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A Time Machine Built for Two

by Hank Davis

It may still be the fight for love and glory (I always wondered what “glory” meant in the song’s context), but it’s not still the same old story. After all, in this book we’re in science fiction territory, and “play it again” can take on a whole new meaning . . .

As has often been observed, we are all involuntary time travelers, stuck on a one-way trip into the future, with no option for getting off or going back to an earlier stop. The urge to go back is universal in human imagination, involving what someone called the saddest words of all: “If” and “might have been . . .” If I had (or had not) made that phone call. If I hadn’t gotten into that poker game. If I had studied more for that final exam. If I hadn’t had that one for the road. If I had known then what I know now. And so on. To quote a title of one of John Collier’s stories, “If youth knew, if age could.”

The irrational (or apparently irrational) urge of the imagination to try to replay the past with a more favorable outcome is particularly true with one’s love life. If I had met her before that bum that she married. If I had kept my temper and apologized. (As Lazarus Long puts it, “Apologize to her immediately—especially if you were right.”) If I hadn’t made fun of her relatives. If, if, if . . . But as Omar Khayyám puts it in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, “The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ/Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line/ Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Unless, of course, time travel is possible. If dismal fate left one with only a loaf of bread and a jug of wine, one might go back in time and try to do something about the lack of the thou part.

I’m not going to linger on the question of whether or not time travel (TT) is possible. Like that other science fiction standby, faster than light (FTL) travel, most physicists think it is impossible. On the other hand, for both TT and FTL, there are far-out and unproven theories (rotating massive cylinders; tachyons; wormholes; etc.) which might make one or both possible. There are critics of SF who complain that since TT and FTL are definitely impossible, all stories involving either concept are fantasy disguised as science fiction. It’s an old argument, but not a profitable one. Both TT and FTL, possible or impossible, are far too fascinating to cast aside, have given rise to many enjoyable, even brilliant stories, and doubtless will give rise to many more.

Some consider Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) one of the earliest time travel stories, though others argue that the three ghosts are only showing Scrooge visions of his past and possible future, and not actually transporting him to other times. Scrooge is only an observer, unseen by the residents of the past, present, or future. The question of changing his past, as with the woman he was once involved with but whom he considered less important than making money, doesn’t arise.

A later classic which does definitely involve time travel is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Hank Morgan, after a serious rap on the noggin somehow puts him back in the Middle Ages, romances and marries Sandy, but the story would have been much the same without the romantic aspect. And while Morgan does industrialize medieval England, circumstances near the end of the novel compel him to blow it all up, which presumably is the reason why the present, to which Morgan returns via a long and magically induced sleep, is unchanged. Twain obviously had no idea how to get his hero back into the past, and probably didn’t much care if having a blow to the head cause a temporal dislocation was “scientific” or not. As with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Under the Moons of Mars/A Princess of Mars (1912, 1917), in which John Carter practically wishes himself to Mars, the mechanism was clunky, but deserved forgiveness for the sake of the absorbing story which followed. I do wonder if there are critics who contend that Morgan dreamed the whole thing after that blow on the head, though it’s obvious from the story’s frame that the affair was no dream. (If such critics exist, I suspect they’re the same ones who contend that the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are products of the narrator’s imagination.)

H.G. Wells, in The Time Machine (1895), changed time travel stories forever by imagining a machine, instead of ghosts or other supernatural influences, that could carry its operator forward or backward in time. Of course, Wells gives no explanation of how the machine works, distracting the reader with a fascinating discussion by the Time Traveller (for so it was convenient for Wells to name him, with a double-L) of time as a fourth dimension. Some readers may not realize that Wells wrote this years before Einstein also treated time as a fourth dimension. On his journey into the far future, his first and longest stop is 802,701 A.D. where (or when) he encounters the childlike Eloi and acquires a lady friend named Weena, but there is no romance involved. In fact, the Traveller says that he “believes” Weena is a “little woman,” indicating that he isn’t quite certain about it. Earlier he noted that he has difficulty distinguishing the male Eloi from the females, since they are all of the same short height (about four feet) and have the same delicacy of face and body. When Weena eventually disappears, either carried off by the Morlocks or incinerated (fortunately while unconscious) in a forest fire, the Traveller’s regrets are not those of someone in love. His relationship with Weena was more like that of a man with a pet, or a very young child not related to him with whom he has formed an unofficial uncle-niece friendship.

