The idea of time travel has fascinated artists, scientists, and historians for centuries. Authors have used the possibility of traveling through time to explore some of the big questions of human existence.

Here are five examples.

Time and Again by Jack Finney

When a secret government organization recruits advertising artist Si Morley for its time travel experiment, Morley jumps at the chance. His friend has the remnant of a partially burned letter dated January 1882, and Morley intends to see what he can find out about the letter writer and intended recipient. One temptation of time travel is that travelers will like some other time period better than their own. When Morley falls in love with a woman from the world of 1882, he must decide exactly who he is and where he belongs.

This 1970 novel is one of the most popular time-travel books, and its reputation is well deserved. Finney creates a compelling picture of life in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century and even makes time travel seem like a logical possibility. If you’re new to time travel literature, this novel is a good place to start.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This novel uses time travel to present an unlikely love story. Clare and Henry are soul mates, but Henry suffers from a rare genetic condition that throws him into temporal free fall whenever he experiences a high-stress situation. Although Henry cannot control when he vanishes and to what time period he travels, he always lands at some point in his own life time—either his past, present, or future. And he almost always lands somewhere and somewhen near Clare.

Much of the novel focuses on how both Clare and Henry learn to live with his unusual condition. But its emotional center is their love story, which transcends all the complications of their lives.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

One of the most intriguing aspects of time travel literature is consideration of this question: What if someone could travel back in time and prevent some tragic disaster? This is the situation Jake Epping, a 35-year-old English teacher from Maine, encounters. Jake’s friend Al has discovered a portal back to 1958 in the rear of his diner. Al has been traveling back and forth, gathering information necessary to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

When Al’s failing health prevents him from finishing his mission, he recruits Jake to take up the cause. Using Al’s research, Jake settles into a life in 1958 Texas while planning to thwart Lee Harvey Oswald’s attack in Dallas. But like Si Morley in Time and Again, Jake discovers that life in another time period has potential complications. And even if Jake can stop the assassination, should he? What are the consequences of changing the past so drastically?

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

In 1976 in California, Dana, an African American woman, is suddenly pulled through time and plunked down in pre-Civil War Maryland. She saves a drowning white boy, only to find herself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. Just as her life is about to end, she is pulled through time once again and deposited back into her present life. Dana experiences several more of these time-wrenching experiences, always landing in the life of the same young man.

Octavia E. Butler was the first black woman to write science fiction, and this is her best known and most often studied novel. Butler won both Hugo and Nebula awards and in 1995 became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. This novel uses time travel as a trope for exploring questions of cultural history and social justice.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Focusing on the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut examines the meaning of history and of human existence in what has become one of the most famous anti-war literary works of all time. This novel considers war not only as a broad, abstract concept of history but also as a human experience that affects all the people it touches.

No description can possibly do this novel justice. You must read it. It’s short, but you’ll continue to think about it for the rest of your life.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

How Stephen King Made Pop Culture Weird

If you’ve ever been to Austin, TX, you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Keep Austin Weird.” Even my new hometown of Tacoma, WA, likes to call itself weird, as does Portland, OR, in the photo above.

Lincoln Michel explains that these are not isolated occurrences:

If you haven’t heard, “weird” is back in style. From hit TV shows like Stranger Things and True Detective (season one only, please) to best-selling novels like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and George R.R. Martin’s weirder-than-the-show A Song of Ice and Fire, pop culture is getting increasingly strange. Odd beasts, dark tunnels, and writhing tentacles are cool again. And, in the wake of his 69th birthday, it seems time to celebrate the person who is the most responsible for weirding up pop culture: Stephen King.

He singles out King because “Plenty of authors write books that are equally dark, weird, and genre-bending, but few have King’s impact on pop culture.” This article caught my eye because one of my recent reads was King’s 11/22/63, a time-travel alternate-history romance (“genre-bending,” although “genre-blending” would be more accurate) that kept me spellbound.

A theory of creepiness

If you’ve been hanging out around Notes in the Margin for a while, you’ve heard me say that I don’t read books about zombies, vampires, or werewolves. Even though I know these unnatural beings can be potent metaphors for contemporary life, I just don’t like them.

But, until I came across this article, I had never examined my revulsion with these creatures until I came across this article, which made me realize I dislike zombies, vampires, and werewolves because of their creepiness:

creepiness – Unheimlichkeit, as Sigmund Freud called it – definitely stands apart from other kinds of fear. Human beings have been preoccupied with creepy beings such as monsters and demons since the beginning of recorded history, and probably long before. Even today in the developed world where science has banished the nightmarish beings that kept our ancestors awake at night, zombies, vampires and other menacing entities retain their grip on the human imagination in tales of horror, one of the most popular genres in film and TV.

In this article David Livingstone Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of New England and director of the Human Nature Project, examines psychological theories in looking to answer the question “Why the enduring fascination with creepiness?”

Bending Mind and Time: 6 of the Best Time Travel Books

11_22_63I’ve always been fascinated by the use of time travel as a literary device. Matt Staggs begins this brief article with a look at the new book Time Travel: A History by James Gleick, a scientist’s look at representations of time travel in popular culture and science. Staggs then discusses five of the best known novels featuring time travel:

  1. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)
  2. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
  3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  4. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
  5. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

He concludes:

In the absence of the real thing, novels function as time machines in their own right, allowing us to look at what was, and what may yet be, at a safe distance.

RELENTLESSLY RELEVANT: The Dangerous Legacy of Henry James

I’ve long thought that, with the possible exception of “The Turn of the Screw,” the works of Henry James shouldn’t be studied until graduate school. James’s insight into the human psyche is so subtly complex that only people with a lot of life experience can understand and appreciate it.

