Friday, March 7, 2008

Time Travel: The Creation of A Temporal Ecology

One tends to mark the birth of time travel as a narratological device with the 1895 publication of Wells’ The Time Machine. Along with a couple of earlier stories: "The Clock That Went Backwards" (1881), "El Anacronopete" (1887: the first to introduce a time machine), Wells' "The Chronic Argonauts" (1888), and Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee..." (1889), these tales form a cluster of literary experiments that one struggles to locate in earlier cultural fictions. The desire to travel back in time seems to be a uniquely cultural-historical formation. The question then arises as to what, exactly, prompts this particular form to emerge as does in the late 19th-C. To do Wells service, he was attending lectures in contemporary physics at the key transformational period between the Newtonian and Quantum eras when scientists began to posit the existence of a fourth-dimension of space which they identified as time. Questions about the possible multi-dimensionality of reality had been previously explored in E.A. Abott’s 1884 novella Flatland, but Wells seems to be the first to illustrate what it could mean for one of those dimensions to be time.

Making time a dimension of space—spatializing time—allows Wells' characters to visit the future as a place. While this is an amazing imaginative tool in itself, providing authors of SF for generations to come with a means by which to manipulate the otherwise linear progression of the traditional fabula, time travel also gestures toward collective experiences of temporality at the turn of the century. Wells' fictional text--again inspired by a particular scientific discourse--illustrates a disjointed relationship to time where the future can be experienced only by overcoming the physical gap between present and future states. This occurs through the transplantation of characters from the fictive present, which might nevertheless be written in past tense, to the distant future.

Wells' innovation similarly opens up the past as a potential site of discovery. Although in The Time Machine ,The Time Traveller can only return to three hours before his initial departure (a theoretical limit often outlined in scientific treatments of this subject), Wells' spatialization of time nevertheless makes the past physically accessible to potential travelers. While 18th-century authors, by contrast, might have had their characters “travel” to the past through an encounter with that culture's inherited archive (thinking of Foucault), later writers achieve an "actual" (in the space of the text) transposition in time. Thus the limits of representation vis-a-vis the past seem to parallel similar limitations in the very experience of history itself where a decided discontinuity exists between the subject (collective or otherwise) of history and the past it seeks to experience; not to mention the Heraclitean/Parmenidean divide over whether or not the past actually continues to exist.

Time travel, appearing as it does in the age of industrialism, might then function as a means to break out of a very particular temporal episteme inaugurated by industrial time and its ruthless march forward, very much in the spirit of Benjamin’s Angel of History. The latent desire of time travel might be to re-create a kind of temporal ecology lost in the industrial era, an ecology unearthed from the repressed cyclicality of “natural” temporal rhythms. In this iteration, time travel is an artificial means of undoing an imposition of mechanized time through, of course, the invention of a fabulous machine.

This might account for the apparently gendered nature of particular types of time travel. In the presentation of time-loop paradoxes, for example in the Terminator films and Heinlein’s “All You Zombies,” returning to the past allows the male protagonist to auto-engender himself either by orchestrating his conception or by actually impregnating his past self. The use of the time-loop paradox as an act of male auto-genesis which, in some cases, bypasses the womb entirely, seems to point to a particularly gendered tension arising out of these longings for temporal manipulation. This type of time travel also seems to artificially re-create a temporal ecology for the traveler, who experiences his life cyclically by affecting causality at either end of the loop.

Women writers who have evoked the time travel trope tend to treat the experience rather differently. In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the protagonist travels back to antebellum Maryland when a family member from her past “summons” her. Her actual travel occurs in the form of dream (she becomes dizzy and passes out), which suggests that there is already a continuity with the past that does not require mechanistic intervention to motivate. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time similarly utilizes the space of dream as a means by which to travel. While this, in some ways, links these writers up to Proust and Bergson who did not subordinate time to space, it also gestures again toward the question of desire. To interject an eco-feminist perspective, women, despite the pressures of industrial temporality, have remained connected to cyclical experiences of time through both menstruation and gestation, both of which defy (often embarrassingly) the “stop-motion” Taylorism of early and late industry. This link, however, might account for the formal differentation of time travel between male and female writers of SF, with male writers seeking to rediscover a lost experience of time.