On Tom Cruise and Time Travel Stories
Thing is, this is all Tom Cruise’s fault. His last two movies were science fiction and so I kinda had to see them. To be fair, I saw Edge of Tomorrow first. Based on the Japanese light novel, All You Need is Kill, the movie took the central conceit of Groundhog Day (the endless time loop) and grafted it onto the backdrop of Starship Troopers. It was good — funny, smart, entertaining.
Then I saw Oblivion, Cruise’s previous SF film, and, well, it was a piece of shit. And it got me thinking — what was the difference between them? I mean sure, you could look at the plot and writing and dialogue and direction — and all of that matters — but I was also looking at the focus of the plot. With Oblivion there was a confusion of tropes—exploration, post-apocalypse, cloning, etc. With Edge of Tomorrow, there was a central trope — Time Travel — and a story built around that.
Which got me thinking, especially of other time travel movies, like X-Men: Days of Future Past which I also recently saw. And a theory began to form. The end result being that time travel stories, on average, are superior to other SF trope-based stories. With the exception of superhero movies (which are technically science fiction, but also a separate genre), time travel movies are some of the best movies of the last few years.
But could this really be true? I made a list and put down all the time travel movies I could think of and then looked up some more and added them, too. And what did I find? The majority of films on the list had Rotten Tomatoes scores of 80% or higher (to use a statistic that has more objectivity than my opinion). Films like Back to the Future and Terminator (both of which heavily feature time travel) had scores of 96% and 100% respectively. And for every Butterfly Effect (33%) and Timecop (43%), there were plenty more examples of films with scores over 80%. Even Peggy Sue Got Married clocks in at 85%. Think of all of them — Star Trek IV, 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits, Primer, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Looper, Star Trek: First Contact, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Army of Darkness.
But what is it about time travel that makes these stories work?
For one, they have to be intricately plotted. Yes, things are missed, holes are opened and not always filled, but generally these kind of stories are built around careful planning. Something set up in the beginning will almost undoubtedly come back in the end. Time travel inevitably sets up a trajectory that has to be followed, a series of causes and effects, a linear course that time, for us at least, follows.
Stakes are also generally high. Whether the traveler is out to save the world, or just to affect some personal issue, the matter is usually of the utmost importance. In Edge of Tomorrow, it’s to save the human race. In To Say Nothing of the Dog, a brilliant time travel book by Connie Willis, it’s to prevent changes from disrupting the past (particularly around WWII, which always seems to be a particularly vital moment in time).
Can it Be Changed?
Time travel stories generally fall into two broad categories — those where time (particularly the past) can be changed and those where it can’t. In the former, Time keeps things maintained and all attempts to change things are either ineffective (the timeline preserves what actually happened) or else what the interloper does is what was meant to happen anyway. Or the past CAN be changed and that’s usually what all the fuss is about. This is what drives The Terminator, where both the actual Terminator and Kyle Reese are sent back to change the timeline.
But this being time travel, there are plenty of “subgenres” that leverage the concept, like:
Trapped in the Past
In these stories, the protagonists either accidentally end up in the past or end up stranded due to their circumstances. Back to the Future is a prime example — Marty ends up in 1955 and must figure out a way to get back home without changing his own past. Or Army of Darkness, where Ash is only trying to survive so he can get back to his own time.
The Endless Time Loop
There are plenty of variations of this idea, but the one in Edge of Tomorrow (pioneered so well in the movie Groundhog Day) is when a particular moment in time is played again and again and again with the exact right sequence of actions required to break out of it.
Something’s Gone Wrong
In these kinds of stories, there is a “true time”, the way things were meant to be, and something (an interfering time traveler, a wobble in the space-time continuum, a challenge from some kind of overseeing entity) that has altered the timeline, thus causing the deviation from “true time”. These stories usually have someone trying to correct these deviations — see the television shows Quantum Leap or Voyagers.
For more examples of time travel tropes, see here.
But what about books, you may ask. This is LitReactor, after all. Well, I haven’t done the same kind of survey for books as I did for films, but the good news is that there are plenty of really good SciFi books about time travel that are worth picking up. Here’s a short list:
'The Time Machine' by H.G. Wells
The original and masterwork on the topic. It may seem a little dry to modern audiences (Wells was writing in the 19th century), but it helped codify a lot of the elements of the time travel story. The Time Traveler in Wells’ book travels to the future where he encounters the descendants of humanity and uncovers the dark secret at work there. Then he travels even further into the future. The scene where he stands on a beach with a large, red sun in the sky and scuttling crab-like creatures on the shore, is one that affected me deeply as a child. Still a powerful work.
'Slaughterhouse Five' by Kurt Vonnegut
Time travel is a central conceit in this novel by one of the modern masters. Vonnegut may have invented the “unstuck in time” idea with Billy Pilgrim, who randomly travels through time. You most likely read this in school, but if not, pick it up today. A classic.
'Dragonriders of Pern' by Anne McCaffrey
Whether you judge this book as science fiction or fantasy, it has people riding flying, telepathic dragons, which is pretty cool. One of the central plot points in the first trilogy involves time travel, specifically the inevitability of events. That things that happened in the past must have happened. I haven’t read Anne McCaffrey’s most popular series in some time, but I do remember it fondly.
'The Anubis Gates' by Tim Powers
I would guess that this is Tim Powers’ most famous work, and it all revolves around time travel. In The Anubis Gates, gates through time have opened up due to events in the 19th century. Professor Brendan Doyle goes through one of these to attend a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1810 and gets stranded in the past. Adventures ensue.
'The Time Travelers Almanac' edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
If you want an anthology of time travel stories, then this is the book to pick up. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have collected some of the most significant time travel short fiction of our time, from Asimov and Bradbury to Ursula K. LeGuin, George R. R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, Theodore Sturgeon, and Gene Wolfe. 65 stories in all, and several non-fiction selections. A treasury of time travel fiction.
'Firewatch', 'Doomsday Book', 'Blackout', 'All Clear', 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' by Connie Willis
I would be remiss in not including Connie Willis in this column. Some of her most famous works have been about a group of historians out of Oxford who study the past by traveling back in time to the events themselves. The stories involved in this series include Firewatch (a novelette), Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout, and All Clear. All of these, by the way, have won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards save for To Say Nothing of the Dog which only won the Hugo (but is really one of the best novels I’ve ever read). Willis’s stories are funny and serious and tend to deal with either the Blitz (which is fucking scary) or the Black Death (which is arguably fucking scarier). Willis is a master and I can’t recommend her works enough.
So that’s my admittedly limited take on time travel. What I’d like to know is: what time travel stories are your favorites? In the seemingly endless number of stories in this subgenre, which get you the most excited? And keep in mind, I reserve the right to jump back in time from the future and add your suggestions to the original post…
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