comprised of time travellers who’ve come to see the Crucifixion rather than locals. I leave people to unpick the implications of that one for themselves.
I don’t really know what’s wrong with time travel as science fiction, I just know I have a resistance to the idea. In our current science, “we” don’t understand what time is; or why the forward arrow dominates one set of circumstances and vanishes in others. All we know about time travel as a potential real-world phenomenon is that (rather curiously) nobody has turned up talking to the evening news about being a visitor from 25090, or telling the tabloids they were snatched from their bed for a visit to the past or future. In short, sfnal time travel is like aliens: why not? You never know, it could become possible one day & in some way that explains why “they” never came “here”. Yet messing around with time has never caught the public imagination the way aliens have & maybe that’s telling us something.
The only no-kidding science fiction time travel story that ranks highly with me is a novel, Gregory Benford’s Timescape, an intense lab-procedural about escaping the inescapable, involving more tachyons than an entire season of Dr Who, but I never for a moment read it as fantasy, in fact, it’s remained one of my all-time greats.
On the other hand, I also read and write teenage fiction, a genre where time travel stories are hugely popular, no more scientific than Narnia, and I love them. It’s a way of opening a magic door onto the past, and experiencing history vividly, through the eyes and the emotions of characters from your own present day. My favourite is A Traveller In Time, Alison Uttley: a UK classic in which a girl (young woman, we’d call her now) goes to stay at an ancient farmhouse in Derbyshire, and finds herself slipping in and out of the sixteenth century; where she gets involved in one of the doomed conspiracies to rescue the imprisoned Mary Queen Of Scots. Wonderful.
The first reason for using time travel is to gain easy access to a wide variety of settings. If you want your characters to interact with dinosaurs, or Julius Caesar, or Shakespeare, then time travel offers a convenient way to do it. If this is the only motivation for using time travel, then it’s acting as an enabling device in the same way that FTL is an enabling device for stories set across interstellar distances. In such cases, I’d say the story uses time travel, but isn’t really about time travel.
The second reason for using time travel is to investigate the philosophical questions it raises, most of which (I claim) boil down to the question of determinism vs free will. To oversimplify, a story in which it’s possible to change the past and create paradoxes can be taken as an argument that we have free will and that our decisions matter. Conversely, a story in which it’s not possible to change the past can be taken as an argument that certain outcomes are predestined and that we can’t change our fate. And while we as readers might get bored of seeing particular paradoxes over and over again, the question of whether we are free or constrained remains interesting.
The third reason for using time travel is to examine the problem of regret. (This is sort of the emotional counterpart to the intellectual questions described in the previous paragraph.) All of us can think of past decisions we’d do differently if we had the chance, but unfortunately, real life doesn’t offer “do overs.” And while time-travel stories can act as simple wish fulfillment in this matter, they don’t have to. In the same way that SF/F in general can use impossibilities in order to help us understand what it means to be human here and now, stories about time travel can offer us perspective on how to live with the mistakes we’ve made.
As for recommending specific time travel stories, I’ll skip that and instead offer a non-fiction title: Time Machines by Paul J. Nahin, published by Springer Verlag in 1999. It’s a pretty comprehensive survey of how time travel has been handled by philosophers, physicists, and fiction writers.
Time travel may be tricky, but it’s also one of the keystones of the SF genre. H.G. Wells used it first (and perhaps best), but it’s too fascinating and useful a premise for other writers to leave alone. Time travel lets us de-privilege the present moment — it reminds us that “all times have been modern.” The year 2009 is someone’s dazzling futurity and (if we’re lucky!) someone else’s quaint, primitive dark age. H.G. Wells showed us how to mine that wonderful and frightening truth for both drama and humor, and as SF writers we’re all standing on his literary shoulders.
In 1895 H.G. Wells introduced readers to the idea of a machine that could control travel in time, but The Time Machine wasn’t by any means the first time-travel story. One of my favourites is the somewhat earlier tragicomic fantasy by Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), in which time travel is induced by a blow to the head. In many cases, time-travel stories are fantasies about controlling destiny – a good recent example is Ted Chiang’s story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007), in which characters move backward and forward in time as they try to nudge their own lives in more positive directions.
I particularly like the way that juxtaposition works in so many time-travel stories as they jump-cut between and among past, present, and future space-times. The jump-cut from 1895 to 802,701 lets Wells compare, in a very immediate way, the vibrant present of Victorian industrialism and the devolved far-future of the barely human Eloi and Morlocks. In Connecticut Yankee, time travel lets Twain develop bitingly satirical comparisons between fifth-century England and nineteenth-century New England.
