Time travel gets a lot of grief in fiction. Often I read stories where the “science” is overwrought or, worse, inconsistent. Stephen King once said a writer’s job is to tell the truth. I disagree. A writer’s job is to lie so convincingly, the truth becomes irrelevant. Any good liar will tell you that details ruin the lie but inconsistency murders it outright. Readers don’t want to think back to an earlier chapter where the science did one thing and now does another. If they question the truth, the story needs grief.
I have loved time travel stories since my first exposure to Doctor Who back in the 1980s. I stumbled across the show while staying up late and flipping channels on the tiny 12-inch cube that sat atop the antique (and non-working) Heathkit television my dad kept in the living room. PBS was showing “The Hand of Fear”, Sarah Jane’s last companion episode, and I tuned in about halfway through. I loved the bad puns and dry humor, but more than that I loved the absolute silliness of Tom Baker’s Doctor. I watched every episode the station aired from then on. It was (and still is) ridiculous, silly, and fun, but more than anything it was consistent.
[Side note: I’m absolutely in love with what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role. She makes an excellent Doctor and brings a much needed (and missed) light and silliness to the role.]
When I think of bad time travel stories, two awful ones come to mind: Time Changer, the story of an 1890s preacher who travels to the 21st century and is shocked, just shocked, that people get divorced and use “bad” language; and the cringe worthy Time Runner, the story of the universe’s worst time traveller (Sorry, Mr. Hamill, it’s horrid). The former is inconsistent (dude you traveled through TIME, and words and relationship issues are the problem? What about false prophets and televangelists that do nothing for those they preach to?) and the latter hoards bad plots like my dad hoarded non-working electronic devices (q.v. the Heathkit TV).
Some stories are terrible but fun (Time Rider, Time Cop 1) and others are fantastic (Time Bandits, Terminator). What makes these stories work better is consistency. I don’t care about the truth when I watch these because they do not call the truth into question. I never have to look back or say, “Wait, but you said/did X in that other scene!”
The bad news is, there will be more bad time travel stories written. It is inescapable. The good news is that every one of them teach us what not to do with our stories. That is why, as writers especially, we must read bad fiction. Make it through as much of a horrid story as you can. Learn what sucks and why. You don’t have to hit your thumb with a hammer to know it’s a bad idea. It may solidify the point, but so will watching someone else do it.
Antitopia will probably feature time travel though limited in scope. I think when we have a memory or imagine the future we are in that time, that moment, just not physically. And as magick and monsters play a role in Antitopia, one might affect a change in that mental state. Manipulating the past would be simpler, you change the collective memory. The future is tricky.
The things we do now can have a tremendous effect on the future. This is always hazy in fiction because there are infinite possible outcomes from a single moment. If I move my hand to the right while writing this, I might knock my daughter’s play-dough tools off the table. This might scare the cat, sending him tearing through the house. On his tear, he might claw his way through the living room right over the kiddo. The scars from that will leave her frightened of the cat, coloring her future interactions with all cats. I have given my child a phobia through a simple, accidental misstep. But what if I catch the tool, or don’t move my hand in the first place? Thus the future becomes a tricky adventure: even a simple step in a different direction can reshape the events you’re trying to effect.
[Note: I didn’t move my hand, the kid and the cat are okay.]