Friday, March 21, 2014

The time traveller's trail

[Did this for Forbes Life magazine – some thoughts on time travel in literature]

Chris Marker’s great short film La Jetee – made almost entirely of still pictures – ends with a man, a time-traveller, choosing not to seek refuge in a sterile, “pacified” future but to return instead to the war-torn world of his childhood, where he may once again see a face that has long obsessed him. Of course, the whole thing ends in tragedy, and the narrative closes with the frisson-creating line “He knew at last that there was no escape from time…”

That scene touches on the Temporal Paradox – a logical conundrum built into any such narrative – but it is also about the haunting power of memory and the need to relive. These are key components of the best time-travel stories, and they are both present in Stephen King’s sprawling novel 11.22.63. The date in that title is seared into the consciousness of any American above a certain age, and a short blurb would say the book is about a man traveling to the past to try and prevent the Kennedy assassination – but that would be reductive. This tense thriller plays with such ideas as the Butterfly Effect (what if saving the president alters the future in many other ways that can’t yet be imagined?), but I think it came equally from King’s desire to simply revisit the world of his own childhood and to imagine what it might look like to someone who never experienced it firsthand. The protagonist’s first tangible sensation of 1958 is the wholesome taste of beer, and other details build up, with references to advertisements, TV shows, popular culture and the social mores and language of the time. But alongside nostalgia, there is caution against idealising an old way of life.

King’s novel is a recent entry in one of science fiction’s most popular sub-genres, one that went mainstream more than a century ago with H G Wells’s The Time Machine, about an inventor going nearly a million years into the future and discovering (rather like someone watching Karan Johar’s coffee show alongside a Bigg Boss episode) that humanity has branched off into two sub-species, one effete, the other vicious. The social commentary here is occasionally simplistic, but as so often with Wells’s work (The Country of the Blind and The War of the Worlds being other examples), one must remember that he was a pioneering fiction writer operating in a field that had scarcely been touched at the time. Even so, predating The Time Machine by 50 years was another classic that involved a different form of time travel: Charles Dickens’ s A Christmas Carol in which Ebenezer Scrooge is shown visions of his past and future – “shadows of what may be” – in the hope that he changes his miserly ways. Like Wells’s story, this is a cautionary tale, but a more intimate, interior one.

A real-life figure who has often been the subject of time travel in fiction is Jack the Ripper, and it is easy enough to see why. The Ripper’s killings were not – by serial-killer standards – unusually savage or numerous, but he was never caught or identified despite operating in a heavily policed area, and so the story lends itself to supernatural renderings, premised around such ideas as invisibility or immortality attained through blood sacrifice; there was even a Star Trek episode, “Wolf in the Fold”, where the Starship Enterprise crew encounters the Ripper as a woman-loathing spirit that has persisted for hundreds of years!

That episode was written by Robert Bloch, whose contribution to Harlan Ellison’s famous anthology Dangerous Visions toys – literally – with the serial killer as an unwilling time traveller. “A Toy for Juliette” presents a delightfully morbid scenario: in a dystopian future, a sadistic young lady awaits as her grandfather brings her humans from the distant past, scared and disoriented people whom she can torture for fun. But what happens when one of these living “dolls” turns out to be more than she bargained for, an anonymous Victorian gent from 1888 carrying a small black bag?

As it turned out, Ellison was so stimulated by Bloch’s story that he himself wrote a sequel to it, “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”, which continues Jack’s adventures in the futuristic City, and eventually suggests that even the worst evils of our time may pale compared to what the future brings. But time travel doesn’t have to belong in the realm of futuristic fiction: sometimes, it can be built into the very form of a novel otherwise set in a recognizable world. For instance, F Scott Fitzgerald's novella The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about a man who lives his life backward from old age to infancy, while Martin Amis’s much more complex Time’s Arrow tells the life-story of a concentration-camp doctor in reverse chronology, so that this man – in his own reinterpretation of events – becomes not a murderer but
a life-giver, who brings dead Jews to life and eventually creates a new race. Here, time travel becomes a form of expiation or possibly a comment on how people can rationalise their actions. (Incidentally Amis’s book makes an intriguing double bill with Philip Roth’s alternative-history The Plot Against America, in which the Jewish-American Roth revisits the world of his childhood - much like Stephen King did in 11.22.63 - with one crucial difference: the pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh has become US president during WWII.)

Of course, temporal paradoxes can strike even when authors are not consciously setting out to write about them. As I mentioned in this piece, Kavita Kane’s The Outcast’s Queen has the “then vs now” feel of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with the author going to ancient Hastinapura and confronting various characters with her modern wisdom and moral sense. Many such stories are essentially about wish-fulfillment, but then that is the allure of so much fiction anyway. As Salman Rushdie once put it, writing is a way of keeping a hold on the many things that keep slipping, like sand, through our fingers. Perhaps this is another way of saying that nearly all writing is on some level a form of time-travelling.

[Some earlier thematic columns for Forbes Life: popular science, satire and black comedy, true crime]


  1. A notable edition to this can be the The Time Travellers Wife. Its beautiful in the way it explores the traditional love story across time.

    1. Rajesh: haven't read it, have heard a lot about it though.

  2. Jai - Gem of a post. Will follow up reading many of the recommendations. Couple of light movie recommendation from my side would be - triangle, primer, los cronocimenes (timecrimes), the jacket. These are more of simple modern mind benders that are popular than being sprawling in scope like the ones you have suggested.

    Btw, I am yet to read Harlon Ellison but have been super keen to start.