Why Was Sci-Fi So Slow to Discover Time Travel? (Guest Post by Henry Shevlin)

guest post by
Henry Shevlin

Time travel is a more or less ubiquitous feature of modern sci-fi. Almost every long running SF show – Star Trek, Futurama, The X-Files – will have a time travel episode sooner or later, and some, like Doctor Who, use time travel as the main narrative device. The same applies to novels and, of course, to Hollywood – blockbuster SF franchises like the Terminator and Back to the Future employ it, as do quirkier pictures like Midnight in Paris. And of course, there’s no shortage of time travel novels, including old favorites like A Christmas Carol, and perhaps most influentially, HG Wells’s wonderful social sci-fi novella The Time Machine.

I don’t find it particularly surprising that we’re so interested in time travel. We all engage in so called ‘mental time travel’ (or Chronaesthesia) all the time, reviewing past experiences and imagining possible futures, and the psychological capacities required in our doing so are the subject of intense scientific and philosophical interest.

Admittedly, the label “mental time travel” may be a bit misleading here; most of what gets labelled mental time travel is quite different from the SF variant, consisting in episodic recall of the past or projection into the future rather than imagining our present selves thrown back in time. But I think we also do this latter thing quite a lot. To give a commonplace example, we’re all prone to engage in “coulda woulda shoulda” thinking: if only I hadn’t parked the car under that tree branch in a storm, if I only I hadn’t forgotten my wedding anniversary, if only I hadn’t fumbled that one interview question. Frequently when we do this, we even elaborate how the present might have been different if we’d just done something a bit differently in the past. This looks a lot like the plots of some famous science fiction stories! Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all pondered what it would be like to experience different historical periods like the American Revolution, the Roman Empire, or the age of dinosaurs (you can even buy a handy t-shirt). More prosaically, I imagine many of us have also reflected on how satisfying it would be to relive some of our earlier life experiences and do things differently the second time round – standing up to high school bullies, or studying harder in high school (again, a staple of light entertainment).

Given the above, I had always assumed that time travel was part of fiction because it was simply part of us. Time travel narratives, in other words, were borrowed from the kind of imaginings we all do all the time. It was with huge surprise, then, that I discovered (while teaching a course on philosophy and science fiction) that time travel doesn’t appear in fiction until the 18th century, in the short novel “Memoirs of the Twentieth Century”. Specifically, this story imagines letters from the future being brought back to 1728. The first story of any kind (as far as I’ve been able to find) that features humans being physically transported back into the past doesn’t come until 1881, in Edward Page Mitchell’s short story “The Clock That Went Backwards”.

Maybe this doesn’t seem so surprising – isn’t science fiction in the business of coming up with bizarre, never before seen plot devices? But in fact, it’s pretty rare for genuinely new ideas to show up in science fiction. Long before we had stories about artificial intelligence, we had the tales of Pinocchio and the Golem of Prague. Creatures on other planets? Lucian's True History had beings living on the moon and sun back in the 2nd century AD. For huge spaceships, witness the mind-controlled Vimanas of the Sanskrit epics. And so on. And yet, for all the inventiveness of folklore and mythology, there’s very little in the way of time travel to be found. The best I’ve come up with so far is some time dilation in the stories of Kakudmi in the Ramayanas, and visions of the past in the Book of Enoch. But as far as I can tell, there’s nothing that fits the conventional time travel narratives we’re used to, namely physically travelling to ages past or future, let alone any idea that we might alter history.

What’s going on here? One possibility is that something changed in science or society in the 18th century that paved the way for stories about time travel. But what would that be, and how would it lead to time travel seeming more plausible? For example, if the first time travel literature had accompanied the emergence of general relativity (with all its assorted time related weirdness), then that would offer a satisfying answer. However, Newtonian physics was already in place by the late 17th century, and it’s not clear which of Newton’s principles might pave the way for time travel narratives.

I’m very open to suggestions, but let me throw out one final idea: time travel narratives don’t show up in earlier fiction because they’re weird, unnatural, and counterintuitive. Even weirder than the staples of folklore and mythology, like people being turned into animals. Time travel is just not the kind of thing that naturally occurs to humans to think about at all, and it’s only via a few fateful books in the 18th century and its subsequent canonisation in The Time Machine that it’s become established as a central plot device in science fiction.

But doesn’t that contradict what I said earlier about how we all often naturally think about time travel related scenarios, like changing the past, or witnessing historical events firsthand? Not necessarily. Maybe these kinds of thought patterns are actually inspired by time-travel science fiction. In other words, prior to the emergence of time travel as a trope, maybe people really didn’t daydream about meeting Julius Caesar or going back and changing history. Perhaps the past was seen simply as a closed book, rather than (in the memorable words of L. P. Hartley) just “a foreign country”. That’s not to suggest, of course, that people didn’t experience memories and regrets, but maybe they experienced them a little differently, with the past seeming simply an immutable background to the present.

I’m excited the idea that a science fiction trope might have birthed a new and widespread form of thinking. Partly that’s because it suggests that science fiction may be more influential than we realize, and partly it’s because, as a philosopher, I’m interested in where patterns of thought come from. However, I’m very happy to proven wrong in this conjecture – perhaps there are letters from the Middle Ages in which writers engage in precisely this kind of speculation. Or perhaps the emergence of science fiction in the 18th century can be explained in terms of some historical event I’ve missed. Or who knows: maybe there’s an untranslated gnostic manuscript out there where Jesus has a time machine....

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