And it’s time time time, and it’s time time time, And it’s time time time that you love, And it’s time time time.
~ Tom Waits
Time is an illusion: our naive perception of its flow doesn’t correspond to physical reality. Or, as Albert Einstein wrote; “…the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
What does this mean, you ask, and, what does this have to do with Science Fiction?
Well, time travel is a familiar subject for science fiction. In fact, it’s one of the pillars of the genre. One of the “core subjects” if you will.
H. G. Wells was the first of the “modern” science fiction writer to tackle the subject. In his novel The Time Machine, Wells’ time traveller famously says; “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and – Duration.” Time, in other words. “There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.”
Wells’ time traveller visits the far future of Great Britain where half of humanity had devolved into the childlike Eloi and the other half into the predatory, sun hating Morlocks. He then goes even further into the future where the Earth is a dying planet and the sun has become a red giant.
Wells wasn’t interested in the past. He was more interested in imagining a future and, in doing so, saying something about the state of Mankind in 1895.
But Wells’ book was not the first famous time travel novel. Six years earlier Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain wasn’t interested in the future, nor was he really interested in the past. He used his time travel tale to satirize the concepts of feudalism and monarchy and to champion homespun ingenuity and democratic values. At the same time questioning the for-profit ideals of capitalism and outcomes of the Industrial Revolution. His time travel tale is little more than an excuse for generating some socioeconomic discourse.
Keith Laumer’s Dinosaur Beach is one of my favourite time travel novels. Secret time agents who work for Nexx Central are tasked with undoing the work of rival time travellers who have been tampering with the time stream and threatening the survival of Mankind. Ravel has been in deep cover in the twentieth century, but is recalled to Nexx Central HQ Dinosaur Beach located millions of years in the past, in the Jurassic Age.
Laumer’s novel is an action adventure story with time travel as a way of having the action span the centuries and have the hero participate in action involving dinosaurs, pirates, robots and aliens. Laumer doesn’t really delve into the nature of time, he’s just looking to tell an exciting story. In that he succeeds.
Kurt Vonnegut has a different approach to time travel in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim has, as Vonnegut writes, become unstuck in time. He travels haphazardly throughout his own lifespan, seemingly aware at any given time that he is a being with a finite timespan which he can access at any given point and has memories of no matter where he finds himself in that span.
But Billy Pilgrim cannot change his past or his future. For as unstuck as he is, he cannot alter the events that have happened or that will happen.
But can you alter the past? What would happen if one does travel to the past and alters the events of history? The most common theory is that of the branching timelines. This fits with the “many worlds” theory of reality. If you alter the past you create an alternative future which branches in a different direction from the future you started out in. This is one of the common solutions to the grandfather paradox which is another thing for which we can be thankful to Amazing Stories Magazine.
That branching of timelines is an aspect of the time travel from William Gibson’s The Peripheral, which has recently been adapted for television on Amazon Prime. Gibson posits that one cannot physically travel to the past or the future, but that information can be transmitted via digital links to computer systems in the past. Doing so, however, creates a branching timeline which Gibson calls a “stub”. From that stub, a person from the past can have their consciousness transmitted to a peripheral — a robot, essentially – and thus be able to interact with the future while your physical body remains in the past.
It’s an intriguing idea, even though it doesn’t involve any real alterations to the timeline, only the creation of more stubs.
Octavia Butler’s Kindred employs a kind of time travel that extends beyond ones own lifetime, allowing the protagonist to travel into the body of a distant ancestor. Butler’s novel employs this time travel to give historical context to a story that explores what it means to be African American in this age. Kindred will also soon be an miniseries from Hulu.
And that’s kind of the interesting point about time travel stories. The trope of travel through time is merely a device in service of a story that talks about today. Time travel stories are not about the past or the future. The past or future in these stories acts merely as a lens in order to better examine aspects of today.
Because that’s all we have, as human beings, is today. We experience time like a passenger in a boat floating down the river. In that way we can imagine that we are the fixed point and that the world is moving past us. The riverbank that we saw a half hour ago is still there, but it is behind us now and out of sight. The riverbank that we have not seen is still there, but it’s just around the bend and will not be visible to us for another half hour.
This is how we experience time and, really, this is all we can speak to, this singular moment, this fixed point of our little boat floating on the river. We use the idea of time travel to examine the past and imagine the future, but our insights can only serve us in this singular moment in which we find ourselves.
There is so much more that I could say about time travel and science fiction literature, but, ironically enough, I am out of time for that.
So you do it. Leave a comment. Tell me your thoughts about time travel or just tell me your favourite time travel stories.
I’ll wait. I’ve got all the time in the world.