I love the idea of time travel. In fact, I want to see the future so much, I’ve spent a big chunk of my life writing stories about how it might be and, of course, reading about how others see it. I love time travel novels and time travel films. I’ve written three time travel books myself and a fanfic film script for a Dr. Who movie (*blushes*). I also read pop science books and articles about the real physics of time travel – which can be pretty disheartening and yet are endlessly fascinating.
The Machineries of Joy
I don’t remember my first exposure to time travel fiction, but it may well have been when I watched the very first episode of Dr. Who, on 23 November 1963. And, of course, it involved a time machine, the TARDIS, probably the most famous time machine ever. Such machines have been popular in fiction since the late 19th Century. H. G. Wells coined the term in his novel, The Time Machine, in 1895, but none of these devices achieved the celebrity status of the TARDIS – the de Lorean from Back to the Future being the main contender.
But if you went back and shot your grandfather, then…
A lot of early time travel stories (and all the magical ones that date back hundreds or thousands of years where someone is transported by a magical being, goes to a magical realm where time moves differently, or falls into a charmed sleep and wakes up in the future) were either political statements about future worlds, or personal stories of change and the loss of all that was. However, for me, the real fun of time travel is in the mind-bending impossibility of the temporal paradox. This didn’t really get going as a theme in literature until the 1940s with books like Robert Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps. (The Planet of the Apes movies cover a wide gamut of time travel themes. The series starts off as a typical timeslip into a dystopian future but two sequels later, the apes have travelled back to 1973 to bootstrap their own uprising!) The most common way that paradox is avoided in such stories is that the people who try to change the past discover their actions were the ones that created the present anyway (e.g. Twelve Monkeys, Terminator, etc., etc.. All examples of the Novikov self-consistency principle, if you want to get technical.)
There are so many ways to travel through time and every one of them is represented in literature and film somewhere. Since time travel is most likely a physical impossibility (except by moving at near lightspeed or travelling through a wormhole) most time travel technologies you will see are little more than magic with a technical gloss. A rare exception is Gregory Benford’s novel, Timescape, where a scientist from the book’s present sends a message backwards in time using tachyons to warn people about an impending disaster. Sadly, tachyons probably don’t exist either – unless recent attempts to explain dark matter as a “tachyonic cosmological fluid” bear fruit. It’s a good story even though only information travels through time because even those few bits of information create enough of a causality paradox to rewrite the universe!
Timeslip and slapstick
For those who don’t care about the science, time travel is having a big resurgence in popularity in the romance and erotica genres where young heroines are daily slipping back to Regency England and other pre-metrosexual times to meet Mr. Darcy or Marquis de Sade lookalikes for a bit of fun among the four posters and riding crops. There’s even a more serious version of this love-across-the -centuries theme, brilliantly exemplified by Daphne do Maurier’s timeslip classic, The House on the Strand. But it isn’t all about love, some of the best time travel stories are comedies. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a time travel novel from Douglas Adams that I consider even better than his Hitchhiker’s Guide series (which itself involves time travel sub-plots), and that other Apple products fan, Stephen Fry, did a very witty time travel novel called Making History. And if you like your time travel entertainment to parody itself and the whole genre, grab a copy of the 1989 film, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and party on, dudes.