Our Stories Are Full of Voids: What Time Travel Points Out

Guest Post by Tucker Lieberman

Time travel can be a challenge for novelists to handle, but it also delivers rewards. Three novels by Charles Yu, Kate Mascarenhas, and Lindsey Drager are great examples of how time travel can be used to explore important themes. In these stories, the technology is a way of exploring a character’s longing for a missing part of their own history, patching gaps in their knowledge of what happened, and allowing the beginning, middle, and end of a big story to be told out of order.

Reconciling with one’s past

Charles Yu’s novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), is the internal narrative of a network technician for time travel machines. He tries to reconcile with his parents, from whom he has been separated. The time machines are limited: they only take people back, not forward, and only as nostalgia tourists, not as change agents. Since the past cannot be changed, time travelers tend to trap themselves in loops. They keep going back, and their story is always the same.

Yu’s character sees no real reason to jump forward. What could you do in the future, he asks, “that would be so different from all the days that came before?”

He finds a physical copy of “the magical book that you somehow read and write and it transcribes what you say and think and read all at the same time,” a book with the same title and author as this novel itself. It’s a comment on his process of making fiction. The imaginary book exists to solve problems: “How to determine which events occur in what order? How to organize the data of the world into a sequence that appeals to your intuitions about causality? How to order the thin slices of your life so that they appear to mean something?”

Mining ourselves for insight is a common driver for novelists, but we will never know everything we contain. First of all, “we break ourselves up into parts. To lie to ourselves, to hide things from ourselves.” And despite all that compartmentalization, “You are bigger than you think. More complicated than you think … There are a million versions of you, half a trillion. One for every particle, every quantum coin flip. Imagine this uncountable number of yous.” To the time traveler, this infinity becomes more visible.

Figuring out what happened

In Kate Mascarenhas’ novel The Psychology of Time Travel (2019), a group of women who pioneer time travel discover it is not possible to change the past. This leads to the perceived obsolescence of the entire field of psychology, now that “internal states and environmental influences” no longer seem relevant explanations as to why people behave as they do. A person might still want to go back in time to learn more historical facts about which they are unaware, and, in this respect, there are similarities to the premise of Yu’s novel.

One of Mascarenhas’ fictional time travelers goes into the future to view a completed artwork and then travels repeatedly back in time, bit by bit, “to undertake the preceding brush strokes…until finally the canvas was blank, and she had to paint the first line. She made this first line with a fresh, directly experienced memory of how the painting would look. At no point in the process did she feel the image was of her choosing; she was always responding to what was already on the canvas, or what she had seen in the future.”

“Every time traveler,” it is said, possesses a book in their native language—but nevertheless often incomprehensible to them—that is sent back in time to the younger self. Also, manufactured objects (coins, erasers, pill boxes, forks) sometimes pop up mysteriously, called “’genies’—because they appear out of nowhere.” These, like the books from the future, are “acausal matter.” On some timeline, they were created by someone, but the cause is no longer apparent.

In this situation, many people adopt a deterministic worldview. Those who seek spiritual meaning create “maps of people’s life events, and searched for patterns computationally.”

Experiencing everything all at once

Lindsey Drager’s novel The Archive of Alternate Endings (2019) is a story told as a series of snapshots taken in human history every three-quarters of a century. (Specifically, during the sightings from Earth of Halley’s Comet.) It’s an illustration of the idea that, “to record a tale, something must always be lost,” which makes storytelling a question of “where and how to leave the voids.”

Some stories “start in the center of the maze. The first question the beast inside the labyrinth asks is, ‘Why are you here?’” This should sound familiar. Stories often begin in medias res, at least for the entertainment value that provides. And are we ever anywhere else except the center of wherever we are right now?

The question “Why are you here?” is followed by a practical question: How will you exit the labyrinth? A person obeying a certain poetic logic may already have dropped breadcrumbs along the exit path to form “a set of clues that are only helpful for one who knows how to look.” In the fable of Hansel and Gretel, this tactic falls apart, however, because wild birds eat the dropped breadcrumbs before the lost children are ready to follow them home again. We cannot remember the path and our footsteps have been erased. We remain at the center of the maze.

Wherever we are now is the center. The gaps are the places to which we can’t return. If some of our story threads are in the gaps, those are threads of which we must let go.

In fiction, time travel is not only a technological device, but a way of exploring the significance of memory and our assumptions about free will. It is a way of allowing ourselves the experience of everything happening all at once. Maybe this sensation is not just an illusory side effect of nostalgia and regret, but the actual structure of time. Maybe, through the intensity of our desires, we have finally hacked it.

Tucker Lieberman wrote the memoir Bad Fire and the literary criticism Painting Dragons. His short fiction is in I Didn’t Break the Lamp and several other anthologies. He typically travels at one second per second. If you don’t see him, something happened. www.tuckerlieberman.com

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