My Novel Is Totally Happening #1: In Which We Talk About Time Travel

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.

4 thoughts on “My Novel Is Totally Happening #1: In Which We Talk About Time Travel

  1. Ooh this reminds me of the sci-fi vs fantasy essays I read by Asimov. What makes a sci-fi story a sci-fi story as opposed to a fantasy? I suppose the first two examples are sci-fi and fantasy, but the detective one intrigues me because it doesn’t the how does not seem to matter much, how would we classify it?

  2. The detective story could count as either science fiction or fantasy depending on the time-travel mechanism. It’s usually the mechanism that makes the difference. If the time travel is explained within the story via scientific principles, even if they are glossed over or hand-waved, it’s science fiction; if the time travel has no scientific explanation, it’s fantasy. Thus KINDRED is fantasy, even though its author writes primarily science fiction, as there is no scientific explanation for the time travel (some might argue that the biological imperative behind the time travel DOES render it science fiction, but admittedly, Butler herself classified it as fantasy). The time-travel mechanism is sometimes so VERY vaguely explained that a story could be seen as a combination of science fiction and fantasy. However, it usually falls to one side or the other.

    In the case of the detective story, I would say it would depend on the explanation for the time travel. Is the detective being dragged into the past by a scientist who has invented time travel and who happens to be the great-grandmother of the murder’s victim? Perhaps she’s trying to help solve her great-granddaughter’s murder, though in the process, she’s introducing a paradox that is complicating the situation. That would be science fiction. But what if the detective is called into the past because the victim belongs to a secret society of sorcerers, and her death is having magical consequences? That would be fantasy.

  3. Here’s the thing though, the science in sci-fi isn’t real-world science, just “what if science allowed for this”, or “what if in the context of the universe these characters inhabit, these amazing phenomena can be observed as consistent, observable and repeatable”. This makes me wonder about say, the magic in Harry Potter. In that universe, magic is a consistent, observable and repeatable phenomenon that can be harnessed and used as tools. For a wizard in that universe, magic is as mundane as electricity. It powers their technology. Harry Potter isn’t sci-fi, but I wonder if we can think of it as such.

  4. Yes, magic is consistent, observable, and repeatable in HARRY POTTER, but it is not subject to natural laws; it deliberately breaks them. In science fiction, what would otherwise be magical phenomena are explained as “natural” (i.e., possible, not impossible). Look at BACK TO THE FUTURE, which would take very little tweaking to turn into fantasy; just say Doc Brown was meddling in sorcery, not science. However, because he’s a scientist, the time travel is presented as possible if certain NATURAL conditions are fulfilled (in particular, the presence of 1.21 gigawatts of power in conjunction with a speed of 88 miles per hour). No, of course it doesn’t make sense; it’s not, as you put it, “real-world science.” However, it is EXPLAINED as science within the world of the story. In THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, time travel is explained as something that happens when you turn a little delicate hourglass pendant over. The connection between the time turner and the time travel is symbolic; the hourglass represents the time travel, but it isn’t fulfilling natural conditions that cause it. The explanation is magical, not scientific.

    Arthur C. Clarke, as everyone and his dog knows, once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” True enough, and it does mean that the lines between fantasy and science fiction can be blurred. You’re always going to hit a point (*cough*TARDIS*cough*) where the science gets so silly and hand-wavy that it might as well be magic. But I don’t think you can call HARRY POTTER science fiction. Magic powers wizarding technology, but the only explanation as to why is “it’s magic.” Also, a lot of their technology is actually modified Muggle technology, which is, natch, based on scientific principles.

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