Out of Time

Time travel stories are one of the great staples of science fiction. The problem with time travel is that it is obviously impossible, because time only goes one way, and because it involves so many paradoxes, and because if it was possible, someone would already have invented it by now and come to visit us. So to make a convincing story you have to come up with a way around the impossibility so it becomes believable.

 Persistence of Memory
Does Salvador Dali’s famous painting The Persistence of Memory symbolises the end of Time as we know it?

A lot of time travel stories are problem-solving mysteries, a bit like detective stories. Others focus on different aspects, and thus you can have time travel comedies, adventure stories, horror stories, and pretty much any other kind of story.

The concept of time travel may go back several centuries – it really depends how you define time travel – but H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, first published in 1895, is probably the historical gold standard for time travel fiction. Apart from being a great story, with lots of sense-of-wonder, endless possibilities, sociological insights, creepy horror implications, etc., it has one thing all the others do not: originality, in that it was the first story to use an actual time machine.

I’m not saying that originality is everything, but it is a lot, and the more originality, the better. Of course The Time Machine is not wholly original; in fact, it was based on an earlier short story by Wells called “The Chronic Argonuats” (1888). After all, originality is a relative term. No story is wholly original, nor can it be completely unoriginal (unless it is 100% plagiarized, in which case it is not an unoriginal story, just a copy of an original one).

Clock bits  Broken Clocks and Watch Parts are Potent Symbols of Time Travel

But why is the machine part so important? Because a machine is a form of technology, and thus it makes it easier to classify the story as science fiction. Although I actually believe that time travel is fantasy, but we won’t go into that now.

For those who have not read The Time Machine or seen the movies, it (obviously) concerns a man who has built a time machine, which he uses to travel to the far future, specifically to the year 802,701, a time when the human race has evolved into two separate species. The intellectuals have become the beautiful but rather useless Eloi, and the workers have turned into the Morlocks, a nasty, brutish race with even nastier, more brutish habits. Highly recommended.

A quick trip to Wikipedia will reveal that there were also 2 movies plus 2 TV versions, and IMDb refers to something from Bollywood. I prefer the 1960 movie, which is a bit closer to the original book, although the special effects (which won the Oscar for best effects) are really bad by today’s standards – which is not a comment on the film but on the amazing progress of special effects over the last 50 years.

Incidentally, Wikipedia also reveals that Wells was beaten by a writer named Edward Page Mitchell, who published a story called “The Clock That Went Backward” (1881), in which two men are briefly transported back to the 16th century due to a backward-running clock.

It’s not a bad story, and quite readable still, but is it a time travel story? It all depends on your definition.

I think my favorite time travel story is “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne” by R.A. Lafferty (1967).

*** Spoiler Alert!***

If you want to read this story before I spoil it for you, you can click on this link. On the other hand, you might prefer to keep reading, as Lafferty’s writing may take a bit of getting used to. The term most commonly used to describe him is “mad”, and the second most common word is possibly “genius”. But you might benefit from a couple of hints if you are not familiar with his style and crazy thought processes.

The story concerns a “Ktistek machine” (a rather bizarre and highly eccentric type of computer) and a matching group of highly eccentric geniuses, who attempt to demonstrate the reality of time travel – and simultaneously brighten up the so-called “dark ages” – by killing off a traitor named Gano. (All of their interventions consist of killing somebody.) Meanwhile, they all gather around a relevant section of a history book and prepare to watch the words change before their eyes.

R.A. Lafferty

The experiment works brilliantly, and the Earth is changed into a virtual paradise. But the problem – and the point of the story – is that nobody notices anything change. They are convinced that the experiment was a failure. So they try again – and again – and end up almost destroying the world. But in the end they are all convinced that the experiment was a failure because nothing has changed.

Lafferty’s story is a triumph of paradox over perception. The experimenters’ nightmare comes true, beyond their wildest dreams, but no one realizes it.

Another problem with time travel stories is that there are so many of them, it’s hard to keep up. I am yet to read many of them, including Connie Willis’s recent works, The Doomsday Book, Blackout and All Clear, all of which form about two thirds of her Oxford Time Travel series.

Another problem with time travel is that it is very difficult to illustrate. This is why I have all these stupid pictures of broken clocks!


I have included a few links below, for anyone who wishes to explore the topic a little further. Alternatively, you can find your own links and tell me about them.

The Most Important (and Enjoyable) Time Travel Stories (a very good discussion)

Wikipedia: Time Travel in Fiction (rather dry but is a good way of classifying time travel stories)

Through the Dark Labyrinth: Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne (interesting for philosophers and Catholics)

Five Short Stories with Useless Time Travel (not bad but very brief)

P.S. Apologies about the typesetting problems with this page. I’ll have to learn more about typesetting web pages.

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