Take a minute, if you will, to consider the prominence of time travel as a theme in the arts. You don’t have to be a brilliant but evil scientist huddled in a secret mountaintop laboratory, rubbing your hands together and cackling with glee as you contemplate flipping the switch on a time machine fueled by lightning bolts and filched uranium, to understand this essential truth:
Time travel captivates the imagination.
That, you scoff, is hardly news. H.G. Wells published “The Time Machine” in 1895. “Doctor Who” has been giving geeks the vapors since its 1963 inception. “Groundhog Day"(1993) is a perennial favorite. In 2003, Chicago writer Audrey Niffenegger had a hit with her novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” Computer games such as “Chrono Trigger” and “Timesplitters,” introduced in 1995 and 2000 respectively, use time travel to get the action going.
But it is worth burning up a bit of that precious and non-renewable resource — time — to reflect on how contemporary creators have spruced up and redeployed this chestnut of a theme.
Time travel is not just for sci-fi fans anymore. It’s gone mainstream — and in the process, it has acquired a poignancy and profundity that belie its roots in the “Gee whiz!” category of narratives.
Among the most celebrated books of 2011 was Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” which follows an ordinary man who travels back to 1963 in hopes of stopping the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“I went down with my left foot,” recalls King’s appealing narrator, Jake Epping, of his step backward through time, courtesy of a storage room in a dilapidated diner. “Went down with my right foot again, and all at once there was a pop inside my head, exactly like the kind you hear when you’re in an airplane and the pressure changes suddenly. The dark field inside my eyelids turned red, and there was a warmth on my skin. … I opened my eyes. I was no longer in the pantry. I was no longer in Al’s diner, either.”
Instead, our hero finds himself tumbling back through time, determined to trip up Lee Harvey Oswald before that history-changing homicide.
The 2011 film “Source Code” also uses time travel for more than just the sugar rush of a cool plot point. Colter Stevens, played to wide-eyed, crumple-browed perfection by Jake Gyllenhaal, returns again and again to a train headed to downtown Chicago — and to the moments just before that train is destroyed in a fiery explosion. The mission is not just an ingenious hook; the film ends up exploring issues such as loyalty, sacrifice and friendship.
Fox’s new time-traveling series “Terra Nova” was canceled recently, but producers expect it to show up on another network given its nifty premise: sending people back to the Stone Age.
And for those who wish time travel could be more than just wishful thinking, last year the University of Chicago Press published “Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts Through Time and Space,” a marvelously accessible book by Allen Everett and Thomas Roman, physics professors who know the facts and the formulas behind a journey out of the now.
“Over the past several decades,” they write, “the possibility that superluminal travel and backward time travel might be possible, at least in principle, has become a subject of serious discussion among physicists. … As far as time travel into the future is concerned, it is well understood in physics — and has been for the good part of a century — that it is not only possible but also, indeed, rather commonplace. … Forward time travel is, in fact, directly relevant to observable physics, since it is seen to occur for subatomic particles in high energy accelerators.”
If it works for protons, why can’t it work for people? Alas, the bugaboo is the energy required to move larger masses, because the necessary oomph to — for instance — relocate your boss into the year 2245 “requires amounts of energy which are at present prohibitively large.”
Time travel makes a splendid theme for novels, movies, TV shows, comic books and computer games because it taps into our inner geek as well as the very core of what makes us human. We love gadgets and gizmos, but we also love our parents and our children and our friends, and time travel offers the tantalizing possibility of righting past wrongs, of seeing once again those who have died and whose losses still fill us with acute sadness.
At the death of a loved one, we desperately want to go back in time; we wish for one additional minute before she or he took that last breath, so that we can say, one more time, “I love you.” That sort of yearning makes time travel not just an aspirational technological marvel; it makes for a deeply serious emotional connection between souls present and gone.
Which is not to discount the sheer fun of the time travel theme. The trilogy of” Back to the Future” movies (1985, 1989, 1990) is deliciously inventive. Two of the best episodes of two classic sci-fi TV series, “A Stop at Willoughby” (1960) in” The Twilight Zone” and “The City on the Edge of Forever” (1967) instar Trek” turn on time travel. The brilliantly zany novels of British author Terry Pratchett look at time travel upside-down and inside-out.
“Hyperion” (1989), the first of an exquisite series of speculative novels by Dan Simmons about a future civilization and a place called Chronos Keep, “a grim, baroque heap of sweating stones with three hundred rooms and halls, a maze of lightless corridors leading to deep halls, towers, turrets,” describes the horrifying fate of flying backward through time — growing younger and ever more helpless, pulled relentlessly toward oblivion.
In the end, of course, all works of art are about time travel, no matter what else they may seem to be about. They handily transport us somewhere else — and they do the same for their creators, too. As Tony Judt wrote in “The Memory Chalet” (2010), the memoir published shortly after he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the act of writing is itself the ultimate time machine: “The faces return, the sepia photographs come back to life. … The past surrounds me and I have what I need.”
JULIA KELLER, the Chicago Tribune’s cultural critic, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.