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Some time ago, I was invited to write an essay for a Chinese anthology of time travel stories. I was happy to do so, not least because the 2,000 words I wrote earned more than any other piece of writing I have ever done, more even than my Iain Banks book. Today a copy of the anthology, with a title that seems to translate as Time Non-Exist, arrived. I cannot read any of it, though I have found my article because my name is printed in roman letters after it. Because of that, I know I’m in there with Dave Langford, Gary Wolfe, James Gunn, Robert Silverberg and others. For those of you, like me, who cannot read Chinese, this is what I wrote.

It began with a question from the editor: Is it difficult to write about time in science fiction? Which time-themed science fiction story(s) impressed you most lately? Ever since The Time Machine in 1895, countless writers have touched upon time or time travel in their writing. Do you feel the ideas about time have been exhausted? In other words, is ‘time’ done as a long-lasting theme in science fiction narrative?

This is what I answered:

Let me start with a question you haven’t asked: why do people write about time?

Practically all fiction revolves around two fundamental issues: identity and death. Who are we? What are we doing here? How do we make sense of life given the overwhelming fact of death? And so on. You can understand everything, from a murder mystery to a love story, as nibbling away at the edges of these big questions.

The machinery that links these two issues is time. It is time that brought us to this point, and time that hurries us on towards death. Time provides the context within which all fiction happens, within which all fiction must be understood.

What is unique and exciting about science fiction is that it provides a variety of mechanisms for taking us outside time, for providing perspectives on the fundamental issues of fiction that are not available to other fiction writers. These mechanisms include, among others, setting stories in the future (whether it is the day after tomorrow or unimaginable millennia from now), immortality (which undercuts the notion of death, but then rewrites our relationship with time), alternate histories (which question the fixity of time), and of course time travel. With time travel, those two basic questions of all fiction – how did we get to this point? and what happens next? – both become answerable.

Time, therefore, is the foundation upon which all science fiction is built. So, to answer your last question first, is ‘time’ done as a long lasting theme in science fiction? No. Because if time were done, then science fiction would necessarily be done also.

Is it difficult to write about time? Yes, and it should be. Partly because worthwhile fiction is not something to be carelessly dashed off. But mostly because the author is required to externalise something that for most of us is subjective. We are aware of the passage of time when we cross off a date on a calendar, but in truth Wednesday does not feel that much different from Tuesday; on the day I turn 65 and begin to draw a pension I feel no different from the day before when I was only 64 and not a pensioner. We notice time in retrospect, the sudden awareness of how our children have grown or how our partner’s hair has turned grey, but in our ordinary day-to-day lives, time is something that impinges only slowly, obliquely. But in fiction, the changes wrought by time have to become immediate and visible.

Writing about time, in other words, requires attention to detail, and an awareness of the processes of change. If you are setting a story 500 years in the future, it might help to consider how much the world has changed over the last 500 years, and then work out how such change might manifest going forward. If you are sending your heroine back to an earlier age, then it is incumbent upon you to know what foods she might eat, what clothes she might wear, what buildings would or would not be standing, and even how the language would have changed in the interim. A modern day Englishman transported to Shakespeare’s London would have great difficulty making himself understood; a modern day American transported to the time of the Civil War would find that religious attitudes and transcendentalist philosophy had engendered a very different attitude towards everyday occurrences like death. Movement in time entails far more than simply slotting in a different highly coloured backdrop and leaving everything else the same. The difference is everything, and everything is different.

When Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” sleeps through just 20 years, he awakes to find a world that is changed utterly. It is worth noting that when H.G. Wells invented a machine for travelling at will through time, he spent no time on the mechanism itself, we don’t even have any clear idea what the time machine looked like, and other than a brief lecture on the then novel idea of time as a dimension, the philosophy behind it all doesn’t get much of a mention either. The story of The Time Machine is not about travelling through time, but about the changes wrought by time. The Victorian upper class, the 1% if you like, have descended into the feeble, childlike Eloi; the Victorian underclass have descended into the brutal, chthonic Morlocks; while over and above these petty human concerns, entropy sweeps all before it towards the desolate terminal beach.

