If you could go back in time, what era would you go to? Would you want to see the future in 200 years’ time? If you could kill Hitler as a baby, would you? Although time travel does not exist, it is a key feature of speculative fiction and dinner time conversations. The three questions listed are ones asked many times (my answers change!). But so have others, because despite how rational we can be, time travel fascinates us.
In this post, you will learn about how literature depicts time travel. Also, you’ll discover book recommendations as we try to figure the complex themes and ideas present in time travel fiction. Topics discussed include the relevance of history, changing the past, time travel romance, modernity and the joys of not fitting in.
Note: This post contains spoilers for Season Six of Game of Thrones and Ted Chiang’s Stories Of Your Life.
The Relevance Of History
Time travel fiction links the present with the past and future. A great example is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut stresses the relevance of history in his seminal novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Clearly a meditation on war, death, money, truth, and even aliens, Vonnegut mixes the strange with the normal. S5 is a bizarre and brilliant reading experience like no other. What Vonnegut does is draw on recent modern history, and highlights its relevance in postmodernity. But he goes further, and uses the past and future to comment on the present.
Today, Slaughterhouse-Five is considered one of the greatest arguments against warfare. Certain historical events are depicted: The Battle of the Bulge, The Dresden Bombings and Victory Day. However, we journey into the future and outer-space. Our protagonist, Billy, is abducted by aliens called Tralfamadore. Ruled by Tralfamadorians, they see all angles of time and space. With a fatalistic worldview, death is meaningless to them, as they comment: so it goes.
This poses an interesting question: If you knew everything about time, space, history and the future, what is the only suitable philosophy to adopt? In time travel fiction, characters are cursed with knowledge. They witness events they wouldn’t have in their own time. In Stories Of Your Life, a short tale by Ted Chiang (adapted into the great movie ‘Arrival’), the protagonist visualises her life ahead of her including tragedy. Will she accept her future?
The best time-travel fiction understands humanity’s struggle with the past and future. More often, that conflict reflects the individual’s turmoil with the present. Our present insecurities, fears and desires always existed in some form, and can never truly go away.
The chaotic structure of S5 is directly linked to the turbulence of the late 1960’s. Not only did you have the Cold War, but mass student protests and riots in 1968 lead to substantial change. Such disorder is referenced in Vonnegut’s fiction.
Changing The Past
If you could change the past, would you? Or, what if you had access to more time?
Hermione Granger encountered the latter opportunity in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Askaban. With a time-turner, she is able to attend extra classes. However, near the end of the book, she and Harry go back in time to save Sirius Black. This created a mysterious layer in Harry Potter lore, but also opened for potential plot holes. That’s why in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Pheonix, all the (known) time-turners are destroyed.
The ‘rules’ of changing the past in J.K Rowling’s world are strict: you can’t go too far back (it messes up your ageing) and you can’t be seen. Because of these rules, Harry Potter doesn’t explore the rich themes of time travel (free will, the structure of time, cause and effect, destiny).
Science vs Magic
Is ‘time travel’ fantasy or science fiction? You can find time travel in both fantasy and science fiction, but there are differences. Contrast The Time Machine by H.G Welles with season six of Game of Thrones. In the case of the former, the reader has greater insight into the ‘science’ of time travel. However, when Bran Stark wargs into a previous Hodor, the scene isn’t focused on science or even magic. The power derives from the emotional stakes present. The audience is not just terrified of Bran’s powers, but distraught over the impact they have on beloved characters.
In general, fantasy allows for character-centered stories more than science fiction (but not always). If you are writing time travel fiction, consider whether your work is sci-fi or fantasy based on what effect you want time travel to have.
Time travel stories are marred with adventure: shows such as Doctor Who have an established fan base partially because of the ‘adventure’ aspect. We enjoy seeing the Doctor and his companion travel into the past, present and future. A strength of Doctor Who is not only bringing the past and future to life, but injecting emotion into them. The audience is invested in the characters, regardless of what time period they are from.
Doctor Who has always been at its strongest when its not afraid to break the audience’s hearts. A great example of this is in the first season, where Rose Tyler saves her dad. However, she broke an unfortunate rule of time travel: the past is done, you can’t change it. The results are heartbreaking, but it’s terrific television.
The Power Of The Past
“There are so many interesting times we could have visited.”Kindred
The relationship we have with the past is often fraught and prone to misunderstanding. In our modern age, it’s easy to believe we are ‘better’ than the demons of yesterday. However, as Octavia Butler shows in Kindred, the past haunts us. Our heroine, Dana, travels to a Maryland plantation where her ancestors enslave her. With a striking depiction of slavery, Kindred is ultimately, a novel about historical trauma. It’s brutal and unflinching, a reminder of the past’s power in shaping the uncertain present.
As the wheels of time turn, we remember who are crushed beneath it.
Not Fitting In (The Joys Of Standing Out)
If you travelled to the past or future, how would you fit in? Everyone talks differently, wears odd clothes, the landscape has changed and the topic of discussion differs. More importantly, the standards and expectations of a society has changed. Meet Claire Beauchamp: the individualistic protagonist from Outlander. As she moves from the 1940s to 18th century Scotland, Claire tries to make sense of her situation.
“There were moments, of course. Those small spaces in time, too soon gone, when everything seems to stand still, and existence is balanced on a perfect point, like the moment of change between the dark and the light, and when both and neither surround you.”Outlander
With her intelligence, she survives brutal situations and solves problems no-one else can. She marries Jaime Fraser, a man of his time. Often, the different time periods clash, creating drama and even humour. This is a fascinating part of time travel fiction: How do characters from different time periods ‘fit in’? Diana Gabaldon, the author of the Outlander books, answers with cleverness and complexity. Claire thrives partially because of her experiences from the 20th century. It’s not ‘people were dumb in the past.’ Rather, people from different time periods can offer valuable perspectives and knowledge to any situation.
Gabaldon is smart enough to employ that in her writing.
How Great Is The Modern Day?
Time travel fiction encourages the reader to analyse the present day. Is the future better? Is history one of progress, where everything improves? Was the past so banal and brutal? As someone who is interested in politics, culture and evolution, I have uncertain opinions on ‘is there any age better than today?’ Most of my anxiety about the present stems from how vulnerable it is to harm. From the careful study of history, I realised how easy it is for good things to fall.
“W. H. Auden once suggested that to understand your own country you need to have lived in at least two others. One can say something similar for periods of time: to understand your own century you need to have come to terms with at least two others. The key to learning something about the past might be a ruin or an archive but the means whereby we may understand it is–and always will be–ourselves.”The Time-Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England
Ian Mortimer, the mastermind responsible for ‘Time Travellers Guide To Medieval England‘ brings us through centuries of history in The Outcasts of Time. Set during the Black Plague, an offer is made to two dying men. Die in your time, or spend each of your remaining days a century in the future. The novel is a voyage through good, evil and all the murky areas in between. It’s a celebration and a condemnation of history. But more than that, it’s a fascinating book, made from a unique and original idea. Mortimer captures the dangerous relationship humanity has with history and the future, warning us the dangers of ignorance and false assumptions.
Literature depicts time travel in fascinating ways, but the most effective works tie the past / future into the present day. They remind us of the interconnected nature of humanity, and how the people of the past and future are not too different from ourselves. For those of us who are stuck in time, we must make the most of whatever we get.
What are your favourite examples of time travel in fiction? Comment below!