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Review of Time Travel (Part 1 of 2)

The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, Ace, 1988, 141 pp. (originally published in 1895)

With The Time Machine, H.G. Wells gave a character control over time and thus was born modern science fiction. That may be formulating things fairly simplistically, but before Wells, time travel stories mostly consisted of one way trips, with two of the most famous examples being Rip van Winkle, who made a one way trip to the future by way of a long sleep, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where an American went on a one way trip to the past. If memory serves, Twain’s Yankee came back to the contemporary period but without control over the journey. Other examples can easily be found in both the backward and forward directions before Wells, with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Back 2000-1887 being a famous instance and another book worth reading. But not particularly science fiction, although like Twain’s satirical strain in A Connecticut Yankee, many of the utopian ideas in Bellamy would find their way into the genre as we know it. Wells makes the main character a scientist in control of the flow of time and works from there. And even if my only half-serious definition of the genesis of science fiction falls apart on closer examination, it’s clear that The Time Machine was an enormously influential book; like its close contemporary in Wells’ career, The War of the Worlds, it’s a thin book with significance way out of proportion to its length. The Time Machine stands at the head of a long line of time travel stories, and despite all of the imitators it’s still as unique as ever.

The narrative of The Time Machine is fairly straightforward and short. A group of unnamed men gather together in the home of an inventor and scientist who is only ever known as the Time Traveller. After some initial conversation about the nature of time -- four-dimensional of course -- the men reconvene later that week and the Time Traveller is late. He comes into the room famished, dishevelled, and with the look of a man with the burden of momentous events to tell. He discusses his time machine, some aspects of its mechanism, some of his first trips through time, what it felt like to travel further in time, and then the majority of the book is about his long stay in a society about 800 000 years in the future.

He arrives in what seems at first to be a mini-utopia. The people, who call themselves the Eloi, are all fair-skinned, worry about nothing, and somehow get by without doing any work. The Traveller tries to learn about this society but there’s not really much to learn. Some time passes, and he starts to learn that all is not what it seems. For one thing, he rescues a woman named Weena from drowning when all the other Eloi stood by on the shore without really realizing what was going on. Then he discovers that there is another race living underground, and they are the ones who have stolen his time machine. So he has no choice but to try to venture into the underground lairs of the ones known as Morlocks. Despite some poor planning and a low supply of matches, he survives. He realizes that the human race has split into two, with the leisure class living on the surface in apparent ease, but with severely atrophied mental capabilities, while the underground ones are farming them for meat. It’s a horrifying realization for the Traveller, as he came forward in time in the sure knowledge that things would get better, could only get better. Wells lays on the social commentary and despair a bit thick at this point, but it’s all told from within the point of view of the Traveller so it works. And even though the scenes with Weena and the Eloi are the ostensible main plot business of the book, Wells continues the story to an even more significant section.

The Time Traveller makes a brief trip to the immensely distant future, on the order of millions and millions of years, before returning to tell the tale. He finds little life at that point in the history of the Earth, only an enlarged reddish sun and lethargic cetacean life. Yet further, almost nothing remains. The ideas that underlie this section of the book are perhaps the most abstract of any in the book, so it’s remarkable how concrete and vivid Wells manages to make them. I don’t remember much about the book from my first reading of it at age 12 or so, perhaps a bit about the Eloi vs. Morlock divide, but somehow this closing sequence always lingered in my mind. Stunning in its melancholy and desolation, this sequence also gives the book its fitting ending; just as the Eloi/Morlock split demonstrates that culture bows to evolution over these larger time scales, so too does the winding down of earthly life demonstrate that biology itself is subsumed by galaxy-wide forces of matter and physics. Like The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine intends to give us a context of vaster forces to judge our own civilization against. And it’s easy to look back on the Victorian era of colonialism and say that that was a lesson they needed to learn, but Wells doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. As of writing, we’re only about 100 years further in the future than the home period of the characters of The Time Machine and we could certainly use some of the humility a consideration of our glossy civilization against a dead beach at the end of time would perhaps bring. Wells would often rage against humanity and its need to learn and relearn lessons (for instance, Wells’ increasingly more scathing introductions to the different editions of The War in the Air, a book which predicted many of the worst aspects of the two world wars), and the genius and legacy of Wells is that his books go a long way towards helping us see what lesson we need to learn.

