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Sat July 19, 2014

Watch Out For That Butterfly: The Lure Of Literary Time Travel

Originally published on Sat July 19, 2014 9:45 am

Where would you go, if you had a time machine? Ancient Egypt? Tang Dynasty China? The Globe Theater, in 1599? Or maybe to the 25th century, because who knows, Buck Rogers might actually be there.

Sadly, no one's likely to invent a working time machine any time soon. But that hasn't stopped the legions of writers who've been exploring time travel ever since H. G. Wells described his first Morlock. Slips and drops and nets and projections and paradoxes — writers have thought up a hundred ways to travel backwards and forwards in time. And that's one of the great things about literary time travel: the way every writer seems to invent the mechanism all over again, every time they put pen to paper.

"We can actually do whatever we want," says science fiction author Connie Willis. She's won all kinds of awards for her tales of time-traveling historians — like Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. Willis says the best thing about time travel is no one's invented it yet — so it can be whatever you want.

"You know, you can change history or not change history, you can go as an observer, you can go where you actually become part of the past and help fulfill history, it's pretty limitless."

Well, within reason — don't go stepping on any ancient butterflies, or accidentally shooting your own grandfather. You don't want to cause a paradox. "The trickiest part of writing time travel is the paradoxes," Willis says, "because the truth is, you know, we can't go back in time, one of the reasons is, just by being there we would change things, you know, so that's what you spend most of your time doing!"

Avoiding paradoxes is especially tricky for Willis, who's generally keeping track of multiple characters jumping around to different points in time. "And I have to remember, that happened earlier, but later, and hasn't happened yet — and I usually end up writing angry notes to myself at the head of every page: she still thinks he's a murderer!"

Unlike Willis's historians, I can't go back in time — but I can do the next best thing, which is to visit Readercon, a speculative fiction convention that happens every year in Boston. If anyone knows about time travel literature, it's these folks. In fact, this year they held an entire panel devoted to time travel. Panel moderator — and occasional NPR contributor — K. Tempest Bradford is working on a time travel novel herself, "basically doing Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with time travel instead of shipwrecks," she says.

Part of the appeal of time travel, Bradford adds, is the lure of experiencing other times and places. But it's also a chance for a cosmic do-over. "I know that if I were to travel back in time, I might warn some people that they shouldn't do this or that thing, or they should maybe be careful who they trade blankets with."

Writer, bookseller and Readercon attendee Leah Bobet says the past is fascinating because it's the one place we can't go, "and there are so many ways time travel stories both question and reinforce the past-is-past paradigm. And so it's grappling with regret, it's learning to emotionally deal with the consequences of the one thing we can't really undo."

It tends to be the past that people talk about, when they talk about time travel. "And that's interesting," says Bobet, "because the future is always coming. The future's coming whether you like it or not, second by second by second — the past is never coming again."

Unless, of course, you have a time machine — and that brings us to the quintessential time traveler's dilemma: Assuming you could get to Berlin in 1937, should you kill Hitler? "Oh yeah," says Connie Willis. "That's the dilemma of time travel, is that no event is unconnected to every other event. And so you could bring about something much worse. Except that Hitler was so bad and so unique, I have a tendency to think that given the chance, yeah. You betcha."

Personally, I might go back to Sarajevo in 1914 and slip Gavrilo Princip a knockout drop instead. If I had a time machine.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ever wish you could go back in time and watch the moon landing as it happened? What about Ancient Egypt, the Tang Dynasty in China? Maybe go forward to the 25th century when people might actually live on the moon? The Chicago Cubs might actually get into the World Series. No one's likely to invent a working time machine anytime soon but legions of writers have explored time travel ever since H. G. Wells described his first Morlock. As part of our Book Your Trip series, NPR books editor, Petra Mayer, decided to dig into the -well - timeless appeal of literary time travel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TIME MACHINE")

GUY PEARCE: (As Dr. Alexander Hartdegen) Tell me about the time machine.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Yes, tell me about the time machine and the slips and drops and nets and projections and paradoxes and all the many ways writers have thought up to travel backwards and forwards in time. Because that's one of the great things about literary time travel - the way every writer seems to invent the mechanism all over again every time they put pen to paper.

