Last year I talked about some of the time travel novels on my TBR for SciFiMonth (and have since only read one of the books on that list) and, in that list, I did talk a little bit about why time travel novels don’t appeal to me even though I’m a huge history nerd.
This SciFiMonth, I thought I’d come back to this topic for further discussion, especially as it seems I’ve still yet to make the effort to read more time travel novels. As a huge lover of history and of historical fiction (and historical fantasy!) you really would think that time travel novels would be the perfect sci-fi novels for me, and yet I so rarely reach for them. So what’s up with that?
Characters who choose to stay in the past
Despite my gif choice, I don’t blame Kagome for her decision—I imagine her life in the modern day seemed so boring compared to a world of demons and demon hunters. That being said, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to come across a time travel story where a character chooses to stay in a time before their own without being a little sceptical.
I love history and the 16th century is a particular passion of mine, but I would never want to live in the 16th century. There was constant religious upheaval, women were treated like garbage, the slave trade was beginning, there were no hospitals or vaccines, and no one brushed their teeth. It’s a fascinating period of history to research, and I’d happily travel back to watch that world for one day with the guarantee that I could come back, but Christ I’d never move there.
Sometimes I think time travel can be viewed as the history nerd’s portal fantasy, but I’d much rather step through a door into a fantastical world than into any era before the one I’m currently living in. At least in a fantasy world there’s a chance I’d have some human rights.
This goes hand-in-hand with characters who choose to stay in the past, to be honest, because many characters will make the decision to stay in another time after falling in love with someone there, with Outlander being the best known example. I’ve still yet to read it or watch the show (one day I will!), but I know enough about it to know that a 20th century English nurse chooses to stay in 18th century Scotland. That sure sounds safe…
I know a lot of people swoon over the romance between Claire and Jamie and, as someone who’s yet to consume this story either via the books or the show I can’t comment on it, but time travel romances in general I can’t help being a little suspicious of because, for me, I often get the feeling that they’re playing into that ‘the past was a simpler time’ argument, which is bullshit.
Life has never been simple, and it never will be. It’s too messy for that. To argue that things were better in Britain ‘back in the day’ is also to imply that things were better when women didn’t have the vote, or Black communities were enslaved, or the LGBT+ community faced execution.
I’m not accusing Outlander of this, and I’m sure there are many time travel stories with incredibly well done romances, but phrases like ‘back when men were men and women were women’ mean I’m immediately critical. I know it’s fiction, and there’s no harm in escapism and imagining falling in love with a medieval knight, for example, but I think we also do the past a disservice when we act as though these couples wouldn’t have a lot of boundaries to set in terms of what behaviour is acceptable within their relationship.
Speaking of communication, I think language is one of the biggest issues I have when it comes to time travel stories. (Bloody hell, aren’t I a riot?)
To be perfectly honest, if I’m reading a novel in which time travel is a thing, I’m happy to accept that a way has been found for two people from different times to be speaking the same language. In Doomsday Book, for example, the university has created a small device to translate everything Kivrin hears and what she says in return, and if time travel happens for some unexpected, magical reason, I’ll happily accept that the universe has made it possible for two people to understand each other.
The problem is that language doesn’t work quite as simply as that. Two people could literally be speaking the same language and still not be able to understand each other simply because their frames of reference aren’t the same. If I were to travel back to the 11th century, for example, the way I have experienced life would be so completely different to the way any woman there has experienced life that there’d be very little we could say to try and make the other understand what we meant. I might want to throw cultural references into a conversation, only to realise that, for the person I’m speaking to, that reference hasn’t even happened yet.
Again, it’s fiction, and part of the problem with my reluctance to read time travel could well be because film and TV haven’t done it particularly well, but I’d love to see more stories acknowledge just how exhausting it would be to constantly have to think about which of the words in your sentence will mean the same to you as they do the person you’re speaking to.
Alas, my latest experience with time travel was Netflix’s The Knight Before Christmas. It was very twee and cute, but I did wonder when the heroine was going to tell her love interest that his whole family was probably about to be killed off by the Black Death…