While I have decidedly mixed feelings about Outlander the TV series (one of my biggest complaints can be found in a previous post here), it has, as I say, certainly repopularized time travel, even though author Diana Gabaldon primarily employs it to get her heroine from now to then --- and actually, not just her heroine, either. Or just once. In fact, her standing stones are used as a veritable mass transit system for not only Claire, who whizzes back and forth, but her daughter and other miscellaneous characters. (“Next stop, the 18th century! Please keep your hands inside the time flow at all times until we come to a complete halt!”)
But you’ve got to be careful about time travel as a literary device, because it’s a Dangerous Thing --- like a very tightly wound spring which, if released too suddenly or cavalierly, has the potential to bite you in the... posterior. Hard. Why?
Science fiction author Robert Silverberg wrote a great deal on time travel, in particular explaining how it tends to generate all kinds of paradoxes. He even gave them names --- catchy ones like the Paradox of Temporal Accumulation, the Paradox of Discontinuity, the Paradox of Transit Displacement, and the Law of Lesser Paradoxes, all creatively addressing ways time travel could Screw Things Up Very Badly. Paramount among them was the Ultimate Paradox, in which time travel becomes its own negation. Yikes.
Let’s return to Claire and Jamie. Her stated goal, which also becomes his, is to prevent the Battle of Culloden from happening because of the disastrous effects it will have on people she has come to care for deeply. Noble motive, Claire, but terrible idea... because, if that battle never occurs, the people who died at it will live to do all kinds of things that never happened in our original time line. Some of those things will undoubtedly be kind, noble actions. And knowing human nature, some will be awful, despicable actions. (Sigh. Probably more of the latter than the former.) But good or bad, we can guarantee all sorts of new events will be introduced. Some will be very destabilizing events to our time. And some... have the potential to destroy everything you and I know as the present. Which may not necessarily be a bad thing... but very well could be.
So... stopping historical events (battles, assassinations and the like) or bumping people off before they can do their dirty work are all to be avoided. Even doing things like going back and assassinating Hitler before he became Fuhrer --- an act which, on the face of it, you’d think would be a very good thing. But what incalculable differences would be made to the world we know of today if the Second World War never took place?
And we don’t have to discuss great historical events or people, either. The original Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” dealt with characters going back in time and saving a relatively unknown woman from dying in a car accident. Because she didn’t die, she spearheaded a peace movement that prevented the United States from entering World War Two, with the result that Germany won the war and enslaved the world.
So regretfully, here’s the formula: Time Travel = Pandora’s Box. Can o’ Worms. Sh*t storm. Big time. Way worse than crossing the streams.
After pontificating about this... going into great detail about the dangers time travel poses to our literary characters... I have a sheepish confession to make: I employ time travel in my writing, too.
In Gryphon’s Heir, my protagonist travels --- well, is taken, really --- back in time where he meets his mother and his infant self and helps save their lives before being returned to his present (which, by the way, has not appreciably changed). And yes, he is very troubled by the seeming paradox this generates (he’s evidently read H.G. Wells, clever man). I manage to wizzle out of it --- at least, I think I do --- because the person taking him into the past is an angelic being, not merely some wild-eyed, wonky human professor with a souped-up Delorean. And said angelic being is not particularly troubled by their actions:
“Marvelous are the ways of the One.”
Rhiss sighed in exasperation. “Must you always say that?”
“Why not? ‘Tis true.”
“But you did not know these things would happen!”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. But even were that the case, why should it surprise or vex you? Look you here, I have told you, only the One is omniscient. I have also said all things serve the One, that nothing occurs by chance. Our coming to this night has served the purposes of the One, and the events that have occurred were meant to happen. What more needs saying?” He gazed at Rhiss. “And yet, you are still troubled by this, I see.”
“Aye. Apparently much more than you, my lord.”
“Indeed. Then I say to you, put your mind at rest, Prince; leave me to worry about practical and theological implications. I am not troubled by what we did an hour ago — or twenty-five years, if you would rather think in those terms.”
So... yeah, yeah, I know... people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. And I’m not, really. If it works for Ms. G, if it works for you, I say: have at ‘er. ‘Cause it really is almost too delicious a literary device to ignore.
Just be careful about that can o’ worms. Sometimes they nibble.