Paula Marantz Cohen, Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, uses the recent issuance of a stamp honoring Henry James by the U.S. Postal Service as a springboard for this article. Cohen sees James’s “dense and difficult” late writing — The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, all written between 1902 and 1904 — as a bridge from the Victorian era into modernity (the age of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) and then, further, into our age of postmodernism:

His superficial kinship was with European modernists like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Late James is often opaque, … and opaqueness was a hallmark of the modernist rejection of facile realism.

There is an indeterminacy with respect to truth that his later work supports in such an aggressive way that it becomes a worldview. Words, normally meant to communicate, are deployed more as obstacles to communication than as facilitators to it. The fragmented nature of his dialogue leaves meaning unresolved between characters (he describes them as continually “hanging fire”).

Cohen writes that James’s characters “were always trying to make the most out of situations and see the best in people through their imaginative flexibility — to salvage meaning to some positive, creative end.” However, she laments, in academia this process became subverted into giving truth “purely provisional meaning based on what the speaker wants to relay and the listener/reader wants to hear.” The result “betrays the ideals of [James’s] moral imagination. And yet his great later writing can be seen as its precursor.”

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

13 + 1 Books That Feature Time Travel

I find time travel fascinating. It can be just a gimmick to add suspense or intrigue to a story, but some authors use it as a technique to explore the world we live in or the way we think about things, including ourselves.

Here are 13 novels that use time travel to explore larger themes.

  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  • Time And Again by Jack Finney
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  • The Book of Rachel by Joel Gross
  • _Labyrinth( by Kate Mosse
  • Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson
  • In the Courts of the Sun and sequels by Brian D’Amato
  • The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser

And there’s also a hefty (800 pages!) anthology of time-travel stories: The Time Traveler’s Almanac, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

Monday Miscellany

If your life is anything like mine, you’re swamped right about now with holiday preparations and festivities. This week’s installment of Monday Miscellany, therefore, will be mercifully short.

An Introduction to Psych You Up. Literally.

Maria Konnikova is a woman after my own heart. At Scientific American she has just introduced her new column, Literally Psyched, a “journey of interdisciplinary exploration”:

Here, I propose to use literature and creative inspiration to explore concepts in the psychology of the mind and human thought. To create a place that will blend the world of fiction and non-fiction, that of the literary and the psychological, of artistic inspiration and scientific exploration. To use whatever inspires me—a book, a character, a line, a moment—as a window of insight into the human mind. For who are creative writers but individuals who have dedicated their life and art to observing and chronicling humans as a whole: their interactions, their dreams, their hopes, their disappointments, the full complexity of their internal life?

And, as if her interdisciplinary approach to the areas in which literature (and other creative endeavors) and psychology intersect weren’t enough, she begins this introductory post with a personal story, a narrative anecdote from her own life that illustrates how she has become the person she is.

Literature, psychology, and life narrative all wrapped up together! This is good stuff. I think she’d probably be interested in Literature & Psychology.

Not Exactly Everyday Engineering: a Q&A with Brian Clegg

Publishers Weekly interviews Brian Clegg:

In his new book How to Build a Time Machine, Brian Clegg takes a “pop science” look at time travel, explaining quantum entanglement and superluminal speeds in terms that even a technophobe could understand. We asked Clegg about his book, some of his favorite time travel stories, and the most important scientific discovery of his lifetime.

I’ve always been fascinated by the literary potential of time travel. Devising a means of time travel is a challenge to a writer’s creative ingenuity: a blow to the head, a drug, a complex machine, a dream, a wormhole in the space-time continuum, a genetic disease, a ghostly netherworld. But the means of time travel is only a gimmick. What’s really important are the philosophical, psychological, scientific, and moral questions that would arise if, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, we were to come unstuck in time: What happens if a time traveler changes history? Can time travelers meet their older or younger selves in a different time period? If I could go back to an earlier time in my life knowing what I know now, would I change anything, and, if so, what might the results be? What advice would I offer my younger self? Would I listen to anything my older self had to tell me? Would I want to know how and when I was going to die?

Asked about his favorite fiction involving time travel, Brian Clegg, who has a degree in physics from Cambridge, replied:

One of my all time favorites is a short story by Robert Heinlein called “All You Zombies.” Heinlein sets up a wonderful time paradox, where the main character, who has had a sex change, goes back in time to impregnate his younger, female self. The resultant child is then moved back through time to become the mother. The character has literally come from nowhere. Perhaps my favorite novel with a time travel theme is Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, originally envisaged as a counter to Heinlein’s gung-ho Starship Troopers. Because the protagonists in Forever War are always taking long journeys at near the speed of light, they travel far into the future. By the time they return home everyone they once knew is dead, the world is not the one they remember – so there is nothing for it but to sign up for another tour.

See, its the implications of the time travelers’ actions, not the time travel itself, that’s fascinating.

Clegg believes that our ability to construct the technology necessary for time travel is thousands of years away. “But for me the amazing thing is that it’s only a matter of getting the technology right. There’s nothing in physics that prevents time travel.”

Give the holiday gift with the most staying power

For Walter Rodgers, writing in The Christian Science Monitor, that gift is books:

Even the best Christmas gifts lose their luster within a few months. Books have a staying power few gifts can match. I have nothing left from Christmases long past except my childhood books, each still prized. This season, give books. They are our bulwarks against time, ignorance, and barbarity.

 

Finally, here’s a photo for the season:

 

wreath