In Soul Lost my male protagonist, Prince Alfred, travels from the 9th to the 21st century and back to retrieve his soul mate, Isabel, with the help of the wizard, Merlin. This gave me pause to think about the reasons why we are so fascinated with time travel. I confess I haven’t read a lot of time travel books, but I try to catch as many time travel movies and TV shows as I can. Reading the all the time travel books in the universe is on my bucket list.
Why do we want to time travel? I’ve come up with four reasons that appear in books and movies:
- Out of curiosity, like Back to the Future. Marty and Dr. Brown wind up having to fix the problems they solve by time traveling, but Dr. Brown’s original motivation was just to do it because he could.
- To accomplish something specific, for example Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Kirk and crew have to get some whales to save 24th century Earth from man’s 20th century short-sightedness.
- To change the past or the future with an eye to making the present better. Quantum Leap is a classic example of this. Though Sam Beckett orginally meant to simply prove time travel was possible, the whole premise of the show is that he “puts right what once went wrong.”
- By accident, usually due to some warp in the fabric of time or space, or occasionally the application of the theory of relativity. A prime example of this is the original Planet of the Apes. Charleton Heston believes he’s travelled to another world until he discovers the remains of the Statue of Liberty.
My top ten, with an eye to their motivation for and method of time travel:
- Kate and Leopold: travel by a rift in time/space discovered by Liev Schreiber. Hugh Jackman, an English Duke from 1878, accidentally time travels by following Liev through the rift, and meets his one true love, Meg Ryan.
- The Philadelphia Experiment: A World War II aircraft carrier is propelled through time due to a radar experiment gone wrong. The boat goes back but strands Michael Pare and friend the future.
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Captain Kirk and friends find that whales were actually visiting aliens and the mothership has come back to get them. Assuming there is no intelligent life on Earth, the mothership decides to wipe it clean, unless it finds evidence that the whales are still there. Their method of travel is accomplished by sling-shotting around the sun. Not sure exactly how that works, but the rest of the plot holds water (those who have seen the movie, pardon the pun).
- Quantum Leap: Dr. Sam Beckett develops the ability to time travel using some form of string theory that I don’t really understand. When he ‘leaps’ the first time he is ‘grabbed’ by some Force that propels him randomly through time to fix things that went wrong the first time.
- Back to the Future: Dr. Emmet Brown builds a time travel machine in a DeLorean using a ‘flux capacitor’ and accidentally sends Marty McFly into the past where his teenage mother develops a crush on him.
- Timeline by Michael Crichton: The book is much better than the movie, in my opinion. Like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, short-sighted, ambitious scientists have developed a time travel machine because they can without asking if they should. A few of their people get stranded in the middle of a violent medieval war between the French and the English, and the good guys go back in timeto retrieve them.
- Millenium (the movie, not the TV series): Visitors from an apocalyptic future travel into our present to recruit people to repopulate the human species in their future. They do this by taking people off passenger jets right before they crash and replacing them with non-living replicants.
- The Terminator: In another apocalyptic future, machines have decided humans aren’t worth the trouble and so they are killing us all. When a resistance leader named John Connor threatens their power, they send a Terminator cyborg back in time to kill his mother before she gets pregnant. The humans manage to send one defender through time to save her. How do they time travel? I’m not really sure, but you have to be naked to do it.
- Somewhere in Time: In my opinion, Christopher Reeve’s gift as an actor was his ability to seem sincere. The method of time travel in this movie is hard to swallow, but I have no problem believing he wants it to work. Jane Seymour is certainly an inspiring beauty, and it’s not hard to accept that he would go to great lengths to be with her.
- 13 going on 30: Thirteen year-old Jenna Rink skips through time to her 30-year-old self and discovers she needs to ‘watch what you wish for.’ The travel is accomplished through some sort of ‘fairy dust,’ but I overlook the improbablity of that for the fun plot and sweet coming of age so winningly portrayed by Jennifer Garner.
There are lots of others, but this will do for the time being.
Time travel stories are a lot of fun, but the big problem is always the same. No matter how you time travel, if you change the events of the past, then you will change the present in ways you cannot anticipate. You may solve one problem but you will create a hundred others. Think of the Butterfly Effect, which posits that a butterfly beating its wings in South America can effect the weather in Texas. I also refer you to Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which shows how every person affects the lives of countless others, far beyond the people they know.
I often wish I could time travel and just stay. Why? One, because my body type belongs to a past where generously proportioned women were considered desirable and not to the image conscious present. My short, stout people survived Ice Ages and famines, but there isn’t much need for that now. Two, because I am overwhelmed with the amount of stuff people expect me to do, I’d love a simpler time with fewer demands. Three, it would be nice to live in a time where it was considered an occupation to be a writer and thinker, and your value was not determined by your bank account.
I know, I know, this is an idealized version of the past. I’ve been to the Jorvik museum in York. I know medieval times were nasty and dirty and smelled horrible back in the day. That’s why I write my own time travel/alternate universe stories–so I can create worlds that draw together the best of the past and the present.