Two of my favorite science fiction plot devices are time travel and alternate realities. There's just something fascinating about the idea that people could move back and forth in time and change the course of time and history. From TV shows like the short-lived Voyager series in the 1980s, the Fox series Sliders and more recent incarnations like the British-set Primeval and the current Fox hit Terra Nova to upcoming novels like Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and this winter’s eagerly anticipated release Tempest by newbie author Julie Cross, it seems I’m not alone in my interest.
So what is it about the idea of time travel that fascinates so? Perhaps it is simply the idea of a fresh start as interpreted by the producers of Terra Nova, in which colonists are sent back in time to the prehistoric age to recreate society or the idea of righting a wrong as showcased in King’s upcoming book as one man journeys back in time to save President Kennedy. Or maybe it’s the appeal of the fish out of water scenario that comes into play in Sliders as a quartet made up of a scientist, two college-aged students and a has-been musician maneuver through alternate dimensions where the world has gone in different directions and is completely foreign to them.
Taking a person from our world and putting him in another time or place is certainly nothing new. Fiction master H.G. Wells was perhaps one of the first to put this idea in a book with his classic The Time Machine back in the 1890s. Contemporary authors have also used these plot devices to entertain; Connie Willis’ characters, for instance, have been slipping through time for the last few years.
Why then are we suddenly seeing a resurrection of this plot device after years of post-apocalyptic and dystopia tales dominating the fiction market? A part of the reason may be natural evolution of storytelling, if you will. If the post-apocalyptic tales were in response to war and the uncertainty of our economy then the time-travel tales represent a bit of acceptance. We’ve adjusted to our situation, and even if we don’t know where we are going, we do know where we’ve been --- as Jackson Meyer learns all too well in Tempest. So the question for the time traveler is do you stay the course you were on or reinvent the wheel as the colonists are doing over in Terra Nova?
Course, it could just be that time-travel and alternate reality is making a comeback because it is the most accessible of all science fiction subgenres for nongenre fans -- because who among us hasn’t ever stopped to wonder “what if” I hadn’t gone down that road or taken that job or went on that date ….