Chrono-surfing - "A Brief History Of Time Travel"
Date: May 4th, 2004 (Typed over by Anne Drury for STAFFmember Maurice)
By: Randall Frakes
You are, at this very instant, travelling in time. The speed and direction have been pre-determined by forces we can only dimly imagine, but we are all time travellers, heading inexorably from cradle to grave at the rate of sixty seconds a minute.
Joseph Conrad, in his novel Lord Jim, wrote "What man does not yearn for a second chance?" Indeed, what human being, young or old, has not felt longing for some past event, and wanted to re-experience it armored with the knowledge of hindsight?
Or who hasn't at some time wanted to escape their humdrum time and place, to see the magical and mysterious future?
Time travel stories provide the chance to do just that--a second take on fate, where you can go back in time and save a friend from accidental death or tell a loved one how you really felt about them before they died.
Or, in the case of the TERMINATOR movies, to warn a civilization about (and attempt to prevent) its self destruction. Or to journey to the future, where hopefully humankind has peacefully evolved from the reactionary, territorial, and paranoid savages we still seem to be.
The surprising success of James Cameron's TERMINATOR upon its initial release in 1984 not only inspired a stampede of endless cyborg movies, it also helped resurrect the intelligent time travel story, revitalizing in the popular mind the literary concepts of "time displacement" and the "grandfather paradox".
Cameron's film, and its blockbuster sequel TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, are part of a long tradition of time travel stories, whose basic themes and ideas reach much further back in time than 1960s television or any single author's work. Indeed, most of the intellectual and emotional themes of the time travel genre have been in place for generations, not only in science fiction but in all forms of literature, science, and art.
Throughout the last 3,000 years (and perhaps even earlier) people have been dreaming about time travel. Duration, as any physicist will tell you, is a necessary ingredient for life. Time is inextricably tangled up with the dance of energy and matter.
But time seems to us as if it is a one-way street. Paraphrasing H.G. Wells in his classic 1899 novella The Time Machine, human beings are prisoners of time. We can move up or down, right or left, but we have no control over the "forward" rush of time. We can't go faster into the future than we do now, and we certainly cannot go backwards to a previous era. Recent scientific theories are beginning to break the conceptual log-jam on the real possibilities of time travel, but more on that later.
For now, we live in a "cage of now" that almost instantly becomes the "cage of then". And yet, human imagination has been conjuring "time travel" stories for eons. Some archaeologists have even interpreted certain Egyptian pictographs on the chatted walls of ruined temples and pyramids as telling of kings transported by the gods to other times to impart or partake of secret knowledge.
The time travel story as we know it now did not come into its own until the 1700s, and the preferred method of time displacement was not mechanical. In L.S. Mercer's Memoirs Of the Year 2500 A.D. (1771), a man simply falls asleep and awakens in the future where he discovers a splendid utopia of peace and tranquility (much more pleasant than the revolutionary upheavals throughout Europe and the Americas at the time).
Washington Irving's famous Early American gothic tale "Rip Van Winkle" also allowed for time travel by the "sleeper" approach, as did W.H. Hudson's A Crystal Age, both published in 1887. Mark Twain's rollicking 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court was one of the first to send the sleeping hero into the past.
Artificially induced sleep, or some form of suspended animation, was a refinement of the prolonged hibernation of previous heroes. Novels such as Alvarado Fuller's A.D. 2000 (1890), Louis Boussenard's 10,000 Years In A Block Of Ice (1898), and H.G. Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) took advantage of new scientific theories about the possibility of inducing long comas with chemicals.
Of course, what these heroes would do once awakened in another time was enlarged and built upon by authors, from simply observing a new society and bringing back the wisdom of the future to their own era, to intervening dramatically in the events of the time being visited, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.
Wells' Time Traveller, never named in The Time Machine (1899), is an example of the latter, a civilized scientist hungry to see better societies who comes to realize his own is not so bad by comparison. His attempts to change the future world he intrudes on are somewhat less than successful, although he goes back again for another try at the end of the story.
Due to a rise in pseudo-scientific studies of the occult in Europe and America during the first two decades of the twentieth century, time travel stories began to use hypnosis and dreams as methods of locomotion in time, such as George Allan England's Darkness And Dawn (1914).
