Time travel in fiction

I recently finished another novel that, unexpectedly, used a form of time travel to change an event in the past with the intent of ‘fixing’ the future. I won’t say which novel — to avoid spoilers, as it’s the last in a series — but its use of the plot device of altering the past neatly serves as a counterpoint to how Eleanor does so (see my review), and yet I was still left unsatisfied.


This novel did address the consequences of the changed event: when the perspective character returns to her body, her entire world was different. The people she knew and loved in her old life are strangers to her, if they indeed exist in the new world. Interestingly, the character maintained her previous life’s memories alongside the memories of her new life. Normally I would have been skeptical about anyone remembering a life that no longer existed, but the means by which she changed the past provided an explanation for how this would be the case. She had known that there would be a ‘cost’ to her meddling with time, and here we actually see it. By retaining her memories, she bears the weight of knowing what has been lost for the sake of this new world.*

Part of me remains skeptical that she would still exist in this new timeline: the circumstances that had brought her parents together had not happened. Indeed, the change was so drastic, and so long ago (three centuries!), that rather than present an ‘alternate universe’ in which many of the same characters exist in a different setting, no one from the previous timeline would exist in the new one, not after the first generation or two anyway. From there the timelines would diverge too much. Even if the genealogies remained mostly similar, the vastly different culture alone would have resulted in different personalities.

Rather, a more satisfying ending would have had the magic she had used to change the past to allow her to see the unfolding of the new timeline, without also trying to shoehorn her into it; the magic had allowed her to exist outside of time to speak to her ancestors, and so she could have stayed there. Or, as a compromise, the magic she used and that is in her bloodline could have accounted for her continued existence, but not that of anyone else she knew. The poignancy of her grief at having lost her friends could have been intensified by having no one in the new world be familiar to her, even if only by outward appearance or disposition. That would pose a fascinating moral question: by having ‘saved’ thousands of lives by preventing wholesale war and slaughter, she also prevented thousands of lives that had existed from even existing.

But part of me would still be dissatisfied with even that. The other issue I have with this plot device is how it cheats the reader in a way. In this case, the reader has invested an entire series’ worth of emotional energy and time into these characters and the world that they are in. Then, a deus ex machina ending erases everything the reader has invested in. How do you justify to the reader that everything they just read and cared about never happened? There is an element of futility here that, as a reader, I don’t like to experience.

Therein lies part of the problem with the ‘alternate universe’ style ending that the novel has: because the readers, and the author, have invested in these characters, we want a happy ending for them. We don’t want them to cease existing; we want them to benefit from the new, better world (assuming it is a better world). A plausible ending wipes them from existence; but an ending that keeps the cast of characters and places them happy and content in their new lives fails to account for the sheer thorny complexity that comes from changing the course of history so completely.

Yes, part of me is relieved that the devastation that came from centuries of corruption and war was prevented, but it feels hollow. One of the things that interests me as a reader is how characters respond to and live with tragedies, even unspeakable ones. There was a minor character in this series who experienced terrible things as a child, and yet she was growing into a confident and strong young adult. She was just starting to learn that she did not have to be defined by her past — and then she is erased entirely. This question of how an individual lives with the brokenness of the world can be applied also to how communities, even nations, do the same. It is those stories of rising from the ashes of tragedy that I find most compelling.

That isn’t to say that I don’t like time travel books as a whole. I find time travel fascinating, but I also want it to be plausible. The time travel dilemma explored in these novels is the ‘Grandfather paradox’, also called the ‘Hitler paradox’. But we can contrast these novels with Connie Willis’s Oxford historian time travel books, which instead rely on the Novikov self-consistency principle in time travel. The way Willis treats the various paradoxes of time travel is equal parts artful, poignant, and hilarious.

Ultimately, however tempting, the ‘what if?’ game is a dangerous one to play and impossible to predict the outcomes of. Changing one event does not affect that immediate event only, but all other events following it. As such, this plot device is very difficult to use well; and the extent of the moral dilemmas posed only increase the further back in time one goes to change events.

