The question “What would you do if you traveled back in time?” is often synonymous with the question “What would you change about the past?”. But time travel is a rich subgenre, and some of its most interesting stories aren’t about changing the past — they’re about exploring it, so we can better understand ourselves and our history.
A few years ago, I stumbled across a Canadian TV show called Being Erica. Erica Strange is a 30-something underachiever living in Toronto with a call center job and a laundry list of regrets. Then one day, she meets a mysterious man named Dr. Tom who offers to help her change her life. Dr. Tom, it turns out, is a time-traveling therapist, and he can send Erica back to various points in her past so that she can address her regrets and undo them.
Being Erica was syndicated on Soapnet in the US, and it’s about as fizzy as you’d expect. She may not be as successful as she’d like, but Erica is affluent, well educated, and her regrets are fairly banal: she walked out of her Bat Mitzvah when she was 13; she lost her virginity to a jerkwad; she alienated her mother during her parents’ divorce; she enabled her sister to stay with her miserable boyfriend. But Being Erica highlights the elasticity of time travel as a genre. The idea that Erica can fix her past mistakes is a bit of a bait-and-switch. Erica may change her behavior or make different choices, but those changes in her past usually have little, if any, impact on her present situation.
The time travel in Being Erica is, rather, a metaphor for therapy. By visiting her past, Erica is better able to understand and process it. By realizing that she’s more than the sum of her regrets, she’s able to move forward with her life and make better choices and come closer to becoming the person she wants to be. As she progresses through her therapy, she becomes less interested in changing the past than exploring it, so she can eventually help other people the way Dr. Tom helped her.
For all of its soapiness, Being Erica is a smart take on time travel precisely because it’s a genre obsessed with regret. It’s one of the reasons that the archetypal time travel story involves killing Adolf Hitler. It’s easy to point to the Holocaust as a common point of human regret, an indelible black mark on the modern human race. So time travelers race back before Hitler’s rise in an attempt to scrub that mark clean.
Of course, not all time travel stories involve some sort of timeline cleanup crew. Time travel can explore paradoxes, as in Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—’,” or narrative irony, as in Garry Kilworth’s “Let’s Go to Golgotha!” It can produce sublime headscratchers like Shane Carruth’s film Primer, grand worldbuilding like in H.G. Wells The Time Machine, and mind-bending mysteries like Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.
But time travel is also a powerful tool for exploring the ideas of memory and history, of helping us understand who we are as humans and as individuals. In his book The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, historian Ian Mortimer writes, “W. H. Auden once suggested that to understand your own country you need to have lived in at least two others. One can say something similar for periods of time: to understand your own century you need to have come to terms with at least two others.” That is, in part, why he structures his book on medieval life as a travel guide, outlining what the modern reader would notice about 14th-century England.
Perhaps one of the strongest, most visceral examples of time travel opening our modern eyes to history is Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred. Kindred involves two people living in 1976, a black woman and her white husband, traveling back to early 19th-century Maryland, where they are exposed to the full violence and cruelty of American slavery. An interesting thing about Kindred is that the characters note how books and movies about slavery left them ill-prepared for facing the horrors of the era in person, because the violence in those media was so toned down. Although Butler confesses to a bit of sanitizing herself, Kindred is meant as a form of time travel, not just for the fictional characters, but for the readers as well.
Kindred has no Hitler to kill. Our narrator Dana and her husband Kevin can’t end slavery; they can only try to survive this dark chapter in American history. Similarly, we as modern readers can’t rewrite the events of the past; we can only share a fraction of Dana and Kevin’s horror as they experience racism and dehumanization firsthand. Kindred certainly employs some conventions of the genre — Dana, for example, must ensure that her own ancestor is born to a violent white slave master and his black slave. But what makes Kindred such a remarkable novel is that it doesn’t use time travel to change the past; it uses time travel to change the travelers and, by extension, the book’s readers.
And time travel doesn’t necessarily need to explore history to make us reflect on our choices, our lives, and our values. I’ve made no secret of my fondness for Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, in part because Yu pokes and prods at the connection between time travel and regret. “Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward,” says the narrator, also named Charles Yu. As a time travel machine repairman, Charles mostly deals with people trying (unsuccessfully) to fix the past. It makes sense that he would decide to simply stop moving forward in time, instead retreating to a small pocket of time. Even with a time machine, Charles has to internalize that he can’t change the past, but he can still change the future.
The lessons of both Kindred and How to Live Safely are clear: We may not have literal time machines, but we can still visit the past in our own ways. A true understanding of history is our time machine. Memory is our time machine. If we’re overwhelmed by the atrocities depicted in Kindred, we can put down the book and return to our own time, visiting the past again when we’re ready. If we become obsessed with regret, we can become trapped in a sort of stasis, moving forward through time in body but not in spirit. Like the best science fiction, great time travel fiction can help us understand our present and move as better, wiser people into the future.
And time travelers from the future can help us meditate on our present as well. A recent installment of Winston Rowntree’s webcomic Subnormality, titled “Watching,” sees a time traveler from a distant future visiting a girl in our time. In this story, time travelers can only watch the past; they can’t interact with it. So time travel is a form of tourism, a form of entertainment. But while their fellow travelers are off exploring lighter entertainments, this traveler is entranced by a terminally ill girl in the hospital and all the friends who come to visit. While the traveler feels this illness is tragic and unfair, they’re not just frustrated with the medically primitive past. They’re also sad that the future isn’t filled with the vibrance and warmth they see in the hospital. It’s a twist on the usual time travel story, filled with regret for the future.
By making his narrator a time traveler visiting our time, Rowntree places us in the shoes of both the person from the future and the people being studied. Yes, it still invites a frustration with the things we can’t change and reminds us that we can learn so much from examining the past. But instead of asking what we would change about the past, Rowntree’s story leaves us with the question, “What do we have to teach the future?”
Top and bottom images from Winston Rowntree’s Subnormality; second image from Being Erica; third image from Kindred.