Thursday, May 19, 2022

Time Travel as a Curse

If you've read Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, you know it's a highly unusual approach to time travel. In fact, I haven't come across any other science-fiction or fantasy novel quite like it. Henry, the traveler, bounces through time uncontrollably and at random. Most often, he lands in moments related to his own life, but not always. Visiting points in the past and future in no particular order, he arrives at each destination disoriented, nauseated, and naked, for he doesn't take anything along on the temporal jaunts. Even tooth fillings, since they aren't technically part of his body, don't stay with him. He has multiple encounters with his wife, Clare, in the past (from his viewpoint on his timeline, after they're married) when she's between the ages of six and eighteen. On one visit, he tells her which dates he will appear on, and she writes them down. Later, when the two of them meet earlier in his timeline (for him at that age, the first time), she gives him the written list, which thereby becomes the source of his knowledge of their predicted meetings. So how does this list exist? As Clare says, it's a mysterious "Mobius" loop. Similarly, Henry appears to his younger self when child-Henry makes his first time leap, into a museum. Adult-Henry knows he'll need to teach child-Henry the rules of time travel because he remembers a friendly stranger doing that for him when he experienced his first leap.

HBO is airing a new series based on the book, starting last weekend. Judging from the first episode, it's going to follow the novel closely. The book's chapters have helpful headings that state the year and how old each character is on his or her timeline in that encounter. The TV program, likewise, has captions at the beginning of each scene to indicate the ages of Henry and Clare at that point. Otherwise, viewers could get hopelessly lost.

I've never encountered another story that portrays time travel as a disability rather than a superpower (although TV Tropes mentions a few). Henry has no way of knowing whether he'll bounce back to his point of origin within minutes or remain stranded for days or more. He has to steal to survive. He frequently gets beaten up, in addition to the hazards of bad weather and the risk of landing in the middle of a street or railroad track. Small wonder that, at the age of twenty, the first occasion in his timeline when he meets Clare, he's a bit of a self-centered jerk. It takes her love, reinforced by her knowledge of the man he will become, to transform him. One of the saddest features of the novel consists of the multiple miscarriages Clare suffers because her unborn babies inherit Henry's mutant gene and spontaneously time-leap out of her womb. Another inevitable source of sorrow for Henry is knowing when he'll die and keeping that information a secret from her.

Unlike some fictional chrononauts, Henry has no problem being in the same time slot more than once. He can and often does meet other versions of himself. In Dean Koontz's LIGHTING, the Germans who come forward from World War II into the present can't jump into a moment where they already exist, a restriction that plays a critical part in the novel's climax. Connie Willis's Oxford-based time travelers (in DOOMSDAY BOOK, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, etc.) have the same limitation. Whatever force controls the space-time continuum won't allow them to overlap themselves, just as it prevents them from getting too close to any critical historical events they might alter. For Henry, on the other hand, there's no worry about altering the past. Whatever he does in any moment he travels to is simply what he has already done. As in Robert Heinlein's THE DOOR INTO SUMMER, whose protagonist also has the ability to have two of himself in the same spatio-temporal location, anything you "change" in another time period doesn't really change the outcome but causes it to happen the way it was/is supposed to all along. While THE DOOR INTO SUMMER ends happily, with the narrator using a time machine to bring about the optimal conclusion, Heinlein's "All You Zombies—", in which every major character is the same person, whose life endlessly loops upon itself, concludes with a cry of existential despair.

The more one thinks about it, the more this aspect of Henry's time travel seems like a reason for despair. If his life is locked into a preset pattern dependent on events he has already experienced, whether in the past or in the future, what happens to free will? Yet Niffenegger manages to conclude the story on a note of love and fulfillment rather than futility.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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