Not surprisingly, the three movie versions saw no reason to repeat the platonic relationship of the novel, beginning with George Pal and David Duncan’s flawed but memorable 1960 movie with Yvette Mimeux as an unmistakably female Weena. Nor did the leisure-suited time traveller (upper case is not deserved in this case) have any doubt about Priscilla Barnes’ Weena in the 1978 TV movie version, about which the less said, the better, though it does almost make the appalling 2002 movie look acceptable by comparison. And Samantha Mumba, playing “Mara,” rather than Weena, again was decidedly female, as the (lower case) time traveller noticed. Incidentally and imho, the best adaptation of the Wells novel into another medium is still the Classics Illustrated comic book version—which is ironic, since the 1978 fiasco was originally broadcast as a Classics Illustrated TV movie.

Again getting away from “scientific” modes of time travel, Henry James began, but did not finish, a novel involving time travel called The Sense of the Past, which was adapted by John L. Balderston into a very successful play, Berkeley Square. (Balderston’s other notable scripts include several of the classic Universal horror movies, beginning with Dracula and Frankenstein, as well as the best movie version of the Prisoner of Zenda, with Ronald Colman.) In the play, a man in the twentieth century either changes places or personalities (there’s some ambiguity here) with his eighteenth century ancestor,who looks just like him, and falls in love with his ancestor’s intended. Leslie Howard, better known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, played both time-linked relatives on stage, and in a later movie version, which I wish Criterion or Kino or somebody would restore and release on DVD. The only existing DVD, currently out of print, is taken from a very poor print, and looks as if one is watching it though a dirty dishrag and listening to it with ears packed with cotton. My first contact with the story was a TV version in 1959, which I liked a lot, though TV critic Harriet Van Horne complained that a classic story had been reduced to science fiction. (Excuse me? Van Horne later went from being a dense TV critic to an even denser political columnist. Some people deserved to be on Nixon’s Enemies List.)

Later SF writers went for less platonic tales of twisted time, such as, to cite a few examples, Poul Anderson’s The Corridors of Time and There Will Be Time, Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time, a movie I liked a lot better than most critics did), Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine (an ingenious amalgam of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds), A.E. van Vogt’s “The Search” and “Recruiting Station,” Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky and The End of Eternity, Keith Laumer’s The Great Time Machine Hoax and Dinosaur Beach, Jack McDevitt’s Time Travelers Never Die, and others, notably Robert A. Heinlein with The Door into Summer, Time Enough for Love, and “All You Zombies,” the ultimate story of time-traveling star-crossed lovers, with its unforgettable last two lines. I originally hoped to include the story in this book, but the forthcoming movie version (let’s hope it’s not the disappointment that the cinematic renditions of The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers were) made that impossible.

Regrettably, I also was unable to include a story by Jack Finney, best known for his classic novel, The Body Snatchers, usually reprinted as Invasion of the Body Snatchers to match the title of the equally classic movie. Finney was also known for time travel love stories, as in his novel Time and Again and also in such short stories as “Second Chance” and “The Love Letter,” two stories which immediately sprang to mind when I started making a little list for this anthology.

I don’t wish to shock anyone, but an anthologist cannot always get all the stories which she or he wants to include in a book. Some others which eluded me were Roger Zelazny’s “Divine Madness,” Ray Bradbury’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” and Bob Shaw’s “Light of Other Days.” I list them to call them to the reader’s attention. I am completely happy with the stories which I was able to incude in As Time Goes by, but I’m mentioning these stories as a recommendation. If you liked this book, I think you’ll like these stories, and I suggest that you seek them out.

On a closing note, there is a whole category of fiction which I’m not competent to comment on, not having read widely (well, actually, not read at all) in its examples, and these are the paranormal romance novels, which, from the descriptions of others who have read them, usually involve a modern feisty feminist woman who’s somehow plopped back in time, and gets involved with a man of the period, usually a bad boy of a nobleman. There’s also a more unusual type of story, which has a modern woman hurled way back in time who has sex with a dinosaur (T. Rexes not excluded). My understanding is that the stories in the last category are so far only available online as self-published e-books, but romance is not a field I follow, and for all I know, Harlequin has just started up a dino-line.

Getting back to the book in your hands, Theodore Sturgeon once defined a good science fiction story as one like a mainstream story, except that if you take out the science part, there’s no story. I think the stories following this pedantic introduction fit that criterion, with the added distinction that if you take out the romance, there’s also no story. Happy reading, and may your real-life love affairs go smoothly with no need of any time traveling.

Hank Davis

October 2014

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