As I write this, I also happen to be watching the final season of SyFy’s “12 Monkeys”, and I am sad to see it is ending after four seasons. In my eyes, it has risen through the ranks of time travel fiction and become a kind of index of time travel weirdness. If you would have told me that basing an entire series on the 1995 film of the same name that itself was based on the short film La Jetée from 1962 would be anything but regurgitated bullshit, I wouldn’t have believed you. Since you didn’t – and don’t get any big ideas about going back and stopping me – I watched the pilot episode in surprise of its existence, instead of contempt for the same.
So why base an entire post on time travel stories?
Well, it wasn’t my first choice. I won’t go into it, but I had several ideas on what to write about for last week, and ended up writing nothing at all, with the intention to write a single post devoted to half a dozen things. Then, my time got very limited, because that’s exactly what would happen. Or maybe the time just got away from me. Who knows? Time travel is a tricky subject to tackle because of the very limited understanding we have of it in the real world, but it’s that limited knowledge that must be included, otherwise the whole thing breaks down. This is why I think any good time travel fiction should be an instruction manual at it’s very core.
Now, what do I mean by “instruction manual”? I mean that any media based in time travel must set criteria of how time works very clearly. Certain things must be addressed the nature of the universe before some characters go about fucking it up. You have to know the rules to break them. An example of this would be that changing past events will have an effect on the present, which is the plot of most time travel fiction, for better or worse. Personally, I think of time travel stories as a challenging thought experiment, and infinitely more so in writing them. Imagine it like this…
You want a puppy, but you’ve decided to go about getting one in the hardest and most disturbing way possible. You first collect enough dog bones to make a skeleton. Then you pack it full of dead organs and wrap the whole mess in fur. Then completely reverse the aging process of the atrocity you have sewn together until it not only awakens to the horror of its existence, but it also really wants you to throw the ball.
Sounds dicey, unnatural, and maybe inhuman, right? That’s what writing time travel fiction can be, but you need the rules (skeleton), the method and its repercussions (organs), and the story (skin), holding the thing together. I say “thing” because I’m not cALLING IT A DOG. Not because it’s an abomination against nature, but because it’s a story.
No real dogs were harmed during this thought experiment.
The way I see it, there are three mAin choices for the skeleton:
- Time is extremely fragile, and any change can become catastrophic to the timeline.
- Time can be sculpted and edited after the fact.
- Time is immutable so any “changes” made already happened, thus don’t matter.
Variations on these are at the writer’s discretion, and peril. Rememeber, the more complicated the rules, the longer the game.
After that, you need method.
- Time Machine: Somebody, somewhere has built a device that allows a person or people to travel through time (Delorean from Back to the Future; Phone Booth from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, etc)
- Mental Projection: Subjects doesn’t physically time travel, but instead projects their consciousness into a younger version of themselves (X-Men Days of Future Past)
- Magic/Powers: Through a spell or artifact or the equivalent, the target is transported through time. (Hiro from Heroes; Legion/David Haller from X-Men)
The last part, the “skin” or story, is up to the writer. There are so many different time travel stories that a list would be more time than I’m willing to take, and would still be incomplete. But if you take the first two parts and put them together in different permutations, I can almost guarantee there’s a story for that combo.
I have a reverence for time travel stories, and any stories of screwing with time in one way or another, that have been well crafted. They stick out against the background static of my mind, if they are, and there is a lot more stuff out there than a lot of people realize that would fall into that category, which isn’t surprising. Time is still a scientific mystery, which has become fertile soil for the minds of creative types to grow grandiose tales. I’ve even outlined on myself that may eventually see the light of day. In the meantime, I’m keep watching 12 Monkeys in preparation for the series finale next week, and enjoying every minute of it. I highly recommend it.
But if you just can’t find the time, I understand.