March 16, 2016
I suspect most of us are fascinated by time travel. We'd love to be able to go back and talk with Socrates, Plato, Julius Caesar. Imagine spending some time on The Santa Maria. Or stopping by the Globe Theater in London to watch the opening performance of Hamlet. Even if we had the machine, though, there'd be a serious problem with language. Carrying a conversation with Descartes would provide a challenge. We'd better send a language expert along. Or stay within the past few hundred years. I suspect any of us would be delighted to have an opportunity to shake hands with General Washington as the Revolution was getting under way, or attend the first Mark Twain public presentation in San Francisco. Or maybe watch Billy Sunday play center field for the White Stockings long before he became the celebrated evangelist. I'd love to go back and watch Ty Cobb, or maybe attend the 1866 Vassar game between two teams of women in which one of the young ladies twisted a knee while running the bases, which led to a declaration that the game was just too violent for women, and play was halted for two decades.
There are people I'd love to meet. Maybe stop by that patent office in Bern, Switzerland at the beginning of the 20th century, and say hello to the young Albert Einstein. I regret that I never got to meet Robert Heinlein, who has always been one of my favorite writers. And I'd like to spend some time with James Thurber. And see if I could persuade Jean Shepherd, headed at nineteen for his army assignment during World War II, to share a lunch.
And it's not all historical. I'd give almost anything to be able to go back to Woodrow Wilson High School, where I was an English teacher and theater director back in the 60's, and do one of those classes again. Spend an hour with some of the students, most of whom are now retired. And there are some who have passed on.
Or watch the South Philadelphia Quakers play one more game. Or stroll along Spruce Street and catch a glimpse of the young lady who would eventually become my wife framed one more time in that apartment window.
But unfortunately, like visiting Alpha Centauri, fiction is the only way we can travel outside the standard parameter of moving through time one day every 24 hours. And exclusively forward.
The tricky part of writing a time travel novel, for me at least, arises from the plot. Give your main character a time machine and it's just not easy to create a problem that can't be easily resolved simply by using the device to return and see what really happened that night when Uncle Willie disappeared. If anything goes wrong you can simply go back and fix it. Or at least take a look at what actually happened.
And then there's the theological dimension. A number of readers got annoyed with me because Dave and Shel, in Time Travelers Never Die, did not go back 2000 years to sit down and talk with Jesus. One issue with such an effort arises from the fact that He would not be easy to find. We're not sure when the events related in the gospel actually took place, and Judea didn't have anything like a phone book that would enable us to track people down. But let me not circle around the real issue: If there's any truth to what so many people believe about the Nazarene, I think most of us would come a bit unglued at the prospect of saying hello.
Despite the difficulties, I've never seen a time travel novel I haven't enjoyed: Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity, Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine, Connie Willis's All Clear and To Say Nothing of the Dog, David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Robert Heinlein's The Door Into Summer, Jack Finney's Time and Again, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and probably a dozen others.
I guess we should be grateful for the human imagination. It's the only real device we have for travel outside the limits imposed by physical reality. At least, for the moment.