In James Gleick’s new book Time Travel: A History, the popular science author takes a look at this perennially fascinating subject and its representations in popular culture and science. Along the way, Gleick examines time itself and how our understanding of it has changed over the years.
As Gleick’s lively narrative makes clear, when it comes to time travel, science fiction and science fact have had a complicated, and often complementary, relationship: The indisputable fact of one era may becoming the fiction of another, and the wildest conceits of fiction sometimes become fact.
H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine arguably defined the time travel tale as a work of science fiction, with its unnamed protagonist using scientific know-how rather than mystical or divine forces to travel into the future.
Time travel tales don’t have to be stories of scientific achievement, though. In later works of fiction, the means by which a character finds their way to another era is sometimes secondary to what he or she finds upon arrival.
Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred is a great example of the potential of time travel fiction for examining historical wrongs to better understand our present. Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin: a modern African-American woman transported to a Maryland plantation in the 1800s. While experiencing the horrors of slavery first-hand, she meets her own ancestors: a slave owner and one of his slaves.
Time travel novels can also be a way of questioning the assumptions of society and the individual’s place in it. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) World War II soldier Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time,” uncontrollably bouncing back and forth through his own lifespan. In one moment, he’s a prisoner-of-war during the firebombing of Dresden, in another, he’s a family man in suburbia, and in another still, he’s dead.
Time travel tales are also just plain entertaining, a good example being Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, begun in 1991. During a visit to Inverness, Scotland, British Army Nurse Claire Randall is pulled into a portal to 18th-century Scotland. In this strange new land of violence and intrigue, the “outlander” makes a place for herself among the clans.
Time travel novels can also be cautionary tales: warnings that sometimes the past is better left in the past. Stephen King’s 2011 novel 11/22/63 looks at the assassination of President John F. Kennedy: an event that traumatized an entire generation and left many wondering what might have been. King’s schoolteacher protagonist visits the past with the intention of preventing the assassination, believing that Kennedy’s survival could lead to a brighter future. His actions lead to consequences that he never could have foreseen.
Gleick, quoting novelist Ian McEwan, writes, “The rules of time travel have been written not by scientists but by storytellers.”
In the absence of the real thing, novels function as time machines in their own right, allowing us to look at what was, and what may yet be, at a safe distance.