Time travel is my favourite SF concept. Partly because I love history and thinking about how things compare and change over time. I also love way the time travel gets me thinking about timelines and consequences, even if temporal causality can be a headache if you dwell on it for too long. In this post I’m going to look at stories in which time travel is invented as part of technological advances.
Technological time travel is pleasing as it assumes that human ingenuity will eventually conquer the fourth dimension. This may be unrealistically optimistic considering that we still have considerable limitations in just 3 dimensions, but the invention of time travel is an idealistic thing. Since Wells’ trope-naming work (which could have been The Time Contraption or The Timeambulator) the idea of humans discovering the secrets of time has intrigued and entertained.
Lone Time Traveller
As well as naming the device H. G. Wells also popularised the idea of the lone time traveller. There are various stories of a scientist or inventor who constructs and uses his time machine all by himself (it seems that there is a severe shortage of women inventing time travel). Though it’s highly unlikely (even within the context of time travel), the idea of an eccentric genius messing about in his shed or cellar and building a time machine is appealing. The tradition is continued by Doc Brown in the Back to the Future films and lampooned in Blackadder: Back & Forth. In the latter Baldrick, the most idiotic character, accidentally creates a real time machine (instead of the fake he was asked to construct) using plans drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci.
Quantum Leap takes a more plausible approach, in which the genius scientist is backed up by a large, expensive scientific facility with a supercomputer (housed in a glowing blue mountain, naturally). Dr Sam Beckett’s adventures in time are caused by a need to prove his theories, causing him to rashly throw himself into the experiment. What academic hasn’t gotten a bit hasty when faced with funding cuts?
Different Strokes for Future Folks
A likely origin of time travel is the future, because it’s nice to think that by then people will invent all the stuff we can only imagine now. That’s pretty much their job. Of course this may be another overly-idealistic assumption.
In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure a man from a future utopia helps a pair of underachieving teens. However it’s foolish to assume that the future inventors of time travel will have our best interests at heart, as is demonstrated by the Terminator franchise. It feels all too plausible that machines, not humans, will invent time travel, they’re less likely to get distracted by youtube videos.
Even if they aren’t actively against us, it’s unlikely that we’ll be viewed kindly by future generations. You don’t want your great-great-grandchildren coming back through time to judge your primitive ways. I notice that when people from the Star Trek franchises come into contact with late-20th Century humans they often seem smugly superior.
We Didn’t Mean to Travel through Time
There are examples of time travel as the unintended consequence of other technological advancements, especially space travel. As I understand it (and I’m far better with history than physics), due to space and time being a continuum if you go far enough fast enough in space you will seem to travel through time from the viewpoint of those still on Earth.
In Flight of the Navigator, where a child is unknowingly abducted by a spaceship and returned after a few hours onboard, but because the ship was travelling faster than light 8 years have passed on Earth.
‘39 by Queen, composed by astrophysicist band-member Brian May, tells a beautifully melancholy tale of the human cost of an inter-stellar journey. A volunteer returns from a vital space mission, only to find that his loved one is long dead. “So many years have passed, though I’m older but a year.” It’s a wonderful song and I highly recommend it.
Most of the inventors of time travel are working in the spirit of scientific enquiry and exploration; they do it to visit distant time periods, or just to see if they can. However time travellers have varying motivations. When it comes to humans, the important question isn’t necessarily whether we can do it, but what will we do once we have it?
To Right a Wrong
Regret is a powerful emotion, hindsight is twenty-twenty and everyone wants a second chance. Time travel is often intended as way to undo mistakes and prevent tragedies. In these cases the traveller is often motivated by strong emotions.
In the 2002 film version of The Time Machine the inventor creates his machine in order to rescue his murdered sweetheart. Another time traveller has a similar motivation in an episode of Fringe. In the recent BBC adaption of Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently a man invents time travel in order to stop his girlfriend breaking up with him at university.
In Back to the Future Doc Brown invents a time travelling DeLorean because he can, and then tells Marty to use it to escape danger. Once he’s in the past Marty is determined to use his knowledge of what happened save the Doc from his fate. The trilogy is also a good example of why your time machine should always carry its own power supply.
In another example of where Quantum Leap differs from the usual form, Sam Beckett is compelled to set right wrongs that usually have nothing to do with him personally. His version of time travel involves leaping into the bodies of different people so he is compelled to see things from their point of view; also he’s a damn nice guy.
To Change or Preserve the Timeline
When the future (or, as the folks of the future will call it, the present) is under threat sometimes the answer is in the past (or what we might now call the present). There are various examples of time travel being used to change (or maintain) significant events in order to create a new (or the same), better future, not just for one person but for whole societies. This is a trope that can get horribly complicated and leads to much head-scratching.
In The Terminator the human-hating AI Skynet invents time travel to destroy human Resistance leader John Connor, and the Resistance uses time travel to counter Skynet’s plans. In the X-Men story ‘Days of Future Past’ another dystopian, robot-themed future is successfully averted when Kitty Pryde’s mind is sent back into the body of her teenage self to warn the X-Men.
Alternatively Rufus, from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, goes back in time to ensure that the timeline as he knows it remains intact. If Bill and Ted don’t pass history class his utopian future society won’t happen. I don’t quite understand how Rufus knows this is a problem, but I suspect its best not to think about it too much.
Sometimes time travel is just the thing for improving your own situation. Knowledge of the future can be very profitable, and the ability to change the past means you can tweak events for your own benefit. This is exactly why unscrupulous people should not be allowed to travel in time. In Blackadder: Back & Forth, Lord Edmund Blackadder intended to falsify time travel as a scam. After actually travelling in time and realising that his actions in the past have changed the present he goes back and makes himself King.
Sometimes the gain seems small compared to the temporal chaos it creates. In the film FAQ about Time Travel “editors” are time travellers who kill famous people just after their greatest moment so that there’s no decline in the quality of their work. In A Sound of Thunder, Ray Bradbury’s short story which demonstrates the Butterfly Effect, time travel is a tourist service for the wealthy; because sometimes rich men just have to shoot dinosaurs.
Watch out for Paradoxes
By its nature the invention of time travel is riddled with uncertainty. As a Morlock points out, the Time Traveller couldn’t have used his Time Machine to save his sweetheart, because her death was the reason it was invented in the first place. Similarly if John and Sarah Connor had actually succeeded in destroying Skynet in Terminator II John Connor himself would have ceased to exist since he owes his conception to Skynet inventing time travel. It’s rather poetic that Skynet and John Connor both owe their existence to time travel and that Skynet inadvertently created its own nemesis whilst trying to destroy him, though best not to think about this for too long.
In The Big Bang Theory physicist Sheldon reasons that he won’t devote any effort to creating a time machine, because if he does he’ll simply go back in time and give it to himself. He is pleased with this conclusion and seems entirely unaware that he has just talked himself out of ever inventing a time machine.
Catherine Hill comes from Worcestershire in England. She spent much of her childhood with her head buried in a book. An interest in history and mythology led her to an Ancient History degree. A love of the fantastical and impossible led her to most of her favourite people. She now lives in Birmingham with her husband and works in a public library.
She rambles about things she enjoys at http://www.catherinetjhill.blogspot.com
She also blogs with the Apocalypse Girls http://www.ggsapocalypse.co.uk/