ALAN: This time we will have been decided to have spoken about time travel stories.
JANE: That’s the trouble with time travel. We don’t have the proper tenses for it in our language.
ALAN: Maybe that’s a hint that time travellers haven’t visited us yet.
The appeal of time travel actually pre-dates the SF time travel story. For example, Charles Dickens flirts with it in his 1843 story, A Christmas Carol.
JANE: Another good example of the pre-SF time travel story is Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (1844) which tells the story of a man who may or may not have travelled through time. Poe (unlike Dickens) cops out and leaves it unclear whether this was a hallucination or a genuine time travel experience.
I’m sure there are many other examples, but what these two makes clear is that the idea of time travel has a fascination that pre-dates it becoming one of science fiction’s most perennial themes.
ALAN: I think time travel, in the traditional SF sense, probably originated with H. G. Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine. Here travel into the future is managed by an actual machine, not a ghost, not a vision. The machine is as real and solid as a rocket ship or submarine, and so the reality of the experience is not left open to doubt.
JANE: Certainly Wells gets the credit for inventing time travel via machine, although many have imitated him since. It’s been a long time since I read The Time Machine but its vision of the future of gradual degeneration remains haunting.
Time travel is an interesting theme because stories can take so many different forms.
I’d say the great divide is between those stories in which the possibility of time travel is being explored and the greater majority in which time travel is an established fact and the implications are being explored.
One of my favorite time travel stories, Time and Again by Jack Finney, provides a fascinating “device” for travel through time.
ALAN: Oh I love that book to bits. The hero travels back to 1882 where, among other exciting adventures, he falls in love. Finney captures the milieu so wonderfully that I actually found myself filled with a nostalgic longing to go there myself and I was mildly annoyed that I couldn’t…
Finney’s mechanism for taking his hero, Simon Morely, back to 1882 is actually rather similar to that involved in the stories by Poe and Dickens that we mentioned earlier. The hero is taken to a huge warehouse where people are acting out the daily lives of different eras. It is a project to test the feasibility of travelling to the past by self-hypnosis. Convincing yourself that you are in the past, rather than in the present, can actually make it so.
Simon rents a room in the Dakota apartment building and immerses himself in all aspects of 1882. And then he walks out of the door into the New York of a century ago…
Finney wrote a sequel called From Time to Time and it too is just as magical as the original novel. They truly are wonderful books.
JANE: I love both of Finney’s “Time” novels. I will argue that the mechanism is more solid that than of Dickens or Poe. Morely is awake, not dreaming, and there is no doubt that his experience is real. The explanation the scientist involved gives as to why self-hypnosis would work is just as tantalizing and provocative as any machine.
ALAN: Time travel mechanisms themselves vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. Michael Moorcock had a lot of fun with the idea in his Dancers at the End of Time sequence. His hero Jherek Carnelian travels between Victorian London and the End of Time by using a variety of devices including a bicycle, a hangman’s noose and a robot nursery school teacher.
But of course, as everybody knows, the very best time travel device ever invented is a mid-twentieth century British police call box.
JANE: So I have heard, although I admit, I have never seen Dr. Who. I’ve heard excellent things about it, but just haven’t found the… wait for it… Time.
ALAN: I just used the newly developed Time Travel add-on (TM) for my web browser to go and read this tangent next week after it has been published. And there I discovered that what I will say in response to that remark is:
Clearly if I now say anything other than that, it will create a paradox that will destroy the universe. So I won’t.
JANE: Wise man. It’s best to play it safe. You wouldn’t want to have the destruction of the universe on your conscience.
Once the idea that time travel might become possible (no matter how the mechanisms differ) was firmly established, SF became full of what I like to call “tourist in time” stories. These go in all sorts of directions, but they often involve the implications of time travel, especially the question of what might change because people are travelling in time.
I’m blanking… What’s the story in which someone steps on a butterfly and goes back to find everything has changed?
ALAN: It’s by Ray Bradbury. It’s called “A Sound of Thunder” and it’s an absolute classic. The killing of a single insect millions of years in the past drastically changes the world. It’s a very effective dramatisation of a mathematical concept known as the butterfly effect which was first formally defined by the mathematician Edward Lorenz. It describes an idea in chaos theory where very small changes in initial conditions can result in vastly different outcomes.
JANE: That’s it! So Lorenz is the one who talked about a butterfly flapping its wings and thereby generating a far-away hurricane or some such?
ALAN: Yes, that’s him.
JANE: Excellent! But although Bradbury (and Lorenz) supplied the genre with a shorthand expression by which we still discuss the implications of time travel and the possibility of time paradoxes, there are many subgroups of “tourist stories.”
ALAN: I agree. Let’s see how many I can come up with.
There are stories where the protagonist is accidentally transported through time (usually into the past); stories where the protagonist belongs to some kind of quasi-governmental organisation that is responsible for ensuring that history always follows the “proper” course so as to avoid paradoxes; stories where other times are plundered for resources or used for tourism. There are also stories where war and conflict take place across time rather than in space.
JANE: And it’s important to note – since we’re talking about time travel as a theme – that the police stories, war stories, and exploitation stories often overlap. After all, exploitation of the past can be a reason for police to take action, war can follow from failed police action.
Basically, we don’t have a bunch of different themes here, we have ingredients for interesting recipes.
Next time maybe you can tell me about your favorite accidental time travel story?