A Think about Time Travel Stories
Several classics come to mind when you think of time travel novels; The Time Machine (perhaps it’s prequel, The Chronic Argonauts, and ‘official’ sequel The Time Ships (though Epilogue by Jaime Batista is much better), The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger) and Replay (Ken Grimwood), for example.
Short story collections are more difficult due the nature of an entire compilation appealing to many readers, but Jack Finney’s About Time and Harry Turtledove’s (editor) The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century would be strong contenders.
I’d like to add Stanlei Bellan’s T is for Time Travel to the list – and not just because I can shorten this to T4TT which looks like version of 4 of T2TT (Time to Time Travel! 😉 )
Where Jack and Harry’s collection of time travel short stories deal mostly with the usage of time travel and the scrapes it can get you into (and out of), Stanlei’s collection deals more with the nature of time and of time travel itself. In this way, it’s perhaps more philosophical, but it also addresses practicalities of time travel, dress code, or even how to decide when to time travel to in the first place.
The Trouble with Short Stories
T is for Time Travel is a really annoying book to read because every couple of pages there was stuff for me to think about. I’ll need to read these stories a second time with either less thought or a deeper level of it. Either way, if you’re ever caught in a time loop, this would be a good collection of short stories to take with you!
I have a love / hate relationship with short stories. Often they’re too short. There’s clearly potential for a novel, yet the author has stripped out the B-plot and character back-plots and developments, and instead we get the bare bones. There’s not enough word-count to get really stuck in. I love books where I feel like a gnat in a vat of golden syrup.
Then other short stories are just that little bit too long to finish before the commuter train pulls into the station or the kids come back home from dancing lessons.
So I was curious, but also apprehensive about reading this collection by Stanlei – especially on an e-reader where there’s no telling how far along in a story I am.
I needn’t have worried.
Beginnings and Endings
It’s difficult to order my notes from different stories into all inclusive sections. This is a credit to Stanlei because each of his stories provoke so many thoughts, yet each story is individual with its own writing style etc.. But I hope by the end of this article you’ll have an appreciation of the story collection, the time and time travel within it, and how well they’ve been written.
Time and Time Travel
The latter isn’t possible without the former so they go hand in hand, and Stanlei addresses both in T is for Time Travel.
The first story sets the tone for the rest of the collection. When we read that someone is trapped in time and it turns out they’re stuck in an actual clock we know we’re in for some special thinking! (This isn’t a spoiler because it’s described beautifully right from the start!)
Another story addresses the essence of time; Stanlei’s carefully taken several ideas of what time is (and isn’t) and made a story with it.
Like in Chuck’s HOTL volumes there are a mixture of reasons to time travel in this collection. One story in particular stands out as a new take on the practicalities of time travel, and in this story Stanlei touches on the frustrations of using an internet search to suggest a target epoch. The character eventually comes up with a slightly different approach – don’t choose the time, choose the person (in this case, herself). (In fact, choosing the time not the place is the original point here!).
Concerns of paradoxes and separate time lines branching out from the same two people meting each other is explained nicely by the elder version:
“There’s lots of quantum space between the two of us.”
A nod to quantum theory whilst keeping it black box. Beautiful!
Another story, whilst having a rapid ending, concludes with the worry of a time traveler returning to their original time (several hundred years in the future) in 5 minute increments. Although not the main point of the story, the comment made me wonder about what existing 5 minutes in the future means. If it’s 6 pm now, and I travel 5 minutes into the future to 18:05, will someone at 18:04 see me suddenly pop into existence a minute later? Or am I always 5 minutes ahead of whenever present is, and I remain forever temporally dislodged?
Story lines and subject matter
A couple of stories ring familiar bells with other novels and movies. A Time for Everything was a little like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the movie Click (with Adam Sandler) rolled into one. Better luck next time has so many similarities with Star Trek I wondered whether it was a bizarre form of fan fiction.
I must admit that I found the Star Trek like setting dull (even though I like the franchise). Perhaps my imagination didn’t need to work so hard on the backdrop. That said, the underlying theme of a repeating time-loop (a truly well-thrashed out idea in time travel) is handled the superbly! Being stuck inside a time-loop is essentially compared to playing life as a video game with many lives and save-points.
There’s a really nice insight over the mundanity and pointlessness of living if the future is known so it’s much darker than Groundhog Day and countless other movies and novels with the idea of a repeating time loop.
Whereas all characters in Groundhog Day other than Phil (main character) lose all memory of previous time loops, everyone in Better luck next time remains aware of earlier attempts of breaking the loop and this adds to the ongoing despair. (Thankfully, it also dispenses with the tiring confusion and catch-up of characters who either don’t recall a time-loop, or who haven’t been part of it.)
“Timeloopers die many times before their deaths”
Readers of time travel novels usually have the advantage over the characters because we know time travel is happening (“dramatic irony”?). The characters, on the contrary, often remain in confusion – frustrating for both them and us. Being stuck in a time loop in some ways is similar; why would a story be written about it if the loop is never going to be broken? Will a story about a time loop always pick up at a moment that the time loop is broken? And is the time loop always broken?
