In Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/23/63, Jake Epping, a Maine school teacher from the year 2011 travels back to 1958, where he lives for five years, waiting to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. King’s novels have become more realistic with the terror coming more from his portrayal of the build up to the assassination and the odd coincidental events that conspire to keep Jake from changing past than from chilling villains like Annie Wilkes in Misery or Jack Torrance in The Shining. Still, there was the time travel to deal with and King did it with a time portal located in, of all places, in the pantry of a local diner. He spends no time on how it works or why it’s there … Jake takes the trip back and we learn the rules as he goes. This particular time portal always leads to the same time and place in Maine … and no matter how long you stay, only two minutes pass in 2011. Perhaps because it’s Stephen King, we buy it. But more likely, it’s because the story that develops is so good that we don’t question the science.
In Alan Ayckbourn’s play, Communicating Doors, the story takes place in 2014 in a suite in the Regal Hotel, where Reece Wells is about to confess his crimes … and those of his business partner, Julian … to a prostitute, Poopay Daysir. As it turns out, the Communicating Doors transport selected persons back to twenty years earlier in the same room, which allows Poopay to escape Julian’s attempts to kill her. Poopay meets Reece’s second wife, Ruella, on the very night that Julian intends to kill her. She tries to warn Ruella, who eventually believes her based on her own trip back 20 years to the night of Reece’s honeymoon with his first wife. The premise is completely ludicrous but Ayckbourn makes it work with liberal use of comedy and interesting situations that explore matters of fate and free will, and the ability of people to control their own destiny.
Sometimes, there’s a time machine to carry our protagonists back and forth in time, an idea first used by H. G. Wells in his 1895 (!!!) novella, The Time Machine. In the 2012 film, Looper, it’s 2074 and time travel has been outlawed, so that only criminal elements have it. It is used to send enemies of the mob back thirty years to be killed by so-called loopers. Loopers make a great deal of money, but are eventually sent back to be terminated by themselves in the past, which creates an interesting dilemma when Joe Simmons fails to do so. As I recall, we never even get to see the time machine. On the other hand, perhaps the best known time machine is the Delorean from Back to the Future. Rather than using real science to explain their time machine, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale simply made up the 1.21 gigawatt powered flux capacitor that powered the Delorean through time. The most time-traveled franchise is the Star Trek series. Between the several television iterations of the show and the Star Trek movies, time travel has been featured fifty-four times. Being the quasi-scientific phenomenon that it is, Star Trek uses time travel methods with at least a glimmer of basis in science, faster-than-light travel using the famous warp drive or, in the 2009 Star Trek, travel through a black hole. The very real details of how a human being survives either are never mentioned.
I know there are those that like to nit-pick the details of time travel stories but I admit, I am a bit of a sucker for them. I’m willing to buy bad science … or no science … for the interesting questions it raises. Can we change the past? What happens if we encounter our younger … or older … self? If we kill our grandfather, will we cease to exist? Fun for an old geek.