Take a minute, if you will, to consider the prominence of time travel as a theme in the arts. You don’t have to be a brilliant but evil scientist huddled in a secret mountaintop laboratory, rubbing your hands together and cackling with glee as you contemplate flipping the switch on a time machine fueled by lightning bolts and uranium, to understand this essential truth:
Time travel captivates the imagination.
That, you scoff, is hardly news. H.G. Wells published “The Time Machine” in 1895. In 2003, Chicago writer Audrey Niffenegger had a hit with her novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”
But with daylight saving time having returned last Sunday, it is worth burning up a bit of that precious and non-renewable resource — time — to reflect on how contemporary creators have spruced up and redeployed this chestnut of a theme.
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Time travel is not just for sci-fi fans anymore. It’s gone mainstream — and in the process, it has acquired a poignancy and profundity that belie its roots in the “Gee whiz!” category of narratives.
Among the most celebrated books of 2011 was Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” which follows an ordinary man who travels back to 1963 in hopes of stopping the assassination of President Kennedy.
“I went down with my left foot,” recalls King’s appealing narrator, Jake Epping, of his step backward through time, courtesy of a storage room in a dilapidated diner. “Went down with my right foot again, and all at once there was a pop inside my head, exactly like the kind you hear when you’re in an airplane and the pressure changes suddenly. … I opened my eyes. I was no longer in the pantry. I was no longer in Al’s diner, either.”
Instead, our hero finds himself tumbling back through time, determined to trip up Lee Harvey Oswald.
And for those who wish time travel could be more than just wishful thinking, last year the University of Chicago Press published “Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts Through Time and Space,” a marvelously accessible book by Allen Everett and Thomas Roman, physics professors who know the facts and formulas behind a journey out of the now.
“Over the past several decades,” they write, “the possibility that superluminal travel and backward time travel might be possible, at least in principle, has become a subject of serious discussion among physicists. … As far as time travel into the future is concerned, it is well understood in physics — and has been for the good part of a century — that it is not only possible but also, indeed, rather commonplace. … Forward time travel is, in fact, directly relevant to observable physics, since it is seen to occur for subatomic particles in high energy accelerators.”
If it works for protons, why can’t it work for people? Alas, the bugaboo is the energy required to move larger masses, because the necessary oomph to — for instance — relocate your boss into the year 2245 “requires amounts of energy which are at present prohibitively large.”
Time travel makes a splendid theme for novels — and movies, TV shows, comic books and computer games — because it taps into our inner geek as well as the very core of what makes us human. We love gadgets and gizmos, but we also love our parents and our children and our friends, and time travel offers the tantalizing possibility of righting past wrongs, of seeing once again those who have died and whose losses still fill us with acute sadness. That sort of yearning makes time travel not just an aspirational technological marvel; it makes for a deeply serious emotional connection between souls present and gone.
“Hyperion” (1989), the first of an exquisite series of speculative novels by Dan Simmons about a future civilization and a place called Chronos Keep, describes the horrifying fate of flying backward through time — growing younger and ever more helpless, pulled relentlessly toward oblivion.
In the end, of course, all works of art are about time travel, no matter what else they may seem to be about. They handily transport us somewhere else — and they do the same for their creators.
As Tony Judt wrote in “The Memory Chalet” (2010), the memoir published shortly after he died, the act of writing is itself the ultimate time machine: “The faces return, the sepia photographs come back to life. … The past surrounds me and I have what I need.”