Sci-Fi Tropes #2: Time Travel

Sci-Fi Tropes #2: Time Travel

If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour... you’re gonna see some serious shit.
— Back to the Future

If there was any particular question that I’d say defines most of the science fiction genre, regardless of audience, it is this simple, yet profound combination of two words:

“What if?”

Whether it takes place in some near-future dystopia, a slightly altered past, or a far-future fantastical world, many writers tend to start with analyzing the normal - our world or our history - and think about possibilities that could have been - or will be. Science fiction is an amazing genre because of how grounded a lot of it can be.

That said, do you know what’s more fun than having a set of characters in an altered historical past or far future setting? Having a set of characters visit both over the course of a novel.

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.
— Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Time travel is one of my favorite sci-fi tropes - has been since I was a young boy. The idea that one had the means to travel backwards in time and manipulate the past - or jump into the future and see a world that one may not live long enough to see normally - is a really fun concept. On top of that, it’s an idea that transcends science fiction altogether when you look at the history of time travel as a concept.

When you think about it, people giving time travel any amount of thought makes a lot of sense. In fact, you can find allusions to time travel in many ancient stories. One example is the Japanese story of Urashima Tarō, written in 715AD. In summary, a fisherman saves a turtle from a group of playful children. As a reward, the turtle brought the fisherman to an underwater palace where a princess entertained him for several days. When he returned to the surface, he realized that hundreds of years had passed.

One of the most well-known time-travel stories is Rip Van Winkle, written in 1819. I honestly don’t recall why this was so commonly shared in elementary school - I suppose it was part of the standard curriculum. In any event, it’s a story about a villager that, in the years prior to the Revolutionary War, drinks with some mysterious fellows and falls asleep soon after. When he awakes, at least twenty years passed.

And for my last example (there are a LOT) I present A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, a popular story in which Ebenezer Scrooge travels into the past and into the future thanks to the ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Yet to Come (Future).

If I wanted to, I could make this post nothing but a laundry list of books that are 1) well-known and 2) have time travel as their central plot device, but then we’d be here for awhile. There are that many examples.

The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight...
— The Terminator

After giving it some thought, there are two ways to tackle the subject of time travel tropes: The methods by which the time travelling is done, and the reasons for time travelling.

Time Travel Methods

  • Sleeping. We’ve seen this example a few times already, but in general this was one of the more common forms of time travel before the use of time machines. Rip Van Wrinkle is the best example of this in action, where you fall asleep in one time period (the present) and you wake up at some point in the future. Branching off of this is the concept of traveling through time through your dreams, where you are able to glimpse or literally travel to the future while asleep - and then when you wake up you retain all knowledge of what you’ve done during that jump through time.

  • The Time Machine. This takes many, many forms, from the TARDIS in Doctor Who to the DeLorean in Back to the Future. And, of course, the time machine from The Time Machine, written by H. G. Wells in 1895 - the first ever use of both the term and the plot device.

  • Wormholes. Although wormholes are more commonly used in science fiction to travel across large swathes of the universe (thereby breaking or bypassing the speed of light), they are occasionally used for time travelling as well. One of the better-known examples of this in literature is the novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

  • Quantum Mechanics. In summary, scientists devise a method by which quantum physics can be manipulated to allow for time travel. Micheal Crichton’s Timeline is an excellent example of this form of time travel. This is also one of the modern takes on the premise which usually attempts to utilize our understanding of quantum physics to justify this possibility.

Reasons to Travel Through Time

  • To change history. The fun thing about time travel is that it breaks so many concepts surrounding our understanding of history and the flow of time. That is, time is linear and goes in one direction; and time is not a dimension we can travel in like space - we’re just along for the ride. But screw that - I have a time machine and I want to kill Hitler before he commits mass genocide!

  • Not by choice. This pretty much means that the protagonist is in a position where they are forced to live with the consequences of either jumping through time or are given knowledge of the future against their will. A common example of this is the story of a man that receives a newspaper every day delivered from the future, and he uses that information to try and make changes to the present. There are many iterations of this trope, but one of the earliest is by, again, H. G. Wells with The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper, written in 1932. Another variant of this is precognition, where the character receives visions of the future, or visions of an alternate present. One contemporary example of this in action is with the movie Minority Report which based its entire premise around precognition of crimes before they happen.

  • To save the world. Maybe a runaway greenhouse effect threatens mankind and we send people to the past to prevent it from happening. An alien force conquers humanity, but some intrepid scientists send people to the past to warn them about the coming threat. This overlaps with changing history, for sure, but I felt it was worth separating out. The first book that immediately comes to mind is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, one of my recommendations for a time travel story where the world is doomed because of its own devices and a select few essentially aim to erase their own histories in order to save all of mankind. In film, 12 Monkeys is my top choice.

  • To make lots and lots of money. If you have a time machine, you have a guaranteed method to make yourself obscenely rich. There are many movies that tackle this side of time travel, but the one I’m going to mention here is Primer, arguably the most interesting - and complex - depiction of time travel I’ve ever seen.

Now I want you clearly to understand that this lever, being pressed over, sends the machine gliding into the future, and this other reverses the motion. This saddle represents the seat of a time traveler. Presently I am going to press the lever, and off the machine will go. It will vanish, pass into future time, and disappear.
— The Time Machine, H. G. Wells

There is so much more that can be covered regarding the time travel trope - and it’s likely that I’ll have a follow-up post in the future to continue exploring it. For now, be thankful that, as far as we know, time travelling isn’t possible. How to we know? Stephen Hawking proved it!

Which aspects of time travel do you enjoy in fiction? Are there other elements of the time travel trope that you feel weren’t represented above? Share your comments below!

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