Literary Learnings

A Trip Through Time-Travel Literature

By Carol L. Wright

The new year gives us an opportunity to think about the passage of time. But what exactly is time?

Most of us do not even try to understand Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension. Still, anyone who has driven an unknown route to an unfamiliar destination and back again knows that the way to it feels longer than the trip back home, even though the distance traveled is the same. It’s axiomatic that doing a tedious task seems to take forever (unless you’re on a tight deadline), but “time flies when we’re having fun.”

How we perceive time, according to a 2017 study, might even depend on what language we speak. English speakers think of time as a distance (a short time), while Spanish speakers perceive it as a size (a small time). See https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170502112607.htm.

So, with all these elements affecting our perception of time, is it any wonder that the human imagination has long pondered the possibility of time travel? Is the attempt of ancient prophets to see into the future so very different from trying to visit it?  And isn’t the experience of reading an old or historical novel similar to visiting that time period, if only as an observer?

Time travel fiction has been with us for centuries. Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, written by Irish author Samuel Madden in 1733—during the reign of King George II of Great Britain—purports to reveal letters written by a Twentieth Century British King George VI. (In fact, the twentieth century did have a King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II’s father, but we’re pretty sure he didn’t write the letters.)

By the nineteenth century, such classics as Rip Van Winkle, A Christmas Carol, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court employed time travel of one sort or another, with a supernatural cause or while unconscious. After all, while asleep, we can travel wherever or whenever our subconscious takes us. Perhaps the first mechanical or science-based, time-travel story was “The Clock That Went Backward,” by Edward Page Mitchell, first published anonymously in the New York Sun, in 1881. In this short work, two boys discover an old clock with hands that run counterclockwise, turning back time as it goes.

Later, H.G. Wells’ so-called “scientific romances” included The Time Machine, published in 1895. Despite its title, Wells’ novella is more social commentary than science. In it, an inventor creates a time machine (with no specifics of theory or mechanics shared with the reader). He traveled hundreds of millennia into a future world inhabited by two human species: the Eloi, a soft, child-like race, and the Morlocks, a more brutish, ape-like human. The inventor decides that these two races are the inevitable result of the growing wealth and class disparity in late nineteenth century England. The privileged class, he reasoned, would become more helpless and dependent on the working class to keep the machinery of civilization operating. Wells might have been influenced by American author Edward Bellamy’s Marxist time-travel novel Looking Backward, published in 1888, which idealized a socialist system in America in the year 2000 over the abuses of the unfettered capitalism of Bellamy’s time. That novel is credited with helping to spark many of the reforms of the turn-of-the-century Progressive Era.

Today’s time-travel fiction spans both supernatural and science-based time travel. Some of the former include Jack Finney’s Time and Again and its sequel From Time to Time, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. In each of these, there is no scientific explanation as to why time travel occurs, but each lays out the process by which it happens.

The authors of these books do not attempt to explain the travel in scientific terms. It is up to the reader to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that if characters follow the rules laid out, they can slip into another time.

In Finney’s novels, time travel is more a mental exercise than a trick of physics. One must dress in the period to which they wish to travel and surround themselves only with things that could be present in their target time. Then, as if by magic, they emerge into that time period. The hero, New York ad executive Simon Morely, not only travels back and forth through time, he falls in love in the earlier time period with a woman long dead in his own time. Now what? Read it and see.

In Diana Gabaldon’s world, a time traveler passes through ancient standing stones in the Scottish Highlands and moves from post-World War II to early 1700s Scotland. And, once again, the traveler, army nurse Claire Randall, falls in love. It’s with Jaime Fraser from the earlier time, even though she is already married in the twentieth century. In her many sequels, Gabaldon introduces other travelers and other standing stones that also serve as portals. But travelers must pay for the trip with a gem—and their destination might not always be where they expect to go.

Stephen King uses a time portal of a different sort—a “rabbit hole” in the murky backroom of a diner. This wormhole theory of time travel is common, but King makes his more interesting because the traveler who steps through it always appears at the same place and time: Lisbon Falls, Maine, on September 9, 1958, at 11:58 a.m. Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, uses the “rabbit hole” to go back in time hoping to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November, 1963. Because he arrives years before the event, he ages several years before he can attempt to save the president. Whether he does or not is . . . well, you really ought to read it!

