The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

I Can't Decide

Yesterday I attended a talk at the British Library about Time Travel in Science Fiction. My friend Paul Cornell was one of the experts, along with Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Jo Fletcher, John Gribbin, and one of my science fiction literary heroes, Stephen Baxter.

The discussion was quite interesting, though I’m not sure how much I learned, given that I’ve devoted ridiculous amounts of thought to this subject already. Which sounds conceited, but I don’t mean it that way. Anyway, the chat was more of a category-by-category discussion of different ways time travel has been used in science fiction.

A more interesting discussion might have been to discuss the dramatic implications of time travel in fiction. This is something that I keep on having trouble with. The thing is, you see, time travel creates all sorts of dramatic possibilities, both on a world-shattering scale and on a personal level, and yet if you’re telling a story with time travel you require some sort of ‘rules’ and one of those is pre-determinism, or what Paul called romantic destiny – the way the past, present and future ‘should’ be. I agree with this, but the danger in storytelling is that if everything is pre-determined, can the characters make meaningful choices? Does the wife in The Time Traveler’s Wife have any choice about her choice of husband? If you’re following instructions left by your future self (like the Doctor in ‘The Big Bang’) then not only does that raise the question of where the instructions came from (‘a free lunch’) but whether the Doctor is actually making any decisions. And the danger is that, in a story, if a character doesn’t have meaningful choices, then they’re just clockwork mice running through a winding labyrinth with no wrong turnings. If I could’ve thought of a way of phrasing that question I would've asked it.

Stephen Baxter would have come up with a good answer, since it’s an area he’s explored in several novels, most notably The Time Ships. I got him to autograph my copy of Ark afterwards. I was a proper tongue-tied nervous fanboy, and am indebted to Paul Cornell for introducing me as someone who types out science fiction stories in my own right. I went for Ark because it’s my favourite of his novels, a sequel to his disaster-movie novel Flood. The titles alone probably give you a general idea.