I am inordinately fond of time travel stories. I’ve published a few of my own, (see, e.g., (“Liza’s Home”, “Conflagration” and “The Never Fair”), and long argued that their juxtaposition and confusion of memory and expectation allow for a kind of emotional resonance you can’t achieve anywhere else. Tell me a book is about time travel, and I’ll buy it.
But in the last year or so, there’s been an odd spate of stories on Escape Pod and Podcastle featuring narcissistic time travelers: temporal experimenters trying to undo childhood abuse, quantum physicists trying to fix their romantic relationships, other quantum physicists trying to save their deceased spouses, owners of magic potions revising their lives until they work, spiritual adepts fine tuning their adulthoods to ever-increasing levels of coolness and fame, etc., etc.
Now, I enjoyed every one of those stories (some were magnificent), but I began to get impatient with the persistent self-centeredness of the time traveler (or world changer, or potion drinker). All they ever wanted to do was fix details (albeit often important details) in their own lives. Given the power to bend the course of time itself, to see the truth or falsity of history, to make the world better for millions, these lucky people could not see beyond the problems in their own past. It’s like having the secret to cheap, pollution-free power and using it for a better sun lamp in your bathroom.
Then I took another look at my own time-travel stories, and I recognized that my time travelers were kinda narcissistic too. Then I started thinking about the time travel stories I admire, and realized that most of them featured the same sort of character. David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, probably my favorite time travel story ever, is also the most deliberately and relentlessly narcissistic — it is ultimately about nothing at all except the traveler’s relationship to himself. Heinlein’s “All You Zombies — “, the spiritual father of Gerrold’s novel, is another story in which the time traveler turns out to be the only character.
So I started to wonder — is time travel necessarily myopic and narcissistic in fiction? Is there something about this device that deflects protagonists into self-absorption and solipsism?
Ask the question a different way: Why does someone visit the past? If you’re one of Connie Willis’s historians (e.g., To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, this year’s Hugo winners, etc.) then you go to see it, to study it, to understand it. Time travelers in Kage Baker’s Company stories, John Varley’s “Air Raid”, and Nancy Kress’s “The Price of Oranges” visit the past to steal/preserve things from it. But most other time travelers visit the past in order to change it.
This is hardly surprising. The arrow of entropy points in one direction only, but our memories point the opposite way, and this gives us repeated occasions for longing and regret. If only it had gone differently. If only he hadn’t been able to buy a gun; if only she’d taken a different turn; if only they’d had access to antibiotics; if only I’d said; if only I’d thought to… So time travel stories naturally provide an avenue in which these wishes can be fulfilled. In most of these stories, the fulfillment is frustrated (as in Alfred Bester’s “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”) or or fulfilled with ugly unforeseen consequences (as in Sprague de Camp’s “Aristotle and the Gun” or Heather Albano’s Timepiece), because otherwise the narrative is too predictable.
Now, if your goal is to Change One Thing, and the One Thing is a pivotal moment history, then which pivotal moment do you choose? How do you allocate your time travel resources between stopping one genocide and stopping another? Between saving one doomed poet and another? The story becomes either an impossible ethical choice or a character study about people’s idiosyncratic biases in understanding the past.
But if the One Thing is a private, personal moment — preventing the death of a loved one, or asking her to marry you before it’s too late, erasing the child sexual abuse you suffered — then the problem of choice is eliminated and the story can focus on the ethics or psychological meaning of the decision to interfere. No longer do we have to worry about which moment is the right one to change, or whether the change would really benefit “the world” in a utilitarian sense. The narrative becomes less cluttered and the issues sharper. Too, it is easier to get the reader invested in the sorrows and fears of the individual than the crises of the community. (As blackholly taught me, “The End of the World is less compelling than a threat to the protagonist’s child.”)
In other words, a certain amount of claustrophobic self-absorption may be structurally necessary to the past-changing time-travel story. This bothers me less now than it did when I began writing this post.