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Time Travel

Entry updated 12 February 2024. Tagged: Theme.

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It is a great literary convenience to be able to move a narrative viewpoint backwards or forwards in Time, and writers have always been prepared to use whatever narrative devices come to hand for this purpose. Until the end of the nineteenth century, dreams were the favoured method – perhaps most significantly deployed in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843) and Edgar Allan Poe's "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" (April 1844 Godey's Lady's Book). One of the earliest time-travel fictions, the play Anno 7603 ["The Year 7603"] (1785) by Johan Hermann Wessel (1742-1785) (see Denmark; Norway) invokes fairy Magic to effect the transition to 7603 CE. Entirely arbitrary Timeslips were also used, while characters could be brought from the past into our own time via various Suspended-Animation devices, including Cryonic preservation, extended sleep and Drugs, as in Grant Allen's "Pausodyne" (December 1881 Belgravia Christmas Annual).

H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895) may have been a crucial breakthrough in narrative technology, providing sf with one of its most significant facilitating devices, ultimately used in this instance to survey the kind of Far Future and End of the World prophesied (erroneously) by contemporary scientific knowledge. But the idea of employing a hypothetical Time Machine as a literary device, using a jargon of apology to add plausibility, was not entirely new – having been preceded by Enrique Gaspar's "El anachronópete" (in Novelas, coll 1887; trans as The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey 2012) – but this particular deployment of it was so striking as to constitute a historical break and a great inspiration. Oddly enough, Wells never again used such a device, leaving its further exploitation to others. The earliest writers to take up the challenge included Alfred Jarry in his classic essay in 'pataphysics, "Commentair pour servir à la construction pratique de la machine à explorer le temps" (February 1899 Mercure de France; trans Roger Shattuck in Selected Works of Alfred Jarry coll 1965 as "How to Construct a Time Machine"); the anonymous "A Disciple" (of Wells), who borrowed the machine in order to explore The Coming Era, or Leeds Beatified (1900); and H S Mackaye, whose eponymous time machine in The Panchronicon (1904) is unashamedly ludicrous. Most UK writers of Scientific Romance, however, continued to prefer visionary fantasy as a method of time-exploration – E V Odle's The Clockwork Man (1923) is one honourable exception – and it was left to the US pulp writers to show what really might be done with time machines if one had the imaginative daring to employ them. Even the pulp writers remained relatively modest in their time-jaunting until the 1920s, although William Wallace Cook's A Round Trip to the Year 2000 (July-November 1903 Argosy; 1925) deals sarcastically with the accumulation of time-travellers to be expected in the magical millennial year.

Mainstream Writers who found literary dreams becoming increasingly unfashionable had more and more recourse to arbitrary Timeslips, and there is a curious subgenre of "timeslip romances" whose affective power is very often concentrated into love stories, although the real emotional substrate is nostalgia. "Arria Marcella" (1852) by Théophile Gautier, although its timeslip is "rationalized" as a visionary fantasy, provides an archetypal example of the peculiarly heated eroticism with which such stories are sometimes endowed. Henry James (1843-1916) spent the last few years of his life working on The Sense of the Past (1917), but left it incomplete; it inspired the play Berkeley Square (1929) by John L Balderston and J C Squire which was memorably filmed in 1933. Other notable timeslip romances include Still She Wished for Company (1924) by Margaret Irwin (1889-1967), The Man in Steel (1939) by J Storer Clouston, Portrait of Jennie (1940) by Robert Nathan, Time Marches Sideways (1950) by Ralph L Finn, Time and Again (1970) by Jack Finney, Bid Time Return (1975) by Richard Matheson, The Dream Years (1986) by Lisa Goldstein and Serenissima (1987) by Erica Jong. "Psychological timeslips", by means of which protagonists are permitted to relive their lives with the aid of a mature and knowledgeable consciousness, are featured in The Devil in Crystal (1944) by Louis Marlow, Strange Life of Ivan Osokin (1947) by P D Ouspensky (1878-1947), Replay (1987) by Ken Grimwood and Changing the Past (1989) by Thomas Berger. Significant timeslip "anti-romances" include A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889) by Mark Twain and Friar's Lantern (1906) by G G Coulton (1858-1947), the latter being written to dispel the nostalgic illusions about the Medieval Church harboured by G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Within pulp sf, writers were quick to grasp the nettle, using time machines to explore both past and future, often venturing speculations about the nature of time. Even a mediocre pulp writer like Ray Cummings could get entranced by such mysteries, although such romances as The Man Who Mastered Time (12 June 1924 Argosy; 1929) – which obligingly defines time as "what keeps everything from happening at once" – and The Shadow Girl (22 June-13 July 1929 Argosy; 1947) cannot take such philosophizing very far. Ralph Milne Farley, whose time stories – begun with "The Time-Traveler" (August 1931 Weird Tales) – were collected in The Omnibus of Time (1950), did a little better, and John Taine (a professional mathematician) set new standards of sophistication in The Time Stream (December 1931-March 1932 Wonder Stories; 1946). Theories about the nature of time, especially those put forward by J W Dunne, also influenced non-genre writers – the most conspicuous example being J B Priestley, in his various Time plays – but the mainstream fictions inspired by that interest were understandably more modest.

