Brian is a long-time reader and talented writer who posts his work on his website: Sillyverse. He always has a kind word or an insightful comment to his readers (or to us here on the site!) He has given us guest posts in the past, and we hope he will do so for a long time to come in the future. Today Brian’s talking about…well…just read below.
Time Travel. In H.G. Wells’s time, it was going back into the past to find your Latin was incomprehensible to actual ancient Romans, or to the future to find out a socialist utopia has made all your economic practices obsolete. It was simple: you went into the past or you went into the future. If you were lucky, you came back, a sadder and wiser person. It was a fitting way to illuminate the arbitrary nature of our contemporary social customs.
And then the butterfly effect stepped in. Could your trip into the past change the present? Ultimately, the answer depended on whether you believed Existence was a four-dimensional fixed entity, or an otherwise steady temporal stream disrupted by your mad scientist experiment. You know who we’re all rooting for.
If it were fixed, you had always gone back into the past, and the only paradox possible was having to do what you already knew you’d have to do. See the 2007 Spanish film Los cronocrímenes (Timecrimes) for an example. It’s a deterministic view of Reality, and kind of depressing. You always will lose your first love, no matter what. And no matter how hard you try, you will never be able to kill baby Hitler.
Ah, but what if you can? Then presumably all Reality changes from that moment on, which raises some serious questions about whether you still exist in your own revamped present-day. Sometimes you don’t. Robert Silverberg had one of his time-travel tourist guides in 1969’s Up The Line kill one of his ancestresses, after having sex with her, of course, but staying in the past so he won’t be eradicated from existence. And Quantum Leap had Dean Stockwell’s character temporarily replaced in Reality by Roddy McDowell thanks to a change Sam introduced. Considering both actors occasionally played psychotic characters, I’m not sure if that was an improvement or a drawback.
Writers have managed to fudge this. Reality changes, just not instantaneously. Reality doesn’t change, you’ve just created an alternate time line; see Back to the Future II. Schrödinger’s cat does and doesn’t live. If you’re really desperate, you can even wipe out all the alternate universes, as DC Comics has done a few times since the original 1985-86 “Crisis on Infinite Earths.”
And then there’s the “yes, you can go back into the past, but only from when time travel was created” solution. I first ran into this in the comic series Planetary (1999 – 2009). This solution explains why time travel exists but we haven’t seen any time travelers yet. And it also tries to fix the “can you change the past?” question by answering, “yes, you can, but only once time travel is created, which means the past didn’t change.” Unless, of course it did, and you no longer know about it.
Let’s not forget that possibility: the time travel loop that causes itself or eradicates itself. 1982’s Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann had our protagonist realize at the end of his trip into the past that’s he’d become his own ancestor, thanks, once again, to time travel-induced incest. And the old gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (the original TV series, no, not that movie, you dimwit!) had sometime-vampire Barnabas Collins traveling back in time as far as 1692 to prevent Collinwood from being destroyed sometime between 1969 and 1995.
And then there’s one more twist: Reality fights back. Connie Willis has taken this approach in her various mid-21st century time-travel stories, notably To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998) and Blackout/All Clear (2010). Reality will not let you make major changes, because . . . well, because then it wouldn’t be reality, I guess. In fact, Reality is a mean bitch: she’ll even strand you in remote epochs to keep you from interfering in the way she has decided events will unfold. Even if it involves glorifying unpleasant children and spreading medieval influenza in contemporary Britain. Cthulhu only knows what Reality thinks of Brexit, but at least the flu virus in To Say Nothing of the Dog has a domestic source.
Somehow or other, trips to the future don’t seem to be so complicated. Oh, sure, you can bring back a futuristic technology and make otherwise impossible changes to the present. Way back in 1955, Isaac Asimov did this one better by making such a trip the cause of time travel! They didn’t call him a grand master of the genre for nothing! But apart from visiting the future to glimpse a utopia or dystopia, most travel-into-the-future stories are riffs on the same issues that plague travel into the past. Multiple timelines? Gregory Benford already tackled that in 1980’s Timescape.
One cannot leave this subject without touching on its hottest topic, in more ways than one: intergenerational incest. Whether it’s Marty McFly, Silverberg’s horny time travel tourist guides, or Lyle Swann, nothing seems to fascinate readers and movie goers more than the chance to shag their mothers, grandmothers, or even more remote maternal ancestors. Gives one a chance to become one’s own ancestor. I’ve yet to read a story in which a woman goes back into the past and gets herself impregnated by a male ancestor, possibly becoming her own ancestress, but I have no doubt there must be one out there. If not, I recommend the topic to an aspiring feminist writer.
Apart from this puerile interest in incest, I think there is a delightful book to be written about a time traveler confronting all of humanity’s different sexual practices and norms. Frankly, I’d expect most early 21st century Americans would have a nervous breakdown after about three or four such experiences. Don’t think so? Try reading up on the sexual practices of the Oneida Perfectionist community in upstate New York in the mid-19th century. Complex marriage ain’t free love, as you’d find out.
It began as a way of comparing our time to other societies and values. That was time travel in its early days in the genre. It got sucked into metaphysical complications about how it would affect the world. And it ended, as so many relationships do, with sex. Maybe we actually have returned to the beginning: in trying to violate our own notions of sexual propriety, we’re comparing our time to other societies and values, after all.
Lilyn G is the founder of Sci-Fi & Scary, and leader of the Coolthulhu Crew. She does book and film reviews for both genres the site focuses on. Her tastes run towards creature features, hard science fiction, and lots and lots of action. She also has a soft spot for middle-grade fiction that rears its head frequently.
Though no longer involved with Ladies of Horror Fiction due to other responsibilities and a too-full plate, she was one of the original 4 co-founders.
Feel free to chat her up on Twitter as long as you aren’t hitting her up to review your book.