Monday, September 10, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Time Travel

It's the first second Monday of the month (since I missed last Monday while plugging my most recent publication), which means it's time for an entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Today we'll be examining one of my all-time favorite science fiction premises, time travel.

Time travel has been around since the very early days of speculative fiction, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Books, movies, television, video games--wherever sci-fi dwells, you'll find multiple stories in which the laws of time are bent, subverted, or smashed plain into pieces.

As a child, movies like the Robert Zemeckis classic Back to the Future helped inspire my love for science fiction. There's just something about a good time travel yarn, something wondrous and intriguing that other stories seem to have to work just a little bit harder for.

This fascination is not limited to the modern art forms. While the fictional means of time manipulation have grown more sophisticated as the human grasp on technology has improved, the concept might be as old as literature itself. There are stories upon stories in the folk tales of cultures around the world that depict some form of time travel, usually by mystical or supernatural means.

Within the Sanskrit epic of ancient India, the Mahabharata, is the story of a king named Kakudmi who sought the counsel of the Hindu god Brahmā to decide who should have his daughter's hand in marriage. He waits patiently to gain an audience with the deity, only to find out that time passes very differently in his plane of existence--millions of years on Earth passed by while he waited; his daughter's suitors have long passed away. The Jewish Talmud speaks of Honi ha-M'agel, who sleeps for 70 years and wakes to find that no one will believe he is who he says he is (written around 1800 years prior to the publication of Washington Irving's famous Rip Van Winkle).

And I could go on and on about the classic works of literature that helped shape the modern incarnation of the concept, from the ghostly visions of past, present, and future in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to the anachronistic hijinks of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain.

But arguably the most influential author in this regard is the legendary H.G. Wells. Wells may very well have been the first to depict an operable vehicle that allows its user to travel willingly and selectively through time via good old fashioned science and human engineering.

He first toyed with the idea in The Chronic Argonauts, a short story published by the Royal College of Science, but his most famous depiction of time travel is undoubtedly the 1895 novella, The Time Machine, which influenced scores of works to come and coined the term that is now universally synonymous with the concept.

These days, time travel stories are pretty solidly regarded as cliche territory, but I still love them. The ever-flowing nature of time remains a captivating source of inspiration to me, as it has human beings for thousands and thousands of years. What is it about the endless march of time that fascinates? Is it because the reigns of its passage seem so far of out of reach? Perhaps, it's that underlying fear of death that so many of us carry around in our day to day. After all, what is death if not an end to our own subjective voyage through time? One thing's for sure, I think. We'll probably never stop grasping for the reigns, even if it's only in the stories we tell.

In the mean time, don't ever let anyone tell you that time travel is just fiction. Our communications satellites are doing it right now. And if guys like Ronald Mallett ever get their way, there may come a day when bona fide time machines are traversing the space-time continuum. So buckle up.

Recommended Reading:
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury
11/22/63 by Stephen King

Recommended Viewing:
Back to the Future
The Terminator

Recommended Gaming:
Chrono Trigger
The Journeyman Project
Shadow of Destiny


  1. I find time dilation both fascinating and disturbing, and it's probably the only aspect of "time travel" my pragmatism allows me to accept. Nonetheless, time travel stories have always been interesting and full of potential. They're not among my favorites (unless they find a really nifty way to deal with paradoxes), but they are definitely an integral part of science-fiction and have often helped expand our understanding of reality & fiction.

    Thanks for another great, and very well researched post, James! :)

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with your summation of time dilation. I wish more stories would incorporate it as a story element, considering how frightening the consequences could be when setting this real-world element of science against things like interstellar travel and faster-than-light propulsion. Granted, I haven't done so myself yet, so I should probably keep my mouth shut!

      Thanks so much, Vero!

  2. Time travel is so tempting to write but so hard to write well. Very few time travel stories tie up all the loose ends while avoiding the paradoxes that plague the trope.

    One of the my favorites is "The Time Travelers Wife". The author manages to tell a charming story using time travel without a single paradox (at least that I spotted).

    Great post!

    1. You're absolutely right. Writing time travel stories is a challenge, and sometimes writers don't manage to cover their bases. I think this is one of the things that puts a negative taste in the mouths of some sci-fi fans when it comes to time travel.

      I must admit, I still haven't gotten around to reading (or watching) "The Time Traveler's Wife" yet, though it's been on my to-read list for quite some time. One of these days, I'll get around to it!

      Thanks for reading, Adam!

  3. I still enjoy time travel movies. Glad you listed The Terminator. Definitely one of the best.

    1. Absolutely! One of my favorites. Thanks for the comment, Alex.

  4. I think the best time travel movie ever was Back To The Future, all three of them. I don't recall ever reading anything which incorporated time travel. Sounds interesting.

    1. Back to the Future is an all-time classic! And you're right, it might just be the best time travel movie in terms of sheer quality and enjoyability. That being said, Primer is right up there for me as well, if only for the respectable amount of science in the movie that the director refused to dumb down.

      Thanks for stopping by, Diane!

  5. This is one of my favorite tropes in sci-fi, as well. I grew up obsessing over Back to the Future and needed a year or two after it came out in 1985 just to understand the concept of time travel and time-line changes. Once I got it, I was so excited and have loved time and space travel fiction ever since.

    Right now, I'm watching an anime (Steins;Gate) that is one of the best time travel stories I've ever seen done anywhere, and it revolves around the old internet meme about the supposed time traveler John Titor. Highly recommended, even if you don't watch anime. It is super impressive.

    1. I haven't watched any anime in years, but that sounds great. I'm always a sucker for a good time travel story, and the idea of incorporating John Titor sounds potentially awesome or potentially hilarious. I may have to check it out!

      Thanks for stopping by, Cathy!

  6. The Time Machine is the gold standard of time travel stories. Powertful and emotive without getting bogged down with science.

    1. I reread The Time Machine every few years or so. Wells was lightyears ahead of his time.

      Thanks for the comment, Maurice!

  7. I'm dissapointed, JW. You forgot to mention Timecop! (I am SO totally kidding on that one...) Love that you mentioned Chrono Trigger. I played that game for a weekend straight until I beat it...only to find out you need to get that stinking doll to wind up with the happy ending... Great always!

    1. Haha, Timecop is one of those "so bad, it's good" kind of movies. I heard they were making a remake at one point.

      Chrono Trigger is one of my all-time favorite video games. I still replay it for nostalgia every now and then.

      Thanks, Randicop!

  8. If done well, time travel can be great. But if done badly, time travel can be confusing.


Thanks for reading!