There are two questions that always seem to pop up first when people start to talk about time travel. One is “What if you accidentally kill an ancestor?” The other is, “Would you go back in time and kill Hitler/prevent horrible history thing/etc.?”* I’ve always found that second question more interesting because I love to think about historical what-ifs. There are so many interesting possibilities for the second question, where the first one always kind of struck me as so much navel gazing. In fact, my first experience with a do-over time travel story was about that second question.
Years ago, I read Stephen Fry’s Making History. In this novel, the protagonist uses time travel to deliver a strategic dose of birth control at a little Austrian village. Most of the rest of the novel, however, is not about a better world that didn’t have World War II or the Holocaust. It’s a different kind of difficult history. A similar (and just as weird) story plays out in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, where saving John F. Kennedy led to unexpected and disastrous consequences. I started to wonder if we can’t have a happy what-if story when time travelers meddle with history because, imperfect as our current reality is, it could always be worse. This kind of story also says a lot about individual responsibility that we—at least in the West—believe that we can make changes that affect the course of global history. The fact that these major changes always seem to end up creating an even bigger evil than the one the traveler was trying to avert makes sense—it’s an attempt to slap down hubris.
The only time that time traveler meddling seems to be allowed is when the changes are small and/or only involve the time traveler’s own history. Apparently, authors are more willing to risk an ancestor or two as long as no one tries to take out Hitler. For example, characters in Connie Willis’ novels Blackout and All Clear change history, but in a way that makes it seem like the time travelers were already woven into the big plan; their little changes were necessary nudges. In Mike Chen’s Here and Now and Then, the time traveler gets miles of leeway to try and fix the worst parts of his own history. It says a lot about the nature of regret that we have so many stories about people trying to change their pasts, for better or worse. But then, it’s hard not to admire characters who try to fix their mistakes and bend reality to try and get a happy ending.
I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot exceptions in do-over stories; it’s impossible to have found and read them all. But I find it striking that these same tropes and rules keep cropping up. Even though there are so many things to take a second chance at, history-wise, it’s hard not to see an overall moral. As much as we would like to, these stories tell us that history is something that should be approached with caution. It’s too complex to try to alter. There are too many causes and effects to fully understand, let alone untangle. These stories also teach us that, in spite of all the reasons not to, humans will be humans. We can’t resist meddling.
One might think that these similarities that keep appearing in all these stories might take the shine off the sub-genre for me. If it always turns out the same, why read another do-over story? When I think about it, I think the deeper attraction for me (aside from wondering what-if all the time) is seeing how the big, tangled ball of human history means that everything is connected. I love seeing how this discovery or that choice or those events led to how we live now. When I look at time travel stories—and even at actual history—I see a messy but beautiful tapestry that we’ve woven for each other over the millennia. I read these stories because they’re fresh opportunities to follow the threads of that tapestry and see where they go.
* For Outlander fans, the first question tends to be, “How long until I can hook up with my own sexy Scotsman?”