A Whole Lot of Time Travel and Some Very Good Fiction

By David WittenbergMay 23, 2014

A Whole Lot of Time Travel and Some Very Good Fiction

The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF by Mike Ashley
The Time Traveler's Almanac by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer

WHATEVER ELSE you might find in a big anthology of time travel stories, you can reasonably expect a preface or introduction explaining the special appeal of the genre and suggesting that time traveling is something we do — or aspire to do, or fantasize about doing — all of our lives. Mike Ashley, editor of The Mammoth Book of Time Travel, says that the “desire to somehow shift out of time and move ahead faster or backwards is surely in all of us,” and Rian Johnson, director of the 2012 film Looper, in his brief but smart introduction to The Time Traveler’s Almanac, calls time travel a “wish fulfillment on the primal level of the psyche.” Here on my desk, I have piled the older time travel collections I own, and their introductions consistently echo more or less the same idea: “one of the oldest dreams of all”; “this most liberating of science-fictional themes”; “the most fundamental, the closest to the heart”; “a human trait”; “part of the human condition”; “we’re all time travelers, whether we know it or not.” If these sentiments are true even to a small degree — let’s presume they are, for a moment — then time travel stories, as explicit depictions of such basic human desires, ought to occupy a very special niche in literature, even functioning as a primary form of storytelling. Do time travel stories really do that? Well, to test the notion, there’s nothing like working one’s way through fifteen-hundred pages of time travel fiction all at one go; let me relate a little of the experience.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's The Time Traveler’s Almanac, at nearly a thousand pages, is virtually by default “the largest and most definitive collection of time travel stories ever assembled,” just as its back cover proclaims. The VanderMeers are skilled and experienced editors, having published or collaborated on a number of volumes of SF, fantasy, and weird fiction. Until a couple of years ago, Ann VanderMeer was also an influential editor at the revived pulp magazine Weird Tales, and Jeff VanderMeer is an established fantasy author in his own right. Their know-how and sensibility pay dividends in the large proportion of very fine recent fiction they’ve been able to gather for Almanac. About a third of the stories in the collection were written since 2000, and even the remaining two thirds show a strong bias toward the recent past, as well as toward authors who might not be familiar even to committed fans of time travel. Scattered amongst all this newer stuff are a few standards that the reader may have seen in prior collections of SF — for instance, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” (1952), the famous “butterfly effect” tale about risk-averse dinosaur hunters, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” (1946), a meditation on trans-temporal tourism and historical provincialism, Theodore Sturgeon’s “Yesterday Was Monday” (1941), a sharp but slight sketch about media omnipresence and the fabrication of everyday life, and a few other touchstones by writers such as Connie Willis, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Geoffrey Landis that certainly merit rereading. Also included, perhaps more for scholastic than aesthetic reasons, are historical morsels such as Edward Page Mitchell’s “The Clock That Went Backward” (1881) and a somewhat arbitrary segment of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895); finally, a handful of trifles by very well-known authors such as Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, and George R. R. Martin presumably help with marketing.

But the Almanac’s real highlight is a cluster of newer stories that meddle splendidly with both time travel conventions and genre rules of science fiction and fantasy. Greg Egan’s provocative and moving alternate history story, “Lost Continent,” depicts a young boy from a variant of ancient Khurosan who escapes fanatical fundamentalist “scholars” by traveling into the future, only to find himself detained in something like a modern-day refugee camp, beset by all-too-familiar bigotry and bureaucracy. Alice Sola Kim’s “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” is a fascinating rumination on ethnic difference and ancestor worship that artfully gathers allusions to the history of science fiction’s avant-garde even as it uses time jumping to examine both the promise and the pathos of cultural assimilation. Dean Francis Alfar’s “Terminós” is a subtle reflection on the randomness or banality of personal life narratives: an aging playwright visits a strange pawn shop to barter away the remaining years of his life, a type of transaction for which customers are paid with platitudes written on kitschy souvenirs. Alfar’s story then envisions a sequence of possible alternate endings for the playwright’s now rewritable biography, arranged backward from a trite post-coital heart attack to an abrupt and melodramatically violent demise at the age of two. And in Nalo Hopkinson’s gorgeous and uncanny “Message in a Bottle,” art curators from the future, traveling back in the guise of super-intelligent mutant children, collect “originals” from our present time, the special worth and significance of which are utterly obscure to any contemporary aesthetic sense. Hopkinson’s story is simultaneously a clever paradox tale, a deep reflection on cultural and historical relativism, and a virtuoso mashup of SF subgenres.

The VanderMeers have organized the pieces in their volume into fairly vague thematic sections — “Experiments,” “Mazes and Traps,” etc. — and commissioned contemporary writers to compose brief ruminations introducing and framing the divisions. Such a plan is probably necessary simply given the number of stories at hand — around seventy — but I don’t believe it adds a great deal to the actual experience of reading through the book. What stand out in the collection, instead of underlying themes or types, are individual writers’ achievements of plot-making and prose — and this may suggest one answer to my initial question about the unique significance of time travel. But I’ll get back to that shortly.

