Elements of a Great Time Travel Story

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a great time travel story. Whether it’s Star Trek, H.G. Wells or The Terminator, there’s something about the confusion, impossibility and theoretical consequences of traveling backwards and forward through time that engages and excites the imagination. However, not all time travel stories are created equal, and there are many different theories (fictional and real) on exactly how time travel might work, if it were possible. I’m not going to debate whether time travel is actually possible or not – Stephen Hawking’s party for time travelers may have unfortunately proved this – but rather examine the elements that make for an exciting and mind-bending time travel story, within which universe time travel – according to the rules set forth in the story – is entirely possible.

Paradox

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: one of the most intriguing aspects of time travel stories is the concept of temporal paradoxes – the notion that by going (specifically) back in time, you can cause an event that would, in one way or another, prevent you from going back in time. The most famous of these is the grandfather paradox: if you go back in time and murder your grandfather before your father was born, you would never have existed, and therefore couldn’t have gone back in time to commit the murder.

There are a number of stories that deal with this – and other – paradoxes in wonderfully inventive ways. One of my favorites is Futurama’s feature-length episode, Bender’s Big Score. In it, a ‘time code’ is discovered (on main character Fry’s butt cheek, of all places) that allows for one-way backwards time travel (the traveler can go back in time to any point in history, but cannot return without waiting it out). A group of scammers get hold of the time code and use it to pull off heists in the past – all by using the robot, Bender, who can commit the crime, then simply wait out the centuries in the basement until bringing the pilfered goods at just the right moment.

The paradox presented in this episode is that of time duplicates: the more you use the code, the more copies of you end up in history, leading to the possibility of encountering yourself, and even killing yourself (or, in one somewhat disturbing scene, making out with yourself). This is corrected, humorously enough, by introducing a concept called the ‘doom-field’; the time code corrects all paradoxes by ‘dooming’ any time duplicates to death or destruction. This leads to some rather emotional moments, as Fry ends up going back in time to relive life in the 20th century, only to discover that his arch-nemesis, Lars, is not who he seems to be.

There are, of course, countless other paradoxes presented by the concept of time travel, and each story deals with it in interesting ways; some embrace the paradox, using it as a reason for everything to have happened in the first place, while others try to find a way around the paradox, but it’s one of the key aspects of any decent time travel story.

Fish-Out-Of-Water

Another major component of time travel stories, whether used for serious plot devices or simply for humor, is the idea that by traveling to another point in time – whether the past or the future – the traveler will find themselves woefully unprepared to deal with life in that other time. In cases where the traveler finds themselves in the past, we usually see a technologically advanced character in a position of superiority to the inferior technology of the past; when the reverse is the case, we usually see the character marvel incomprehensibly at the newness of imagined future technology.

One of the earliest examples of a going-to-the-past time travel story is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where the protagonist is hit over the head and awakens in 6th-century England, around the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Whilst the story itself is something of a satire, the concept of an advanced character in a primitive setting is inventive (for the time). It helps that the main character, Hank, is an engineer, and therefore able to recreate the technology of the 19th century without additional aid, but a famous moment comes partway through the story when he is challenged to joust a fellow knight; rather than go through with the contest and potentially get killed himself, he fashions a rudimentary gun and simply shoots his opponent.

Of course, traveling to the past is entertaining in that we get to feel superior to our ancestors; traveling to the future, however, is an opportunity to engage both the author and the reader’s imagination and see how we would feel if presented with significantly more advanced technology than currently exists. To some extent, sci-fi shows such as Star Trek, set entirely in the future, are an example of this, but the fish-out-of-water concept specifically comes in when a character from the past is introduced. Star Trek has actually done this several times, but one of my favorites is the episode Relics, where Scotty, the engineer from the original series, finds himself aboard the Enterprise-D after almost a century of suspended animation.

This episode specifically plays on the notion that technology advances rapidly, and that we as humans are inevitably going to feel left behind, whether due to age or other advancements. Scotty, once-revered as a wizard of engineering, suddenly finds himself unable to do even the ‘simplest’ things (such as changing the dilithium crystals required for warp drive), because advancements in the century he was absent rendered most of his knowledge completely obsolete. It’s an interesting take that doesn’t really deal with time travel specifically, but more so deals with the the idea that human technology will one day advance beyond us all, and that what is incomprehensible today will one day be commonplace knowledge.

Causality

Perhaps connected to the idea of paradox, causality is also an important aspect of time travel stories, inasmuch as traveling back in time to cause an event is just as important a notion as going back in time to prevent one. Coming out of the blue as it did in 1984, seemingly billed as a simple action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the best examples of this is the movie (and subsequent franchise) The Terminator. In it, the infamous titular villain is sent back in time from a future in which machines have taken over the world, on a mission to enact a grandfather paradox: killing the mother of the leader of the human resistance, meaning that John Connor would never be born, thus ensuring the victory of the machines.

