Many of my favourite stories feature time travel. I think they fascinate not just me but many people because our relationship with time itself is mysterious and deeply personal.
There are other forces in the physical world for which we have gleaned enough understanding to manipulate and tinker to better suit our needs. We’ve learned about the intricacies of the atom, in particular the movement of electrons. You’re probably using electromagnetism to read these words off a screen. We use chemical knowledge in everything from transportation to better food production. We use physics to understand how materials behaviour at small scales can be used to store and transmit information in computers. The need for physical representations of various objects and records in our lives has shifted rapidly into the ether of the digital world. In other areas, we’ve only just begun cracking some of the secrets inside nature’s bounty, delving more deeply into what’s inside of us as well as the life so blessedly surrounding us.
Yet through all these discoveries, little has been gleaned on the subject of the ticking clock that shortens our telomeres, wrinkles our skin and necessitates saying goodbye to so many things and people we love.
Time was a hook in his mouth. Time was reeling him in jawfirst; it was reeling him in, headlong and breathless, to a shore he had not known was there.-Annie Dillard
Yes, Einstein learned about time dilation, and relativity gives us a glimpse into how time’s steady march might be nudged the tiniest fraction. There are some physicists such as Julian Barbour who suggest that the next great revolution in physics will come when we construct a model of the universe that is independent of time, and that this is in fact the key to linking two giant but disparate theories of the world: quantum mechanics and general relativity. There are some fascinating ideas on this front, but as far as I’m aware we have yet to realize that physics revolution.
It’s no wonder that humans have long dreamed of ways we might be able to manipulate time. Unlike some of the physical phenomena mentioned above, which are somewhat difficult to observe under regular circumstances, time is something everybody’s been able to see for eons. We can see it in the swinging pendulum, the rising and setting of the sun, and the growth and decay of plant life. Perhaps it’s because time is so deeply embedded in absolutely everything that its full understanding has eluded humanity for so long.
There are different philosophies and spiritual practices that seek to alleviate our tense relationship with time. Many religions are based around the promise of a distant future after we are gone from this world. Mindfulness emphasizes the importance of focusing on the now and that the past and future are illusory. Time management is a life skill many adults struggle to tame, and there seem to be as many related strategies as there are humans.
Terror management theory discusses how many of our actions are driven by the fear of death, and many psychologists can explain a wide swath of human behaviour with this principle alone. The fear of death is deeply intertwined with our insecurities with time. Perhaps if we fully grasped death, we would understand time, and vice versa, but in the meantime, we have these various approaches and strategies that help us try to accept it, but do not necessarily bring us closer to understand it.
The notions of time and death are also related to questions of self and what exactly we mean to this universe. Thoughts of time in this sense become deeply personal questions for which there are no set answers (besides 42).
Time travel stories, for me, explore all these unanswered questions. Traversing this space means imagining new situations that transform our relationship with time. Maybe on some level I’m hoping the stories will bring me closer to an epiphany about the clockwork of the universe.
There are several categories of time travel stories which I think illuminate key fascinations we share with time.
The simplest kind of time travel story, in my view, is one that treats time travel with the idealistic view of endless possibilities. H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine” falls into this category, using the endless possibilities as a means to delve into another society and examine it without the bias we might otherwise have for existing Earthly ones. This is where time travel is treated as a means to an end, and the focus is not necessarily on the contrasts and understandings about time that we glean as a result of the journey.
Quite often when people complain about bad time travel stories, it’s when it’s used as a way to get out of narrative plot holes, and is used unfairly or inconsistently to resolve tension in an unsatisfying way. I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that these stories are bad, but I do believe there are a great many good time travel stories out there.
Time travel stories that deal with identity are inherently more interesting to me. I’ve already mentioned how time is deeply intertwined with questions of identity as a result of its inevitable tie with death. Robert Heinlein, who I acknowledge was misogynistic but nevertheless left a big impression on me as a young reader, has a story called “All You Zombies” that presents an answer to the question of “Where do you come from?” that at first seems silly, but eventually shakes the foundation of what we really know about our roots. The recent movie “Looper” dealt with questions of the self as well, but wove in a grander narrative about preventing a future disaster.
“Looper” shared two common characteristics of time travel stories: averting future disasters, and dealing with regret. The aversion of future disasters is probably the most ubiquitous form of the time travel story, with box-office hits like “Terminator” remaining fixtures in our cultural consciousness, infinite time loops from which we cannot seem to escape. “Time Cop” with Jean Claude Van Damme, “12 Monkeys” with Bruce Willis, “Back to the Future” with Michael J. Fox… even the Avengers movies incorporate time travel to prevent disaster. With this sub-class of time travel, there is something deeply satisfying about knowing the outcome beforehand, or at least the one our herores are trying to avoid. That allows us to cheer for them with certainty, knowing without a doubt they’re doing the right thing. It provides a moral clarity that is so often lacking in our lives. With so many forces acting on us from behind the curtain, it can be hard to know where and when to fight. Disaster-aversion time travel stories let us know that the fight is justified, and that we’re on the right side of it.
Interwoven with the aversion of future disasters is a topic that is a bit more nuanced: the notion of regret. This flavour of time travel stories probably fascinates me the most, because it deals with what might have been, and what could be, and all the deeply personal wishes and expectations we have of the world. This is such a universally human notion that it transcends the bounds of sci-fi stories, and holds examples well outside what would normally be considered within the genre. “Groundhog Day” is probably the most famous example, where the main character initially experiences little regret but comes to it gradually until he has to do the best he can for the world he’s stuck in. There’s romance in the notion that we can undo some of our past mistakes, and do the right thing that better expresses our beliefs after we’ve had the benefit of hindsight.
On the other side of this spectrum are time travel stories that take the approach that there is one timeline that is fixed, predetermined. To try and tinker with it is to incur the wrath of the gods. “The Butterfly Effect” takes this approach, although focusing on the idea of unforeseen consequences, and the fundamental assertion that we cannot know enough to properly make the “right decision” on a given timeline. Therefore we’d best not mess with it. Even in this bleak perspective, there lies hidden a comforting notion that absolves us of responsibility. If the timeline is ultimately fixed, then we needn’t feel guilty about our decisions. We are free to enjoy what we can, knowing that there’s no significant way our actions will alter history’s course. These stories free of us of the paralysis of choice that can loom over every waking moment of our lives.
Connie Willis’s “Doomsday Book” uses time travel as a means to learn about history, with historians making every effort to observe the timeline while preserving it. This takes the perspective of the timeline being mutable, but that we want to hold onto in its existing format for as long as we can, acknowledging our humble place and inability to see all the effects future changes might have. This type of story asserts that, even in a world where we’ve cracked the code of time travel, we still do not know enough to start tinkering with it. We are gazing at the surface of the moon but we know we shouldn’t yet guess what type of cheese it’s made of.
Time travel is woven into our cultural discourse, as we make statements about living in “the darkest timeline”. Have we incurred a significant “regret debt” in our time on planet Earth, and if so, does that increase our fascination with time travel? Does a fascination with time travel imply a deep need to root ourselves in the present, to prevent future regrets?
Reading about time travel lets us journey from possibilities back into our present selves, and learn from what we hope is foreknowledge. The process becomes quite a Moebius strip, and one in which I don’t mind being looped around.
What type of time travel stories do you enjoy most? Which ones are your favourite? I’d love to hear your suggestions and learn about any more flavours of time travel I’ve maybe missed, or missed in this timeline.
Featured image from Max Pixel.