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Traveling Through Time and Other Vacations of the Mind (Part 1)

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?

About Jamie Todd Rubin (31 Articles)
Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, and most recently through 40K Books. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal and vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.
Contact: Website

11 Comments on Traveling Through Time and Other Vacations of the Mind (Part 1)

  1. I like two things about time travel stories, both of which you’ve mentioned: playing around with paradoxes or the attempt to avoid paradoxes, and the chance to revisit history in a different way.


    By the way, I just saw the movie Primer (2004), and it has an interesting take on time travel. One aspect of it I liked was that it seems to follow our current understanding of time travel theory, which is that you can’t travel further back in time than the day you invent the time machine. Which explains why we have yet to see visitors from the future.

  2. Michael, I’ll be touching on it more in part2, but Robert Silverberg‘s novel Up The Line deals with the very issue you refer to (visitors from the future). I tried to address that in a story that I wrote once, too, but not very well, I’m afraid. (At least, no one bought that story.)

  3. Scotoma // May 17, 2011 at 1:01 pm //

    There are a few science fiction novels with galactic civilizations than don’t have FTL (Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence, William Barton’s Dark Sky Legion). Wormholes done right doesn’t require FTL either, thought the kind of wormholes Peter F. Hamilton used in his Commonwealth and Void novels were pure fantasy.

    I like well written time travel stories, but most have pretty lame plots (kill someone famous from the past, watch some famous event from the past, change something to see how it reshape the present, and so on). I’m also annoyed by time travel stories where the author goes to extraordinary lengths to exlain why the characters can’t go back to fix stuff that happened earlier in the story.

  4. I like time travel as much as I like Alternate History, which is quite a bit.

    As far as time travel being fantasy, Larry Niven explicitly in an essay said he thought they were–and that’s why his “Svetz” stories all feature mythological and imaginary things whenever Svetz goes back to the past.



  5. Scotoma, I hear you on the cliched plots. Next time, I will present a list of time travel stories and novels that I think are worthy of mention because they are not cliche, or make original use of the tropes.

    Paul, I’m not very well-read in alternate history. I enjoyed de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, which I suppose is a kind of alternate history. I also liked Silverberg’s Roma Eterna and I especially liked Stephen Baxter’s Voyage. I’m also, I’m ashamed to admin, poorly read as far as Niven goes. Ringworld was amazing, but I haven’t read any of the “Svetz” stories.

  6. I’m also ashamed to admit ðŸ˜‰

  7. Scotoma // May 17, 2011 at 2:29 pm //

    Actually, if you use FTL drives consequently, you get also time travel. The best execution of a space opera that had FTL and as a consequence of that time travel effects as well was Stephen Baxter’s Exultant, a truly brilliant book. His Time Ships is another brilliant time travel book.

  8. Great article, Jamie! As a science fiction writer who writes about time travel, I resonate with most of your points. I also resonate with Scotoma’s thoughts that so many plots are cliche…except that I fit into that category myself! LOL! Though I do think writers can do more with time travel (Haldeman’s book is a good example of something I wouldn’t call cliche), I also think part of what makes time travel interesting is that very question: What if we changed something? What would happen?

    The interesting part, having written this stuff, is that as soon as you do that, the “laws” that would govern such activity become incredibly convoluted. So much so that storytelling can get lost somewhere in the mix. All that to say, I enjoy the cliches and the original takes on time travel!

    Also, I was going to submit some time travel articles to John for posting on SFSignal. Jamie, let me know if you’d like to co-write them with me!

    Great discussion!

  9. J, sorry I didn’t see this until today. Have John give you my email address and we can chat about the time travel stuff.

  10. Consider, if you will, that television, radio, most electronics, even photography and the internal combustion engine were all fantasy at one time, but they are all inventions and were advancements of known or theorized techniques. Same with time travel. We know about things like quarks, black holes, the real possibility of layers or folds of space. We know that Einstein’s theories have been pushed by subsequent discoveries by Hawkings and many others. So, sure, FTL is science fiction because it can be theorized as a step forward from existing knowledge just as your eyeglasses or binoculars were steps from examining and understand the eye.

  11. I should have said those thing listed at the beginning of my comments SEEMED fantastic at one time…

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