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Time Travel - What's Wrong With It?

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

If I could turn back time... I'd ban time travel stories.

Well, maybe not ban them all, but certainly discourage them. Isn't that awful of me? Unfortunately, I've come to the realisation recently that I don't like time travel stories, with a couple of notable exceptions. Don't get me wrong, I always go into reading a submission with an open mind, but lately, when time travel becomes the obvious subject matter, I find myself groaning with - dare I say it? - dread.

What's so awful about them? I hear you ask. Well, here's a list:

- The science is questionable at best; utterly impossible and ridiculous at worst.

- The timelines get muddled so badly, even the author appears to have lost the 'when' of the varying scenes. This is usually a case of inadequate transitioning.

- The Back to the Future paradox - change anything in the timeline and it will have a knock-on effect to the present or the future of the story. Too many submissions involve a character altering something in the timeline and yet the premise depends upon certain events in history assuming their original roles to enable the plot. Example: In the futuristic 2015, Marty buys a book in BttF2 that lists every sporting result for the previous few decades, meaning that he could make himself rich when he returns to 1985 from the future because he knows the results in advance. Biff steals the book and the time machine to deliver the book to young Biff back in 1955 and by the time Marty gets back to 1985, Biff is rich beyond belief. Marty's dad is dead and his widowed mother married Biff! Marty is stunned by these revelations and yet... if his previous timeline has been eradicated, how does he even remember it? Why hasn't the new, altered course of history where his father is murdered and his mother remarries taken its place?

And outside of that film and more generally speaking, if a character goes to the future for information that enables them to profit in the present day, isn't it possible that they will disrupt or eradicate the conditions necessary for obtaining that future information and profit in the first place? Confused? Well, exactly. That's usually how I come out the other end after reading a time travel story

- The popping back and forth in time as if the character is on a milk round. They go here, there and everywhere and yet the present day pretty much resembles the same as when the story started and the travelling through the space-time continuum doesn't seem to take any toll on their mental or physical health.

- Dodgy science. Yes, back to where we started, but, really, this is the major obstacle in selling a story of this type to me. Does it need to be scientifically possible to be believable? No, of course not, because it it were, we'd be time travelling right now, today! But it does need to be fictionally feasible. It has to be believable enough that we can assume there has been a satisfactory leap in technology that explains it, even if it is beyond our current day understanding. Cue Red Dwarf -- completely ridiculous scientific techno-babble but deliberately so for the comedic effect. Because of the framing of the world, humour, characters etc., it works to enable the viewer to buy into the premise.

Now, as I said at the start of this post, there are a couple of exceptions to my dislike of time travel stories. The first is the Back to the Future trilogy. Yes, there are holes in some of the logic, but I can overlook those because it's mostly explained in some way or other that I can suspend my disbelief and because they are just great, good fun films. The other is much more scientifically based and more in line with my understanding of how real time travel might actually work, and that is Interstellar. I saw the film recently but the book is now on my to-read list.

To begin with, part of Interstellar's time travel science is based in how Professor Stephen Hawkins explains it. It goes along the lines of: if a crew were to travel in outer space for, say, ten years, by the time they returned to Earth everyone else would have aged by one hundred years. This is because time relativity is different in outer space than it is on our own planet, due to the gravity of our planet (look it up for a more detailed explanation). Time travel, in the classic, fictional sense (i.e. doing the milk round) would be impossible.

Interstellar follows this science, along with that of physicist Kip Thorne and his pursuit of proving or explaining, at least, Einstein's own, unproved theories. Christopher Nolan directs, famed for the film Inception (though, I'm a fan because of Memento), and it really is one of the best science-fiction stories I've come across, diving into the world of quantum physics and wormholes. It even explains the possible existence of ghosts. (Yeah, sorry, you'll have to go watch/read it to find out how that pans out.)

But, I digress. The point is, it follows proper scientific theory on the limitations and actualities of time travel and creates one of the best plots I've experienced. You know the type, the one that makes you wish you could write something that clever?

Be careful, though. The thing I didn't yet add to that list are those time travel stories that try to be too clever. They try to scientifically explain the mechanics of time travel but get too caught up in their own genius to execute it comprehensively and often end up contradicting themselves. And confusing the reader.

All in all, I'd be hard pushed to recall a time travel story submission where none of the above applied and that impressed me with not just their scientific knowledge but their story-telling one, too.

How about you? Do you have a particular type of story that just turns you off? Why? What is it that gets you groaning?

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