what do we want time travel

When H.G. Wells wrote “The Time Machine” in 1895, he invented a future – a future genre of stories about time travel. What seems amazing is that it took so long.

Actually, there had been other precedents. The Mahabharata, the Pali Canon, and the Nihongi all had stories about travelers who returned home to find that decades or more had taken place in the short time they were away. In 1733, Samuel Madden wrote a story about someone finding letters from the late 20th century; in 1771, Louis-Sebastien Mercier wrote a story about someone waking up 700 years later; in 1819, Washington Irving wrote “Rip Van Winkle,” which has some of the same themes; in 1836, Alexander Veltman wrote a story about a person who travels to ancient Greece and interacts with Aristotle and Alexander the Great; in 1843, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” arguably presents the first person to go backward and forward in time, but it’s also arguable that this person sees visions and does not actually time-travel; and in 1861, Pierre Boitard showed a person traveling back in time to meet dinosaurs and apelike humans, a rather speedy confirmation of and reflection on Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1858).

In 1881, 20 years before the Edwardian era, two Edwards innovated fiction as they moved their characters into the past: the protagonist in Edward Everett Hale’s “Hands Off” travels to Ancient Egypt to prevent a Biblical slavery sale in the first known fictional alternate history, while the protagonists in Edward Page Mitchell’s “The Clock That Went Backward” move backward in time via the first known fictional time-travel apparatus, a clock. There were at least four other fictional leaps backward prior to Wells’ “Time Machine,” including a lesser-lit one from Wells himself as well as Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut in King Arthur’s Court.” But the prodigious success of The Time Machine assured the immortality of both that term Wells coined – “time machine” – as well as a certain subgenre of science fiction that would immerse its readers in the past and the future.

Since then, of course, post-Einstein physicists have proven time travel into the past to be impossible, at least by known laws of physics. Future travel is possible, and in fact happens every time an astronaut goes into space, albeit only by a few milliseconds, confirmed by high-precision clocks. (The sort of “time dilation” seen in Interstellar is pronounced possible by scientists, if rather unlikely to occur as it does in that film, since no planet would be likely to survive at the edge of a black hole). Yet the fantasy of time travel into the past, or throughout all time, persists, all the more remarkable considering that the fantasy was unknown, or unrecorded, in Shakespeare’s day. From Elizabethan times and before, we have records of fantasies of flight, of great strength, of invisibility, of mentalism. These also persist, even as physicists have not yet ruled them out.

But time travel has joined these and not gone away, much as cinema has joined the six arts and not gone away. What’s the appeal?

Three words: memories, regrets, dreams. These define us far more than we often like to admit. Anyone who works regularly with anyone with Alzheimer’s gets a constant education in the fact that our selves are built of memories. Someday, I like to think, we will understand our dream lives as fluidly as the characters do in the film Inception. How often do we dream of a possible future? How often do we dream of the past, and how often do we “fix” it?

The fantasy of fixing the past is even more potent than sex, because at least sex can be fulfilled every so often. We can peer in the rearview mirrors of our cars and flip a U-ey, but we can never do that with the rearview mirrors of our lives. And we think about the Heisenberg Principle, even if we don’t know that name (meaning that we don’t know why Walter White called himself that) – that nothing can be both witnessed and unaffected. To observe is to change. If we went back to the past, we’d change it. And change our future? Tweak it just a bit, to be the people we should have always been, live the lives we should have always led? Kind of an American fantasy, isn’t it, to assume our radical individualism can change not only the course of mighty rivers, but the course of mighty historical events?

Perhaps we can’t change the past – perhaps time “is written.” It’s an argument that’s been going on at least since John Calvin said that everything is fated. If Calvin was right, why do anything moral? Time travel forces us to confront moral questions – to indulge a fantasy of accepting responsibility for history, or rejecting it. To make morality and history contradict. To go back and kill Hitler, perhaps as an infant, is both a moral imperative and a historical imbroglio – no doubt, we must act to save millions from death in concentration camps, but perhaps Germany’s repurposed concentration leads to a new Bismarck acquiring nuclear weapons, and who knows what comes next?

My personal time travel fantasy involves going back to the 19th century and messing with America’s party system so that the Democrats and Republicans wouldn’t have ended up with a duopoly. Perhaps forcing Andrew Johnson out of office in 1868 to split the Republicans from the Radical Republicans, perhaps having U.S. Grant and William Sherman create a third party, perhaps Teddy Roosevelt forming a Bull Moose Party earlier and more effectively. If America had three roughly equivalently powerful parties today, oh, what a wonderful world this would be.

Perhaps the fantasy of time travel is like sailors’ fantasies of underwater treasures like mermaids and lost cities. As we float on the ocean of time, we long to transcend it somehow, to make something of it other than our restless voyage. We don’t want to be told we’re too late. Back to the Future gets that subtext right: time travel is never easy, and we’re often too late to what we should have been able to do. The “Outatime” on the license plate represents a rare reprieve, and unlike on Doctor Who, the first movie doesn’t allow that reprieve to happen without considerable effort. Like any worthwhile fantasy, time travel shouldn’t be all that easy to achieve.

This month, I’ve often heard Back to the Future called the “best time-travel movie ever.” I happen to agree, though I feel someone should be sticking up for The Terminator. Yet no one can doubt that Back to the Future has the best title of any time-travel movie, perhaps of any movie ever. (Maybe tied with The Silence of the Lambs.) Life is a pendulum swing between what was and what will be. As we grow older, as we move into our future, we become ever more conscious of the past that even preceded us – it’s old people (like me) who will correct you on what happened before we were born. After Halloween 2015, after Back to the Future month is over, and the entire trilogy is now set in the “past,” periodic headlines will still blare Back to the Future, as Apple announces a new/old product or doctors decide that an once-obsolete cure or rubric makes more sense than the newer revisions. William Faulkner was famous for saying, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” To that we add: “It’s the future, too.”

Share this post