Posted on 27th July 2016
Anna Belfrage on Time Travel
Impossible but Fascinating
I think most writers of historical fiction have moments when they fantasise about doing some time travelling – preferably in a controlled environment and with a return ticket. After all, those of us who write books set in the past have some sort of idea as to how grim and dirty and generally harsh life was back then. People smelled. They shared their beds with an assorted menagerie – everything from lice to mice. Antibiotics did not exist, while germs and lethal diseases most definitely did. And yet, despite all this, those of us afflicted with the time travelling bug wish we could. Time travel, that is.
From a purely scientific perspective, time travel must be considered impossible. Yes, Albert Einstein did some theoretical thinking involving travelling faster than the speed of light and thereby catching up with your own past. Seeing as mankind is nowhere close to transporting anything – let alone ourselves – at the speed of light, I suppose the sad conclusion must be that no, we cannot time travel. Unless we take into account those worm hole thingies. Or the negative mass of a black hole and its potential warping influence on time. My scientist son tells me we do not want to end up anywhere close to a black hole as chances are we’ll never exit it alive – no matter just how far backwards or forwards in time we ended up. Time travelling while dead holds little appeal. Which leaves us with time travelling by word – i.e. by writing (and reading) about it.
Interestingly enough, writing about time travel – or time slip – requires a logical approach. Despite “everyone” knowing it’s not possible, readers expect some sort of plausibility. Yes, the eager time-slip reader is more than willing to suspend disbelief – but hates it when the chosen mode of time travel is irrational or inconsistent. Something of a contradiction in terms, IMO… Still, a writer aiming to transport the reader to the past via a time travelling character must keep this in mind.
Other than Diana Gabaldon’s famous standing stones (and as an aside, I must share that I have a very good friend who has travelled from one Scottish stone circle to the other at the “right times” – i.e the equinoxes and the solstices – in a determined effort to do a Claire Randall and end up 200 years back in time. Seeing as we have stone circles in Sweden, I asked her why she hadn’t tried those, which was a very stupid question to judge from her reaction: Swedish men of the past did not wear kilts or answer to the name of Jamie Fraser…) various mechanisms are in use. Authors can be very creative, but even here some logic must be applied. As one of my characters says:
“Time nodes are points at which every now and then the fabric of time rips apart, through earthquakes, freak weather or volcanic activity.” Hector made a dismissive gesture. “The volcanic activity generally precludes anyone actually falling through the holes. You burn to death instead.” Which, if I may say so myself, is quite logical: no one survives bathing in lava.
Once the character has reached the other side, the writer has to manage another problem – their disbelief. You see, in contrast to the reader, who quite often has purchased the book precisely because it contains a time-slip ingredient, the poor character who has just been flung three centuries backwards will not believe his or her eyes. Nope.
“There must be something wrong here,” they protest. “I did not sign up for this – I signed up for a fast-paced thriller in my own time.”
Well, dear character, what can I say? Writers are fickle creatures with vivid imaginations that now and then take a huge leap into the unknown.
“What? You must be kidding me? Am I expected to deal with this s**t?” Reluctant time traveller scowls and tries to look very intimidating.
“Yup,” replies the writer with something resembling a wolf-grin. The time traveller begs and pleads. The writer just shrugs.
Writing novels with a time-slip ingredient is usually the consequence of the author’s innermost dream to visit the past IRL. Many readers will scoff at the unnecessary device of viewing the past through the eyes of a modern guest. Others will squeal with delight and curl up on their sofa, more than happy to hold the time traveller’s hand as he or she deals with this new and frightening world. But whether you write “straight” historical fiction or “time travelling” historical fiction the expectations on the historical setting are more or less the same: to make your verbal time travelling work you must have done your research. An avid fan may be more than willing to pretend time travelling is possible, but will likely throw the book across the room if you, as the writer, have got the basic historical facts wrong. Like zippers in 16th century England. Or potatoes in 10th century Ireland. Einstein, of course, would argue those potatoes could have been thrown backwards – faster than the speed of light!
Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga, winner of multiple awards, including the HNS Indie Award 2015. Her new series is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power.
Together with Christina Courtenay, Anna will be presenting the challenges and delights of writing time-slip at the HNS Conference.
Image of Stone circle at Ale, photo by Jochr (Creative Commons Attribution.Share Alike 3.0 )