What do you think about time travel in fiction? Do you have a favorite time travel book?

Photo: Clock Tower in the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.

* I see and understand that this is the case for the main character, and wish that the author had explored how the character lives with this price further. But, I also acknowledge that to have done so more than she already had would have diverged from the tone of the book and wouldn’t fit. A short story, perhaps? How does the character reconcile herself to this new world? (Because she is bookish, and works in a library, part of me suspects that she would eventually write novels about her other life. She has no one to talk to about it and has to process what has happened somehow.**)

** Now I see the appeal fanfic has for some readers.

this week’s tragedies

Yesterday’s protest in Dallas had been peaceful. I watched part of it last night, thinking that it was one I might have gone to, had I known about it and had it been closer for me to get to. It was heartbreaking to be constantly refreshing the news articles and Twitter and seeing the stories come in — stories of how police officers shielded civilians, of protesters helping the police — and the death toll rise.


Within a short span of each other, we’ve had the two largest domestic terror events since 9/11: for civilians in Orlando, for police officers in Dallas. Both stem from deep fissures in our society that we must no longer ignore, slipping back into complacency after the next news cycle. I don’t want brown people shot. I don’t want police shot. I don’t want LGBTQ* people shot. I don’t want anyone to be shot, really.

We need to set aside partisanship for the sake of the greater good. We need to examine the ways our society continues to systematically disenfranchise people of color, the poor, the disabled, and others. We need to reform our gun laws and regulations to make it harder for civilians to get access to weapons that can kill a lot of people in a short amount of time. We need to revise the training that police officers receive, making it more strenuous in order to weed out the “bad cops” who make all of the good police appear to be the enemy, and focus on bridging the gap between police forces and the communities they serve. We need to reconsider how police departments are funded and the ways quotas and Broken Windows policing are hurting our communities more than helping them. There is so much we need to do.

Above all, we need to listen to each other — with compassion, grace, and charity. We may never truly understand what it is like to be in another person’s shoes, but we can try. We can listen and we can care.

Yes, I want our presidential candidates to address all of these issues, and more. But I also want our senators and representatives at both the state and federal levels to speak up, too. That’s where we come in. Let our voices BE represented. Contact your representatives. It doesn’t have to be a long, eloquent letter with arguments and counter-arguments. Just ask them, “What are you going to do about continued police violence against people of color? What are you going to do about repairing the damage of violence against police? I want you to focus on these things: the reduction of violence, the support of the poor, and the establishment of justice for people of all colors, religions, and sexual orientation.”

It’s time to stop feeling helpless and do something, however small it might seem.

There are many links to find your elected officials. Here are a couple of them:

Photo: Protest graffiti in Oxford, England.

bbc proms


Despite the heavy rain earlier in the day, the afternoon had turned hot. Ros and I carried sandwiches as we walked down Exhibition Road, past the museums. Around the corner and down the street our friends waited for us, already in the queue that stretched from the doors of the Royal Albert Hall to the street. We passed around the sandwiches and waited, chatting, slowly baking and wishing we were in the shade, until finally the doors opened a few hours later. We were waiting for the coveted £5 tickets to the BBC Proms.

Once the doors opened, the queue moved steadily, if slowly. We eventually handed over our £5 notes and made our way up to the gallery. As the auditorium filled with the audience, we settled into our places on the floor, where we still had a good view of the stage. We traded glances of disapproval about others who brought books or laptops into the hall. Would they put them away when the concert began? They might as well as stayed home and listened to the concert on BBC Radio 3! Some joke was being made at Tristan’s expense (or was it Charly’s?) that was quickly hushed as the musicians walked onto the stage. The hall erupted with applause.

And then there was music.

Photo: BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, London.

no ordinary swan


An excerpt from THE HERO, OR, THE KNIGHT WITH THE SWAN. Prince Lukas, the Black Knight, has just slain a cockatrice after a terrible battle.

