By Helen T
—My Attempt to classify time-travel stories into their own place
Time travel has been a tantalizing and ominous topic for a long time since the explosion of all kinds of natural science and the Industrial Revolution. It seems like human beings become much stronger and more powerful everyday at an astonishing speed, but in many’s eyes another vicious process has begun, and this world is drifting into an unreturnable abyss – pollution from earth to ocean and air, war from local to global, machine gun to nuclear weapons, etc. Nietzsche said that the evolution of science and technology will eventually lead to the failure of humanity, Marx describes Capitalism as the process of dehumanization, and Arendt argues that the ultimate change of human conditions leads to an entirely different mindset. In the nostalgia of “the good old days” and the fear of the shit-like presence as well as the bleak unknown future, time travel stories as a genre were born.
There is an interesting argument coming from Hume who argues that one cannot imagine a presence coming out from nowhere/he or she never perceived before, and he gives an example saying that a Chimera is merely composed of all different kinds of animals that exist in the real world. If we apply this idea to all kinds of fantasy and science fiction, it makes sense to argue (and I personally believe) that authors are depicting and exaggerating the present Earth in their imaginary futuristic/imaginary world, and they’re either secretly or openly embedding their own wishes into it. Either for By His Bootstraps or Man Who Met Himself, authors give more space to describe the experience and influence of time travel and the reaction of the protagonist instead of making sense of the mechanism of the time machine. However, probably because there is always a time machine existing in the story, the most common category people grant to time-travel stories is “science fiction” instead of something else.
There are many definitions of what classifies real science fiction, one of them that I think makes the most sense is that the author is trying to use logic and scientific methodology to make sense of the imaginary setting or invention he or she adds to the top of the real world. (Eg. in Dune, although Arrakis doesn’t exist in the real world, its ecosystem still makes sense in terms of either ecology or biology and there’s a complete and delicate design of it made by the author. If we take this as the definition of science fiction, there are a few things that those two novels I mentioned above failed to fulfill: in By His Bootstrap, there is no explanation of the reason for such a weird kind of future world to occur; and in both novels, the central sci-fi concept – the time machine – ends up with few explanations. Although both authors close the logic loop in the end (the time travel trip is just a smaller loop inside a bigger one), this is still a deviation from the more authentic kind of science fiction. In fact, Via the Time Accelerator, though using a pretty awkward and weird explanation of the time accelerator at the beginning of the story, does try to make sense of the time accelerator. (This type of explanation is pretty common in the earlier stage of sci-fi, in that time era one responsibility of sci-fi is education). Therefore, those two novels emphasize the type of society, the kind of warning/wish both authors have toward the real world, and probably also some philosophical reflection, but not the science or technology itself (although the settings are certainly inspired by Einstein’s Relativity).
Another topic worth discussing is about the concept of “Me” and the manipulation of identity in time travel stories. One’s destiny is always intertwined with the history (“plot”) of the world and a major and cliche reason for someone to either travel to the future or especially back to the past is to change his/her (or his beloved’s) destination. There are usually two kinds of world settings: 1. Predestination, the whole universe from its creation to its death has already been determined, and time travel is just a slightly special smaller loop inside a bigger one; 2. multiverse/paradox, one can change the past or future, but this will usually result in a completely different new world with (sometimes) unexpected consequences due to the so-called Butterfly Effect.
Interestingly, both kinds of settings involve multi-selves and free will. According to the two novels (belonging to the predestination category), human beings exist discretely in a slice of time and are merely connected by common memory. The thought that “this WAS me who did this” creates an illusion of a single self. Multiverse on the other hand handles this problem more gently, with a focus on the discussion on the relationship between one’s identity/personality with his or her destiny/the world he or she is living in. In terms of free will, accompanied by the close loop of logic and the paradox created by time travel, Predestination manipulates the protagonist and beats them eventually with the cruel fact that they cannot do anything. On the other hand, the multiverse does emphasize the difficulty and subtlety of changing anything that happened in the past, but also grants characters the power to change something with a time machine, and time travel is not a cruel show demonstrating the power of fate anymore. In terms of both free will and identity, the multiverse is a milder and more colorful version of the predestination time story, the loose of strict requirements of a close time loop does introduce more possibility to the plot and makes it much more interesting. And that’s probably also the reason why the second kind dominates today.