Written by Ann VanderMeer
Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life. —Robert Louis Stevenson
A few months ago I was interviewed on BBC4 Radio along with Dr. Ronald Mallett, a physicist from the University of Connecticut. Our subject was time travel. Some might find it odd that a fiction editor promoting a new anthology would be appearing on a show with a noted scientist to talk honestly about time travel. But Dr. Mallett isn’t just any scientist. His life was changed completely after encountering The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.
Prior to the interview I had spent several months completely engrossed in the subject. Time travel stories exhibit an astonishing variety. The very conundrum of time travel—Can you actually change the past or future? What happens if you meet yourself in the past?—has resulted in a number of amazing stories. Time machines may be the most popular vehicle for such travel, but hidden doors, mutations, or rips in the space-time continuum can also send travelers hurtling into unexpected moments of history—or into the future. And not all time travelers go willingly.
Then I read Dr. Mallet’s book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality. When Mallett was ten years old, his father passed away suddenly of a heart attack. Greatly affected, he lost himself in reading, a pastime his father strongly encouraged, and discovered The Time Machine. Motivated by a powerful desire to see his father again, and maybe even prevent his death at the all-too-early age of thirty-three, Mallett dreamed that he could build his own time machine. As he has said, “My fundamental goal in life has always been to build a time machine” (quoted from the YouTube video, “Dr. Mallett Builds a Time Machine”).
As we talked in the interview, it struck me that reading a science fiction story so deeply shaped his future and set him on this journey. Often stories are influenced by real life, but in this case, a story that was over 100 years old not only gave hope to a young boy, but eventually led him to become part of a team of scientists trying to create a real, working time machine.
I was happy to discover that all of Dr. Mallet’s classic favorite time travel stories were in The Time Traveler’s Almanac. And he shared with me that he found many new stories in the anthology that he enjoyed.
Some of the best time travel stories, indeed the best science fiction stories, are about the connections that people make with each other through science. Reaching into the past to better understand history, sending a message or warning to prior generations or just having the opportunity for a do-over. For more than a century, readers have been enthralled by time travel stories. Whether adventurous, cautionary, or thrilling, these imaginative what-if tales transport us to other worlds.
Today, time travel is as familiar a concept to readers as space travel. Such stories are more popular than ever, including such recent bestsellers as Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife attest. The resurgence of iconic TV series like “Doctor Who” has fed into this trend. Time travel also has been popular with teens ever since the publication of such classics as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, extending to the present-day and such popular youth novels as When You Reach Me by Newberry winner Rebecca Stead. Meanwhile, movies like The Terminator, Back to the Future, Looper, Time Bandits, Donnie Darko, and Safety Not Guaranteed have shown the cinematic range of such tales.
The power of a great time travel story is that not only can it change the reader, as we see with Dr. Mallett, it can also change the course of the world.
* This post originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 newsletter.