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Posts Tagged ‘time travel’

Time Travel is a concept that has served many literary needs: a protagonist’s hopes and desires, what-if scenarios for historical events, and philosophical puzzles and paradoxes, to name a few. It’s a trope with multiple subtropes, and typically involves a futuristic machine and a scientist out to change an event in the past or prevent one in the future. TV shows from The Twilight Zone in the 60s to the current Timeless on NBC have put time travel front and center. Movie franchises have been built around it (Terminator, Back to the Future). Every sci fi writer alive today probably has a dozen or more story concepts based on time travel stuffed into a drawer.

One of Time Travel’s subtropes is what I call Magic Time Gone Wrong. Magic Time, for those who know their faerie myths, is what sets apart the magical world from ours. Whereas our time is linear, Magic Time is circular. All magic spells rely on this fact; a circle drawn in a spell is a graphic manifestation of the time’s circle. A circle has no beginning or end, thus creating a mental form of the infinite. In its most obvious manifestation, Magic Time brings us back to the elemental cycles and rhythms of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and moon. In linear time, birth is the beginning and death the end; in Magic Time, the two cannot be separated.

Time Travel stories that make use of Magic Time are invariably much less geared toward sci fi. Futuristic machines and evil scientists are often absent altogether, for the engine that drives the loop often can only be described in mysterious ways. These stories are rarely about historical events, but personal karma, in which the main character invariably must find their way out of the time loop that has them mercilessly trapped.

The most well-known example of this story is the engaging and popular movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a weatherman seemingly doomed to repeat one day for the rest of his life (so popular has this movie become over time—heh heh—that “groundhog day” has entered the common vernacular to mean something happening to someone over and over again, usually with distressing consequences). Murray’s character Phil the Weatherman cannot hop into a machine and travel out of the loop; he has to feel his way out. He must undergo personal growth before he can be released from Magic Time.

Among many books for children that employ time travel, Dorian Cirrone’s recently published middle grade novel The First Last Day also relies on a time loop to provide her main character’s obstacle that doubles as a vehicle for self-discovery. Instead of a weatherman, Haleigh Adams is an eleven-year-old girl who, without realizing it, paints a picture that magically makes her live out her last day of a beach vacation over and over again. Like Phil, she has no technological way out. Her only hope is to find the instructions to the box of paints that mysteriously showed up in her backpack. Ultimately she succeeds only by perserverance, and by learning to trust her best friend, a boy she might have a crush on. By repeatedly going over the same events over and over again, she tries in subtle ways to alter reality, but nothing works until she makes a connection with her friend’s grandmother that helps her unpaint the painting and consciously choose to undue her wish for the last day of vacation to never end.

Though The First Last Day tracks Groundhog Day very closely, the main characters are quite different. Phil the Weatherman is a blasé, arrogant fool who grows so despondent he tries to commit suicide to escape the loop, only to find himself waking up yet again to the same song (“I Got You Babe”) on his clock radio. Haleigh is a bright, creative preteen who has self-image problems but otherwise is the kind of person you’d like to know. Unlike Haleigh, Phil doesn’t have a magic paintbox—his time loop ends just as mysteriously as it begins, but only after he discovers the power of love. Haleigh’s journey isn’t nearly so harrowing, but it does include a lesson in the power of letting go and accepting death. While one story is for adults and the other for grade school readers, each treats Magic Time as the power that drives personal change.

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“What if?”

These two words provide the impetus for an increasingly popular class of novel known as the alternate history. What if the Allies had lost World War II? What if Jesus had organized an army and overthrown Rome? What if the Black Plague had eradicated European civilization, leading to world domination by Asian countries?

Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, asks: What if the South had won the Civil War? Published in 1955, it was one of the first modern alternate histories to be published. It’s also fairly unique in that it combines the alternate history with the more traditional time travel story, replete with time travel’s inherent philosophical conundrums. Moore manages to converge these two plot devices in a way that makes for a generally good read and an exciting, if predictable, ending.

That’s not to say it’s a typical sci-fi read: no science enters into at all for the first four-fifths of the story. But I found Moore’s post-Civil War world compelling, if not terribly convincing. That’s because he’s essentially written a proto-steampunk novel that takes place in the middle of the twentieth century. Cars don’t exist; instead the fortunate few drive the occasional “minibile,” a steam-powered carriage. Electricity is virtually non-existent; illumination is here provided by the ubiquitous gaslight. It seems that, while the Confederate victory has led to a wealthy South and an impoverished—dare I say dystopian?—North, technology itself has fallen into a kind of Odin sleep.