In my next column, I will be reviewing time travel movies. At that point, I will review the two movie adaptations of Wells’ famous novel. The Time Machine itself has inspired many other writers; loosely, in the time travel genre, which I will be discussing throughout this column, and more specifically, in a handful of books that continue the story of Wells’ Time Traveller. Christopher Priest’s Space Machine continues the story, and intertwines it with that of The War of the Worlds; Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance uses the same time machine but a different traveller (I’ll discuss this book briefly at the end of this column), while The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter is the authorized sequel and takes up almost precisely where Wells left off. Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter has the wildly intelligent subset of Morlocks that the Traveller never saw in the future discover how to invade London of the 1890s (which twists some of Wells’ ideas), and a few other more obscure books have also tried to answer the question of what would have happened next. For myself, I prefer the unexpected purity of Wells’ narrative; I like sequels or follow-ups, in the cases when they are appropriate. Something about the short length of Wells’ book perhaps agitates for more material on the subject, but for myself, the brevity of Wells’ story argues for its ability to stand on its own.

Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague de Camp, Baen, 1996, 336 pp. (originally published in 1941)

Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp fits under the common category of one-way time travel to the past -- in this case, an American gets sent back to Rome in the 580s, with no way home -- but the book is an exceptionally well-written and influential example of this type of story. In some ways, Lest Darkness Fall is the Connecticut Yankee brought into the Golden Age of science fiction; the protagonist undergoes virtually no angst and settles right to work as a happily employed avatar of Progress and Science once in the past. But de Camp infuses the book with the giddy energy and untrammelled triumphalism that made the Golden Age such a pure and attractive genre. The book reads well even today, not something that can be said for all of de Camp’s contemporaries. And the book has been influential in the genre, no doubt about that.

Lest Darkness Fall is the story of a man named Martin Padway, an American archaeologist who is visiting Rome and minding his own business. Suddenly, some sort of strange electrical phenomenon envelops him during a lightning strike and he finds himself in a very different and bizarre version of Rome. Was he crazy? Struck by amnesia? Had he blundered onto a movie set? Soon all the clues add up to the fact that he has been sent back in time to Rome circa 580 A.D. Padway’s knowledge of Latin lets him get by relatively well in the language and he is smart enough to stay out of religious debates by claiming to be from the far off land of America and agreeing with whoever he happens to be talking to at the moment. He makes a few friends and gets himself oriented in the pre-medieval city. But what should he do? What can he do? Especially now at a moment in history when the troubled Italian peninsula is about to undergo even further conflict and turmoil.

That’s where the title of the book comes in, as Padway decides to avert the coming Dark Ages, mainly for reasons of his own comfort and as any proper go-getter American who believes in progress would do in his shoes. Padway starts small, with a guaranteed money-maker: distilling wine into brandy. His schemes progress from there, and as the money comes in, his ambitions grow larger. Interestingly, he picks the printing press as the key invention in his grand endeavour, and he cunningly hires all of the out-of-work scribes as reporters for a brand new newspaper. Perhaps inevitably, his efforts come to the notice of religious and political authorities, and he is soon embroiled in correcting the catastrophically inefficient and wrong-headed administration of the country. Of course even the tiniest detail he can remember from history classes seems like magical foreknowledge, and he also has the benefit of understanding the overall historical trends of the era.

De Camp’s book is the type of story that succeeds or fails on the strength and credibility of the historical detail. Twain’s Connecticut Yankee aimed for satire but de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall wants something quite different: a sense of being there, and in particular what a clever and competent American would face in post-empire Rome and how he might react. For the matter of being there, de Camp succeeds beyond all expectations; this really is quite an amazing book, with a clever grasp of how to balance all of the exposition required in such a historical setting with the needs of the story. De Camp also consistently shows us the difficulties Padway faces, another aspect of the book that easily convinces. A small related complaint: Padway demonstrates a level of recall of 580s Rome that is not always credible, but I suppose he is an archaeologist and he is in a situation that would jog the memory. One thing is true: it’s always clear that de Camp had done his homework. I actually learned more about Rome than I was expecting and de Camp always helps the reader understand where Padway was changing history (not always an easy task in alternate history stories like this one).

