So far this year, we’ve looked forward in time to consider the books that will be coming out this month, then travelled back in time to the very beginnings of science fiction. Since we’re still recovering from this literary jetlag, it seems only appropriate to look at the history of this literary device. We’ve picked five representative novels (and one collection) as the focus for this history, but we’re certainly not going to confine our attention to just these works.
From the moment when writers started paying attention to the fact that the future will be as different from the present as the present is different from the past, it was inevitable that they would conjure some way of taking their protagonists through time. At first these tended to be quasi-magical devices. In Washington Irving’s story, Rip Van Winkle sleeps into the future (a more sophisticated version of which would recur, for example, in The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells), while in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the hero is knocked out in the present and comes to in the past.
The first mechanical means of travelling through time was possibly The Time Ship by Enrique Gaspar, a little-known novel that tried to replicate the extraordinary voyages of Jules Verne, taking the travellers to colourful and romantic moments in the past. More significant was H.G. Wells’s first novel, The Time Machine, which was an immediate and massive success and helped to create the idea of controlled travel through time that became a key element in subsequent science fiction.
One of the indications of how important The Time Machine was in the history of science fiction is the number of times it has been the basis for sequels by other hands, novels that take Wells’s time machine but then add a twist of their own. Examples include The Space Machine by Christopher Priest in which The Time Machine is merged with The War of the Worlds; The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter in which the travellers move so far forward in time that they pass through the end of the universe; and A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright which travels into an ecologically changed future.
In retrospect, one of the curiosities about Wells’s novel is that he uses the machine to travel into the future. The many writers who picked up on the idea of a time machine and started turning out their own time travel adventures almost invariably chose to send their heroes into the past. There are plenty of reasons for this: a little historical research would provide a colourful arena for a romantic adventure, paradoxes could be worked into the mix, and the prospect of changing history provided a ready cause of dramatic tension.
Early examples of such ventures into the past included Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, in which a time traveller to ancient Rome attempted to prevent the Dark Ages (a story by William Golding, “Envoy Extraordinary”, in his collection The Scorpion God, also features a time traveller bringing advanced technology to ancient Rome); The Technicolor Time Machine by Harry Harrison had a film crew travelling to the past to film an authentic Viking epic; and Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg, in which the prehistoric past became a prison for political exiles.
Perhaps the most effective of these quasi-romantic views of the past was Time And Again by Jack Finney, in which a discontented time traveller from the 1970s present is sent back to New York in the early 1880s on a mission to change the past. Finney incorporates contemporary photographs of New York in order to create a vivid, lived-in sense of what it was like to be in the city at that period in history.
3: Replay by Ken Grimwood
The possibility of going into the past to change history, of course, opened up all sorts of time paradoxes. The classic formulation is the Grandfather Paradox: what if you went into the past and killed your own grandfather so that you were never born? Straight formulations of the paradox haven’t really generated much in the way of interesting science fiction, but the idea has given rise to a whole subset of time travel stories about the Time Police who are charged with stopping people changing history. Examples of the type include Times Without Number by John Brunner, Up The Line by Robert Silverberg, and, more recently, The Tourist by Robert Dickinson.
Usually, such efforts to control time fail, which ends up with a proliferation of times and realities, as in Transition by Iain Banks or Lost Futures by Lisa Tuttle. The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold seems to include just about every possible time paradox.
The problem with time generating such paradoxes, of course, is that it becomes a trap. This usually takes the form of a loop in which things are repeated, sometimes on a broad scale as in A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones, but usually on a more personal level. In Replay, by Ken Grimwood, a man dies and wakes again as an 18-year-old, but with all of his memories intact, he then replays his life from 18 to his death over and over again, each time with small but significant variations. The later film, Groundhog Day, has much the same premise, but it is a single day that is replayed. In Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, a woman exists through countless variations of her own life, while in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North the hero finds himself part of a whole society that live their lives over and over again.
4: Kindred by Octavia Butler
In time, perhaps because of the possibilities for change and for entrapment offered by the idea of time paradoxes, the straightforward adventurous journey into the past became darker. The past was no longer a colourful setting but rather a place of danger. In truth, a person from the present is unlikely to survive long if suddenly transported to anything other than the recent past, but it seemed to take a long time for science fiction writers to recognise that life in the past is likely to be nasty, brutish and short.
Eventually, however, authors began to use the past not as a way of finding adventure, but as a way of confronting terrors. The most powerful example of this is probably Kindred by Octavia Butler, in which a modern black woman finds herself transported back into a slaveholding America.
Other variations on the idea of an unwelcoming past include Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, in which a near-future researcher finds herself trapped in the Middle Ages just as the Black Death strikes. While The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke sees the past as a possible source of aid for a damaged future, only for time to reassert itself.
Another form that time travel sometimes takes is less direct contact but rather a psychological link across time. In such stories, there is always the possibility that the apparent time travel is no more than a manifestation of some psychosis. But in its broadest terms, that is probably true of all time travel stories. The best example of this form is A Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, in which a contemporary woman confined in a mental hospital finds herself in contact with an emissary from a future feminist utopia.
Other ways in which time travel does not include physical contact is by way of a time viewer, a device by which an observer can watch but not interact with a different time. The finest examples of this are probably the slow glass stories of Bob Shaw collected in Other Days, Other Eyes, though an intriguing later development of the idea was Light of Other Days by Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke.
The thing about time travel is that it often works best in short fiction. Which explains why there are quite a lot of time travel anthologies out there. The best of them, because the most comprehensive, is probably The Time Traveler’s Almanac edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, if only for a selection of such classic stories as “Another Story” by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson, “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury, “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, and “Enoch Soames” by Max Beerbohm. But even so you will need to keep your eyes out elsewhere for such important time travel stories as “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein, “Chronopolis” by J.G. Ballard, “The Very Slow Time Machine” by Ian Watson, and “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” by Philip K. Dick.
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