Time travel is a time-honored science fiction staple. In the past year three books have grabbed my attention with different approaches to the topic.
The first two are from Connie Willis in her two volume, award-nominated opus, Blackout/All Clear. In her world, time-travel has become an important research tool. People are trained and go back to historical eras to observe and report. As in all time travel, there is always the fear and worry about not doing something to change the future.
Willis takes up the topic of England in the Bombing of London with a number of different researchers involved in a number of different adventures. One can argue, and I think Willis does, that simply by being in the midst of such events, life will be changed. Not in big ways — no one assassinates Hitler. But in small, seemingly inconsequential ways — more like Marty McFly getting his own parents together in the Back to the Future movies.
But in general, in Willis’ amazing history, time travel is part of the scientific landscape. Sure, people may use it for the own enjoyment or personal ends, but that does not take away from its scientific purposes.
Jack McDevitt, on the other hand, comes at it from a different angle. Time-travel and personal toy. In McDevitt’s future it appears as if only one man has discovered and developed time travel and he has disappeared into it. His son, Shel enlists his friend Dave in a century-hopping lark to find Shel’s father and, coincidentally do some historical exploring on their own.
Nowhere in McDevitt’s storyline in Time Travelers Never Die does time-travel become the norm. It is rather just the personal plaything of our heroes.
But it still raises the same paradoxical and difficult questions that Willis brings up. Shel and Dave are just as worried about having any impact on history as the WW II travelers in Blackout/All Clear. Is the “arrow of time” truly just one way? Is history unchangeable? Would WW II suddenly disappear from all history books in say, 2100, if in that year a time traveler went back and assassinated Hitler?
Or how about this. What if I wanted to live for some time in say, New York City in the Jazz Age or become an American Ex-Pat in Paris with Hemingway et. al.? Could I (or would I) just disappear without a trace at the moment I pressed the button on the sophisticated “Way-Back Machine?”
In our more recent science fiction people don’t worry as much about the scientific (im)possiibilities of time travel. Modern physics has given us the theoretical basis for alternative universes and branching timelines of history. But then it has never been about the science. It is about that underlying human desire to escape the jail of time. Are we really captives of that arrow of time? Is the past really gone, or does it somehow still live? Can I do anything about it?
I had this idea as I read these books, with a nod to Back to the Future again, about heading back in time as this 60-year old guy from the 21st Century. There I am in Georgia in 1944 as two strangers end up in the same restaurant, only tables apart. I end up being there to bring these two young people together and am an observer at their wedding not too long after that. I am the stranger in that odd diary entry I find in my mother’s diary years after she has died. I am the matchmaker for my own parents.
And until 2011 I don’t know it. But now I do. What fun.
That’s the kind of thinking I entertained when I read these particular books in the past year. Hence the title of McDevitt’s book, Time Travelers Never Die. They are always there, alive, waiting in some alternative universe. It is not lost but will somehow be accessible in a mystical-scientific method.
Or we wish it could be.
So maybe that person over at the table in the coffee shop as I wrote this is really from 2200, coming back to watch or even affect (her) past and (my) future.