The Baen edition I’m reviewing comes with the front cover claim “The novel that defined a genre” and an introduction by Harry Turtledove. Turtledove writes about how his academic career was shaped by Lest Darkness Fall and he has written many similar books. De Camp is not writing what would become the thriving alternate history subgenre that Turtledove is known for being a part of; Lest Darkness Fall examines a fulcrum of history but adds someone from our time to apply the force for change. Modern alternate histories usually take more impersonal views, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent version of a world without Europe in The Years of Rice and Salt, in which the Black Plague had a much higher mortality rate. In this sense, de Camp’s Padway is like Wells’ Time Traveller among the Eloi and Morlock, only with more gumption. But what happens to this hero next in the history of science fiction? David Gerrold has something to say about this.

The Man Who Folded Himself, David Gerrold, Bantam Spectra, 1991, 165 pp.

Note: This book was originally published in 1973. The copyright page for this 1991 edition states: “This edition incorporates minor changes by the author.”

This short novel is “the last word in time-travel stories,” as the back cover blurb puts it. Gerrold takes every impossibility and paradox of time travel and throws them into one headlong story. It’s a virtuoso work, but not much of a story; the problems and issues of time travel itself make up most of the book. At least Gerrold has not overstayed his welcome and the book hums along at an incredible pace.

Dan Eakins is just a regular college guy, until his Uncle Jim gives him a present of a timebelt. Dan’s first reactions to the timebelt are convincingly written. It takes him some time to figure out the buttons, and his first few trips in time are explained at length. Indeed, his first major trip is not by him, but his future self by one day, as he goes with himself to the races. A naming convention soon solidifies: the subjective Dan is always Dan, himself from the future is Don, and himself from the past is Danny. Soon there are innumerable Dannys, Dans, and Dons complicating the storyline.

The idea of time travel in this book very much structures the story. Gerrold’s time travel doesn’t allow paradoxes, so everything is possible. The main character explains it as cumulative, subjective time travel: “Every change you make is cumulative; it goes on top of every other change you’ve already made, and every change you add later will go on top of that” (63). And later: “That the process is perceived as time travel is only an illusion, because the process is subjective. But because it’s subjective, it doesn’t really make a difference, does it? It’s just as good as the real thing. Better, even; because nothing is permanent; nothing is irrevocable” (66).

Not long after saying this, Dan finds out to his dismay that too many tangles, his term for what happens when cumulative changes occur in one time period, can indeed become permanent. The consequence of one such tangle makes him feel even lonelier than before. The book ends with a vivid set of scenes as the older Dons prepare to die.

Dan Eakins is a long way from Wells’ Traveller or Martin Padway. Infinite possibility seems to enervate Dan to the point of complete mental debilitation, and Gerrold makes it clear that the power of the timebelt traps Dan in a maze of pointlessness. Dan discovers that he can’t make too many changes, because the resulting societies speak languages he doesn’t understand and don’t have any comprehensible cultural references. The only changes he can’t undo seem to be tragic ones. Even infinite gratification of self palls within a chapter or two. Dan is not rescuing civilization from the Dark Ages or observing the end of the universe; instead, he presides over the dissolution of self. Wells’ The Time Machine may have been this melancholy, but it was a philosophically inevitable reaction to the vast scale of time now opened to human scrutiny. The melancholy in The Man Who Folded Himself is all focused inwards.

Some aspects of Gerrold’s book may have been shocking when it was published, but it feels much less risqué today. The playful time travel aspects remain, and they’re worth checking out for anyone interested in time travel stories.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis, Bantam Spectra, 1997, 434 pp.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of Connie Willis’ grand comic novels, in a semi-slapstick style that is nonetheless witty and breathless and silly and irreplaceably serious all at once. No one else writing in science fiction can quite write in such a humorous tone as Willis, and when Willis’ more serious novels are thrown into the mix, it’s hard to conceive of another writer with as much range and skill. To Say Nothing of the Dog is actually one of a series of stories and books by Willis: “Firewatch” was one of Willis’ first short stories, about historians sent back in time to observe attempts to save St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz. The same future milieu was used in Willis’ Doomsday Book, about another historian sent back to the wrong time period in the medieval era, ending up in a village during the Black Plague. It’s hard to imagine a more emotional and wrenching Black Plague story. Both of these antecedents were in Willis’ serious mode, so it’s interesting to come to this book with certain expectations and find a glorious burst of comedy and laughter.