Lukas scrambled up from the snow and ran across the knoll. He slid to a stop in front of a high drift of snow that had a big impression at the top. Digging with his hands, Lukas pushed aside the snow and blocks of ice. He pulled out of the snow a black and bedraggled creature, still as stone. “Oh, Pooka,” whispered Lukas.

The eagle lay on his lap. Its feathers were all bent and ruffled. He stroked them, trying to smooth them back into place. The eagle stirred. It opened one eye. “You’re alive!” exclaimed Lukas.

The Pooka closed its eye again. “Not for lack of trying,” it said wanly.

Even so, Lukas smiled. He stood, holding the Pooka, and carried it back to where he had left the saddle and their gear. All around him statues came to life. Horses’ hooves thudded to the ground. Men finished their cries, cutting them short with astonishment. Voices asked with bewilderment what had happened, recognizing each other, each wondering what had happened to the monster they had been sent to kill.

The dead cockatrice lay on the knoll for all to see. A small crowd of knights had gathered around it. Lukas walked out to them, going right up to the cockatrice. “It is I who killed this monster,” he said.

“How were you not turned to stone?” asked one.

The Black Knight held up his shield and all could see the mirror inside. “Because I did not look directly into its eyes. Go, return to your court and Lord Cadigar. Tell him that the danger that threatened his court is no longer.”

“Will you not return with us to celebrate your victory?” asked another. He was young, like Lukas.

But the Black Knight shook his head. “No. I have miles yet to go. There are more fell monsters, and no time to waste.”

As the company of knights rode away, Lukas rejoined the Pooka. It had once more taken the form of a horse. Lukas saddled it, repacking his saddle bags. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

The Pooka may have wanted to run, but it could only walk away from the den of the dead cockatrice. Its walked with its head down, its nose nearly dropping to touch the snow. Lukas dismounted when the Pooka stumbled. He walked alongside it, one hand resting on the Pooka’s shoulder.

The forest had awoken from the cockatrice’s spell. Animals that had been frozen by the cockatrice’s stony glare staggered through the snow. A bear passed them, but it paid them no heed, intent to find its own den to return to a more comfortable sleep. Ahead of them something white fluttered in the snow. When they came closer to it, Lukas saw that it was a swan, large and majestic.

“That’s odd. Is there water near here, do you think?” asked Lukas.

The swan swung its graceful neck, rolling its eyes at the knight. Lukas had begun to lead the Pooka away, but stopped. There was something about the swan’s eyes. They were human eyes.

“Hello Swan,” said Lukas. He approached it slowly. “You are no ordinary swan.”

The swan shook its head. It flapped its wings, struggling to step away from Lukas. He saw an arrow shaft at the base of the swan’s left wing. Fresh blood stained its white plumage and dripped onto the snow. “Wait, let me help you,” said Lukas. The swan fell onto its side, panting.

“We have to help it,” Lukas said, looking up at the Pooka.

“We don’t have to,” it said, its voice weary.

“But I will,” said Lukas. Neither the Pooka nor the swan protested as Lukas withdrew the arrow and bound the swan’s wound. He lifted the swan onto the back of the Pooka. With one hand steadying the swan, Lukas and the Pooka continued through the forest, taking the enchanted swan with them.

Photo: Two swans in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

smallness in the universe


One thing I love about cathedrals is their columns and arches. These sculpted columns of stone hold the domed or vaulted roof far above our heads, creating inside a space that is marked off, set apart from the outside world. The space inside these walls is, for the most part, quiet and still. Visitors stepping inside will hush their voices, look up, around. The grandest of these cathedrals remind one of one’s smallness in the universe; not that we are insignificant, but that we are one among many important and wondrous things.

Is this what you experience when you enter a cathedral? Which cathedral has made you feel this way? For me, the one that humbled me most is Duomo di Milano, the cathedral in Milan, Italy. I was awestruck when I saw those towering columns, like a forest of stone built by giants. How could human hands have made such a thing? I was too enraptured to even try taking a photograph, but I remain in awe of the memory of it.

Photo: Arches in Winchester Cathedral, England.