by Kristian Macaron
In our March/April issue [on sale now!], poet Kristian Macaron introduces us to a “Time Traveler at the Grocery Store circa 1992.” Below, with the assistance of a wide-ranging array of examples, Kristian explores the appeal of time travel stories in-depth.
“I asked her if she knew what time was, and she said, Time is me—and you.”Merce Rodoreda, Death in Spring
Time travel is never only about the science, rather, the impossibilities.
The science and whimsy of time travel are infinite, complex, and lovely, but I love time travel stories because the quest of traversing Time can explore how possibilities and probabilities shape the person we are in the Present, the person we become in the Future. Fate is more fluid than it would like us to believe.
There are three reasons I love time travel stories. First, it’s a form of storytelling that transcends genre; next, the rules of the time machine or loop are creative and crucial; finally, no matter the plot, Time as a player forces the character to confront the infinity of their impact.
If I am ever in search of an icebreaker, I will often ask, “What is your favorite time travel story?” It always elicits a laugh, and, as a writer who works with the concept of time often, I love to hear these answers. Because we all have different preferences in entertainment, I appreciate that time travel transcends the confines of genre.
Time travel stories in film and literature shape Romances and Romantic Comedies, Thrillers, Comedy, Superhero stories, Fantasy, War, Action, Science Fiction, Young Adult/Coming of Age, Animation, & Graphic literature, Historical Fiction, Short Fiction, and even Poetry. Of course, even some of these tales interweave genres, and others seem to have it all.
I love that stories like Bill and Ted and Interstellar share the same high-stakes quest that comes with the disruption of the quantum realm and the very fabric of the universe. Bill and Ted is rooted in chaos and humor while Interstellar is more bound to creative interpretations of quantum physics.
More and more, time travel in stories can also allow us to examine important diverse futurisms that explore how present activism, progressive equality, and human rights can change the future for many countries and communities. For a classic example, Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred uses time travel to examine racial divides during the time of slavery and the present time of the book’s publication in 1979.
Something also unique is that on occasion, these stories are not based solely around the travelers. For instance, in Safety Not Guaranteed, the story exists largely apart from the possibility of Time Travel, focusing instead on the “disbelievers” and the linear choices and growth of each character. In the Terminator franchise, Sarah and Daniela and John—though ruled by the looming Future—never travel themselves; their lives focus only and constantly on how they shape that Future through the Present, which, at the end of it—isn’t this what we are all doing?
We choose our own timelines; we set our futures on their courses. So often we think, “I could have done this” or “I almost did that” or even, “Someday, I may do something”. Experiencing the alternatives in time travel stories must spark our emotions, sometimes maybe regret, but also nostalgia, and love, determination, and pride.
Always, in these stories, it seems that the disruption of Time is limited to a few players, and these players are required to learn the rules of the time-bending and what it means for their story. These rules are also fascinating.
In many stories, a time traveler needs a time machine or an apparatus that gives access to an ability. The builders/finders of these machines are the ones who know the rules and they (try as they may) enforce them.
The DeLorean is magnificent and familiar and it becomes a character in its own right, an extension of the Doc’s urgency, and the Tardis often stands out-of-place, a magical entity with a mind of her own. Doc and The Doctor are so familiar with the “rules” of their vehicles that it often shapes the story. You can’t leave the Present without the machine, and you can’t return unless the machine allows it. What happens if the time machine does not return or does not work; what happens if you are trapped without it? The stakes are high when a character relies on a mentor and/or vehicle that can disappear at any moment. No one escapes these stakes, but there is often an opportunity to focus on the “ordinary human” and how these characters complete their arc without the added “superpower” that time travel imposes.
In stories with Loops, even the world itself can become unfamiliar, something that sets and resets. How do you know the original events from the new events? Time can control every facet of the story, sometimes becoming a villain, and the impact of the Butterfly Effect can become monstrous. Often, all that matters is the state of the Past or the Future and what the characters can control with no thought about what is erased in the fallout. In some other stories, the characters have no control over the loops; Time owns them and their quest is to try to break out.
