Ever wonder what it would be like if you were to go back in time and make a different decision or take a different course of action in your life? Maybe it would be to pursue a different career or to master a new activity. Maybe it would be something as simple as taking a new route to work. For whatever reason, I woke up one morning thinking about time travel. But specifically in regards to three books I have read over the last couple of years.
Being a scientist, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I would include science fiction as one of the genres I read. But I must say that I am not a hard-core science fiction fanatic nor have I ever been much interested in fantasy (early Harry Potter books excepted). I like to have a bit of believability in my science fiction and for me time travel fits that model. Einstein’s own general theory of relatively suggests the possibility of time travel and who wouldn’t believe the brilliance of Einstein?
I came across the first book on time travel quite by accident. I had flown to Philadelphia for a one-day meeting and knowing that I would have little time to read while working, had left my Kindle at home. When I arrived at the airport for my flight back home, I unfortunately found out I would be stranded in the Philadelphia airport for eight hours while a critical part was flown to Philadelphia that would then take several hours to install on our plane. Without my Kindle with which to spend the time reading, I had to resort to buying a book at a bookstore in the airport. Not wanting to pay full price for a hardback book, I scanned their selection of paperback books and my eyes came across an intriguing title, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
With nothing else to do but wait, I purchased the book and settled down in a comfortable spot to read. I quickly became enthralled in the story of two people travelling through time at different rates, a concept just as postulated by Einstein’s own theory. And even for me, time travelled to quickly as before I knew it, I was being called for my flight. Needless to say, I quickly finished reading the book (which for me is quite a feat since I am a slow reader). Having thoroughly enjoyed the book, I hungered for more.
While searching for another similar book, I was happy to discover that Stephen King was releasing a new book, 11/22/63, a story about someone who goes back in time to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. I had only read one other King novel before, The Stand, which had been recommended to me and I had really enjoyed it. But other than that one, I had shied away from his other novels thinking they were too bizarre. I thought with this title, I would give him another chance. I can’t express how completely thrilled I was to have read it. Being of the generation where you vividly recalled where you were and what you were doing when you found out about the Kennedy assassination, combining this true story shrouded in mystery and intrigue with a semi-plausible science fiction plot was a perfect combination. It was a sad day when I finished this book; I wanted it to go on and on.
Thirsting for more, I was reading through the author’s notes at the end of the book where King described some of the factual material in the book and how some parts where changed to fit his story. After also citing the usual thanks for those helping with the book, he closed with a final thanks to Jack Finney, author of Time and Again, which in King’s opinion, is “the great time-travel story.” If Stephen King recommended this book, how could I go wrong? He was absolutely right.
This story also intertwines factual history with make-believe. This is a story of someone who goes back in time to 1882 in New York City to solve a family mystery. The book has numerous twists and turns, as the mystery is unraveled with a surprising ending. What makes this book even more enjoyable is that the protagonist in modern times (1970s) is an artist/illustrator and so ably includes in the book, drawings he made while in the past. Most intriguing of these was a drawing of the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch in Madison Square Park (a factual detail).
With this as background, you can better understand the context in which I awoke. As I thought about these three books, I focused on the common thread running through them. In each one, someone was going back in time to try to change an event that would make the future better. In each case, it proved more difficult. It was like history, as we know it now was trying very hard not to be changed—maybe a hidden influence of the time travel paradox.
I know in my own life even as a teenager, I faced a very tough choice between accepting one of two dramatically different summer jobs. What made this decision so difficult for me was that the first job was a summer job that I had actually wanted for quite some time, a job that I had imagined myself having when I was very young. This job was to spend the summer working as the elevator operator at the 1950s era hotel nestled against a mountain in one of my favorite places in the world, Montreat, NC.
As a child, I was fascinated by the manual lever operation of the elevator and marveled at the person who though seeming fairly young to me, was privileged to operate it. Growing up and visiting Montreat each summer, I had seen college students in this job casually sitting on a bench waiting for the next call to come from a floor above or for the next hotel guest to step up for a lift upstairs.
The second job was selling ladies shoes at a local department store. The first job was exciting because it would afford me the opportunity to live in Montreat for an entire summer rather than just the single week we had stayed on vacation each summer. The second job was less exciting but offered the potential for continued employment beyond just the summer—an important aspect for someone trying to buy his first car. After painful deliberation, I took the job selling ladies shoes. Had I taken the Montreat job, I can only wonder how different my life would have turned out for it was in this sales job in my senior year in college that I met the woman who would become my wife and life companion.
Until I sat down to capture my thoughts following whatever dreams I must have had that morning about time travel, I haven’t thought about that long ago decision to forgo the Montreat summer job 40 years earlier. But when it came to the forefront of my mind, I began to envision myself as a character in a time-travel book—it became for me, an alternate timeline of my life. Where would this alternate timeline have taken me in my life? Would I have become a scientist? Would I still have met the same woman I fell in love with and married, but maybe just in a different scenario? I will never know nor will anyone who has ever had similar thoughts.
As much as I enjoy imagining the science fiction of time travel, the non-fiction scientist in me knows we will never be certain if we can travel back in time to try to change events or see a future world altered by those changes. It is truly mind boggling to think that there are millions and millions of little decisions we make throughout our lifetime that any one of which could alter our own future in some way. For someone who is unhappy with their life, maybe different decisions would lead to a better life. Alternatively, for someone looking back over a very happy life, alternate decisions might have led to a less satisfied life. For me, I know I can never see my life having taken that other summer job but on reflection I wouldn’t want to. In the end, it would be a trade off of one lifetime of happy experiences for another lifetime of unknown experiences. And I know I wouldn’t even be the same person.
So I’ll continue to enjoy reading science fiction novels about time travel. And the “what if” questions, I’ll pose only for my own present decisions, not past decisions confident that whatever decisions I make will lead me down my own timeline which is already rich with experiences and fond memories. Ones I treasure and ones I would never change even if the science fiction of time travel became nonfiction.