CONNIE WILLIS: We can actually do whatever we want.

MAYER: That's science-fiction author Connie Willis, who's won all kinds of awards for her tales of time-traveling historians like "Doomsday Book" and "To Say Nothing Of The Dog." Willis says the best thing about time travel is no one's invented it yet, so it can be whatever you want.

WILLIS: You know, you can change history or not change history. You can go as an observer. You can go where you actually become part of the past and help fulfill history. It's pretty limitless.

MAYER: Well, within reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A SOUND OF THUNDER")

WILFRIED HOCHHOLDINGER: (As Dr. Lucas) The third rule of time jumping - don't bring anything back.

COREY JOHNSON: (As Christian Middleton) OK. That's number two and three. What's rule number one?

HOCHHOLDINGER: (As Dr. Lucas) No matter what, no matter how small, never change anything in the past - nothing.

MAYER: Really, don't - you don't want to create a paradox.

WILLIS: The trickiest part of writing time travel is the paradoxes because the truth is, you know, we can't go back in time. One of the reasons we can't is because just by being there, we would change things, you know. So that's what you spend most of your time doing

MAYER: Avoiding paradoxes is especially tricky for Willis, who's generally keeping track of multiple characters jumping around to different points in time.

WILLIS: And I have to remember that happened earlier but later and hasn't happened yet. And I usually end up writing angry notes to myself at the head of every page, you know. She still thinks he's a murderer.

MAYER: Unlike Willis' historians, I can't go back in time. But I can do the next best thing, which is to visit Readercon. It's a speculative fiction convention that happens every year in Boston. And if anybody knows anything about time travel, it's these folks.

K. TEMPEST BRADFORD, BYLINE: So this panel is the past is a terrible place.

MAYER: That's panel moderator and occasional NPR contributor K. Tempest Bradford. She's working on a time travel novel herself.

BRADFORD: Basically doing Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" but with time travel instead of shipwrecks.

MAYER: Part of the appeal of time travel, she says, is the lure of experiencing other times and places. But it's also a chance for a cosmic do-over.

BRADFORD: I know that if I were to travel back in time, I might say - maybe I would warn some people that they shouldn't do this or that thing or they should maybe be careful who they trade blankets with.

MAYER: As I wandered the halls of Readercon, I met writer and bookseller Leah Bobet, who offered a poignant take on the appeal of time travel.

LEAH BOBET: The past is the place we cannot go. And there are so many ways time travel stories both question and reinforce the past-is-past paradigm. And so it's grappling with regret. It's learning to emotionally deal with the consequences of the one thing we can't really undo.

MAYER: That's really interesting. But it brings up for me something that I've been thinking about this whole weekend, which is that when people talk about time travel, they're always talking about the past. Very few people talk about going to the future. Somehow that's less compelling.

BOBET: And that's interesting. It's - there's the future is always coming. The future's coming whether you like it or not second by second by second. The past is never coming again.

MAYER: Unless, of course, you have a time machine. And that brings us to the quintessential time traveler's dilemma which Connie Willis touched on a few minutes ago. Assuming you could get to Berlin in 1937, should you kill Hitler?

WILLIS: Right. Oh, yeah.

MAYER: Is that a good idea?

WILLIS: Oh, yeah. That's the dilemma of time travel - is that no event is unconnected to every other event. And so, you know, you could bring about something much worse, except that Hitler was so bad and so unique that I have a tendency to feel that, yeah, given the chance. You betcha.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

NINA TOUSSAINT-WHITE: (As Mels) You've got a time machine. I've got a gun. What the hell. Let's kill Hitler.

MAYER: Yeah, well, I might go back to Sarajevo in 1914 and slip Gavrilo Princip a knockout drop instead if I had a time machine. Petra Mayer, NPR news.

SIMON: And you can find a selection of time travel books at www.NPR.org/bookyourtrip. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.