When are you going to be?
by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Review by Mary Rose-Shaffer
SFRevu.com *Essay ISBN/ITEM#: ESAYTimeTravel
Date: 01 October 2008 /
Who hasn't wanted to travel in time? Going to the future to scope things out, going to the past to correct a wrong or to re-experience a fond memory – a very natural human impulse. You know why you want to be a time-traveler, but why do others? Authors from many ages have speculated and continue to muse upon the motivations for, methods of, and the possible repercussions of time travel. (Please note I do not address parallel universes here because these concepts are not time travel.)
The great-grandfather of nearly all time travel stories is, naturally, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. Wells' Time Traveler ventures not into the past but into the distant future, and then again into the extremely far future. He is motivated by curiosity and desire for exploration. The scientist is an observer of his surroundings, making both biological and sociological comments on his environs. While The Time Machine may be a bit dated for some modern readers, Wells' Time Traveler is an interesting version of a modern man. He is self-sufficient, politically and socially astute (insofar as his class status allows), intellectual, and fairly self-absorbed. The Time Traveler is not interested in the past; the future is all. And Wells' speculations on the possible futures of humanity are frighteningly possible upon reflection -– especially considering the increasing divisions between classes and nations/races and the bloodthirsty-ness of modern conflicts.
What about other time travelers and their stories; why do they travel? Some travel involves the past. Characters going back in time to relive a pleasant memory – perhaps "Our Town" is a fair example when Emily Webb is asked to choose her favorite day to re-experience during her time on the other side after her physical death. Maybe one wants to travel back in order to witness a momentous historic occasion or even a momentous moment in family history. Others want to travel into the past to change the outcome of some horrific event – the classic one being the elimination of Hitler before WW II. Or traveling to the past in order to make one's fortune for his/her present self, right a personal wrong or to save someone one has lost – very personal reasons. In addition, consider the time travelers who keep the timeline stable, saving the world from destruction –- the Time Police or whatever it is called in that particular story. Some reasons are selfish, some idealistic or altruistic; all reveal some aspect of human nature. And what helps distinguish a good story from a fair story is its ability to lay bare and explore some essential aspect of human nature in a meaningful, novel way.
What are the mechanisms by which folks travel in time? These, of course, vary often with the purposes of the author. Does the entire human being travel in time? Generally, these fully corporeal travelers use a machine of some sort although there exist stories where the character uses some kind of mental/psychic will to displace his/her entire body in time. In the Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour film Somewhere in Time Reeve's character uses self-hypnosis to travel back in time to fall in love with Seymour's character. In these full-body time travel stories, the traveler has the ability –- generally –- to influence the time to which (to when) s/he travels. Because the traveler's entire body is present in the time-space to which s/he has traveled, there is increased possibility of changing the timeline and altering the future in some significant way. Or the traveler cannot change the past and alter the future because what has happened must always happen: the timeline as unalterable, elemental in its permanence. The changeability of the timeline and the universe is the purview and prerogative of the author to suit his/her literary purposes.
In the novel The Time Traveler's Wife, the traveler uses no perceivable method at all; he spontaneously moves from one moment in his life to another without any apparent control over this movement. This kind of spontaneous travel parallels the movement in time of Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five; the major difference being Pilgrim's consciousness travels within his own body to different times in his life.
Which segues into the stories where the entire person does not travel in time but some intellectually aware portion of them does. In these stories the time traveler is merely an observer, unable to change anything about the moment s/he is witnessing. The novella "In Spirit" by Pat Forde (Analog, Sept 2002) has the main character, by a complicated mechanical invention, traveling to the past as a shadow-self. It is his person traveling but not his entire being; he can think, walk around, watch, and hear but cannot be seen or heard by others. Since he has no physical body, there is no way for him to alter the past in any way. These witness only stories are interesting in many ways because it is human nature to fix things – to right wrongs, to make things better for the future. It is prime creative fodder to have people watch events that cannot be controlled or influenced.
What about the physics of time travel? I don't know; I'm an English teacher for several good reasons, one being that I can't do that kind of math. Wells calls time the 4th dimension, "as accessible to humans" as the other dimensions, given the right method (the right machine). Many scientists, over many years have speculated about time and its relationship to the rest of the world. The current position on time travel is that it is not possible given the current state of the natural laws of the Universe, as we simple humans know them.
What are the possible repercussions of traveling in time? The classic Grandfather Paradox is a favorite. As a general rule, it goes: My father is a horrible criminal; I go back in time and kill my grandfather so my father won't be born and commit these crimes - so far, so good. But, if I go back in time to kill my grandfather, then I won't exist to go back in time to kill my grandfather and prevent my father from committing his horrible crimes. Enough to give you a headache, right? The logic of the Grandfather Paradox is stretched to the opposite and very twisted as depicted in Heinlein's "All you Zombies . . . " whereby the main character is his own father and his own mother. Alternately, one can travel, try to change something for the better, and have things go horribly wrong. I often wonder if there can be a time travel story with a classical "happy" ending. More often than not, either the traveler (or his/her love interest or friends) arrive at the end of the story frustrated, disappointed, or just plain angry, misunderstood by his/her fellows –- whichever time is the final destination.
Time travel is intriguing for so many reasons, not the least of which is the impossibility of actually being able to go somewhen by whatever means. By taking the reader into different periods in history or into the future, writers touch upon some intrinsic human longing –- for change, for knowledge, for adventure, for self-awareness.