Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Time Travel in Fiction

Laura Vosika, a fellow time travel, historical fiction author invited me to submit an article on using time travel in fiction, which was published last September on her Blue Bells Trilogy blog. Thank you Laura!

Time Travel in Fiction:

Ever since I read, and reread A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain when I was but a girl of ten, I’ve loved time travel fiction, for many reasons, not the least of which is because one can examine culture and technology with alien eyes.

One point of fascination for me is the mechanism the author uses to get the time traveler from his or her now to the past or the future. To get his Connecticut Yankee into the past, Mark Twain simply had his hero’s head bonked and when the man came to, he was in the sixth-century. When I read it as a child of ten, I didn’t know that sixth-century English would not be recognizable to a nineteenth-century American, nor did I fully appreciate the laws of conservation of mass and energy, so I was able to enjoy the book and imagine myself in King Arthur’s court.

Authors use a variety of literary devices to get their character from one time to another. Many use natural objects or phenomena such as the “standing stones” in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Other authors such as H.G. Welles and Michael Crichton have “invented” devices that would enable time travel. Although I fall into the latter category in that I created a device that I call a Quantum Displacement Engine, I don’t go into any great detail as to how it might work. I am aware that there are some current theories that involve quantum mechanics that might point to how time travel might be accomplished, but this aspect is at its most nascent phase. I used time travel to enable the story that I wanted to tell.

Another consideration of time travel is that the Earth, our Solar System, the galaxy, and our universe are themselves all traveling through space at incredibly high speeds. So for anyone to go into the past to a specific point on this planet, would require knowing where the Earth was in space at that time. I haven’t read any time travel novels that even hint this might need to be solved. In addition, I haven’t read any that compensate for the laws of conservation of mass and energy. I have tried to do this in my novel, and have used the laws of conservation as a plot point.

Even though my inner-geek not only made me consider the scientific considerations and the improbabilities of time travel, I do agree that novels that don’t try to cover the science, or even give it a nod, are worth reading. It is up to the skill of the author to convince the reader to suspend disbelief, regardless of what mechanism the writer chooses to use.

In This Time, my novel about Richard III in the twenty-first century, I was interested in the attitudinal and cultural differences between fifteenth-century England and twenty-first century America. One of the first challenges Richard would face was to understand today’s English. Many of the words that Richard would have commonly used, are today not currently used or have changed meaning. For example, if we use the word corpse, we are referring to a dead body. Not so in Richard’s time. Then, a corpse was a living body (from the Latin, corpus). Interestingly, I learned that the English spoken then was more like what we can still hear in some isolated areas of the American Appalachians, which is close in sound and pronunciation to sixteenth-century English.

While forks existed in Richard’s time, they were used primarily in kitchens. When served, meats were cut up into bite-sized pieces that could be picked up with ones fingers or with the point of a knife and then dipped into a sop (sauce) before ingesting.

Even though the poor didn’t have access to frequent baths in Richard’s time, the wealthy (including a burgeoning middle class), not only bathed regularly, but would often travel with their tubs. Some baths in castles were fed by pipes and fitted with spigots as early as the twelfth-century.

Religion was a large presence in every day life. This was before the reformation, so the state religion was Catholic. Richard, like many of his peers, kept a book of hours for daily prayers, and for prayers of special occasions. Religious tolerance was low, if non existent—the Jews having been expelled from England in 1290. While the last crusade had ended shortly after the expulsion of the Jews, most Christian leaders saw the Turks and the Muslims as a great threat. Richard was no exception. However, Richard was the first English king to knight a converted Jew (Edward Brampton in 1484), so I thought that maybe he was a little more tolerant than your average fifteenth-century king. Bearing these factors in mind, I tried to imagine what his reaction would have been to a country where all the leaders, national and local are elected, where most citizens have the right to vote in these elections, and where there is no state religion and everyone is free to choose how and whether to worship or not.

Time travel gave me an opportunity to not only look at these differences between now and the past, but by my bringing Richard into this time, I was able to see the world today through my main character’s eyes. I hope the people who have read or are going to read my book will experience the same.

1 comment:

  1. I like to read time-travel novels, Joan (including yours!), and I agree that having all the scientific "whats" and "hows" aren't always necessary -- especially to a non-scientific person like myself who probably wouldn't understand them all anyway!