Other methods have included accidents involving nuclear radiation (Isaac Asimov's Pebble In the Sky, 1950), stasis fields (Philip Jose Farmer's The Stone God Awakens, 1970), and radio telescopes (James Blish's Midsummer Century, 1972). John Tayne's The Time Stream (1946) involved the traveller being thrust into the flow of time through an "unvoluntary twist of the mind".
In the post-war Twenties, the awful uses machines could be put to in the service of mass slaughter inspired more time machines to be built in literature, but their descriptions and destinations fell far short of Wells' masterpiece, which still stands as a bellwether of ingenuity and social satire.
Wells gave his Time Traveller mobility both into the past and the future. His hero went to the very end of time, a haunting sequence where all things are suffering from a fatal case of entropy. This apocalyptic "end with a whimper instead of a bang" was evolved in such later stories as Clifford D. Simak's The World Of the Red Sun (1931) and Robert Silverberg's ironic When We Went To the End Of the World (1972).
Wells' creation of a machine under the traveller's direct control also revolutionized time travel stories in that specific places or times could be arrived at, sometimes over and over again. But it would take several decades for other writers to take this concept to the next level.
Other types of science fiction stories captured the imaginations of readers for several decades until World War II broke out in Europe. A sudden burst of time travel stories emerged, many of them populated with heroes eager to escape a world about to collapse in an orgy of mechanized immolation.
The idea of going back into the past in order to change the present and future thus became one of the enduring plotlines in the genre, both as wish-fulfillment and as cautionary tale. In Ray Bradbury's seminal time travel short story "A Sound Of Thunder" (1952), the accidental killing of a single butterfly by a time-traveling dinosaur observer radically alters the future and he returns to a "present" he no longer recognizes. One minor element in this short story later became the basis of L. Sprague de Camp's "A Gun For Dinosaur" (1956).
In time travel stories, these heroes cannot escape the role of messiah, and in many cases during the 40s and 50s, some stories revelled in the Christ parallels in such stories as L. Sprague de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller's Genus Homo and Robert Graves' Seven Days In New Crete (both 1949), culminating years later in Michael Moorcock's literal translation Behold the Man (1969), in which a Biblical scholar is transported to ancient Palestine and winds up nailed to a cross in place of a mentally retarded Jesus.
Jack Finney (better known for his Invasion Of the Body Snatchers, 1954) wrote extensively about time travel. Some of his better stories are collected in the anthologies About Time (1986) and The Third Level (1957) where he adroitly expands and plays with endearing time travel cliches. His most celebrated time travel novel, Time And Again (1970), sends his present day hero back to an 1880 New York to set things right.
In stories such as Eric Frank Russell's The Waitabits (1955), an alien species experiences a snail's pace sense of time compared to human beings. This was one of the first time travel stories to play around with different subjective rates of time. Others were Arthur C. Clarke's "All the Time In the World" (1952) and John D. MacDonald's much imitated novel The Girl, The Gold Watch And Everything (1962).
Some time travelers get stuck experiencing time in reverse, rather than "forwards", such as in Brian W. Aldiss' Cryptozoic and Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick, both published in 1967.
Time can also break down around the hero, or regress, or split into a dozen alternate or parallel time streams. James Tiptree Jr. wrote a fascinating story in 1972 called "The Man Who Walked Home", in which the time traveller is glimpsed by ordinary people who watch him skip across the centuries.
The "time fragmentation" emerged in the stories and novels around the late 60s and early 70s when youth counterculture coincided with a "new wave" in science fiction stylistics, leading to many works whose discussion and use of time travel bordered on the utterly chaotic, especially by writers such as Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, and Norman Spinrad.
This was quite a change from the previous decades when many stories were written establishing cadres of special police to enforce the rules of the government-controlled time travel, including Jake Williamson's The Legion Of Time (1952), Isaac Asimov's The End Of Eternity (1955), Poul Anderson's The Corridors Of Time (1965), and Keith Laumer's Dinosaur Beach (1971) and most recently in the film and TV series "Time Cop" (1994).
In the increasingly high tech world of the 60s and 70s, time machines became increasingly plausible. Numerous stories, novels, and TV shows (especially the early 60s incarnations of "The Outer Limits" and "The Twilight Zone") began to routinely explore the strange ramifications of time travel.
