Ah, time travel: creator of paradoxes, destroyer of timelines, and conveniencer of plots.
I like a good time travel story, whether it be the new Who (Moffat loops and all) or the good old Back to the Future. Time travel tends to frequent science fiction, but is also exploited for its potential in the historical arena, as in the children’s book series Travelers Through Time and the TV show Timeless–and Doctor Who as well, because, let’s face it, Who has just about everything. Classic time travel includes a time machine, usually with the creator using the machine to travel to past, future, or both, and often creating paradoxes along the way.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that H.G. Wells is one of the pioneers of this model, if not the inventor of it, with his 1895 story The Time Machine. Subsequent variations such as the 1964 film The Time Travelers and the 2010 book Justin Thyme adapt the concept of time machines and glimpses into an undesirable future, with paradoxes following in their wake. In The Time Travelers, the travelers must prevent a paradox, therefore they trap themselves in an endless loop where they are forced to repeat history (the entirety of the movie) indefinitely. Justin Thyme utilizes what watchers of new Who might know as the Moffat loop where the individual from the future travels back in time to help the individual in the present to build the time machine, which machine then enables the individual from the future to travel back to before the machine was built to help the individual from the past build the time machine… and on into infinity. Like I said: time travel–conveniencer of plots.
But I’m actually here to talk about what I would consider my preferred form of time-travel: limited time-travel with strict parameters. Now, Back to the Future is not quite the strictly limited travel that I am going to identify; however, it contains an integral element that makes the strictly limited method of time-travel possible in any story setting. I am, of couse, speaking of the flux capacitor. I came across an interesting post by Aliya Smyth several years ago that I’m going to link to here about the function of the flux capacitor as the enabler of its story, so if you want to go check it out it’s about a two minute read.
Essentially, the flux capacitor in BttF is a completely fictitious, unexplained piece of machinery that allows the Delorean to time-travel, and thereby plot ensues. We don’t need to know how it works, simply that it does. More importantly, in this fictional world no flux capacitor means no story, thereby placing a limitation on time-travel. However, the flux capacitor as a story element is not limited to time-machines, as in BttF, or even to time travel, as Aliya explains in the linked post above. But for the sake of this post which is about time travel, the flux capacitor is the condition under which time travel can take place within the given world, machinery or otherwise. It doesn’t need to be explained, it just needs to be established. And the two time travel books I’m going to talk about have their own functional version of the flux capacitor.
Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier is about a teenage girl who finds herself unwittingly the twelfth time-traveler in a line of time-travelers throughout history. That’s limitation number one–there are only twelve time-travelers. Once her time-traveling manifests itself involuntarily, she is rushed to the institution that has been set up on purpose to assist time-travelers in their journeys and to regulate their powers. That’s limitation number two–time-travelers’ bodies will automatically jump them at intervals unless said time-traveler has already jumped manually by using one of two chronographs that can control the date and time of the jump. And the chronographs represent limitation number three–without the chronographs, travelers have no way of determining where they want to go, or get back to where they were, making it possible for them to get lost in time. All these limitations are explained; however, the actual flux capacitor is not. The actual flux capacitor is the fact that twelve people throughout history have time-traveling abilities. This is established almost from the beginning, and all the rest of the story and system hinges on this single concept.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North is about a man who lives his entire life to old age, dies and finds himself reborn in his same life. That’s the first and perhaps most important limitation–he can only travel back through his own lifetime. By the third or fourth time around, he encounters the Cronus Club, a group of others with the same reincarnating abilities who tell him about the history and practices of the the club, including its dangers. They explain the second limitation–if a person is prevented from being born, the cycle stops and they no longer exist, so they want to keep their parentage and place of origin on the down low. Time travelers are also largely cursed with human memories, although they have many more than human lifespans to remember, and they can be wiped prior to death so that their subsequent reincarnation will be like their first life to them. This is where a third limitation emerges–some of the reincarnators are mnemonics who can remember everything that ever happened in all their lives. Like in Ruby Red, these parameters are explained as the book progresses, yet the actual flux capacitor–the how of these people’s ability–is never revealed, nor does it need to be.
In Ruby Red, an institution with extensive record-keeping and time-traveling facilitators (the chronographs) enables time-travelers to communicate and coordinate throughout history. In The First Fifteen Lives, the Cronus Club has created a chain of communication backward in time from child to elderly person, who then dies and travels back to become themselves as a child and pass it on to someone who is about to die at that time, who then goes back to when they were a child, etc., with the reverse happening to pass messages forward in time. Each story is cautious about creating changes in history and each protagonist is pitted against one of their own gone rogue and threatening to destroy the world–or history–or both at once.
What I liked so much about each of these stories is that there are strict parameters placed on what is possible in the world so that the plots must be tightly constructed–it’s not a free-for-all where anything could happen with endless paradoxes and alternate universes abounding. Instead, the setting is one of careful consideration, and it takes the onus off the reader to decide what’s possible and what isn’t because the author has set out pre-determined parameters. That’s not to say there aren’t any small surprises or revelations about nuances of the system along the way, but there are checks and balances. A flux capacitor needs no explanation, but the system it enables does.