The main character, a man strangely named Hodge Backmaker, is a bookish sort, lacking in social skills and possessing, even as a teenager, the vocabulary of a formal scholar. He constantly questions himself and his relationship with other members of Haggershaven, a quasi-Utopian community of scholars has joined. As he follows his natural bent to study history, philosophical questions about time, personal responsibility, and the role of the historian crop up now and then, either as part of his nature to mull over his own shortcomings, or in conversation with his fellows at Haggershaven. An action-packed tale this is not, though there is some romance (mixed with the usual recriminations and self-doubts).

At first I found some of Backmaker’s ramblings humorous, particularly when he winkingly references famous people from our historical line in a quotidian way in the alternate history—“Carl Jung,” for example, is a police chief. He presents a brief, but marvelously funny picture of a “Southron” gentleman who gloats over Yankee racism while teasing Backmaker for associating with a “Nigra”:

He made a gargling noise which I judged was laughter. “Wouldn’t know about your damyankee laws, boy. For myself I’d say there’s no harm in it [associating with a black person], no harm in it at all. Always did like to be around Nigras myself. But then I was rared among em. Most damyankees seem to think Nigras aint fitten company. Only goes to show how narrerminded and bigoted you folks can be. Present company excepted.

Unfortunately this sort of interchange, which reveals subtle differences in racism between our history and the alternate one, are few and far between. After he finds his way to Haggershaven, most of his interactions are with other scholars and conflicting love interests.

SPOILER ALERT: The following paragraphs reveal plot information that you may wish to remain hidden should you decide to read the novel. If so, skip to CONCLUSION.

One of those love interests is the founder’s daughter, an intense woman who has a prolonged, difficult affair with Hodge. But it’s not until late in the story that we learn that she is a scientific genius—genius enough, it turns out, to invent a time machine, even though Einstein, if he did exist in this history, was probably just a lowly bank teller, and quantum physics lay on nobody’s event horizon. This stretched my credulity—not that the inventor would be a woman, but that she could do this is in a virtual scientific vacuum. Nonetheless, she is rarin’ to go with the “HX-1” (as she calls the machine), and after it proves timeworthy it’s only a matter of, ahem, time before our man Hodge decides to take it on a spin back to the pivotal point of the Civil War—the Battle of Gettysburg—as part of his historical research.

Since the reader knows he is stuck in the past, Hodge’s fate is pretty well cast. Indeed, out of laziness or carelessness, he interacts with some Confederate soldiers just as the battle begins—and the soldiers, rather than advance to where they should have been, instead retreat. That was all that was needed to tip the battle in the Union’s favor, and the North went on to win the War.

And poor Hodge, after failing to return to his own time in 1951, realized that his own time no longer existed. Haggershaven no longer existed, and the loves of his life (the founder’s daughter, plus a woman he’d rescued earlier named “Catty”—don’t ask) no longer existed. The time machine now never existed. And he was stuck in the past forever.

CONCLUSION

I give Moore credit for creating a hero who wasn’t a martial artist, didn’t have any superpowers, and at times revealed an unpleasant personality. The colony provided an unusual social medium for him, and his philosophical thoughts on things historical provided interesting intellectual counterpoint to a plot which, for all its faults, came together in a satisfying way. I cut him some slack, too, for writing in a period—the early fifties—in which female characters were commonly depicted as emotionally overwrought or intellectually vacuous. The main character’s voice was, oddly, convincing for a man in the 1800s but not the 1900s. It was as though the entire culture of the late 1800s got frozen in time. Evidently the Confederacy, as well as other world superpowers, had achieved wealth and culture not evident in the impoverished “United States,” but the story itself takes place entirely in New York and Pennsylvania. And what about the American West? Almost nothing. Subsequent alternate histories by other authors would more creatively flesh out their worlds, but I do recognize Moore as a pathfinder for his efforts.

Postscript: As a copyeditor, I couldn’t help note the recurring, seemingly random absences of apostrophes throughout the text. Example: couldnt, no apostrophe. But on the same page: don’t, with apostrophe. It was as though the editor responsible for the final copy lived between two histories, one in which apostrophes existed and one in which they didn’t.

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