However, The Terminator takes this a step further by introducing a second character sent back in time, Kyle Reese: a human, knowing the machines’ plot, is sent to stop the terminator before it can kill Sarah Connor. IN doing so, Kyle falls unexpectedly in love with Sarah Connor, and without knowing it, fathers her son: John Connor. In other words, the human savior would not have been born at all if the machines’ plot to kill his mother had not been hatched – which it wouldn’t have been, had it not already happened. It’s actually really quite confusing.

In this instance, we see an example of causality: in going back in time, Kyle caused an event to happen (the conception of John Connor) that ensured he would eventually have to go back in time to cause it to happen. In real life, causality usually only goes one way: we do a thing, which in turn causes another to happen. When the ability to travel into the past is introduced, things get funky: we can cause things that have already happened, leading into the time where we go back to cause it to happen again (an almost never-ending loop).

There are quite a few other aspects of time travel that I haven’t gone into, such as multiple timelines (see Back to the Future), but these are some of the aspects that intrigue me the most, and are most likely to get me hooked when reading/watching a time travel story. What are your favorite time travel movies, shows and books? Are there aspects discussed in them that I haven’t mentioned? What makes them so appealing to you? Let me know in the comments!

The “Other” Experience: Representing Diversity

I came across a now-deleted post on Reddit the other day, entitled simply, “The Trans Experience”. By the time I clicked on it, the original post had already been removed, but there was a reply that, I think, beautifully encapsulated the struggle some authors face when trying to include diverse perspectives and representations in their work, and what to do – and what not to do – when doing so. There’s a part of me that wishes the comment had been its own post, because it really made a lot of sense.

The comment was quite long, but in summary, it more or less posits the following: do include trans characters in your books; do not attempt to write the ‘trans experience’. Over the course of several paragraphs, the commenter, a stated trans man, quite eloquently points out that diversity and representation of trans people is sorely needed in literature, but when a cis-gendered person tries to write a novel about being trans, and the experience thereof, they are – even if inadvertently – causing more harm than good to trans authors and the trans community. There are elements of being trans that are difficult, if not impossible, for a cis person to truly comprehend, and therefore put across correctly in a story. Instead, the author points out that you should instead focus on aspects of their personalities that are universal – happiness, sadness, life and death – and have the fact that they are trans as more incidental.

Whilst this is a great perspective specific to the context of the trans community, it can easily be widened to incorporate writing about any community the author is not necessarily a part of. I think many authors are very much aware that there is a distinct lack of representation in literature, with what seems to be the vast majority of stories focusing on straight, white male protagonists, but the answer isn’t to try and overcome this by writing stories about the experience of those other groups. A white author might recognize the deficit of black characters, but trying to write a black character from the perspective of their struggles as a black person could go disastrously awry. No white person can ever truly know what it’s like to be black, and it would be incredibly difficult to come across as authentic and genuine.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I was heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings, which, for all its fame and importance, is hardly the most inclusive of novels. I also wanted to write characters my then-young son could identify with, so I chose – perhaps subconsciously, even – to make the main protagonists young white males (well, I don’t specify their skin color necessarily, but that’s what I had in mind). I even killed off the only important female character as a plot device to kick off the rest of the series. But as I continued writing, I realized that this didn’t have to be the limit of the characters, and I started introducing far more diverse characters, including stronger female characters, different ethnicities, and even ages.

Of course, The Redemption of Erâth is high fantasy, and there are arguably only the limits of my imagination when it comes to the characters that appear within it. When it comes to my young adult/contemporary fiction that I write under my real name, I found myself in a different boat altogether: my first novel deals with teenage depression from the perspective of a young woman, which is – as a man – a perspective I have limited experience with. In writing from a female perspective, it was tempting to try and shove in as many ‘female’-centric characteristics as possible: dealing with boys, dating, periods, etc. But I soon realized that this kind of writing came off as ‘man tries to write women, fails successfully’.

Instead, I found myself following the above Redditor’s advice years before I ever saw it, and focusing instead on the emotional and human characteristics that are universal to all people: depression, sadness, death and loss, and all the things that affect all humans equally. When I had several female friends beta-read it, I specifically wanted them to see if it felt authentic from a female perspective, and to my astonishment, they universally said ‘yes’.

