Book of the Month :: Memoirs of the Twentieth Century

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This month’s featured collection of John Wyndham’s short stories makes more than a passing nod to the concept of travelling through time; theorised by writers for centuries, long before Einstein’s Theory of Relativity suggested the possibility in 1915. In fact, one can go back well into the 1800’s for examples of literature based on the concept. The earliest narratives have very little to do with science however, simply dealing with idealogical ideas, acting as a mirror against the society they were written within. These early visionaries laid the foundation for a genre of entertainment which remains undiminished, fuelling countless forms of literature, TV shows and cinematic adaptations.

The concept of wish fulfilment is nothing new in entertainment: time travel gives narratives the chance to reflect and consider previous experience with the benefit of subsequent understanding. Two of the earliest examples do this with glorious simplicity: Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1819) and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) involve sleep as the ‘method’ in which protagonists are moved through their timeline, backwards (and forwards) to consider the consequences of a life lived well, or perhaps not. There is no need for science in these early outings, it is the persistence of memory which provides both heart and soul. In essence, they remind us all that as a person gets older, they become a time traveller often by accident. Returning to their own past, considering how life could have been executed differently, is the most human of traits.

However, there was an important shift in focus during the 19th Century,
which mirrored the rapid progress of scientific development during that time. One can precisely pinpoint the first short story where science assisted someone to travel through time: The Clock that Went Backward was published anonymously in The (New York) Sun newspaper on September 18, 1881. However, most people will cite the first ‘serious’ attempt to use technology for travel as a story that was initially serialised between January and May 1885 in the Heinemann New Review. Paid £100 for the manuscript, H. G Wells took an idea he had considered in 1888 (The Chronic Argonauts) and expanded the concept, fuelled by his own socialist outlook on the nature of current society.

The Time Machine has become perhaps the most iconic example of a genre where the mechanics of time travel matter only to a point. Knowing something is possible yet not needing to explain how allows an author a measure of artistic freedom which is still liberally used today by such genre stalwarts as Doctor Who. What Wells presented was a future so well realised that readers were happily willing to believe not only in its validity, but that machinery could be constructed to reach the narrative setting. This is also one of the earliest examples of the Dying Earth sci-fi subgenre, imagining a future ravaged by humankind’s abuse of the planet.

Perhaps the biggest strength of this story becomes wrapped around the most human of conclusions: having travelled to the last point in Earth’s existence, returning to his own time is no longer enough to satisfy the Traveller’s insatiable desire for understanding, and he appears to disappear into time forever. In the various adaptations of this story (the seminal 1960’s ‘original,’ 1979 when effectively re-written as the subversive Time after Time and again in 2002) there is highlighted one basic element at story’s heart: time cannot be changed, without creating some kind of paradox. It is this that Wyndham seems to joyously revel in in short stories such as Odd and A Stitch in Time: the future is created by the actions of the past, often in ways that are not immediately obvious. Even the most basic of lives has the possibility to be forever altered by changing the simplest of decisions.

Wyndham’s work was written during an incredibly fruitful period for Science Fiction. Time travel is explored in myriad different forms, with the back-up of increasingly sophisticated scientific backdrops for assistance. Consider Her Ways, written in 1956, was published the same year as the seminal The Stars, My Destination by Alfred Bester, which introduced the concept of ‘jaunting’ or personal teleportation. However, it is Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder (1952) that remains the most complex work on the idea that paradox could be possible, considering effects on the future if past was inadvertently changed. This was the short story which established the concept of the ‘butterfly effect’ which has become a staple in generations of subsequent science fiction storytelling.

Without Bradbury’s story, the Back To the Future trilogy might not exist… though one assumes that someone else might have postulated the concept eventually. So many modern Science Fiction classics borrowed heavily from this conceit: although Sarah Connor might believe there is ‘no fate but what we make,’ the Terminator movies rely on the robotic protagonists never dying, regardless of the changes in timeline. If the inevitability of history is continued box office success for all involved, it is no wonder yet another reboot’s on the cards for 2018. It is also ironic that nobody’s ever successfully created a version of Bradbury’s original story that was palatable to a larger audience: time travel is complicated, and often very difficult to grasp in anything but the most simplistic terms possible. This is another reason why Wyndham’s narratives succeed so well: one is never mired in science, simply the story.

A desire for ease of comprehension has undoubtedly has given rise to such novels as The Time Traveler’s Wife and Bid Time Return (made into the movie Somewhere in Time) which hark back to the earliest examples of linear progression through one’s own lifetime. Although a story like Wyndham’s Random Quest relies on a technological element to drive plot, it is really not necessary when producing believable narratives around the concept of existing in a ‘period’ of time and travelling within it. These more emotionally-driven works ignore the desire to use science as explanation, instead using the very human concepts of love, loss and free will as tools to change reality. One of the best examples of this on film is The Lake House, which in turn is a remake of a South Korean film, Il Mare.

What this type of narrative achieves is the best of both worlds: an explanation of how ‘personal’ time travel can take place and how previous events might effectively shape and mould a particular circumstance. There is no need for scientific explanation, simply an establishment of the time frame involved. Once the events of the causal loop have been played out, the story is effectively at a close. This is the basic conceit of both Odd and A Stitch in Time, inviting us to the moment where we, as audience are able to grasp both the start and the end of phenomenon that others have lived within for years, unaware of the consequences.

Whilst time travel has produced some of the most seductively brilliant literary and visual narratives, it can also be considered as a lazy, thoughtless plot device when used too casually. The ‘Big Red Reset Button’ has been widely used in comic books and TV, producing alternate worlds and spanning multiple dimensions often with no real consideration of the wider implications. My favourite gaming MMO, World of Warcraft, learnt the ‘let’s just take everybody back 40 years so we can tie in with the movie we’re making’ lesson to their cost, with an Expansion that people couldn’t wait to leave at the earliest possible opportunity. Time travel is a wonderful concept, assuming your existing narrative framework robustly supports the possibility.

This is where subjectivity comes into play, and why one woman’s triumph of narrative subtlety could end up as another man’s thinly constructed conceit. The best time travel narratives tend to dispense with a surfeit of science and instead concentrate on appealing to the humanity of the reader. That reason alone explains why I returned to Wyndham’s work having not read any stories for several decades. I can recall the emotional punch time travel was afforded by fixing it in simple settings with amazing pay offs: the man who inadvertently helped invent plastics in Odd, the woman whose potential husband became the first unexpected temporal traveller in A Stitch in Time.

These stories, as has been the case with all the best time travel narratives, humanise the experience to a level where it becomes possible not only to empathise with protagonists, but accept the possibility that change could occur to begin with. Once one learns to successfully travel in time inside your imagination, it becomes very simple to spot the charlatans who peddle inferior versions of the genre, and to appreciate the true wonder of outcome and consequence. Modern cinema has been responsible for incredibly thoughtful and revelatory spins on the classic genre: if you have not yet seen Arrival I would strongly urge you to do so, as it brilliantly reinvents the genre with economy and subtlety that is a genuine joy.

Wyndham’s work was produced in the most fruitful period of Science Fiction since the genre had risen in popularity during the 1930’s. Without his very human take on the concept of time travel, we would be poorer as readers. His works help us grasp simplicity within an extremely complex construct, allowing us to the ability to travel within our own lifetime, allowing consequences of actions to be explored via the medium of our own imagination.

For teaching me this possibility as a child, I will never adequately find words of thanks.