The history department at Oxford is being run ragged by the demands of one Lady Schrapnell (the first of many hilariously appropriate names in the book). Lady Schrapnell is spending forty billion pounds on a meticulous recreation of the Coventry Cathedral destroyed during WWII, and the deadline is about two weeks away. At first this sounds like a retread of “Firewatch,” but Willis uses this as a springboard into another era entirely. It seems that the main character, Ned Henry, is suffering from the worst case of time lag the hospital has ever seen, mainly due to Lady Schrapnell’s insane workload, and his superiors conspire to send him to Oxford in the late Victorian era to recuperate for his two weeks of bed rest. The plan is to then bring him back refreshed and rested. The joke of the book is that, while Oxford in the 1880s is not as anxiety-ridden as working under Lady Schrapnell, Ned ends up facing a whole other set of problems. It seems that the most recent historian to visit the era, Verity Kindle, has somehow created a problem in the time continuum, something that is not supposed to be possible. It’s now up to Ned and Verity to fix the problem, while not alerting the contemporaries to their existence.

What follows is some of the sheerest wit and hilarity ever put to page. Willis manages to create absurd characters and make us believe them, which is always a tightrope walk. The plot of the Oxford era is hard to describe; suffice to say that the diarist who inspired Lady Schrapnell in her quest to restore the Coventry Cathedral is less than inspiring in real life; Ned’s boss’s assistant Finch does a stunning Jeeves impression; and Willis makes good on her titular homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s famous book Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog. Jerome’s book is one of those comic works that have survived the vicissitudes of time and changing tastes (it was written in 1889); it’s not science fiction of course, just the tale of three men and a dog on a boat trip up the Thames, but fans of any genre of writing should read Jerome’s hilarious book, along with Willis’ remarkable companion piece.

In the context of this column about time travel, I need to discuss the ending of To Say Nothing of the Dog. But Willis builds everything in the book towards the moment where we find out how it’s ever possible to coerce all of these impossibly convoluted storylines into a coherent whole. So the strictest spoiler warnings are in effect for the rest of this paragraph. As it turns out, all of the work that Ned and Verity do to untangle the problems in the continuum, in Oxford, in Coventry, in the Victorian era, in the WWII era, and up to the moments of Lady Schrapnell’s success in the present, all of their work serves to smooth things out for their own time. But there’s a pretty strong hint that the picture is much bigger. Ned and Verity are small cogs in a centuries-long struggle to sort out a time continuum problem far in the future. It’s an elegant extrapolation of the chaos theory type explanation given in the book: small things in the past have the ability to snowball and create further change as time goes by. But that means that further in the future than Ned and Verity’s present would be affected even more extremely. All of their efforts are only a tiny part of a series of interlocking corrections stretching back from the future to the past, and certainly outside of the understanding of anyone from the contemporary period. To Say Nothing of the Dog covers about 200 years of this struggle; the story of the whole struggle would be orders of magnitude longer in the telling. As I said, it’s really quite elegant and not coincidentally presented almost in passing; the book has already fulfilled its own goal by that point, the goal of giving the reader a witty narrative. And then Willis gives us the huge compliment of letting us figure out what it all meant! I would also like to point out that Willis relies heavily on the detail of place and setting to create her story, letting the ideas flow naturally from that. This puts her in the same camp as Wells and de Camp, whereas Gerrold chose to eschew these concrete details almost completely, instead going directly to the conceptual side of the story. That’s fine once or twice, but it’s really books like To Say Nothing of the Dog that make up the bulk of time travel stories, and the most enjoyable.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is an important accomplishment in the genre of science fiction: a novel that stands its ground against the heavyweights of the time travel subgenre, at the same time as being quite funny. That doesn’t happen every day. Highly recommended.

A Traveller in Time, Alison Uttley, Faber and Faber, 1939, 331 pp.

The Story of the Amulet, E. Nesbit, Puffin Classics, 1905, 292 pp.

Tom's Midnight Garden, Phillipa Pearce, Oxford, 1958, 229 pp.

Elsewhere in this issue, we interviewed Alison Baird. We asked her about time travel novels, and she gave us her three favourites. Here are my mini-reviews of each of those books.

Uttley’s A Traveller in Time is the story a girl named Penelope, living around the time the book was written (or possibly in the 1910s: the time period is a bit fuzzy, but at one point a character does say it’s a 320 year difference). She lives in London with her family, but for reasons for health, she is sent to live with some relatives in the country, along with her two siblings. Along with the city girl on a farm part of the story, Penelope finds her way to the past in that very farmhouse, the past of the 1580s and the time of Mary Queen of Scots. Penelope can’t move through time, à la The Time Machine, but she does face some of the same time traveller issues. For example, people want to know what happens to Mary Queen of Scots, and often Penelope has to admit that she doesn’t remember the historical period that well. It’s a well-told story.