Certain periods of the past have always attracted time-travellers because of their melodramatic potential. The Age of the Dinosaurs was inevitably the biggest draw – even to people who could only stand and stare, like the users of the Time Viewer in Taine's Before the Dawn (1934); it was later to become a favourite era for hunters, as in Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (28 June 1952 Collier's) and L Sprague de Camp's "A Gun for Dinosaur" (March 1956 Galaxy). Meeting famous people has also been a favourite theme, and Manly Wade Wellman was the first writer to allow a timeslipping hero to become somebody famous, in Twice in Time (May 1940 Startling; 1957). Some of the more scrupulous pulp writers thought that time travel into the past really belonged to the realms of fantasy because of the Time Paradoxes thus generated, and the first classic Timeslip romance from a genre writer, de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall (December 1939 Unknown; exp 1941; rev 1949), was initially published in Unknown Worlds for this reason. Others had fewer scruples, and many writers gleefully set about exploiting the peculiar aesthetics of time paradoxes. In fact, despite the dubious propriety of its literary device, de Camp's novel – like Wells's The Time Machine – warrants serious consideration as sf because of the conscientious way in which it employs its displaced viewpoint, the protagonist here being used to explore the crucial but subtle role played in History by Technology.

Inevitably, the main focus of pulp sf interest was in the melodramatic potential of time travel, as first displayed by Cummings and then taken to exotic extremes by such writers as John Russell Fearn, in Liners of Time (May-August 1935 Amazing; 1947), and Jack Williamson, in his pioneering story of Changewar between Alternate Histories, The Legion of Time (May-July 1938 Astounding; rev 1952). Timeslipping was similarly taken to extremes in Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time" (June 1934 Astounding), in which whole regions of the Earth's surface slip into anachronistic conjunction – an idea later redeployed by Fred Hoyle in October the First Is Too Late (1966). Individuals and objects timeslipped from the future cause havoc in the present in a number of famous sf stories, including "The Twonky" (September 1942 Astounding) and "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" (February 1943 Astounding) by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C L Moore), "Child's Play" (March 1947 Astounding) by William Tenn and "The Little Black Bag" (July 1950 Astounding) by C M Kornbluth. These stories appeared during the period when the elementary plot-possibilities of Time Paradoxes were also being comprehensively explored. The cavalier use made of time travel by the early genre writers did beg certain important questions; the language problem which would be faced by time-travellers was overlooked until De Camp pointed it out in "The Isolinguals" (September 1937 Astounding) and his essay "Language for Time-Travelers" (July 1938 Astounding), and was frequently ignored thereafter, although this too became a plot-gimmick in the 1940s, in such stories as "Barrier" (September 1942 Astounding as "The Barrier") by Anthony Boucher. Other sharp idea-twisting stories of the period include C L Moore's "Vintage Season" (September 1946 Astounding) as by Lawrence O'Donnell, in which future time-tourists are drawn to our Near Future for reasons which ultimately become clear, and T L Sherred's "E for Effort" (May 1947 Astounding), which sets out with compelling logic the reasons why the invention of a Time Viewer would bring about the End of the World.

The capacity of time travel to generate fresh plot-twists capable of sustaining stories on their own inevitably declined in the 1950s, by when all kinds of time travel had been routinized into part of the standard vocabulary of sf ideas; this was the heyday of the Time Police story, in which vast manifolds of Alternate Histories were routinely patrolled by cunning secret agents or historical conservationists. The 1960s, however, brought a new sophistication to treatments of now-classic themes and a new thoughtfulness to metaphysically inclined stories, particularly but by no means exclusively in connection with the UK New Wave. J G Ballard's fascination with time is reflected in many of his early stories, including "The Voices of Time" (October 1960 New Worlds), "Chronopolis" (June 1960 New Worlds), "The Garden of Time" (February 1962 F&SF) and The Crystal World (1966). The timeslip story was remarkably refined by Brian W Aldiss in "Man in his Time" (April 1965 Science Fantasy), which features a very slight but distressing slippage, and Aldiss also wrote the best of several Time in Reverse stories, An Age (1967; vt Cryptozoic! US and later UK editions); others are Philip K Dick's Counter-Clock World (1967) and Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (1991). A psychological timeslip story underpinned by split-brain research, then very fashionable, is Colin Wilson's "Timeslip" (in Aries 1, anth 1979, ed John Grant). The linguistic problems of time-travellers were thrown into sharper focus by David I Masson's "A Two-Timer" (February 1966 New Worlds). The Age of the Dinosaurs gave way to the Crucifixion as a key focus of interest, as in Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man (September 1966 New Worlds; exp 1969) and Brian Earnshaw's Planet in the Eye of Time (1968). Theodore L Thomas's "The Doctor" (in Orbit 2, anth 1967, ed Damon Knight) cynically re-examines the potential available to the time-traveller to operate as an apostle of progress. This kind of narrative sophistication of idea-twists extended into the 1970s in such stories as Robert Silverberg's "What We Learned from this Morning's Newspaper" (in Infinity 4, anth 1972, ed Robert Hoskins), James Tiptree Jr's "The Man Who Walked Home" (May 1972 Amazing), Garry Kilworth's "Let's Go to Golgotha!" (15 December 1974 Sunday Times Weekly Review) and Ian Watson's "The Very Slow Time Machine" (in Anticipations, anth 1978, ed Christopher Priest).

