What if we could tamper with time? What if we could jump timelines, guide evolution, re-write history, or even cheat death?
Science fiction is all about the relationship between the human and the nonhuman. And that the nonhuman is some form of the natural world, as revealed by science.
Ever since the scientific revolution, science has encroached upon all aspects of life. Science has sought not just to explore, but to exploit nature. To master it.
Around the seventeenth century the possibility also became clear that time was limitless, and inhumanly vast in scale. Even the stars, it was suggested, may grow old and die.
By the time of the industrial revolution, great machines turned over the soil of the world. The death toll of extinction rang out for the first time. And the fossil record churned out evidence of creatures no longer to be found on Earth. Darwinian evolution forced us all to confront the terrible extent of history.
Suddenly, there was no greater challenge for science. What if we could master time? The brutal agent that devours beauty and life.
And so began a science fictional obsession. True, there had been folkloric flirtations with time. Timeslip romances where dreamy magic is mixed with myth, and time is lost as a convenient plot device.
But the idea of mechanised time travel did not appear until industrialisation. Its invention was tied up with the concept of time itself. The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. Kairos suggested a moment of time in which something special happens. Chronos was more concerned with measured, sequential time. Industrial society brought a mechanistic approach to nature. Chronos came to the fore. Time travel was born.
HG Wells gave science fiction one of its most enduring devices. The time machine. Wells’ book is an ingenious voyage of discovery. The Time Traveller sets out to marshall and master time. But he discovers the inevitable truth; time is lord of all. The significance of the story’s title becomes clear. Humans are trapped by the mechanism of time, and bound by a history that leads to inevitable extinction.
But science fiction writers continued in their quest to master time. To nail down the future for us.
Wells himself wondered what the future held for man in The War of the Worlds. The invading Martians are not only a brutal force of evolution. They are also the ‘men’ of the future. They are alien, yet they are human. They are what we may one day become, with their over-developed brains and emaciated bodies. They are the tyranny of intellect alone.
Evolution, of course, is a process that reveals itself in time. In 2001, Stanley Kubrick suggested that the dumb, blind evolution of man would have to be interrupted by the guiding hand of an alien race to rescue us from the long, pathetic road to racial extinction.
Time travel proved to have further potential.
It enabled writers to instill a different sense of history through the creation of plausible alternatives. A common theme was a Nazi victory in world war two. Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992) is one such example. The book is a counterfactual history of a single past created to provide long-term social and political speculations on history.
Philip K Dick’s classic The Man in the High Castle (1962) is also a Nazi counterfactual. But in Dick’s book, rather than portraying just one timeline, some of the book’s characters are aware that other timelines exist. Which reality is authentic? Which history is true? The Man in the High Castle helped develop alternate history fiction as a serious genre.
In film and fiction, it soon became common for characters to jump freely between alternative timelines, each timeline associated with its own plausible future. So it is with both the Back to the Future and Terminator series, in which apparently inescapable cyborg assassins are sent back from the future by a race of artificially intelligent machines bent on the extermination of humans!
Inevitably, the main focus of such time traveling is melodrama. But these tales in time also enable us to ask questions: How open is the future? Do we really have free-will? Isn’t all history in a sense a fiction? How can we ever know anything about time other than the fables we create?