Yesterday, I touched on time travel, the present we inherit from the past, and our perceptions of time. I want to start with perception today, as I think about other aspects of time travel in fiction.
Meanwhile, my fiancé reminds me that we’re supposed to be watching Back to the Future III today, so therefore I have to be quick. Time. Never enough of it.
We are all subject to time. Whatever you measure it with, it slices our experience of the world into regular segments, neatly numbered. We can spend it or save it, but we can’t survive it – but we can experience it at different speeds.
Time drags when we’re bored, and flies when we’re busy. For all that our divisions of time are rational, our perception of time is fundamentally illogical. And we can escape it for a while by slipping into stories.
Personally, I have an extremely tenuous relationship with time. I sit down, sink into a thought-chain in my head, and when I look up a minute could have passed – or an hour. Often, I genuinely can’t tell. And I generally experience extreme disorientation when things aren’t the time I think they ought to be.
This morning, I had a five-minute shower that felt like it lasted about ten seconds because I was thinking about the narrative of a story I want to write, and yet the five minutes it took to brew my tea felt like about seven years.
I also suffer from an occasional but recurring inability to perceive the difference between reality and dreams, partly because I’m a chronic insomniac and when you haven’t slept for a few days you do tend to lose track of what’s what, and partly because my subconscious is evil and most of my dreams are like Marty McFly’s trips to the future and the alternative 1985: bewildering, but containing just enough material that’s familiar to make you wonder whether that’s what’s real and you’re the one that’s crazy.
That’s why I love stories about time travel. They feel like my real experience of life.
In fairy tales, ancient mythology and even religious texts around the world (now there’s a controversial start to a sentence) there are stories of people who inadvertently travel into the future, often by running away with a mythological being and inadvertently returning when all their descendents have died.
The oldest example I can think of comes from Hindu mythology, in which a king seeking advice on a husband for his daughter travels to meet the creator, Brahma. When he returns to this world, many ages of time have passed and civilisation has decayed to a lesser point than when he ruled it. That story was written around 2,700 years ago.
Stories like this abound in all types of literature, and they often contain a lesson. Of course, Marty, in Back to the Future, pioneers hipster skinny jeans and massive shoes a good thirty years too early, thereby proving that all fashion moves in circles.
H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine is one of the most famous example of a time-travel morality tale, and is a text that influenced the genre for the next hundred years. The unnamed narrator recalls a series of tales recounted to him by a man referred to only as ‘The Time Traveller’, who spoke of inventing a machine that let him travel forward to the very spot the machine stood on, but eight hundred thousand years in the future.
He meets child-like creatures called Eloi, who live apparently angelic lives supping from fruit and water. He discovers that they’re preyed on by the ugly cave-dwelling Morlocks, who come out only at night.
The reason that The Time Machine is focused on the future is because it’s telling a morality tale about the present. Wells was a heartfelt socialist who believed that the class system was evil, and his tale of time travel is a warning about what will happen if we don’t change our ways. The useless and childish Eloi, in his vision are descended from the Victorian upper classes, who can do nothing for themselves. And the horrifying Morlocks are descended from the working class, who are so downtrodden that they live underground, and so disenfranchised that they’ve reverted to being primitive hunters.
(The Time Traveller himself is last seen packing furiously for a return trip.)
It’s a relatively simple tale, and one that doesn’t bring up the issue of paradoxes. What it does do, though, is ask whether we have a responsibility to a future we will never see – if looking back changes what we do going forward, will looking forward change who we are now?
I could write reams on time travel, paradoxes and story functions. They are an incredibly rich and interesting area of study, because they so accurately capture human absurdities, ideas, hopes and creativity.
The buzz around ‘Back to the Future Day’ was the discussion of a childhood classic whose story was finally ‘ending’. It’s a matter of commemorating time past, and speculating on what was right and wrong in the future, which is now the present.
In other words, it’s a celebration of the storytellers’ creativity, and the stories on film that millions of people loved.
Stories of time travel allow us to examine our ideas – but they can also reveal our underlying cultural assumptions and influential ideologies.
Wells’ story seems laughable in the face of how fast technology and culture changed over the twentieth century. We’ve developed a long way from the world that was real to him and that he was warning against (though, of course, not far enough), and so the chain of logic has become unstuck at one end. But it’s worth remembering that The Time Machine was written with a clear understanding of Darwin’s principles of evolution. It was, in its way, scientifically accurate. And for Wells, it was ideologically accurate, as well.
Crispin Glover, the actor who played the original George McFly, reportedly fell out with the producers of the first film partly because he disagreed with its ending. He felt that Marty’s ‘reward’, a rich, happy family and the truck he dreamed of at the beginning of the film, was too materialistic a result. At the time, Robert Zemeckis apparently wasn’t happy about that – but since then, in commentaries, he’s supposedly remarked on how very ‘Eighties’ that ending feels now. Cultural assumptions that were normal for the time now look a little askew.
Stories about time travel offer us a way to explore our perceptions of the reality we live in, and the forces that construct normal social realities. Of course, all good stories do that, and it is particularly a staple of science fiction and fantasy to create other worlds and therefore offer comparison with reality. But time travel pushes it one step further. The worlds that collide are the same, so the differences between them are emphasised. It alienates us a little from the everyday world that is so normal we might not even question what its values are, and whether we think they’re right, or agree with them.
That is why time travel in stories is so important.
It allows us to explore others’ ideas in detail, which in turn, helps us to form our own critical perspectives on reality. And since I’ve always thought that imagination and education are the best way to expand a person’s mind, that makes time travel stories a good way to change the future.
After all, at the end of Back to the Future III, Doc says to Marty, “Your future hasn’t been written yet. Nobody’s has. The future is whatever you make it – so make it a good one.”
That, at its heart, is an existentialist statement of the power of individual choice… which, in a nice loop, leads me right back to my thoughts on predestination and free will in yesterday’s post about time travel and the past.