The 1963 "Outer Limits" episode "The Man Who Was Never Born", by Anthony Lawrence, has a pair of astronauts accidentally break through a time warp and wind up on a future Earth devastated by nuclear war. They encounter a librarian who knows exactly who started the war. The librarian goes back through the time warp to kill the man, but arrives too early, and falls in love with the woman who will become the man's mother!
It was a high point of that series and an excellent example of how many time travel story concepts could be shoe-horned effectively into an hour show, the most famous of which is the "grandfather paradox", in which the hero travels to the past and kills his grandfather, thereby making it impossible for him to be born.
Other stories which cleverly explored this paradox were Robert Heinlein's novel The Door Into Summer (1957) and his classic novella All You Zombies (1959), the latter of which was taken to the ultimate extreme in David Gerrold's elaborate and hilarious The Man Who Folded Himself (1973).
Some of the more interesting variants in time travel stories include: "Photojournalist", a 1965 short story by Mack Reynolds that posits a roving reporter who time machines his way throughout all the great moments of history; John Wyndham's Pawley's Peepholes (1951) and John Brunner's The Productions Of Time (1967) both wryly dramatize tourists from the future visiting our time for study or pleasure, and getting into mischief at our expense; Robert Silverberg's novel The Masks Of Time (1968) and Ian Watson's story "The Very Slow Time Machine" (1978) portray visitors from the future causing societal collapse; Gregory Benford's fascinating and truly prophetic 1980 novel Timescape adroitly posits scientists in the future desperate to send a warning to the present with the use of tachyons --sub-atomic particles that travel faster than the speed of light and therefore can travel backwards in time; Robert Silverberg's Anvil Of Time (1968) initiates a novel penal institution, a maximum security prison sent into the pre-historic era; Harry Harrison's The Technicolor Time Machine (1967) imagines a machine used by a Hollywood producer to film real historical battles (what a way to save money on extras!).
Which leads us to time travel movies and TV shows. In addition to the few already mentioned, there is the beloved 1960 George Pal version of Wells' The Time Machine; and Nicholas Meyer's delicious 1979 satiric thriller TIME AFTER TIME, in which Jack the Ripper steals H.G. Wells' time machine to slaughter humanity in our present.
Sam Raimi created in his second EVIL DEAD sequel a bizarrely hilarious variant of Twain, called ARMY OF DARKNESS (1993); David Twohy's GRAND TOUR (1992) is based on Lawrence O'Donell and C.L. Moore's novella Vintage Season, in which time travelling tourists arrive in a small town in our present to observe an upcoming major catastrophe.
In CYBORG 2087 (1966), Michael ("Klaatu") Rennie plays a cyborg from the future sent to our time to save humanity, in an example of a great concept poorly executed.
Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis' hyper-kinetic and hilarious BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy (1985-1989) were ground breaking time travel films, especially the second instalment, which ably and amusingly explains the concept of multiple time lines as a way around paradox. All later time travel films owe this one a debt for educating the audience in the now "common" tenets of time travel.
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980), features Kirk Douglas and the crew of a navy aircraft carrier transported through a time storm into Pacific waters just before the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, with a decidedly "Twilight Zonian" twist at the end.
Robert Sheckley's intense novel Immortality, Inc. was given the Hollywood treatment in FREEJACK (1992) with Anthony Hopkins marooned in cyberspace while statuesque Rene Russo towers over diminutive Emilio Estevez (what were they thinking?).
The 1998 big-screen, modernized version of the classic Irwin Allen TV series "Lost In Space" shows a young and an old Will Robinson having a conversation via a time warp.
Respected science fiction writer John Varley adapted his own short story "Air Raid" into a novel and initially intriguing but finally disappointingly archaic MILLENNIUM (1989), which depicts travellers from the future snatching people from airliners seconds before they crash, an idea somewhat cribbed by Stephen King for his novella (and later 1998 TV movie) The Langoliers.
Francis Coppola's 1986 PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED uses muddled magic to transport Kathleen Turner back to her senior prom where she gets a chance to alter her relationship with her future husband Nicholas Cage, a la the 2000 variant THE FAMILY MAN, (also with Cage). Magic or at least the "power of the imagination" is the transport mechanism as well in the swooningly romantic 1980 film SOMEWHERE IN TIME, adapted by Richard Matheson from his earlier novel Bid Time Return.