I’ll let you read Better luck next time yourself to find out! 😉
The story also follows the “leave your clothes behind when you time travel” principle; only organic matter (including hair) can travel through time. I note this with the interest of a bald man, wondering if he’s been unknowingly subjected to a time travel mechanism and came out of it with no hair and no memory of it.
From that same memory, Time Split by Patricia Smith follows the same principle, and of course the Terminator movies which ultimately leads to Arnie nicking a load of leathers from some bikers. A notable exception from this trope is the HOTL series (Chuck Downing) where time travellers are specifically kitted out in period clothing before their trip in time.
Timing is everything, but it also sucks. The tragic recent (at time of writing) eruption of Tonga’s volcano makes commenting on Tempus Pompeius seem a little irreverent, but it’s not meant to be that way. The setting of the story is Pompeii and the (upcoming) volcanic eruption. Viewing it from the temporal point of view of both before and after the eruption reminded me of Michael Crichton’s Timeline, for me, made it very powerful.
The happenings within Tempus Pompeius are initiated through boredom / frustration at work and finding a way to pass the time. I think that captures the empathic chord with a lot of us! I also had a degree of empathy with the temporally dislodged main character who brings up his daughter in a different era to his own and tells her how barbaric it is. As an expat in Holland (so spatially dislodged! 😉 ) I can’t help wonder whether I do the same with my daughters. They don’t say “Please” and “Thank you” here as much as we do in England.
Tempus Pompeius has at its centre the classic battle of foreknowledge, cause and effect and self-fulfillment, but as we come to expect from Stanlei, a different angle!
Stanlei’s Writing Style
Stanlei doesn’t mess about when it comes to original ideas and presenting them through interesting angles – and he does so in a writing style that’s a delight to read.
Several techniques are used to describe stories and move plotlines forwards. One story starts in first person then changes its point of view and goes into third person to describe the main (first) character. Ideas are dropped in, like a dark “timeweb,” which are explained only through inference. Or other ideas like the “paradoxical implosion principle” which was accepted even though no-one knew how it worked.
(I should add this reminded me of the time travel mechanism in Jennifer Macaire’s Time for Alexander series. Often I think this flagrant divorce from understanding points to an easy or lazy side-step, but in these cases it’s done with more finesse; indeed, there are many black boxes in our lives now. How many of us really knows how a phone works?)
One story is written in the future tense which was a new experience for me. It made me second-guess the outcome (which I got wrong) so I wondered why it was written like this and what it added. Maybe it doesn’t need to add anything.
In a weird sort of reverse writer’s research, we’re invited in Wild Times to google a weird dinosaur called a “bambiraptor”. The breaking of the 4th wall was smooth – if such an adjective can be associated with breaking walls! (This is a forerunner of the author notes…coming up!)
And finally, I was very surprised to read a story written from the point of view of a guinea pig!
I’m blaming this on me living in the Netherlands where literalism is taken to extremes, and indeed, the main character was a guinea pig – but ‘only’ in the experimental sense!
My error reminded me of CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew where red and yellow rings were strapped onto actual guinea pigs who were then magically transported to the magical land of Narnia, and back again. For years afterwards I believed that when people mentioned guinea pigs as test subjects, they were referring to The Magician’s Nephew!
This comes at the end of the e-book format that Stanlei kindly sent me, though I’d suggest it should be at the front because it provides a lot of useful context.
For example, my initial misgivings about the Star Trek story evaporated after reading Stanlei’s note about it. But perhaps most crucial, is that the notes set a challenge which means now I need to read these stories again. Or on another time line, maybe! 😉
A time travel author always gets point for not letting their time travellers feel dizzy. (It’s a tired cliché from H G Wells’ The Time Machine. Yeah we know, the spatial and time dimensions are twisted – we get it!) – and Stanlei doesn’t disappoint; there’s no dizziness going on in T is for Time Travel.
He touches on interesting angles and thoughts (for example, the dilemma in choosing when to time travel to, or how to find out which year you’re in) and he’s brought it enveloped in a logically ordered yet varied writing style.
I read T is for Time Travel on my unsynced ereader, phone and tablet. It meant that I kept re-reading parts of stories as I was trying to find my place as I swapped from one device to another. Bothersome, but it added to the effect of experiencing a time loop! And I’ll be taking part in Stanlei’s challenge on a re-read, so I’ve experienced – and will experience again – a certain sense of total immersion in time looping!
And yes – I recommend that you do the same!
Galaxy Ratings * * * * *
Story lines * * * * *
Writing style * * * * *
Time and Time travel element * * * * *
Scientific content *
(Note that 1 * doesn’t mean crap, it just means not much! 😉 )
About Stanlei Bellan
Stanlei Bellan, like any respectable time traveler, has many stories to tell.
In other timelines, Stanlei has been a physics professor, an engineering graduate, a start-up entrepreneur, and a winner of six Cannes Lions awards for his creative work in advertising and entertainment.
An immigrant from Brazil who was adopted by California, he is still learning how to bend time to fit his wife, two sons and a daughter, a cat, his business partners, and his many hobbies (like playing Dungeons & Dragons, Science Fiction, and uncovering fascinating historical facts).
Stanlei’s writing is inspired by an unquenchable desire to transcend reality into fantasy.
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