As far as I’m concerned, the most devastating use of this technique is in James Tiptree, Jr.’s Hugo-Award-winning novella, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976), the story of three twentieth-century astronauts who fall through a temporal fault and find themselves trapped three hundred years in the future. This is a lesbian-feminist future – a sort-of utopia – from which men have long since disappeared. This future can’t afford the presence of these all-American men and, the story implies, they’re put down: “We can hardly turn you loose on Earth, and we simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems.”
Why time travel?
Today wasn’t a school day. I spent the afternoon at the university museum, walking beside my seven-year-old, the two of us examining ancient bones and mock-ups of life in Nebraska stretching back two billion years. At least fifty times today, I thought, “If only I could see these extinct beasts for myself.” Which of course is one of the main reasons to write and read time travel stories: To put my eyes on lost vistas, if only as a mental experiment dipped in a useful plot.
On a more personal note, I first toured that museum when I was a boy. Morrill Hall was a central reason for my passionate interest in dinosaurs. I also attended University of Nebraska, taking classes in the lecture hall in the museum’s basement. Still more years later, I taught gifted high school students at UNL, and I made sure to force them into dreary marches past dead elephants and stuffed whooping cranes. These pieces of my life are past, and besides some increasingly cloudy memories, unreachable. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a fancy chair carrying a whirring blade–an ungainly Victorian machine that would carry me back a decade or two? Wouldn’t it be lovely to hold your life like a book, flipping back and forth, living again whatever chapter struck you as interesting that day?
It’s pretty to think so, and that’s all it is. Thought.
Which is probably for the best. If go back to any past, and even if I’m a very careful tourist, I’m afraid that something will go wrong–a misplaced mote of dust, or a molecule put out of my place, and in one terrible fashion or another, my seven-year-old will cease to be.
Why use it at all? Well, the innate appeal of time travel stories is pretty easy to guess at – which of us hasn’t at some point thought that they’d like to move forwards in time to an anticipated moment, or go back in time to change what seems to be a pivotal decision or event (be it personal, like making a phone call that went forgotten, or more global in scope, like killing Hitler)? Time tricks us, teases us, teaches us, builds us and breaks us down. Playing fictional games with it – a luxury that, until recently, only sf has really had access to – is inevitable; it’s one of the few things in life that is so intrinsically wrapped up in the way we perceive reality that it will never be an irrelevance. Unless we someday somehow transcend our current one-way experience of time’s arrow… but that would be a sort of epistemological singularity, I think.
The problem with time travel as a stand-alone trope is that it’s almost impossible to do well, as you point out in the question. There’s a very simple reason for that: the pure idea has been explored about as fully as it can be without either introducing more variables and assumptions or stepping outside the frame of reference that time itself forms. The latter is technically impossible, so the former has to occur. Heinlein pretty much owned the pure time travel paradox idea in the written form, and that was a good long while back; the last three decades of cinema have made time travel a household cliché way beyond the borders of original sf. So where do you go instead for that same brain-kick?
The logical extension of time travel is the many-worlds idea – you know, every event causes a probability branch in history, leading to a panoply of possible realities which differ from the ‘baseline’ reality to a variety of degrees, so on and so forth. This may have something to do with relativity (you can’t travel in time without travelling in space, and vice versa, or something like that; ask a physicist, because I don’t fully understand it and I’ve probably got completely the wrong end of the stick), but it’s more due to its utility as a literary device. It makes explicit the “what if?” question that lies at the heart of much sf writing.
Time travel fiction quickly begat and/or blended into and enhanced ‘alternate history’, which is to my mind very closely related to Singularity/metaverse fictions (a post-Singularity or metaverse setting implies a completely new rule-set in the same way that a branched-reality setting does, though by leaping forwards instead of sideways or backwards) as well as being, in some respects, modern written sf’s baseline mode. Alternate history speaks to modern cultural concerns, as we discover the slow influence of our own actions at the scale of decades and centuries; the success of the form beyond the genre ghetto in recent years makes this plain (Yiddish Policemen’s Union, The Plot Against America, etc etc).
As such, I can’t think of a favourite story or novel that uses time travel as a pure trope. But I can think of one that uses a very limited and one-way form of time travel as a central enabling trope… which means that yet again I’m going to get on my soapbox and remind everyone that Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles is one of the most ambitious and well-constructed sf series of its era, and repays close re-readings many times over. Go and read it… if only so Adam Roberts and I have a third person to enthuse about it with.