The numerous TV and feature film incarnations of the STAR TREK universe constantly utilized time travel, most amusingly in the 1986 save-the-whales feature STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME, and was then in turn lampooned effectively in the Trekkian satire GALAXY QUEST (1999).
Speaking of satire, Terry Gilliam took a truly esoteric turn in his 1981 time travel comedy TIME BANDITS, in which a dwarfish squad of assistants to the Supreme Being become interdimensional robbers using a map of the holes in time. Gilliam later took time travel much more seriously in his film of David and Janet Peoples' TWELVE MONKEYS (1997), perhaps the most clever and powerful variant on TERMINATOR yet wrought, with resonance to certain "Twilight Zone" episodes, especially Richard Matheson's 1960 "The Last Flight", as much as the source materials: Chris Marker's startling short film "La Jetee" (1962) and Hitchcock's meditation on love, will, and fate, VERTIGO (1958).
Numerous films owe their existence to the fascination with time travel that popular films like TERMINATOR and BACK TO THE FUTURE engendered in the general movie-going audience as well as in the die-hard science fiction fan; by making the viewers familiar with the "general rules" of time travel stories, these films made it possible to then further explore the genre with greater sophistication.
In TERMINATOR's short 108 minutes, almost all major time travel concepts are evoked or dramatized, including causal loops, sexual paradox, and multiple time lines. And yet the movie is so much more than that: a cornucopia of beloved science fiction concepts stirred into a tasty new stew for the mind, with many of the same ingredients in fresh combinations.
In fact, time travel is only one--and not the most important--aspect of TERMINATOR's story; it also draws inspiration from traditional cyborg/robot fiction (I, Robot by Asimov, Adam Link, Robot by Eando Binder, "Scanners Live In Vain" by Cordwainer Smith, Moderan by David R. Bunch, Cyborg by Martin Caidlin--the basis of "The Six Million Dollar Man" TV series--and others), as well as theological and philosophical treatises on human will versus fate, apocalyptic myth, and of course adrenaline-pumped chase thrillers.
Where most of the variants and rip-offs fail is in not applying critical thinking to how these different themes and elements are combined, something that writer/director James Cameron has proved over the years that he is quite capable of doing, beginning with his original screenplay for TERMINATOR.
The key is realizing--and practicing the fact--that science is inseparable from the human experience, that emotion is inseparable from intellect, and that just because you want to make a crowd-pleasing action film does not mean you have to shut off your brain--or that of your audience--to do it.
Today, physicists who only fifteen or twenty years ago would have scoffed at serious contemplation of real time travel are now excitedly exploring the possibilities via mathematical theorems as well as study of sub-atomic particles and the nature of curved space-time.
There are a few die-hard scientists who, like most ordinary people, have difficulty accepting the possibility of time travel. As of this writing, famed physicist Stephen Hawking believes that with a true amalgamation of Einstein's General Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics (currently not compatible with each other) we will have a truly accurate picture of space-time.
Hawking believes that quantum mechanics will introduce destructive space-time "back reaction" effects that will obliterate any time machine before it can actually be turned on, which is his explanation for why we don't see hordes of time tourists among us today (although some people who study UFOs think they are not starships from space but time capsules from other eras darting in and out of our present).
While the scientists and philosophers puzzle out what may be one day the salvation of the human species, or its doom (the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in Genesis?), we ordinary people must make do with our time-proven forms of time travel: memory, written history, imaginative stories of possible future scenarios, and movies like TERMINATOR.
In fact, the cheapest, most visceral time machines of the twentieth century have turned out to be...movies, in glorious widescreen and digital stereo. For the price of admission (or the cost of a DVD like this one), you can travel to the past, the future, and everywhere in between. All you need to complete the experience is a little buttered popcorn.
After the essay, there is one more screen page. It shows a picture of a piece of paper; the print looks like it was done on a typewriter. The paper reads:
TERMINATOR, THE NOVEL
by Randall Frakes and William Wisher
Once upon the earth, in a typical town, on an agonizingly beautiful day, a nondescript woman, whose name I forget, killed a monster robot from the future and saved the human race.
At the bottom of the screen (not on the piece of paper), there's a caption that reads:
"Uh, guys, I know we've got deadlines, but could you maybe pad it out a bit?"
(End of easter egg :)