Tom’s Midnight Garden resembles A Traveller in Time in many ways. This is the story of Tom, a boy who has to go the Fens area of England because he is not supposed to catch the measles from Peter. He is now living with his aunt and uncle, who aren’t quite sure what to do with him, and the situation is exacerbated because he has to stay inside for a certain amount of time in case he is already contagious. Thankfully, he discovers that the grandfather clock in the downstairs of the house can send him back in time, once it has rung thirteen. At that hour, he can go out the garden door into the time of the 1890s, hence the title. Only a few people in that time can see him, and he makes friends with a young girl named Hattie. They have a number of adventures together, and the book wraps up with a touching connection across the years.

The Story of the Amulet was written earlier than the other two books, and it’s much different in storyline. A group of kids live in London in 1905, and they’ve had various adventures already, detailed in other books by Nesbit. This time around, they’re searching for the other half of a magic amulet, and by the power of the half they already have, they can go through time and space. The book is the story of their journeys to a number of different times: ancient Egypt, ancient Babylonia, Atlantis, aboard a Phoenician ship, and a few other locales. Of the these three books, The Story of the Amulet is the only one where the characters are in control of the time changes, and these kids only go to the past because they are searching for clues as to what happened to the other half of the amulet. A fun adventure story.

I would like to wrap up this column with one last section, a summary of a few of the other time travel books I've reviewed for Challenging Destiny.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card is about going back. As the story begins, time travel is limited to observation of the past, a fruitful occupation for historians, and a handy outlet for some Card’s ideas about the development of civilization. As the book progresses, we find out that the Pastwatch future is one of imminent environmental collapse, so the researchers cast about for some fulcrum point in history to make a better future to replace their own. Card’s story is about a one-way trip to a carefully selected moment in history. Also fascinating, and well researched.

Outpost by Scott Mackay is an odd species of literary science fiction, with a twist in the second half where a group of people has to pick a moment in the past to change. Card’s Pastwatch chose the arrival of Columbus in the New World, while Mackay picks the ideas of Machiavelli.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy presents us with a woman who is trapped in a horrifying mental asylum; to escape she dreams of a utopian future, either one that will exist in the future, or one that is only part of the woman’s mental escape from her hellish surroundings. The future utopia is a bit of a hobbyhorse list of feminist ideas, but it’s all the more effective for its context.

End of an Era by Robert J. Sawyer is about travel back to the age of dinosaurs, while Sawyer’s Flashforward resembles Robert Charles Wilson's Chronoliths, with a glimpse of the future. End of an Era features two paleontologists sent back to study dinosaurs; the time travel aspects of the novel are mostly a way to get the characters back to the age of dinosaurs, as the book is mostly about paleontology and various debates within the field. Of course it’s also an exciting adventure story! Flashforward tells us of an incident at a supercollider that gives everyone in the world a two-minute glimpse into their lives twenty years from now. As might be expected, some people see only blackness because they will be dead, others are with different partners than currently, and so forth. Like Chronoliths, the knowledge of the future threatens to destroy the equilibrium of the present, although in the case of Flashforward the story is told on a more personal scale.

A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright is a semi-sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine (as mentioned, a different book, The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter, is the authorized sequel). Wright is noted more for his travel writing, but A Scientific Romance was his first novel, followed this year by the excellent Henderson’s Spear. A Scientific Romance is a character-based novel, treating the idea of Wells’ The Time Machine as a way of throwing a flawed man into extreme circumstances. But it’s much more than that, due to Wright’s polished prose. Wright’s book strands the main character is a desolate future, vividly written and quite mysterious. Definitely worth finding.

Tune in next time for the second part of my time travel special. Part 2 will feature reviews of time travel movies, specifically 12 Monkeys, Back to the Future, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Donnie Darko, and both adaptations of The Time Machine. I will also be posting web-only reviews of Time Bandits, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and all three Terminator movies on the Challenging Destiny web site.

James Schellenberg lives in Canada and he’s quite glad that, chronologically speaking, the country is stable.

Last modified: June 16, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #16

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