As promised in yesterday’s post, here are some of my favourite time travel reads. I tried to include something for everyone – from the geek, to the history buff, to the romantic.
Pastwatch: the Redemption of Christopher Columbus – Orson Scott Card
An incredibly ambitious novel about a group of researchers from the future who decide to try to rewrite history – by going back to South America at the time of Christopher Columbus’ discovery, and redirecting events so that the native people of South America act differently, preserving their autonomy over the region. The scientists hope that by changing the pattern of European contact with the Americas, they will be able to write out of history the human rights and ecological disasters of the next 2000 years – from colonialism, to slavery, war and genocide, to misuse of technology leading to ecological destruction. From their distant and tenuous future, they see this intervention as the only way to save their planet. With both alternate history and utopian themes, this is a book that might appeal to anyone who is interested in this period in American and European history, but would also be a great read for anyone who likes eco-catastrophe non fiction – such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse or Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress.
Oxford, 2050. Time travel has been invented, but (dissapointingly, to those who invested in the R+D) will not allow the pillaging of the past. Instead, it is discovered that time travel can be used only to observe – will only work when temporal travelers disrupt the time space continuum as little as possible. For this reason, time travel has been abandoned by everyone but historians, who now use it to research the past. Even historians can have a remarkably adventurous time, however.
Connie Willis is my favourite writer/fictional theorist of time travel. Her books contain just enough scientific/philosophical detail to make the idea of time travel plausible, and rather than time travel simply providing the enabling device that allows the story to happen, time travel often is the story itself – directly driving the narrative with its convoluted twists and turns, mishaps and discoveries. Time travel often goes wrong in Connie Willis’s novels, either trapping her historians in dangerous places (like the middle ages during the plague, in The Doomsday Book, or the London blitz in her most recent – Blackout/All Clear), or it can (as in To Say Nothing of the Dog – an homage to the Victorian Era and the mystery novel alike), conveniently place the historian in just the right place to help them solve the problem. In Willis’s fictional universe, time travel seems to have a mind of its own, and chaos theory and its large system of time, infinite variables and coincidence calls the shots. It’s a deus ex machina I deeply enjoy, though – largely because it often leads to great farce and satisfying resolution, and because it provides a fascinating perspective on history – exploring what it is that causes major historical events, at the same time as it allows insight into the private moments of people’s lives.
The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
A deeply personal, almost fatalistic approach to time travel. Rare books librarian Henry De Tamble has chrono displacement disorder, a rare condition that causes him to leave his own temporal present, and find himself… elsewhere… usually at another point in his own life, either past or future. This has a significant (often logistical) effect on his life. It’s not always fun waking up cold and naked somewhere in Chicago, needing to determine where and when you are and then find a way to keep yourself safe and warm while you wait for your body to take you back to your own present. But Henry’s time travel also impacts upon his relationship with his wife Claire, who spends a lot of time waiting for him to come home. A modern Penelopiad, if you will. It’s a wonderfully convoluted postmodern narrative that requires the reader to keep all the threads of Claire’s time and Henry’s time in some sort of order – things often happen out of chronological sequence, but that’s point, right? The time is out of joint, after all. A love story to Chicago, too.
A delightful series of books about a secret organisation called ‘The Company’ that attempts to orchestrate world events, and amass wealth and security for its members. It does so by conscripting people from the past, and turning them into time traveling cyborgs who act as incognito agents. The novels are deeply layered in conspiracy, but also full of historical detail, especially about Baker’s native california – the gold rush, and first days of Hollywood feature prominently, as does the island of Catalina (which serves as some strange locus of meaning and discovery). Baker’s novels leave a lot of questions unanswered, but that just leaves you reading voraciously, trying to piece together all the clues. The best thing about the novels, though, is her strange collection of characters. You feel great sympathy for the operatives who have effectively been taken out of history, and forced to work ‘outside of time’ for centuries. They know little about the origins of The Company, and some are more complacent than others, and this leads to fascinating plot twists, and a bond of solidarity and secrecy between some operatives. A side effect of the cyborg process that enhances the operatives is an intoxicating reaction to chocolate, and one of my favourite scenes in the novels happens when two subversive agents hold a secret meeting in Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop, and end up getting completely high on a string of hot chocolates and other cocoa delicacies – much to the consternation and bemusement of the staff at the chocolate store. So much to love about these books.
So those are some of my favourites, but I would love to hear yours!