On my virtual shelf is a piece about a series of women sequentially married to the same man. For my time travel joke to work, they all have to meet up and divorce him at the same time. But how can you divorce someone you haven’t married yet? Maybe someday I’ll figure that one out.
Ever since H.G. Wells inaugurated a sub-genre with The Time Machine in 1895, sci-fi writers have grappled with time travel paradoxes. If I kick a pebble down the street in the past — never mind kill Hitler — will I irrevocably change the present? Will I even exist? And if I visit the future, then use my knowledge to change the present, aren’t I wiping out the future I just observed?
And that’s just the big stuff.
One workaround is the idea that the past and future are set in stone and no matter what you do, the timeline will preserve itself. A brilliant example is The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang. In Chiang’s rich fantasy world, both women and men are proactive, but Allah’s will rules all in the end. Every twist and turn is fully thought out and beautifully wrought. It’s my number one story recommendation if you’re thinking about sticking a toe into the genre.
Chiang, by the way, is best known for the lovely and poignant The Story of Your Life, the basis for the movie Arrival. While not at its heart a time travel piece, the novella incorporates a breathtaking vision of the fluidity of time.
Another way to address paradoxes is to meet them head-on and exploit them. The classic has to be All You Zombies— by Robert Heinlein, which embraces the concept that if you travel in time, you’re bound to run into yourself. (Despite some great female characters, Heinlein was definitely a product of his Mad Men-esque time. But give the old man credit: he imagined gender reassignment over a half-century ago.)
The multiverse — a set of parallel universes where the same event plays out in different ways — is coming into vogue, as in The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., co-written by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. But writer beware: for me, this device just adds another headache-inducing dimension to the chess board.
For background, I recommend Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. Skillfully winding together literary history and physics, this non-fiction book is meaty yet accessible.
In the end, writing time travel, I think, is about putting in the sweat equity to fully analyze your plot and hanging in there when you’re tempted to switch to writing haiku. Map your paradoxes out with a pencil and paper. Create characters you love so that you are motivated to send them where and when they need to go.
Finally, a note about travelers. From Wells’ unnamed protagonist to Dr. Who and beyond, active time travel is usually undertaken by men. Women tend to be whisked into time through no effort or desire of their own, as in the popular literary and TV series Outlander. To give credit where it’s due, there is a grande dame of intentional time traveling girls: Connie Willis and her plucky historians.
You also have to look pretty hard to find a woman who travels in time for a reason other than romance. (Full disclosure: I too have used romantic obsession as a time travel motive.) Social justice is a more satisfying alternative, as with Marge Piercy’s A Woman on the Edge of Time and Kindred by Octavia Butler. But ladies out to harness the space-time continuum for money, scientific curiosity, or just for the hell of it? Not so much.
Let’s get writing and create a canon for the next generation.
Have a favorite time traveler, tale, or writing tip? We’d love to hear about it.
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