So I have this novel, Weave a Circle Round, coming out in the fall of 2017. I may have mentioned it once or twice because I may just be super excited about it. I’ve been yearning to be a real writer and publish real novels my entire life, and now I’m 42 and it’s actually going to happen. This makes me go AAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUGH a lot.
However, we’ve still got close to eleven months to go. This doesn’t make me any less excited, but it does make me want to fill in the gap by writing and drawing stuff. I’ve thus decided to produce a series of pictures of the novel’s characters. With luck, I’ll occasionally remember I’m doing this and add to the series. For now, have a drawing of the book’s protagonist, Freddy Duchamp. I have appended a number of vague and somewhat mysterious notes to the image; they don’t give much away, but they’re definitely pertinent. This is, incidentally, how I see Freddy. I don’t mind if others see her differently.
Since I’ve got you here, I may as well also talk a little bit about time travel.
Here’s the thing:
I love time travel. I may love it a bit too much. Weave a Circle Round, which I wrote in 2010, involves time travel. In 2014, when hope had begun to fade that anyone would ever pick the book up, I started a webcomic, It Never Rains, that also involved time travel. A year later, Tor bought the book, and suddenly, I was someone who wrote about all the time travel all the time. The funny thing is that despite my love of time travel, I’d never written a time-travel story before. Now, unexpectedly, I had two simultaneously.
Yet…I don’t think of Weave a Circle Round as a time-travel story. I think of it as a story about other things that happens to have time travel in it. The distinction may not matter to many people, but it interests me because it says something about the ways we use time travel in stories. It is, in a way, a unique device because its effects tend to remain broadly the same (i.e., it involves a character or characters moving atypically through time instead of or in addition to space) even when its causes, rules, and mechanisms vary widely. This flexibility renders the meaning of time travel extremely elastic.
Imagine three stories involving characters who travel from 2017 to 1914. The first character is a scientist who builds a vaguely plausible machine that makes use of the principles of space-time as we currently understand them. The second is a little girl who finds a necklace in her great-great-grandmother’s jewellery box and is transported into the past when she puts it on. The third is a police detective who is working at solving a murder but keeps being yanked inexplicably back in time, rendering the case difficult to solve (though is it, in fact, connected to the time travel?). These are simply three of a huge number of possible variations, but they demonstrate how the shape of each story is affected by the type of time travel being used. The scientist in the first story wants to travel in time; the story is one of exploration and scientific discovery. The girl in the second story is time travelling via magic, not science, and the travel is accidental. If she is in a story for children or young adults, it is relatively likely that there will be a teaching element to the tale, not because all children’s stories are didactic but because children’s authors do often use time travel to teach a lesson or propel a character into a coming of age. The time travel will teach the character something about herself, her family, or her society. I would argue that the third work is not a time-travel story per se but a mystery in which time travel plays a role. The mechanism of travel could easily be either science based or magic based; unlike in the other two stories, the mechanism doesn’t drive the story (or if it does, we don’t find out how and why until much later).
The point is that the time travel has a different purpose in each story, and that’s before we get into the tangled distinctions between different models of time travel and delve into arguments about whether or not, in a particular story, it is possible for characters to change the past. A time-travel story can be primarily about travelling in time, but frequently, the time travel itself is almost incidental. One of the first time-travel stories — and arguably still the best known — is H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, which is definitely focused on time travel as an adventure, but even so, what it’s really about is Wells’s own time and the social structure of his society. Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred uses time travel as a metaphor for slavery even as the protagonist, Dana, is pulled helplessly back into a time in which her ancestors are enslaved. In Back to the Future, the DeLorean is a fun time machine, and Doc Brown’s shameless mugging is appreciated, but we’re really watching the story of an alienated kid in danger of following in his parents’ failing footsteps who is able to come of age by quite literally getting to know his family and the nuances behind his parents’ behaviour. Time travel allows these stories to happen, but in every case, it’s important as more than just the mechanical action of travelling in time.
In fiction, time travel can effectively be a portal to another world (albeit a world defined by time, not space), a cosmic teaching tool, a metaphor for fate, a metaphor for free will, a reminder that the past is important, a warning that actions have consequences, or any one of a myriad of other possibilities. It’s rarely just time travel. It can mean whatever an author needs it to mean and take on a central or a peripheral role in a story; it can work with or without a machine, with or without a magic device, with or without a didactic element, with or without limits or restrictions or bootstrap paradoxes or time travellers accidentally stepping on butterflies. It can fit comfortably within science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, surrealism, or a bizarre combination of all of the above.
Time travel is kind of everywhere on TV right now, and I’m not sure that’s an accident. I think we may be drawn to it when concerns about the past or the future are prominent in our society, and at the moment, we’ve got both. It’s not just the idea of fixing the past that fascinates us, either; it’s the idea of making it worse by making the wrong choices. It takes only a small tweak to translate that into an anxiety about us making the wrong choices in the present and screwing up the future. This is really Wells all over again, except that the past, not the future, has become our metaphorical playground.
I don’t really know how to end this essay without saying something twee about my own stories and how they fit in here, but that’s not my point. The fact that time-travel stories don’t have to fit any particular pattern — though they can — is what I find fascinating about them. In Terminator 2, the remembered line “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” warns John Connor that his mother intends to change the future. Time travel itself echoes this line: it is what we make of it, though sometimes, as in the Terminator films, it gets away from us and carves out its own meaning.