With 2015 racing to a close, I’ve been thinking about time. Which brought to mind the use of time in speculative fiction. How important is it? How does it function?
Some might automatically think of time travel or time machines. Back To The Future is one of the best known time-travel, and time machine, movies and is getting a lot of attention because it’s celebrating its 30-year anniversary.
Of course, long before that popular movie were the stories by science fiction writers like H. G. Wells and Julian Huxley involving time travel and futuristic imaginings. However, science fiction does not have a monopoly on stories that manipulate time.
J.K. Rowling utilized a type of time travel, introduced in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The mechanism is an Hour-Reversal Charm, encased in an hourglass and the incident of time travel was critical to the story, but didn’t make up the story in the same way that it did in Back To The Future.
In his recently concluded Bright Empires series, Stephen Lawhead utilized what he called ley lines to allow characters to move from one time period and place to another, though the idea was actually one of traveling from different dimensions rather than back into different times. The stories read much like time travel, though, and the characters could not travel into the future ahead of their own time—an odd sort of rule if the device in question created dimensional travel.
C. S. Lewis used time differently in his Narnia stories. Time was an indicator of the fantasy world he created and operated independently from time in the “real” world. Hence, his characters could experience hours, days, even years in Narnia but return to the real world at precisely the time they left. On the other hand, they could be gone from Narnia for a year, and return to a discover that hundreds of years had passed in the fantasy world.
Lewis never gave an explanation of this, as I recall, other than that time didn’t work the same way in the two worlds. That’s a very “fantasy-ish” device.
Science fiction involving space travel deals with the passing of time by creating ways characters can move from place to place over incredible distances. New fuels, for instance, allow ships to travel faster than the speed of light. Transporters move molecules from one place to the other in seconds.
These science devices seem to focused on location, but in fact they are solving the problem of time. Unless ships could go faster than the speed of light, for instance, no one would live long enough to move from one planet to another, let alone from one star system to another.
Many speculative stories seemingly ignore time. If they are set in a fantasy world, for instance, time may be significant only because of the history of the place or because of the change of seasons as it passes.
In horror stories, urban fantasy, and the like, time is likely no different than time in the here and now. There is no different history, no manipulation of time.
Steampunk, on the other hand, is tied to a different time:
Steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West,” in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has maintained mainstream usage, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Steampunk may, therefore, be described as neo-Victorian. Steampunk perhaps most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them (Wikipedia)
In thinking about time in speculative stories, you might also be interested in reading “About Time,” a post from our archives by former regular contributor Yvonne Anderson, that explores a motive behind some time travel stories.
What are some of the best stories that you’ve read (or written) which depend on the manipulation of time or on a certain time period? What device (literary or physical) creates this time bending? Why is altering time such an important element?