Time Travel in Art

I’ve been prompted to think about time travel by two recently read novels and a movie. The novels were The Time Traveller’s Wife and Slaughterhouse Five, the movie The Lake House. Is there any difference between the treatment of time travel in these works and more conventional science fiction genre works, such as H.G. Wells The Time Machine.

The Lake House and The Time Traveller’s Wife are both mainstream works that use time travel to illuminate character and emotion, especially love. The Lake House is a love story between a man and a woman who communicate with each other despite being in the same house at two different times. They exchange letters through the mailbox at the lake house of the title.

The Time Traveller’s Wife is also a love story. The main male character travels back and forth to different times in his own life. He meets his future wife when she is a young girl, but he is already in his twenties. The novel is basically a long revelation of how this relationship grows.

In Slaughterhouse Five Billy Pilgrim becomes ‘unstuck in time.’ (a wonderful phrase) He wanders, like the protagonist of Niffeneger’s novel, back and forth throughout his life. The difference is that there is no physical travel. Instead it’s all mental. Being unstuck in time is really just another way of being prone to the whims of memory. Unlike normal humans, Billy has the advantage of voyaging into the future.

The Time Machine treats time travel on a larger, societal level. Time travel is a device for discovering what the distant future of humanity will be like - to travel 802,000+ years into the future and meet our human descendants, the Eloi and the Morlock.

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy also uses time travel to critique society. In this case the travelers are transported into the future to see how a utopian society would work. Most early time travel novels use the change in time to “place enlightened representatives of their society in Utopian or Dystopian worlds. Most of these tales had very little to do with actual time-travel because the journeys themselves were limited to a one-way trip; but the stories did provide their authors with a literary means for making spectulative commentary about the future and the nature of contemporary society itself.” John Flynn on time travel literature

So in the spirit of making unsubstantiated generalizations I’d say that time travel is used for very different metaphoric purposes in genre science fiction versus mainstream fiction. Genre science fiction uses time travel to critique contemporary society. The scale of the concerns is often much larger than the individual person. Mainstream fiction uses time travel as a character device, a way to analyze how people interact romantically and socially. The scope is much smaller.

I’m not saying that one or the other attitude is better or worse. It’s just something I noticed in recent reading and viewing. For every instance that supports my thesis there may be objections. I haven’t read Gabaldon so I don’t know where her work fits in my scheme, it’s just another item to consider.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.