Unconventional Time Machines in Fiction by Colin Newton

Enjoy an exclusive guest post from Colin Newton author of “These Spanish Boots” featured in our ON TIME anthology.

Bad news for everyone who had a crappy last Tuesday: Time travel probably isn’t possible, so the odds of you leaping back to try and convince yourself not to stay up an extra hour or eat another doughnut are low. However, while it might sound counterintuitive, that time travel isn’t possible is actually liberating for writers of time travel fiction.

Is Time Travel Possible?

Some science fiction considers what could be, but time travel fiction is free to focus on the “what if” and “why” questions: Just why are we so obsessed with time? If we could conquer it, would we like what we achieved? Do our decisions even matter? Those are the philosophical and psychological musings that make time travel fiction both entertaining to read and interesting to contemplate.

When you’re considering implications rather than intricacies, the mechanism of time travel can be anything from a dignified Victorian time machine to a DeLorean or a hotel alarm clock that only plays The Carpenters. So let’s celebrate the unconventional time machines, the weird and eerie and nonsensical, in fiction.

First things first. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is not about time travel. Interdimensional travel? It’s possible. Metaphysical travel? Maybe. Metaphorical travel? Certainly. But time travel? No. That’s too bad, because a wardrobe would have been a very practical unconventional time machine. Not only could it have taken you beyond time and space, but you’d never forget your sweater.

What we’re talking about is the time machine in “All You Zombies.” The mechanism for Robert Heinlein’s meditation on identity and temporal paradox is, literally, a net. Heinlein spends no more than a moderate paragraph describing the machine, which works by being thrown over a prospective time traveler. As it turns out, jumping through time and space is easy, even if the fallout is mind mindbogglingly complex enough to warrant a flowchart.

For something a little more elegant, but no less enigmatic, consider the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon. The mechanism for time travel in those books is mystical, thin places like standing stones and sacred caves. Not only does this fit the series’ worldview of the reality as dense and old and bound by history, but it allows the novels to focus on themes like romance, independence and equality rather than quantum mechanics.

A time machine that doesn’t even appear to be a time machine at first is the macabre merry-go-round in “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” It doesn’t catapult passengers through time. Instead, the carousel in Ray Bradbury’s novel ages its riders up or down, suddenly maturing them or returning them to a youthful state. The image of merry-go-round, with mounts that rise and fall and spin in a circle, captures both the novel’s themes of maturation and nostalgia, as well as the concept of time as something cyclical, seasonal and ultimately out of our control.

One of the most esoteric forms of time travel came from one of science fiction’s least mystical writers. In H. P. Lovecraft’s novella “The Shadow Out of Time,” it is consciousnesses, not bodies, that travel through time. While that sounds like a handy way to do it, the implications are startling and sinister. Ignoring how it works isn’t just part of the narrative—it’s the author’s entire pessimistic philosophy. Human minds are so insignificant and ignorant, the cryptic alien technology that allows consciousness transmission is beyond our comprehension. More than that, human minds are frighteningly easy to poke out and plop somewhere else in the space-time continuum. In short, in the face of the unknown span of space, human minds don’t amount to much. It’s a theme that is made clear by keeping the time travel out of sight and beyond the realm of our understanding. 

“The Shadow out of Time” by H.P. Lovecraft

Another story where perception rather than an individual travels through time is Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report.” In the not too distant future, the bodies of precogs stay in place and their minds divine who will and won’t commit crime. How they do it is handwaved as mutations, an old sci fi standby. That allows Dick to explore notions of justice, destiny and responsibility, as well as one of his favorite topics, what makes us human—after all, if you can pierce through the veil of time, are you even human anymore? But the scariest part is how time travel is translated to probability, a numbers game. Although that sounds alarmingly similar to accounting, it’s probably not a bad way to approach the possibility of time travel.

None of this is to say that the science of time travel isn’t worthwhile, and it’s still fun to speculate on the how-does-it-work. However, it’s fair to say we keep coming back to the occupants of time machines rather than the machines themselves. No one remembers the net in “All You Zombies.” Why would they? The net is just a net. The paradoxes created by that net are so intricate they even impressed astrophysicist Carl Sagan. 

“Growing Up With Science Fiction” by Carl Sagan

That story seems to resolve all those paradoxes by its conclusion, but the impact they have on its narrator create such a sense of loss, longing and disconnect as to shatter reader emotionally if—as the narrator has done—one thinks about them too long. “All You Zombies” may focus on identity and heritage, paradox and purpose, but its unspoken message is that a time machine is just a machine, whether it runs on cosmic steam or cutting edge technology. It’s the human competent that matters.


Colin Newton is a writer from Los Angeles. His fiction has appeared in The Ignatian Literary Magazine and the horror anthology Crypt Gnats. His writing has also appeared in local blogs and newspapers, and in 2018 he was a writer-in-residence at Oregon State University’s Shotpouch Cabin. He blogs about media, monsters and metaphysics at IdolsAndRealities.wordpress.com.

ON TIME is out now. Get your copy at AmazonBarnes & NobleKobo, or the exclusive hardback at transmundanepress.com.


One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s