In Octavia Butler’s version, the main character, Dana Franklin, experiences vertigo as she is drawn back to an earlier time to save a distant ancestor whenever he finds himself in mortal peril—which he does with alarming frequency. She can only return to her own time when she feels herself to be in mortal peril. This can take weeks or months, but when she returns to her own era, only hours or days have passed. The story is complicated by Dana being a Black woman from the 1970s transported to antebellum Maryland. The ancestor who needs saving is a white boy growing up in a plantation-owning family that enslaves her during her visits to their time.

The authors of these books do not attempt to explain the travel in scientific terms. It is up to the reader to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that if characters follow the rules laid out, they can slip into another time.

Science-assisted time travel (as opposed to relying on the supernatural or a conveniently placed worm hole) appears in Connie Willis’ Oxford Time Travel series, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Michael Crichton’s Timeline, and Gregory Benford’s Timescape.

Connie Willis set her series in the mid-twenty-first century when historians use a “net” to visit many different time periods in the past. This series includes the novels Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout, and All Clear, and the short story “Fire Watch.” All are highly recommended, but Doomsday Book makes exceptional pandemic reading.

In Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, a man travels uncontrollably through time due to a rare genetic defect, visiting his wife in random order throughout her youth and adulthood. Michael Crichton wrote about historical researchers traveling back to medieval France to rescue their time-travelling professor using a machine based on a fiction-friendly version of quantum physics. Gregory Benford, meanwhile, wrote in 1980 about scientists in the late 1990s sending a message to the early 1960s to help avoid an environmental disaster. Benford relies on still-theoretical, faster-than-light tachyon particles to carry the message.

One thing all time travel stories have in common, whether using magic or a machine, is that each author gives us firm rules about the way time travel works in their fictional setting. What does a traveler need to do to make time travel work—if they can control it at all? How can they get back? Do they age at the same rate in the alternate time period, or do they return at the same age as when they left? Can a change in the past result in a change in the present?

Time-travel fiction is rife with paradoxes. Is there a butterfly effect that will destroy humanity because of a small change to the past? Can you kill your own grandfather before he meets your grandmother, thus making it impossible for you to be born and live to kill your grandfather? In Benford’s work, if scientists are successful in sending their message to the 1960s and their world is saved, would they still send the message in the 1990s? And if they didn’t, would their world be destroyed? Or, as Willis’ characters hypothesize, does the space-time continuum preserve itself and prevent tampering that could severely alter the future? Chat rooms are full of discussions of such incongruities.

H.G. Wells notwithstanding, the majority of time-travel fiction involves travel to the past. A surprising number of them include travel to a specific time period: November, 1963. Stephen King makes no secret about that in 11/22/63, but it is also addressed in Benford’s Timescape, Stanley Shapiro’s A Time to Remember, and many others. The Kennedy assassination was such a horrific, watershed event that undoing it is bound to have an impact on the time that follows, but is it always for the better? We will undoubtedly see similar time-travel fiction, trying to undo 9/11 or perhaps prevent the Covid-19 pandemic. Great crises call for great remedies.

But what about travel to the future? There are many older novels that have tried to predict the future with limited success. Historical settings are easier to research, better known to readers, and require less invention than creating an unknown future. Perhaps that is why peering into the future is a staple of dystopian novelists, while time-travel sci-fi more often sticks to the past.

I have listed only a few of myriad time-travel novels. Everyone has their favorites, and I shouldn’t conclude this without acknowledging the giants: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Philip K. Dick, Madeleine L’Engle, Robert Heinlein, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, and (for one of our BWG members) Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But don’t overlook the many other time-travel stories available from mid-list authors whose talents are only now being recognized. And remember, just because the Vulcan High Command declared time travel to be impossible in the twenty-second century, it didn’t prevent every Star Trek captain from romping through time in every one of the franchise’s series.

So, is time travel really possible? I guess only time will tell.

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