Naturally, when science fiction writers took up the time machine that Wells had invented for them, the vast majority chose to send their protagonists into the past rather than the future. After all, it can be fun to take a different look at what the history books have told us, and those same history books give us enough research material to get at least the basics right. Not that such colourful adventures in time needed a time machine; well before Wells’s novel, Mark Twain had already given us A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, which set the tone for a certain kind of romp in the more imaginative portions of the past. But these are less stories about time than ways of separating a character from their familiar environment, whether in the past or the future, and then mining this situation for comic or dramatic effect. In truth, the history in such stories is usually no more accurate than the science, but they are generally entertaining and continue to be popular. Just in the last few years, for instance, we’ve seen such variations on a theme as Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt, The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke, and The Time Train by Eric M. Bosarge. These are not necessarily great works of literature, or even great time travel stories (though I would recommend the Jeschke), but at the very least they indicate a continuing vitality in the most familiar strand of time travel narrative.

Speaking personally, however, I feel that simply depositing someone in a different time, past or future, and then seeing what the culture clash will produce, is hardly the most satisfying way of exploring the possibilities and peculiarities of time. I find it far more interesting when authors use the freedom to move in time as a way of exploring more technical and philosophical questions. Though these tend to come in waves and then fade from view, perhaps because there are only so many ways you can ask the same question. Thus there was a time when the most interesting time travel stories revolved around paradoxes, most familiarly the grandfather paradox (what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather before your father was born?). Probably the most complex and interesting such story was “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein, but after that what more is there to say? You do occasionally come across a story of time travel paradox even today, but they mostly feel overly familiar and derivative. After that there was a vogue for stories that examined the morality of changing the past, often introducing the idea of a time police (as in, for example, Times Without Number by John Brunner) whose role is to preserve the true timeline. Before long the idea of the time police was dropped and writers became more cavalier about changing the past, as in Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South or John Kessel’s Corrupting Dr Nice, but even these have become less common.

During the 1960s and 70s, when alienation became one of the dominant moods of new wave science fiction, we started to get stories in which time travel cut people off from their society and their sense of identity, as in Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” or Christopher Priest’s “Palely Loitering”. Avoid time travel, Ian Watson told us in what may be his masterpiece, “The Very Slow Time Machine”, because that way lies madness. Watson’s story also points us to another brief fashion in time travel, which located it in the laboratory just as we started to pay attention to some of the interesting properties displayed by tachyons. The best such story is undoubtedly Timescape by Gregory Benford.

More recently the aspect of time that seems to be inspiring the most interesting work, particularly and curiously among writers not normally associated with science fiction, is a variation on alternate history in which the central character relives their life repeatedly, sometimes learning from the experience, sometimes not. This has resulted in extravagant works such as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, or in more restrained but psychologically acute works like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. It is hard to imagine that time could be exhausted as a subject for fiction when it can produce work as astute and as satisfying as Life After Life.

It may be, because Auster’s novel is rather more pedestrian than Atkinson’s, that this particular strand of time narrative has run its course. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be other forms of literary experimentation with time coming our way in the future. And, of course, there are still some of the other approaches to time that still have life and novelty in them.

Thus, when you ask which time-themed sf story has impressed me most recently, the novel that immediately sprang to mind is The Gradual  by Christopher Priest, which in many ways returns to the equation of time travel with alienation that we saw in post-new wave science fiction. In fact it is not immediately obvious that The Gradual is a time travel story. It returns us, as so much of Priest’s recent work has done, to the Dream Archipelago, a world of islands that encapsulate nightmare and desire. To one musician living in a repressive northern society, the sun-blessed islands embody everything he desires, and when he has a chance to tour the islands everything seems to live up to his dreams. Until he returns home and finds, like Rip Van Winkle before him, that a stay of a few weeks among the islands has meant the passage of years on the mainland. Time moves differently in dreams, and to recover his equilibrium, to reconnect with his sense of self and with his family (in the person of his long-missing brother), he must follow a complex sequence of spiralling movements dictated by the wooden stave that he carries and that perhaps resemble the stave markers on the music he writes.

There is nothing conventional in The Gradual as a time travel story (though it is worth noting that time, in one form or another, has been a key element in everything that Priest has written this century). But then, time travel shouldn’t be conventional. Time is what shapes our lives, what carries us to our deaths, what provides the context for our understanding of each day that passes and each story that we read. There are as many ways of approaching time as there are lives on this planet, and we all constantly make anew our understanding of time. So there will always be new time narratives. The subject will be exhausted only when science fiction itself is exhausted.