Unravelling Time Travel

In science fiction, writers enjoy the luxury of ignoring the rules. And where you can’t bend rules, you rewrite them. That said, one of the most logistically complicated science fiction concepts is time travel. Meddling with time travel often raises a myriad of questions. So, rules often have to be made and followed – then maybe broken.

In The Psychology of Time Travel (2020), Kate Mascarenhas manages to construct an astonishing world of time travel and all its lore, rules and limits (a complicated thing to do) and she defies what’s been done before. What’s more, she does this in an extremely subtle manner. Characters play time travel Russian roulette games, shooting bullets into a time-travel toy that will spew the bullets out at any given moment in the future. Characters often revisit points along their own personal timeline, interacting with their ‘silver selves.’ Mascarenhas even includes a glossary at the end of the book explaining the many neologisms that periodically crop up.

It seems impossible that sci-fi books can achieve the level of world-building that time-travel stories require at all, least of all within a novella. This Is How You Lose The Time War (2020) by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone does it in 200 pages and is gloriously grand in its scale, told in epistolary format. The novella is a space opera that crosses different dimensions and infinite timelines, following written letters between two time-travelling pen pals. Red and Blue travel ‘upthread’ and ‘downthread,’ ‘braiding’ and ‘unbraiding’ the timelines they each disturb. Their actions cause great alterations to the realities they visit, particularly those less developed.

It’s interesting to consider how time travel is treated in smaller novels. In the delightfully lightweight Before The Coffee Gets Cold (2015) and Before The Coffee Gets Cold: Tales From the Café (2020) by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, people can visit a café to time travel. The rules: they must only visit people who have been to the café, they must remain in their seat and they must return to the present before their coffee gets cold. However, in this time travel story, characters cannot alter the past or future. Time travel therefore serves as a device to facilitate the reconciling of characters’ damaged relationships.

To look to the classics, The Time Machine (1895) also deals with time travel without trying to explain it. The protagonist goes far into the future to see where mankind ends up. Interestingly, H.G. Wells chooses to begin with the main character recalling his adventures while safe and well, so we know all ends well. Through visiting the far future, Wells examines the horror of class divide, exaggerated in the Morlocks and Eloi.

Ultimately, whether time travel is handled as a device to interrogate familiar human problems and questions or as a complicated force of both conflict and resolution, it must be treated with care.

Read the rest of Issue Two now…