Mike Ashley’s The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF, as implied both by its comparative brevity (still a substantial five-hundred-plus pages) and by the delimiting term “SF” in its title, is somewhat less ambitious than the VanderMeers’ Almanac in testing the boundaries of genre. Even so, this collection is thoughtfully and skillfully compiled, and contains much both interesting and entertaining. Ashley, like the VanderMeers, is an editor of considerable experience, having already published a good number of these “mammoth” volumes of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fiction, and having himself written several reference works, including an important multivolume history of science fiction magazines. As with the VanderMeers, Ashley’s experience underpins an expert familiarity with recent writing, notwithstanding the self-imposed constraint of his “SF” rubric. Except for a pair of somewhat randomly selected older tales — David I. Masson’s dark and compelling “Traveller’s Rest” (1965), and Fritz Leiber’s exemplary but unexceptional paradox tale, “Try and Change the Past” (1958) — the fiction in Mammoth all comes from the last few decades, and about half of it is post-2000.

Whether by coincidence or a convergence of editorial instincts, some of the most interesting stories in Mammoth also appear in Almanac. One of these is the Masson story I just mentioned, “Traveller’s Rest,” which constructs a version of the lifetime-in-an-instant plot loosely indebted to Ambrose Bierce’s famous “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” A soldier relieved from battle returns to his home and family; but in this particular war, the passage of time slows exponentially as you get farther from the “front,” so that the soldier’s entire civilian lifetime corresponds to mere seconds of the fighting to which he must eventually return. Masson’s story, despite its routine militaristic-SF ambiance, meditates acutely on the relative priorities of individual lives, cultural conformity, and state violence, and concludes with its protagonist’s “unspeakable suspicion” that the entire war, along with its apocalyptic deformation of time, might be trivially self-inflicted, the paroxysm of a culture carelessly disposed to ruin itself. Robert Silverberg’s “Needle in a Timestack,” a story that also appears in both collections, likewise succeeds in inflecting conventional genre language with insight and pathos. Rivals in a love affair undermine their respective relationships by altering key moments in the past, thus repeatedly “phasing” one another’s present lives out of existence. The sentimental motives for such revisionism only partially mask the story’s authentic distress about whole human lives hinged upon trivial choices and decisions. In Mike Strahan’s “In the Beginning, Nothing Lasts…,” a striking hybrid of science fiction and horror, the inscrutable consequences of past trauma are revealed through a “reversed plot” premise: a small boy resurrected from his coffin for his second, backward life is revealed to have been murdered by his father. But the disturbing religious or quasi-mystical viewpoint through which Strahan compels his characters to interpret the anomalous temporality of their damaged world effectively blocks — powerfully, for both characters and reader — any adequate comprehension of the morality of violence or its effects.

Overall, the stories compiled by Ashley for Mammoth appear to require less organization or framing than those the VanderMeers select for Almanac, being both more manageable in quantity (at twenty-five) and more clearly similar in literary type. Ashley therefore adds nothing to his table of contents beyond brief italicized prefaces to the individual pieces and a cursory overall introduction. Falling more naturally together by genre, for better or worse, Ashley’s selections suggest a common interest among SF time travel writers in working through the pathos or the odd comedy (or both) that might ensue from a crisis of causality or from a logical paradox. But overall, the writers in Mammoth exhibit less interest than those of Almanac in questions of historical, cultural, or even ethnic or species difference; nor do Ashley’s writers seem as intrigued as the VanderMeers’ by the revisionist reuse of genre conventions for cultural or aesthetic experiment. This is less a complaint than an observation, but it does underscore one of the unique facets of Almanac among the usual range of such anthologies.

So, to return to my opening question: ought we to consider time travel fiction the essential or primal storytelling act that both these anthologies, each in its own way, suggest it is? The answer I feel like giving — and it’s a practical rather than a theoretical answer, accrued from my jaunt through this pair of very lengthy books — is no. The effect of reading dozens of examples of this story type is that what tends to recede to the background of one’s attention is the time travel, per se, and what tends to come to the foreground instead is the prose. So, in addition to the particular stories I’ve mentioned already, it’s a special pleasure to read or reread — and this is largely regardless of whether it’s time travel fiction or not — the writing of Gene Wolfe, Geoffrey A. Landis, Vandana Singh, David Langford, and Kage Baker. Likewise, it’s a small but keen pleasure to read the well-chosen opening story in Mammoth, Gregory Benford’s “Caveat Time Traveler,” a brief, cynical parody of “hard” SF in which future con artists make a living duping naïve time travelers, a swindle perhaps not unrelated to that which hard-SF time travel itself performs on its reader. And it’s an even greater pleasure to reread Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames: A Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties,” a dark and funny satire from 1916 that the VanderMeers shrewdly include in Almanac. Soames, an aspiring but still-unknown writer, makes a deal with the devil to travel 100 years into the future to observe the triumph of his own literary reputation, but discovers that his name survives only as a character within a single short story by Max Beerbohm — the very story we are reading. It’s a droll and disconcerting paradox that illuminates perfectly the casual sadomasochism of literary ambition, but could scarcely be mistaken for generic science fiction, and therefore could not appear in Ashley’s Mammoth. Nevertheless, despite its age and eccentricity, Beerbohm’s story is everything a time travel tale ought to be: complex and hyperbolic in its plot; profoundly self-conscious about themes of temporality, history, and literature; simultaneously ironic, tragic, and extravagant in its tone — on the whole, a tour-de-force. Finally, then, it is superb writing such as Beerbohm’s — and I’ve tried to mention as many other admirable examples as I could — that makes both of these collections worth picking up, but especially the somewhat more eclectic Time Traveler’s Almanac.


David Wittenberg is an Associate Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa and author of Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative. 


LARB Contributor

David Wittenberg teaches in English, comparative literature, and cinematic arts at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative and Philosophy, Revision, Critique: Rereading Practices in Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Emerson. He is currently completing a new book entitled Big Culture: Toward an Aesthetics of Magnitude.


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