Sunday, May 19, 2024

We revisit time travel


I'm not sure if time travel stories are a genre, a motif, or simply all of fiction. I do lean towards the latter view, which I think Kurt Vonnegut was suggesting somewhat in Slaughterhouse Five. What is narrative other than something that proceeds in a directed linear fashion like a timeline, and yet can be visited at any point at any time, defying sequence?

Well, tons of things, I suppose, but that too.

I just finished a pretty good time travel novel call The Ministry of Time, by Kaliane Bradley. It starts out being about a program where doomed people are plucked out of England's history and integrated into the present day. It begins as a bit of almost realistic romantic comedy and gets more spy thrillery as one goes along. Time travel stories have a way of ramping up like that. Time travel is hard to keep from running wild.

My favorite time travel stories are often only partly time travel stories, and they pull off dazzling narrative tricks with narrative, where everything makes perfect sense even if it shouldn't. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, arguably the only really terrific book in the series, pulls off a dazzling version of this where events that looked one way when we first encounter them turn entirely different in a new context, and yet remain consistent from every angle. Jasper Fforde, one of my favorite plotters ever, never goes all in on time travel narratives, but casually employs its devices at will to dazzling effect.

Of course, there are no rules with a feature I love so much. The movie About Time is a time travel coming of age romantic comedy about a family where the men can move back into points in their life and change the future. Not only is it full of charm, but it oddly manages the rare grace of keeping time travel low stakes despite its inherent Nuclear Bomb like power. On the other hand it is an absolute disaster class in time travel mechanics. I can't not notice that, and yet am regularly mystified at how little it ultimately matters to me.

There are also pure time travel stories out there that I love, with tightly assembled mechanics. I've talked about Stanislaw Lem's brilliant short story in The Star Diaries here before (The Seventh Voyage), and I've even done homages. Favorite authors of mine like Mark Twain, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Terry Pratchett significantly employ time travel. And maybe that starts to explain some of it to me. If we say that Time Travel is not a genre, it has a distinct predilection for all my favorite genres: Romantic Comedy, Farce, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Adventure. It is no accident that The Ministry of Time is all of these, as are most, no, ALL, of my examples.

But what's my favorite time travel story?

I'll get back to you.

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