Good Reading : July 2005
20 goodreading Time travel fiction is time-honoured fiction. HG Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895, is ofte called the fir st time travel story, but more than 100 year s before his Time Traveller jumped 8,000 centuries into the future, writer s were travelling to other times. Wells holds the time travel crown due to a bit of science fiction (SF) snobbery: he was the first fiction writer to attempt to rationally explain time travel by machine. SF writers ever since have explored time travel and its paradoxes in parallel with developments in physics and theories of space and time, so a simple time machine has been displaced by such arcane mecha- nisms as wor mholes, Tipler cylinders and Gödel rockets. Like SF writers, non-SF writers are fascinated with the idea of time travel, but they are not hampered by having to over-explain how it happens. Instead, their focus is the out-of-time characters.What would you do if you could change the past? Or if you knew the future, but couldn’t change it? Writers in every genre have used time travel as a plot device to add intrigue and pathos to their stories. Historical fiction Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book was first published as a SF novel but was recently re-issued as historical fiction. The only reason for its original pigeonhole was its dual setting: the Oxford of the near-future and the 14th century, reached through the net, a time travel device used by the Oxford history department for ‘in the field’ research. But these SF elements are eclipsed by the charac- ters at the heart of the story: Kivrin, a young historian who is sent back to study life in medieval England, and her mentor, Professor Dunsworthy, who gradu- ally realises she has arrived in the wrong time – the middle of the Black Plague. Though you might know that a third of Europe’s population died during this epidemic, Willis brings this dry statistic to life using both Kivrin as the moder n observer of the plague – her simple ‘And tell Mr Gilchrist he was wrong.The statistics weren’t exaggerated’ is wrenching – and an analogous out- break in Dunworthy’s present. Willis has also used the net to send characters back to St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz in Fire Watch, and to Victorian times in the light-hearted To Say Nothing of the Dog. categorical time twisters Most of us have fantasised about going backwards – or forwards – in time, to right wrongs, experience history first- hand, or see into a frustratingly unknown future. WENDY PALMER surveys novels that incorporate time travel and discovers that there’s one for just about every taste.