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The Time Traveler's Life - Part One

By Allan Eastman

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Time travel stories have gained alot of popularity in the past century where many have been made into movies that we all know today.


Time Travel and Pop Culture

Time Travel stories have been very popular in human culture for a long time but especially in the last - science dominated - century. There is a Japanese story written in the 8th century, Urashima Taro, about a fisherman who travels 300 years into the future and Washington Irving’s 1819 tale, Rip Van Winkle, tells the story of a man who takes a short nap and wakes up 20 years forward in time.

Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, written in 1889, really starts the genre rolling with probably the first traveling backwards in Time adventure, although the Time Traveler only journeys there through a convenient knock on the head.


H.G. Wells truly creates the modern genre with his 1895 novel, The Time Machine. In it, Time Travel is set on a somewhat scientific basis – Wells was an enthusiastic reader of science journals and undoubtedly read articles that were leading toward Einstein’s revelations. Here too is the first real scientific apparatus specifically designed to carry out the task, the prototype for all later Time Machines to follow. Well’s Traveler goes up some 800,000 years into the future and returns to tell the tale, thus setting the rules for a lot of later Sci-Fi. Well’s story may be a Socialist Utopian parable but it is also a tremendous adventure and a sweet love story, so it was wildly popular in its day and opened the door for many more Time Travel stories to come.

Popular culture has been full of Time Travel stories in the 20th Century and into the 21st – Doctor Who, The Terminator, several Star Trek episodes and countless other novels and movies. One of my personal favourites is Robert A. Heinlein’s story, All You Zombies, in which every one of the characters – male, female, husband, wife, child, every one of all ages – are in fact the same person, at different points along his own personal time continuum.

Why are these stories so popular? What does it say about us, that we enjoy them so?

Are they just the updating of the old myths and fairy tales of previous times, replacing the shape shifters and the Cyclops of Homer’s Odyssey - the heroes and villains of chivalry dressed up in shiny new high tech costumes?

Or is it more like the interpretation of the popularity of Godzilla in Japanese culture as being a release valve for anxiety and uncertainty over being the first nation to be hit with an atomic bomb? Maybe the popularity of Time Travel fiction, and Science Fiction in general, is an attempt to come to terms with this Brave New World of rapid scientific advance we live in. As science and commerce replace the spiritual values of past ages, we are concerned that technology may enslave us, or even destroy us but there is a hope that it may also give us the means of escape.

How many of us would opt to travel back to an earlier, simpler era given the opportunity? Or jump ahead to a brighter Future where our current problems have been worked out?

Maybe that is the animating power behind our fascination with Time Travel...


To be Continued in the Next timeanddate.com Newsletter