Einstein once wrote: People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. This is hard to understand because we experience time as an arrow, life as sequential. I’ll leave it to physicists and mathematicians to parse Einstein’s exact meaning—and chose instead to look at it as a nod towards the possibility of time travel. Having Einstein’s stamp of approval on the dream of time travel means maybe, just maybe, someone could invent a time machine—and that’s a perfect place to start a story. It’s where my second novel, ATOMIC ANNA, begins, with the convincing, Einstein approved possibility that a time machine could be real, and my characters have a plan to build it and use it to stop Chernobyl and save their family.
The idea of racing into the past or future isn’t new. Pop culture is packed with books and movies centered around time travel. All of it is fueled by the dream of creating alternate histories and futures. Authors like H.G. Wells and Diana Gabaldon dreamed up time travel to save a family and/or the future. Films like Back to the Future and The Terminator do the same— and we love them for it. So many of us are obsessed with the notion of going backwards or forwards that time travel has become a genre until itself.
Every iteration begins with rules. The author has to create their universe and dictate how long time travel lasts, how it’s done, how it might affect the protagonist physically, and more. Most tales send people hurtling forwards or backwards with orders not to affect anything but their target. While all the rules are different, the reason behind time travel is almost always the same: regret.
The protagonist always has something they want to fix. They time jump so they can come back to a better world. In this light, time travel is heroic. It is a tool for progress and good. But underneath this surface level fantasy is the fact that by changing the course of history they will wipe out whatever was there before. Many authors, and Hollywood, have managed to make this all sound romantic but a time machine is actually the most horrific weapon ever conceived, and we need to talk about.
First, there’s the quiet violence in erasing a path once taken. In the blink of an eye an entire generation or family line could disappear. This could happen through a battle or a murder or even through a simple, seemingly inconsequential interaction. In ATOMIC ANNA my characters have the very best of intentions. They want to stop a nuclear reactor from melting down. Who can argue with that? They want to save thousands of lives, but in changing history my characters could also be erasing entire families.
Consider another example, one of my favorites, Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER. In this series, Claire accidentally travels from 1945 to 1743. She falls in love in the past and marries a smart, sexy Highlander, Jamie. They start a family and get swept up in the war and chaos of the time. The point is, in marrying Jamie, Claire puts him on a different path. Without Claire, he likely would have married another woman and had another family. Yes, the love between Claire and Jamie is epic, but why should Claire be allowed to go back and change Jaime’s future, in effect erase the other family he would have had instead? Once she’s interfered, the entire course of Jaime’s original path is erased and no one even remembers what was there before because it never existed. Of course thinking this way takes the fun out of time travel, but we’re at a moment in history when war is raging in Ukraine, and I can’t help but think about this violence. And I can’t seem to find a single instance where a weapon like a time machine could be justified.
Sometimes I’ve wondered if the answer lies in a key rule for time travel—a tight limit on how far back you’re allow to go. If a mistake was changed within say, five minutes, would that be OK? Or five hours or five days? Maybe nothing too significant could happen in a short time frame. Only every time I try to define parameters, I realize anything can happen in a minute, a day or a week. Is there ever a point where it’s OK to interfere, to decide that you know better?
My characters in ATOMIC ANNA struggle with this issue too. Even more, they push one step further to ask: is the life of a daughter more valuable than the life of everyone lost at Chernobyl? Who should Anna save? This is an age-old philosophical debate and one that still has no clear or easy answer. In life, and in my novel, we all face the same question: Just because we can, does it mean we should?
These are a lot of heavy questions and to bring it all back into context, we’re talking about fiction. Dreaming about time travel is fun if we suspend the moral concerns, let ourselves run wild because none of it is real anyway. We all have regrets or think about things in the past we might have done differently. Daydreaming takes up hours as we imagine what we could have, should have, would have done or will do. It’s a way to learn from the past, to plan for a better future.
The truth is, I can’t stop myself from devouring time travel stories, from falling into alternate histories and in a way, I do this every day when I sit down to write. I imagine worlds and revise them again and again. I create alternate histories for my characters in novels. I mirror this process in ATOMIC ANNA where one of my main characters, Molly, is adopted and grows to become a comic book artist. She draws as a way to imagine her birth mother’s world, what life might have been like had they been together. She follows the long tradition of building alternate universes in comics. Think of Superwoman v. Wonder Woman. Or all the instances in which we see an Evil Superman instead of the hero we know and love. Molly can build a different past or future with her pen just as Anna can build it with her science showing there are many ways to reimagine time travel.
Part of the excitement behind dreams of time travel is the fact that it is just a dream. It’s fun to imagine what if? And should we? But we should also realize it might not be as far fetched as we think. I recently read a fun fact: the last day all of us humans were on Earth together was October 31, 2000. Since that day at least one human has been aboard the International Space Station. And remember, Einstein himself suggested it might be possible which makes me lean towards being a believer. One day, time travel very well might happen. I just hope that when and if the opportunity arises we think long and hard before setting foot in the past or future.