I admit that I don’t particularly care how well the science behind time travel is explained in sci-fi stories. I find things like quantum mechanics and Einstein-Rosen bridges really fascinating, but almost all fictional time machines are powered with pure unobtainium and might as well have gears turned by bionic hamsters. The most likely possibilities for time travel appear to be wormholes – which as I understand it would dump you out wherever the other end of the wormhole happened to be rather than beneath the Eiffel Tower on May 6th, 1889 just in time for the World’s Fair – combined with black holes, which would never dump you out anywhere ever again. That’s assuming that they didn’t just squish you, like in Galaxy Quest, where they try to beam up some kind of pig lizard from an alien planet and it ends up with its insides on its outsides.
What I do care about is how well integrated the structure of time travel is within a fictional world and how cleverly it sidesteps logical pitfalls. Some folks are looking for total logical consistency and I can respect that, but what I appreciate isn’t so much an explanation that holds up under a microscope as one that blends into the scenery seamlessly enough I don’t get snagged on it as I walk past. It’s one of the things I like about Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Mary’s series, and also why the first few episodes of the tv show Timeless caught my interest, but for very different reasons.
Historians at the Institute of Historical Research at St. Mary’s Priory near Rushford “investigate major historical events in contemporary time.” As the narrator advises new recruits: for god’s sake, don’t call it time travel! I have no idea how well-researched Taylor’s version of Troy is and I suspect that her description of the Cretaceous leans towards the creative, but St. Mary’s itself seems like a place I can relate to.
When it comes to time travelling history departments, I’d say Connie Willis set the bar and presumably Jodi Taylor owes her a debt, although I can’t find anywhere that either of them comments on it. Willis’ novels like Doomsday Book, All Clear, and To Say Nothing of the Dog are excellent historical pieces as well as engaging sci-fi stories, but the St Mary’s series is very entertaining with more swashbuckling style. Where the historians in Willis’ books specialize in specific periods like regular academics, the St. Mary’s crew specialize in cramming for whatever period they’re headed to and courting disaster wherever they go.
Taylor uses the premise of time travel itself to neatly sidestep the issue of how the technology for time travel was invented – the pods that they travel in are from a future St. Mary’s. At some point in the future someone will have to build them, but presumably that is a time this series will never visit. She also has a Technical section, who shoo everyone away from the equipment while they do maintenance, and a Research & Development department, who regularly blow things up, set themselves and each other on fire, and incur the wrath of the SPOHB (Society for the Preservation of Historical Buildings). They also make excellent camouflage for never explaining the science or mechanics at all – the narrator is an historian, so R&D are nuts and whatever the techs do would be a mystery in any case.
Some of the rules of time travel (ahem) at St. Mary’s are familiar. In Just One Damned Thing After Another, it’s established that history will avert significant discrepancies with sudden and frequently violent consequences for the hapless historian who caused them. They’re never allowed to go anywhere near the same place in space-time twice to avoid history deciding that one or the other version of them has to go. And of course they’re never supposed to either leave something from their own time behind or bring anything from another time back with them. But what’s interesting is that the rules evolve over time as the characters learn new things.
For instance, they accidentally discover that they actually can remove something from the time it belongs in as long as it had no future there. Naturally, this leads to a team-building exercise involving a competition to see who can capture the most dodos. Several books in there’s also a whole new twist which I won’t spoil for you, but it’s based on the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics in which many possible futures branch off from each key moment creating alternate timelines that share a past right up to the moment they diverge. If you do ever go back in time and change something, you’re not actually changing anything in the timeline you came from, you’re just creating a new parallel timeline in which whatever you did happened.
Speaking of changing the past, I’ve also just started watching the show Timeless, which so far is chock full of things that I get snagged on. In fact it’s so full of them I’m trying to figure out whether it’s being done on purpose, or if they just painted the sky blue and called it a day. The military suddenly pull in three people for a mission, stuff them into a time machine a few hours later, and send them back to the Hindenburg crash site to catch someone who is trying to change history. Why would you ever send people with absolutely no training or knowledge willy-nilly back into the past unless you were actually hoping they’d blunder around changing things?
Every time they come back from a mission it turns out they have indeed changed history, but everyone other than them only remembers the altered timeline. It must seem to the rest of the world like every mission is a success and they miraculously never change anything when they go back in time. They wrestle with whether being present in a moment that could theoretically create a better future morally obligates them to change the course of history, and two out of three of them are gung ho to save Abe Lincoln without any apparent in depth consideration of the implications. Usually preserving the timeline is presented as the good, responsible choice and it’s the villains who want to change things to serve their own ends, but the antagonists who are actively trying to alter the past also appear to see themselves as the heroes of the story.
I’m not sure where they’re going with it yet, but I’d like to see a story where the goal of the protagonists actually was to make the world better by changing terrible historical events. There are all kinds of logical challenges with that narrative and as soon as they changed the first major event all of their knowledge of history would become more or less irrelevant, but it would make for a very interesting fictional world.
alex MacFadyen thinks it would be just lovely to go back to a time when he was surrounded by untouched nature, right up until that nature tried to eat him.
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