Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
For my very awesome Science Fiction module, we were given our first formative assessment (I hate doing them). It’s probably the weirdest one I’ve ever been given but after the initial confusion and “What the hell am I supposed to write” feeling, I came up with a few ideas. I went through all my seminar notes for the module so far and made a list of the themes I found the most interesting.
I just wanted to share it with you to give you an idea of what we’ve been reading and doing.
‘Ahead of potential employment opportunities with the Temporal Bureau, please write an 800-word despatch to your past self informing them of what you now consider it would be most valuable for them to know before studying time travel narratives.’
What I wrote:
Norwich, February 8th 2017.
Dear Anne-Sophie of the past,
I am your past self, writing to you to share some highly important information with you regarding the Science Fiction module you would like to take in third year. More precisely: I want to tell you about the study of time travel narratives. This might be shocking news to you but science fiction and time travel are not just about time machines, DeLoreans or meeting aliens. Get rid of these clichés. Science fiction is a device: what counts is the message.
Firstly, you need to think about ‘Time’ differently now. Time can be seen as a fourth dimension which functions as a kind of space. Strange idea, but you had better get used to it because there will be lots of scientific concepts throughout the module. Moreover, writers are so clever that they manage to include ideas about time in the structure itself or their texts, so stay on the look-out for this. Do not worry, it will be fine but remember to keep paracetamol with you because you will get lots of headaches at the end of seminars.
Time travel can be used as a device to open a discussion or meditation on politics and different political systems. A good example of this would be H.G Wells’ The Time Machine, which you will study. In his novel, he uses time travel to a faraway future as a pretext to draw a portrait of an extreme capitalist system in which things have gone completely wrong. I’m going to spoil the book for you but the world of the Eloi is not the utopia it appears to be. The pastoral life they lead and the cause for the degeneration can be easily explained. At the literal bottom of society, underground, live the Morlocks. The Eloi’s idle life is only possible thanks to the Morlock’s labour. Both groups represent class division and the exploitation of the labouring class. Therefore, science fiction and time travel are devices used to distort our (or the author’s) society and comment on our world or express anxieties about it. You must read time travel narratives as metaphors.
With time travel, past, present and future become elusive notions. Linear time is disrupted. The film Terminator and Heinlein’s short story ‘All You Zombies’ are excellent examples of this. In both, the time traveller will disrupt time and the characters’ history. You know Terminator and might remember that Kyle, the man sent to the past (the narrative dystopian present of the film) by John Connor to help his mother Sarah Connor, is in fact John’s father (the baby being conceived when Kyle meets Sarah in the past – I mean, the present). As for ‘All You Zombies’, there is no point in me trying to explain it to you since I am not sure I understand it myself. All you need to know is that all the characters at different points of the story and in different times are all the same person. It is a crazy time loop that will confuse you for a while. Going beyond the mere narrative structure of these texts, what is really interesting is how time travel can be used to raise questions of agency and fate. What would happen if one day, the characters or time travellers disrupted their fate? Could they change their history and that of humanity?
These questions are further explored in Moorcock’s short story ‘Behold the Man’ (you’ll adore it!) and The Sirens of Titan by Vonnegut. In the short story, we see very little of the actual time travelling. Instead, the narrative focuses on history and the re-enactment of the Bible and Jesus’s last months before his crucifixion. The story deals with the creation and perpetuation of myths. Obsessed with mysticism, the protagonist decides to go back in time to meet Jesus. The short story leaves us with many questions: was Jesus a crazy man who could not find Jesus and decided to enact Biblical stories? Did the protagonist create Jesus, or had something gone wrong in this timeline? How did the protagonist affect the past (or future)? All these concerns and religious questions can be summarised in the protagonist’s girlfriend’s question: ‘What came first, the idea or the actuality of Christ?’ In The Sirens of Titan does not use time travel conventionally; rather, the protagonist exists everywhere at the same time… I think. Issues of agency and fate are taken even further: the twist of the story is that in this world, everyone is controlled by someone else. The whole of humanity has been created to be controlled for millennia. The purpose of all this was to discover this secret message. Free will is and has thus always been an illusion. Some of these questions are deeply philosophical so you might as well read some philosophers now to be well prepared to this module. This novel also questions the meaning of life and purposefulness. Read about this too.
My letter must come to an end now. You are now well prepared to take this module. I hope I have not just disrupted Time and human history. Enjoy the module! Sayonara.
See you in the future.