It has often been said that two big tropes of science fiction are really closer to fantasy. The first is FTL (faster-than-light) travel upon which most, if not all, galactic empire stories are built. After all, this is the only way humanity can spread throughout the galaxy (and beyond) in reasonable, comprehensible time scales. Stories ranging from E. E. “Doc” Smith‘s Gray Lensman to Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation Trilogy, and right up through Carl Sagan‘s Contact and Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels all presume some sort of FTL capabilities, be it a drive, a wormhole, hyperspace or some other mechanism. We suspend our disbelief because these are good stories.

The other trope usually classified as science fiction, but often regarded as fantasy is time travel. I love time travel stories, but I have often wondered why they are so popular. The mind-expanding proportions of galactic sprawl stories is understandable. We dream of exploring distant places, of what we might find there, better yet who we might find there. But why are time travel stories so fascinating? And why are they generally classed as science fiction, when in fact that are more like fantasy?


To the latter question, I can think of two possible answers. The first comes from H. G. Wells famous novel, The Time Machine: the word “machine” itself. During the industrial revolution machines were the engines that drove society and machines were built by engineers based on the principles of science. Machines would ultimately be able to do anything, and it would be natural to conclude that a machine could be built that would allow a person to travel through time just as they travel through space. The second possibility comes from Einstein, when he developed his special and general theories of relativity whereby time and space became intertwined into spacetime. Here the natural assumption might be that if you can move in any one of the three spatial dimensions, it would only be a matter of time before you could move in the fourth dimension of time.

Today, time travel is still fantasy despite falling under the label of science fiction. And yet time travel stories are still some of the more fascinating, mind-expanding, and enjoyable stories that our genre produces. Even in the visual media, time travel stories seem to be particular fan favorites. There is a whole collection of DVDs containing nothing but time travel episodes from the various Star Trek series. Which leads back to my original question: why are we so fascinated by time travel stories?

I think there are two sets of answers depending on the type of time travel story in question. There are time travel stories which involve traveling back to the past, and there are stories that involve traveling into the future. (And of course, some stories include both.) For stories involving travel to the past, the element of paradox probably plays a big role in our fascination. Paradox (i.e. traveling back to the past and killing your grandfather) sets up nice plot problems and complications that provide a wedge for a story-teller to take hold of. Furthermore, time travel to the past allows the story-teller to play with history that the reader can recognize, even if it was changed. L. Sprague de Camp‘s wonderful Lest Darkness Fall takes us back to ancient Rome, where the early introduction of a modern accounting method changes the entire future history of our civilization.

Stories that involve traveling to the future are equally fraught with paradox. Cyril M. Kornbluth‘s “Dominos” provides a good example of this, where a time traveler gains knowledge of the future stock market and tries to make use of that knowledge, with disastrous consequences. Stories of time travel into the future also allow us to extrapolate human progress. Where will be a century from now? Five centuries? Five thousand? Far future stories do this to some extent as well but their focus tends to be on the story set in that far future, as opposed to the shift in perspective of the modern person from our time to a much later time.

Despite being fantasy, time travel stories seemed to evolve alongside modern physics and cosmology. There are “realistic” time travel stories, in which people travel into the future through known effects of cosmology, like time dilation. Joe Haldeman‘s famous The Forever War uses this phenomenon to great affect. Of course, this is a one-way trip. There’s no going back, and that’s what helps to make the story so powerful. But even in the more fantastic stories, we’ve come up with ways to cope with the problems and paradoxes that arise. In Isaac Asimov‘s The End of Eternity, time travelers stuck in the past place classified ads in magazines to alert their future companions of their predicament.

Time travel stories allow us to explore history in a new way, and to create new history and there is fundamental enjoyment in doing this–all paradoxes aside. We get excited (or at least I do) when our hero comes face-to-face with George Washington, or Isaac Newton, or Harry the King. Or course, not everyone agrees this is a good thing. China recently banned time travel stories because they were disrespectful of history. I disagree. I think they help us examine history in an imaginative way. And just as straight science fiction can hook a reader’s interest into science, so time travel stories can hook a reader’s interest into history.

Next time, in part 2, I’ll talk about some of the time travel stories that have most impressed me, from the Golden Age right on through today.

But in the meantime, I’d be curious to know what is it about time travel stories that fascinates you? Or, if you don’t like time travel stories, why not?

Filed under: The Wayward Time-Traveler

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