Even though you can find commonalities, every time travel story has different rules and quirks for the bending of time, and some of this creates some inconsistencies. These quirks and inconsistencies create a deeper conversation for the people who love the story and/or the building of the story.
I find that here, I am not a purist. I love the holes in the stories as much as the stories. It allows me to dive even deeper into the characters and their choices. Here, I can examine what choices they overlooked or may have never had.
Why does Deadpool not return to the moment of his death? If the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow can instigate time loops, why can’t they harness that and why do they fight a war? If the Green/Yellow/Orange Card men in 11/22/63 guard the portal and keep the universe from collapsing, why do they allow travelers to enter? What is the realm of their power? In Hot Tub Time Machine, there are only good and individual consequences for time changes. Why?
It’s like making the perfect genie wish: So many things can backfire and unravel the perfect wish. Making choices when Time is malleable is something of the same thing, but this is something we also experience linearly. We choose our own timelines; we set our futures on their courses. So often we think, “I could have done this” or “I almost did that” or even, “Someday, I may do something”. Experiencing the alternatives in time travel stories must spark our emotions, sometimes maybe regret, but also nostalgia, and love, determination, and pride.
Time travel is nearly always high-stakes and high-jinks, but I find at the core, these stories tend to capture the tiny forgotten moments of life like no other subgenre. The weight any miniscule disruption of fate or future carries can unravel who we are in a given moment.
Here are a few that come to mind:
—The moment Bradbury’s tyrannosaur falls in the woods (“A Sound of Thunder”).
—John Connor stands up to Sarah to revive the T-800 (Terminator 2: Judgement Day).
—Meg and Calvin learn how a tesseract works (A Wrinkle in Time).
—A new companion chooses to open the Tardis and is open-minded enough to see something impossible. (Dr. Who).
—Darius gives Kenneth the reason she wants to go back in time even though she doesn’t believe it’s actually possible. (Safety Not Guaranteed).
—Murphy leaves her window open. (Interstellar).
Say what you will about fate, but the rules of these stories deem that these moments could have been so different.
The moment that Sarah Connor asks Kyle Reese what it’s like to travel through time is the moment she chooses to believe that Time is malleable. It makes for a strong plot pivot, for sure, but also it sets Sarah on a quest that shapes and reshapes and reshapes her future even though her timeline is and always will be linear. What is curious (and maybe a plot hole) about Sarah’s timeline is that we never see her return to her past before Kyle. For her, the story becomes how her Present shapes the Future no matter how often the Future changes for her.
Who will we be when we give our impact to a person or event? What do we control and what is already so far beyond us?
We spend time, buy time, take time, lose time, give time. We travel through time, albeit linearly.
Time is fleeting and extraordinarily heavy. Though I try to teach myself to live in the present and live fully, writing and consuming narratives about time travel help me to process my own relationship with Time.
I was once gifted a stone that came from the beach in Santorini, Greece. It’s an igneous stone, once lava from the volcano Thera, which buried a civilization and is now one of the world’s most beautiful and serene tourist destinations. The eruption of Thera was a natural occurrence that had been building inside the earth for centuries and, in one moment, the volcano became a monster. The weight of that Deep Time is something I think of a lot when writing. Who will we be when we give our impact to a person or event? What do we control and what is already so far beyond us?
The poems that I have shared in this and coming issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction explore this by focusing on some details that may seem mundane or ordinary. The poem “a recipe for time travel in case we lose each other” [forthcoming] includes a broken watch, shared empanadas, and other moments and fragments that are now only memories. “Time Traveler in the Grocery Store, circa 1992” is an imagining of how someone who has seen a dystopian Future exists in some-Present participating in the simple and seemingly ordinary act of choosing produce in a grocery store, contemplating loss and also the needs of a child.
I hope—speaking for myself, but for you as well—that I also learn to trust myself, to not take Time for granted, and to live without regret even if, and when, it means fortitude, consequences and the unfamiliar. We don’t need a time machine to live every moment with intention.
In storytelling, and in particular—the Speculative genre, so much of our craft is the suspension of disbelief towards unwavering trust in the story. It’s that trust, that incredibly hard and human risk, that make Time Travel stories so compelling to me.