Let’s time travel. Right now. Are you ready?
After this paragraph I’m going to type a symbol that is a sort of hidden Easter egg on the Mac keyboard, and after you see it, once your brain absorbs its contours and angles, a metaphysical displacement will occur and in the space between two beats of your heart we will both be transported through time. Alright. Let’s do this. Here we go.
* * *
We have now hopped into the near future, and you have already read a good chunk of this book.
How am I certain of this? Oh, subtle changes in the room. An almost imperceivable ghosting of dust on the desk. A different charge to the ions in the air. A shift in the quality of the light. But most of all, I am certain that you have already read a big chunk of this book because nobody in their right mind would pick up this volume filled with some of the best science fiction writing from the last one hundred and fifty years from the greatest writers the genre has known on the most beguiling and thematically rich topic sci-fi has produced, nobody would pick this up and read the “Introduction by Rian Johnson” first. Hell, just looking over the table of contents, I want to flip ahead myself. (Go ahead and flip at any time, by the way. I encourage it. It seems fitting.)
The stories in this collection span across the past century and a half, from the nascent beginnings of genre itself in Edward Page Mitchell’s pre-Wells “The Clock That Went Backward” (1881) through those gilded golden years of the 1950s with (my own personal favorite) Bradbury, into the cultural cross-currents that sci-fi charted for our generation in the late twentieth century, and finally forging into some of the best and brightest voices in the genre today.
As a broad survey it’s invaluable, and in one way this book can be seen as a cultural almanac. Charting how we’ve used this infinitely malleable tool of time travel to engage with the changing landscape around us is a tempting method for mapping our recent history. A back-to-back reading of Wells’s “The Time Machine” with Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” makes your stomach drop, as within a few quick pages we plunge from the scientific advancements of the late 1800s that were opening the world up for mankind to those of the 1950s that were threatening to bring the sky down onto his puny head. Flip a few more pages into Reagan’s 1980s in Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum,” in which the enemy (and focal point of the story) is no longer technology at all but a vision of a utopian society rising from the mythologies of the past to crush what makes modern man human.
Sci-fi attracts armchair tinkerers. I know that I’m one myself. It makes sense that the take-it-apart-and-see-why-it-works (or if-it-works) instinct is drawn to this impossibly broad realm of fiction whose one unifying element is some degree of world-building. The one thing you know when you pick up a science fiction story is that there will be some sort of geared mechanism at its core that you can take apart and analyze, whether it’s a PKDish thought puzzle or an Asmovian interplanetary society. If you’re denying your healthy (and encouraged!) flipping instinct and are still reading this introduction in a few paragraphs I’ll passionately argue that this is not the essential appeal of great sci-fi, but it’s a biggie. When it comes to time travel stories this tinkering instinct kicks up into a higher gear, but is also (to badly mix bad metaphors) a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, the pleasure of time travel dissection is a beautiful and necessary thing. If someone hands you a kinked-up slinky, what do they expect you to do with it? Turn it over in your hands and appreciate the beauty of the tangle? Nuts to that. “Let’s see if we can untangle and make sense of this thing” is part of its purpose, and a good time travel story will have an interior logic that encourages and stands up to untangling, and smoothly slinks down the stairs when you’re finished. However, with time travel stories there’s also a unique danger to this untangling. There is, I believe, a right and a wrong way to do it, and the wrong way can very easily lead to becoming “that guy.” You know the guy I’m talking about. He’s the guy who can talk to you for an hour at a party (in a tone pitched between the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons and a Whit Stillman character) about why this or that slinky is well tangled or isn’t, but doesn’t seem to actually enjoy playing with them.
When we’re talking about whether or not a story’s “time travel logic” makes sense, it is important to remember that every story builds its own framework for its own logic. In that sense, time travel is more of a fantasy-based story element than a science-based one. Time travel does not exist in the real world, and any broadly accepted rules for how it can and can’t work were derived from a bunch of “that guys” talking about time travel fiction. There is no “makes sense” in the universal sense – that is to say, criticizing a time travel story because its rules do not line up with rules in the real world is akin to dismissing the Harry Potter books because the conductive properties of wood could never sustain the energy required for spell casting.
Approaching a time travel story with a dogmatic measuring stick in hand also denies the unique pleasure that the genre affords tinkerers. A good story’s internal logic is flawless, and everything in between its first and last word makes sense on its own terms. In that way, it presents the tinkerer with the literary equivalent of an Escher drawing. Internally, step by step, the logic of Escher’s staircase makes (or makes you believe it makes) nefariously perfect sense, and its dissonance with what we know to be possible is not something you have to “just accept and get over to enjoy it,” but is the very source of what’s enjoyable about it.
For all its pleasures, though, the untangling-game cannot sustain a story, let alone a sub-genre that has thrived for so many years. Something about the concept of time travel snaps into our selves like a jigsaw-puzzle piece, just like invisibility or the power of flight. It is wish fulfillment on a primeval level of the psyche. When I fly in my dreams I’m not doing any of the “wouldn’t it be cool to…” things that our conscious minds wish for, like saving time getting across town or arriving at parties through the window or having lunch on top of the Empire State Building. In my dreams I’m just flying, and just that feeling of soaring through the air feels like it scratches some deeply rooted itch.
Meeting Abraham Lincoln, hunting dinosaurs, making a fortune on the stock market, giving your younger self one piece of advice, all these “wouldn’t it be cool” reasons we’d like to time travel do not get to the root of why we really want to time travel. I think partly it has to do with the cruel cold clockwork of this defined span of years each of us is assigned, the linear piece of chain we’re all rolling across like a gear from beginning to inevitable end. Few wishes in life go deeper than the desire to give that chain the finger.
There’s also something deeply familiar about time travel. It feels like something that is not at all foreign to our brains; it makes sense in an odd way. How much of our lives do we live in the past or future, looking forward or looking back, whether regretting or pining or fearing? Speaking for myself, the answer is a sheepish “lots.” Time travel stories give us the dual pleasure of the carrot and the stick, on one hand letting us imagine going physically to where our minds can only take us, to re-experience that perfect day or change that awful thing, and on the other hand warning us that actually doing this would not turn out well, and that our place is in the present.
Ultimately, though, there is only one base ingredient that everything in this book absolutely has in common: they are all damn good stories by damn good storytellers.
But I don’t have to tell you this. You’ve already read them. And I feel bad about that. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go back and experience all these incredible stories for the first time again?