I took this concept further with my second novel in this genre, featuring both gay and black characters; again, not because I’m trying to force diversity into my stories, but because that’s who these characters are – how they appeared to me, and what their personalities were crying out to me to be. And again, I found myself wanting to write forced passages on racism, sexism and misconstrued sexual identity, and I had to stop myself. I don’t know anything about those concepts, except perhaps as the subconscious perpetrator of racist and sexist ideologies (I don’t think of myself as racist, but I know I’ve definitely said and done racist things without realizing it), so I tried hard to focus on the aspects of being human that transcend sexuality, race, and gender.

I have yet to see how successful this approach is, as this second novel is yet to be published, but I think it’s allowed me to write a story that deals with tragedy, love and loss from the perspective of people, rather than ‘black’ or ‘white’ or any other kind of separator of humankind. And if it turns out successful (to be determined by my readers, of course), then I would like to think that this could be a valid way of writing representation overall.

I think the lesson here is that we can all do better at representing minorities and traditionally unrepresented communities in our writing, and it doesn’t have to be in a way that singles them out – in fact, it’s probably better to write in these characters in an inclusive manner, to make them a part of the story and therefore a part of the world, just as they are in real life. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, or black, or trans, but I do know that if I was, I would want the same acceptance that I already enjoy as a straight white male. It isn’t fair that there are entire groups of people who are ostracized and isolated because of some characteristic that they don’t even have control over, and I think the world – both in literature and in real life – needs more acceptance, rather than more divisiveness.

What are some of the best instances of minority representation you’ve seen from non-minority authors? Are there examples that make you grind your teeth at how stereotyped the characters are (Stephen King, I’m looking at you)? Let me know in the comments!

Nightwish and the Advent of Symphonic Metal

Growing up as I did on a diet of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, I’ve always had a love for classical music, and the power of the orchestra. From the modest chamber orchestras of Vivaldi’s era to the sprawling orchestrations of Mahler’s monumental symphonies, for a very long time I believed the most powerful sound on earth was that of a hundred instruments blasting out at full volume, tuba players red in the cheeks and sweat dripping down the conductor’s brow.

Then I discovered heavy metal.

At first glance, the two genres couldn’t be further from each other. Classical music is dominated by large dynamic ranges, often slow passages, and is usually seen as the intellectual’s music. Heavy metal is fast, loud, and – particularly in the 70s and 80s – somewhat ‘low-brow’. (This isn’t true at all, but there’s no accounting for some people’s judgements.) Classical music is sophisticated and charming; metal is brutish and off-putting. One is sipping sherry by a fire on winter’s night; the other is a college frat-party chugathon.

In truth, heavy metal owes an enormous amount to the classical eras of music, and is one of the most diverse genres to grace the music world, with everything from Black Sabbath to Behemoth bringing elements of classical music into the fray. In Van Halen’s virtuosic track Eruption, parts of the song are lifted directly from a Paganini piece for solo violin. In the middle eight of Stratovarius’s Will the Sun Rise, we are treated to a double-time rendition of a Bach violin concerto. Orchestras were used even before heavy metal to enhance, back and fill out big bands and crooners, and it was only a matter of time before the lush instrumentations bled over into rock and metal.

Now of course, not all attempts to marry rock and classical music have worked to great success; Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra, for example, is just awful. But in the late 80s and early 90s, the arrival of synthesizers and sampled instruments allowed heavy metal bands to incorporate orchestral sounds without the need of an actual live, expensive orchestra. Many underground and some mainstream bands started using strings, bells, and even horn sounds in their music to emphasize certain passages, or compliment the rawness of the distorted guitars, leading to a new sub genre: symphonic metal.

And in the late 90s, one band arose above many others as the true champion of this style, and that was Finland’s Nightwish. Incorporating strings and flutes as early as their first album, and combined with their original vocalist’s operatic training, nothing said ‘symphonic’ like their blend of synthetic orchestras and power metal. In fact, unlike many other bands at the time, the orchestral elements (keyboards and synths to start with) would often take center stage, putting the guitars and even drums in the background.

Then, in 2002, Nightwish released their fourth album, Century Child, and this time, they replaced the synths and samples with a real live orchestra. From the massive string chords of the opening Bless the Child to the massive 10-minute closer, Beauty of the Beast, the orchestra is prominent throughout, and there’s something about the authenticity of the real instruments that stands head and shoulders above anything they’d done before.

Whilst it wasn’t clear at the time if this was a one-time thing for Nightwish or a new direction, it soon became evident that working with a live orchestra was a strong suit for the band with the release of 2004’s Once, and even when they changed vocalists for 2007’s Dark Passion Play, the massive orchestras were clearly here to stay. And their most recent release, Human :II: Nature, includes a second disc which is quite literally a 30-minute orchestral symphony, with no guitars or metal in it at all.

There are many other bands working in this area now, of course, from Dimmu Borgir to Cradle of Filth, but there is no band that does it better than Nightwish.

Long live symphonic metal!