JANE: So, before we fall into minutia, it’s time for the Big Question. Is time travel as a trope still viable? One of the articles I read suggested that, in fact, it was played out. What do you think?
ALAN: Certainly the mainstream doesn’t think time travel is played out. They’ve adopted the idea wholeheartedly (after filing the serial numbers off it, of course).
Viable Time Travel
In Martin Amis’ 1991 novel Time’s Arrow, for example, people age backwards through time from death to birth. If you think that sounds like a similar plot to Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World (1965), you’d be quite right. I think that Dick did it much better than Martin Amis did – indeed, I seriously doubt that Martin Amis even knew about the Dick novel (though I’ll guarantee that the book was well known to his father Kingsley!)
JANE: That’s right, as well as being a literary lion, Kingsley Amis wrote one of the first definitive works of SF/F criticism, New Maps of Hell. I realize sons and fathers don’t always share each other’s tastes, but I wonder if Martin Amis could truly claim to be innocent of influence from earlier time travel works. Ah, well, unless he chooses to tell, we’ll never know.
“Wholeheartedly” implies more than one example, and I’m betting you have one up your sleeve.
ALAN: Indeed I do. The best example is Audrey Niffenegger’s magnificent novel The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003). The title tells you all you need to know about the plot. It was marketed as a mainstream “literary” novel with no hint whatsoever that the author was slumming in the SF genre. It was a huge best seller. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I thought she handled the “Time Paradox” aspects brilliantly.
JANE: To be the grump…
Mainstream authors can have huge successes with an SF trope precisely because it’s new to their audience. I haven’t read either of those novels, but I will admit that I’ve read other (not only time travel) ventures by “mainstream” authors into turf already well-tended by SF/F and been bored because what is new to them is far from new to me.
ALAN: That’s always a danger of course, and the Martin Amis novel is definitely rather disappointing for that very reason. But The Time Traveler’s Wife is, quite simply, superb no matter how you try and categorize it.
JANE: So, has anyone writing specifically in SF/F done anything fresh and interesting with the time travel theme recently?
ALAN: Well, in 1995, to celebrate the centenary of Wells’ novel, Stephen Baxter published The Time Ships, which is a brilliant sequel to Wells’ original story. But perhaps that doesn’t really count as an answer to your question.
JANE: Maybe not, but I’m curious as to what Baxter chose to focus on for his sequel. Can you give me a non-spoiler thumbnail sketch?
ALAN: In 1891, the time traveller attempts to return to the year 802,701 in order to save Weena, the Eloi who died in a fire during the battle with the Morlocks. Unfortunately, he fails to reach his destination because, it turns out, there are multiple mutable futures. Complex cross-time adventures ensue…
JANE: I always felt bad about what happened to Weena… Maybe I’ll need to find out if she gets saved this time.
ALAN: One problem with time travel stories is that there is a tendency to concentrate on well-known historical incidents and to examine them from the point of view of the time traveller, who acts purely as an observer or with the intention of trying to change the events so as to alter the course of history. This can lead to a certain sameness in the story lines. There’s a definite narrowness of focus enforced by the trope.
That’s probably the reason why the article that you read claimed that the idea was played out.
But in the hands of a skillful writer, even the hoariest old idea can take on a new life. Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 (2011) tells of a man who travels through time to try and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. The book has received rave reviews from one and all. Indeed, some people have claimed that it is the best thing that Stephen King has ever written!
JANE: I’ll admit, I gave this one a pass because whether or not JFK was assassinated didn’t interest me enough. If I want to read a story like that, I’ll re-read Day of the Jackal.
King’s novel may be among the best things he’s done, but he’s still using the trope in a familiar fashion. Is there anything new being done with the time travel trope?
ALAN: Yes, I think there is. In a series of novels and stories published between 1997 and 2013, Kage Baker tells the story of The Company which operates from the 24th century, and uses time travel to exploit the past for commercial gain by rescuing valuable artefacts just before the forces of history conspire to destroy them. As far as the continuity of the time stream is concerned, these things no longer exist and therefore no paradoxes can result by saving them. It’s a nice idea with lots of ramifications and Kage Baker explores them all. The stories are clever, witty, satirical and complex with a long story arc that gradually reveals that the eponymous Company is not quite what it seemed to be at first.
It’s a brilliant sequence and I find it hard to imagine how anyone could ever improve on it. So maybe Kage Baker has written the definitive time travel story and effectively killed the whole idea. But I doubt it…
JANE: You’ve mentioned the “Company” stories before and always with enthusiasm. I keep forgetting to read them. This time I vow I will!
Any other examples of creative uses of time travel?
ALAN: In 2007, Joe Haldeman came up with a nifty time travel idea in The Accidental Time Machine in which his hero invents a time machine while attempting to construct a calibrator to measure the relationships between gravity and light. The machine travels exponentially into the future, initially by seconds… Then by minutes… It isn’t long before the inexorable laws of arithmetic mean that every jump the traveller takes moves him forwards by centuries… And then by millennia.
The hero uses the device to leave his problems behind him, long forgotten in a dim and distant past; the statutes of limitation long expired. He also comes across and (superficially) investigates a lot of interesting and cleverly constructed future societies. The novel was nominated for a Nebula Award and a Locus Award, so it was certainly well received. But I suspect that, clever though it was, the future societies were not explored in sufficient depth to make the book a classic. Nevertheless it came very close!
JANE: So, here’s a novel where—unlike what you mentioned with space exploration – it might have benefited from being turned into a series. Interesting!
ALAN: Much as I hate series, I’m forced to admit that you could well be right.
You might think that the paradoxical implications of time travel have been so thoroughly explored by now that nothing new remains to be said about them. But in 2009, Jack McDevitt found a clever little wrinkle that nobody else had ever thought of and he wrote a novel in which he assured us that Time Travelers Never Die.
So I think that, on balance, time travel stories really are alive and well and flourishing.
JANE: I think you’re right… I also think that you just told me about a McDevitt novel I believe I somehow missed. I’m off to check my bookshelves.
I don’t think we’ve exhausted all the perennial SF tropes. Let’s choose another for next time!