Time travel in fiction  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
time travel

Time travel is a common theme in science fiction and is depicted in a variety of media.

Contents

Literature

Time travel can form the central theme of a book, or it can be simply a plot device. Time travel in fiction can ignore the possible effects of the time-traveler's actions, as in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, or it can use one resolution or another of the Grandfather paradox.

Early stories featuring time travel without time machines

Although The Time Machine by H. G. Wells was instrumental in causing the idea of time travel to enter the public imagination, non-technological forms of time travel had appeared in a number of earlier stories, and some even earlier stories featured elements suggestive of time travel, but remain somewhat ambiguous.

  • Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) by Samuel Madden is mainly a series of letters from English ambassadors in various countries to the British "Lord High Treasurer", along with a few replies from the British foreign office, all purportedly written in 1997 and 1998 and describing the conditions of that era. However, the framing story is that these letters were actual documents given to the narrator by his guardian angel one night in 1728; for this reason, Paul Alkon suggests in his book Origins of Futuristic Fiction that "the first time-traveler in English literature is a guardian angel who returns with state documents from 1998 to the year 1728", although the book does not explicitly show how the angel obtained these documents. Alkon later qualifies this by writing "It would be stretching our generosity to praise Madden for being the first to show a traveler arriving from the future", but also says that Madden "deserves recognition as the first to toy with the rich idea of time-travel in the form of an artifact sent backwards from the future to be discovered in the present."
  • In the play Anno 7603, written by the Dano-Norwegian poet Johan Herman Wessel in 1781, the two main characters are moved to the future (AD 7603) by a good fairy.
  • In the science fiction anthology Far Boundaries (1951), the editor August Derleth identifies the short story "Missing One's Coach: An Anachronism", written for the Dublin Literary Magazine by an anonymous author in 1838, as a very early time travel story. In this story, the narrator is waiting under a tree to be picked up by a coach which will take him out of Newcastle, when he suddenly finds himself transported back over a thousand years, where he encounters the Venerable Bede in a monastery, and gives him somewhat ironic explanations of the developments of the coming centuries. It is never entirely clear whether these events actually occurred or were merely a dream.
  • The book Paris avant les hommes (Paris before Men) by the French botanist and geologist Pierre Boiterd, published posthumously in 1861, in which the main character is transported to various prehistoric settings by the magic of a "lame demon", and is able to actively interact with prehistoric life.
  • The short story "The Clock That Went Backward", written by editor Edward Page Mitchell appeared in the New York Sun in 1881, another early example of time travel in fiction.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) by Mark Twain.
  • Tourmalin's Time Cheques (1891) by Thomas Anstey Guthrie (written under the pseudonym F. Anstey) was the first story to play with the paradoxes that time travel could cause.
  • Golf in the Year 2000 (1892) by J. McCullough tells the story of an Englishman who fell asleep in 1892 and awakens in the year 2000. The focus of the book is how the game of golf would have changed by then, but many social and technological themes are also discussed along the way, including a device similar to television and women's equality.

Time traveling themes and ideological function

A number of themes tend to recur in science fiction time-travel stories, often with enough variation to make them interesting.

  • Taking technology to the past In these stories a visitor to the past changes history using knowledge from their own time, either for evil or good, or sometimes accidentally. Examples of this genre include the classic Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp.
  • The Guardians of Time In this genre a group of people are charged with ensuring that time turns out 'properly' (or protecting it from changes by other travellers). This includes Hugo winner The Big Time and the other Change War stories by Fritz Leiber, Terry Pratchett's humorous Thief of Time, and Simon Hawke's TimeWars series. Another good example of this concept is the popular sci-fi series Doctor Who.
  • Unintentional change or fulfillment. In these stories a time traveller intends to observe past events, but discovers that he or she has unintentionally either prevented or created the events. Behold the Man is an example of this kind.
"The time travel motif also has an ideological function because it literally provides the necessary distancing effect that science fiction needs to be able to metaphorically address the most pressing issues and themes that concern people in the present. If the modern world is one where the individuals feel alienated and powerless in the face of bureaucratic structures and corporate monopolies, then time travel suggests that Everyman and Everybody is important to shaping history, to making a real and quantifiable difference to the way the world turns out]]." --Sean Redmond (2004)

Time travel as a defining characteristic of science fiction

"Science fiction is, in essence, a time travel genre. Events either open in the altered past, the transformed present, or the possible future, transporting the reader or viewer to another age, place, dimension or world." --Sean Redmond (2004)
"When science fiction time travels one truly knows that one is in science fiction because time travel provides [...] the futuristic narrative dynamic needed for the genre." Sean Redmond (2004)

Time travel in science fiction versus fantasy

Stories that involve time travel devices and technologies that take people backwards and forwards in time and space are considered part of the science fiction genre, whereas stories that involve time travel through supernatural, magical, or unexplained means are considered part of the fantasy genre.

The genre of science fiction is often characterized by incorporating technology either as a driving force of the story, or merely the setting for drama. Therefore, it is this key component—technology—that can be used to distinguish between time travel of the science fiction and fantasy realms.

Isaac Asimov, when asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, once explained that science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.”

Any story involving time travel may be considered to include an element of science fiction. However, novels and short stories from the science fiction genre usually feature time travel via technology (a 'time machine') rather than time travel by supernatural means, and often play with the possibility of time paradoxes such as the grandfather paradox.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Time travel in fiction" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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