The metaphysics of time continues to intrigue writers inside and outside the genre; notable late-twentieth-century works deploying ideas of this kind include Le Temps Uncertain (1973; trans as Chronolysis 1980) by Michel Jeury and When Time Winds Blow (1982) by Robert P Holdstock. The oppressions of determinism are bewailed in Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Slaughterhouse-Five (1979). Action-adventure stories involving time travel have, inevitably, continued to reach new extremes of narrative extravagance, but at the same time have shown an increasing willingness to become involved with the intimate details of real history, and hence with its presumed dynamics. Such works as David J Lake's The Man Who Loved Morlocks (1981), Connie Willis's "Fire Watch" (February 1982 Asimov's) and Doomsday Book (1992), Michael Bishop's No Enemy But Time (1982; rev 2022), David Dvorkin's Time for Sherlock Holmes (1983), Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983), Howard Waldrop's Them Bones (1984), Jack L Chalker's Downtiming the Nightside (1985) and Vernor Vinge's Marooned in Realtime (1986) combine playfulness and seriousness in an artful fashion which is squarely in the tradition of The Time Machine. Even such frank melodramas as Doctor Who (1963-current) and Julian May's series begun with The Many-Colored Land (1981), and such knockabout comedies as Ron Goulart's The Panchronicon Plot (1977) and Simon Hawke's Timewars series, begun with The Ivanhoe Gambit (1984), have implications which are not simply left to languish as throwaway ideas. Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships (1995), a Sequel by Another Hand to Wells's original The Time Machine, expands its scenario with later sophistications such as multiple mutable futures and the titular ships' climactic excursion to the beginning of time in order to establish an Alternate Cosmos.

Cinema treatments of time travel are very numerous; relevant films with their own entries in this encyclopedia include The Time Machine (1960) and its 2002 remake, La Jetée (1963; vt The Jetty; vt The Pier), Je T'aime, Je T'aime (1967), I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (1970; original title Zabil jsem Einsteina, panove); Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Zítra Vstanu a Opařím Se Čajem (1977; vt Tomorrow I'll Wake up and Scald Myself with Tea), Toki o Kakeru Shōjo ["The Girl Who Leapt Through Time"] (1983 Japan; vt Little Girl Who Conquered Time; vt The Girl Who Cut Time; vt The Girl of Time), Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann (1983), The Terminator (1984) and its sequels, Trancers (1984; vt Future Cop), Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels, Millennium (1989), Frankenstein Unbound (1990; vt Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound), Twelve Monkeys (1995) – inspired by La Jetée above – Timeline (2003), The Butterfly Effect (2004), Primer (2004), Déjà Vu (2006), Bubble E Go! Time Machine Wa Drum-Shiki ["To the Bubble! The Time Machine Is a Washing Machine"] (2007 Japan; vt Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust), Looper (2012), About Time (2013), Synchronic (2019), Tenet (2020) and The Adam Project (2022).

Examples of Television series with an overall time-travel theme which have entries in this encyclopedia are Captain Z-Ro (1955-1956), Doctor Who (1963-current) as already cited – the most durable of them all – It's About Time (1966-1967), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), Voyagers (1982-1983), Quantum Leap (1989-1993), Time Trax (1993-1994), Seven Days (1998-2001; vt 7 Days) and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009).

New approaches continue to emerge even in the twenty-first century, such as Stephen Baxter's Exultant (2004) with its ingenious Computer whose time-travelling components allow effectively instantaneous solution of arbitrarily complex problems, and Ted Chiang's calm meditation on destiny and inevitability in The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (2007 chap). However paradoxical it may be, time travel will remain a central element in the sf tradition, and the Time Machine – whether modelled on the bicycle, the cummerbund or the police telephone box – will doubtless retain its status as the ultimate literary-device-made-machine. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer's The Time Traveller's Almanac (anth 2013) is an immense retrospective anthology of roughly 950 pages covering the theme from The Time Machine onward. [MJE/BS/DRL]

see also: Chrono Trigger; Continuum: Roleplaying in the Yet; SF Music; Shadow of Memories.

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