Time travel presents the writer with a number of intriguing possibilities. One of the most interesting, to me, is the opportunity to bring people from different eras into direct and immediate contact. What would the eighteenth century look like to a visitor from the twenty-second? How would a visitor from the future look to a courtier in Louis XIV’s Versailles?
Many literary writers have been attracted to this aspect of time travel in the last thirty years. The literary devices they use accomplish some of the same ends as our time machines. The movie version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman contrasts the life of a contemporary couple with the life of the couple they play in a historical movie. In A.S. Byatt’s Possession, scholarship substitutes for a time machine; two twentieth century scholars fall in love as they ferret out a Victorian romance hidden in documents and published works. Bharati Mukherjee’s lesser-known novel The Holder of the World combines conventional scholarship with a science fictional device: a computer program that intergrates all our knowledge of a period and generates a detailed simulation of past events.
In science fiction, Connie Willis’ Domesday Book contrasts the era of the Black Death with a twenty-first century response to an outbreak that could have been just as devastating. I consider it one of the most successful and powerful time travel stories ever written. Poul Anderson’s short story “The Man Who Came Early” pits an ordinary modern with a gun against the successful merchants and political leaders of a pre-gun society– and the ordinary man discovers a technological marvel is no match for high-level social sophistication.
The time travel story can also serve as a kind of meditation on history. This is one of the strengths of Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories. Anderson built the series around a rather conventional series-hero structure but he permeated it with his profound sense of the irony and tragedy of history.
The time travel story lies on the outer edges of science fiction. Many people feel it shouldn’t be considered science fiction, since we can come up with good reasons why time travel violates the laws of physics. But we really don’t know very much about time. Why does it exist? Why does it only move in one direction? We take the flow of time for granted. But should we? A good time travel story can intensify our awareness of the fundamental mystery at the heart of the physical universe.
David Brin once noted that many of the science fiction writers he knows read about science but all science fiction writers read history. He suggested the field should really be called “speculative history.” I liked the idea as soon as I heard it because it bundles the time travel story, alternate history, and the story set in a possible future into a single genre, tied together by a unifying preoccupation. Time travel and alternate history have become permanent fixtures of the science fiction genre because they deal with basic science fiction subjects such as time, change, and the way big-picture historical events affect the day to day lives of the individuals who have to live in the societies we humans create.
Determinism and time paradoxes – two demons of time travel stories. Regrettably, it seems that careful planning is no sure-fire way of avoiding either; in fact, a carefully constructed story runs just as great a risk of suffering from these as a sloppy story. (At this point I should mention that I’ve chosen to believe in free will; determinism thus annoys me. So, by the way, does “pretend time travel” where the journey is really to a parallel universe based in quantum mechanics.) Elaborate explanations of the nature of time tend to create elaborate paradoxes and, at worst, unravel not only the story world but any sense of wonder that world brought me. And stories which constantly have the time traveler do what has already been done, confirming the immutability of the time stream, simply say to us: doesn’t matter what you do, it’s all gonna end up the same way anyway.
But the topic of time travel is fascinating, and the best way to discuss it seems to be by not taking it seriously. Embrace the paradox, as it were. In fact, my favourite time travel writer is Jasper Fforde, who, in the Thursday Next books, throws any number of paradoxes at the reader, happily admitting them to be paradoxes, and explaining that the nature of time is incomprehensible (even to the ChronoGuard, who are charged with policing the time stream). Confusing, certainly, but wonderful.
Fforde’s disregard for temporal paradox and cogency is uncommon but not unique. Douglas Adams, in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, similarly ignores the need to establish a comprehensible nature of time. Like Fforde, he revels in paradox. The very phenomenon of the restaurant at the end of the universe is defined by its defiance of traditional temporal impossibilities, and the only explanation of the nature of time (illustrated with handy tableware) is never concluded.
There is an alternative to heaping the plate with paradoxes, and that is to simply ignore them. Time travel is useful, after all, when we want a story where modern sensibilities clash with those of the past (or the future). An excellent example of such a story is Octavia Butler’s Kindred, where there is no explanation for how the protagonist is hurled back in time. The story simply gets on with the important stuff instead, and we’re too intrigued by how a modern-day African-American woman handles the slavery of the 19th century South to miss esoteric discussions about the inner workings of time. In a way, even Well’s Time Machine works like this: little enough time is actually spent on trying to explain how the temporal velocipede works, more on exploring the future of the world.
So ignore or embrace – that’s fine by me. As long as I don’t have to read yet another sleight-of-hand explanation of the nature of time.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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