The Five Master Plots of Time Travel Stories
This grouping came out as I was thinking about The Map of Time. Time travel has a long and tortured history as a set of concepts hung uncomfortably between science fiction and fantasy. None of it makes much scientific sense, although I do read a lot of actual (?) scientific theory which demonstrates that even scientists can waste their lives reading too much SF. It would make more sense to simply call all time travel stories fantasy, but they always requires a time machine, so they must be science fiction — more or less.
Then again, Einstein would hate FTL stories. They violate relativity, but that doesn’t keep me from reading and writing them.
Let’s just tackle this mess in the spirit of fun.
Master plot #1. A man tries to change history and fails. He is doomed to failure, no matter what, because the past can’t be changed. The entertainment in this kind of story is in making the reader think the hero will succeed, and fouling him up at the last minute in some clever way.
Master plot #2. A man tries to change the past in some logically forbidden way. The classic form would be that our hero goes back to kill his father before our hero is born. The stars go out; the universe ends.
I am not fond of this form. It’s too much too simple. Perhaps a good writer could make it work if we know that the victim-to-be is the hero’s father, but the hero does not. (Shades of Oedipus!) Then we would anticipate that this is a type one story, and be taken by surprise when the hero succeeds and the stars go out. That might work, but I doubt it.
Master plot #3. This is a variation on 2 and 3. A man tries to fix a tragedy by going back in time, but instead makes things worse. This is just a variation on the notion that, “You can’t make the world better, and you shouldn’t try. Just accept your fate.” Literature is filled with this Christianity based defeatism, epitomized by The Monkey’s Fist.
The Greeks called it hubris. I don’t buy it. For me, a man without hubris isn’t much of a man.
Master plot #4. A man is in a world different from ours. He tries to change the past, succeeds, and his world morphs into the “real” world, i. e. ours. If the reader accepts that he is reading an alternate timeline story, and is taken by surprise by the ending, it can work. Brunner used this bit in Times Without Number, but that novel had enough quality to succeed even with a different ending. Zelazny did a beautiful variation in the short story The Game of Blood and Dust.
Master plot #5. A man tries to change history, but instead creates a new timeline, or crosses over into an existing alternate timeline. This isn’t a trope; it’s a genre. Alternate timelines can be wonderful, but they are often cheap knock-offs, based on the notion that you don’t have to create anything, you just rearrange what already exists.
They aren’t even time travel stories, unless someone moves from one timeline to another. Pavane is an alternate timeline novel, but not a time travel story, since every actor in the novel remains tied to his own timeline throughout, and is never even aware of the existence of any other.
Okay, I will admit that any bright twelve year old could invent more plots, or could knock holes in these. I present them merely as a mental exercise — a fourth dimensional Rubik’s cube — for your amusement.
Have fun arguing.