The name Connie Willis is
synonymous with a mastery of time travel. Here, the author explains her fascination with
I've been in love with time travel since I first discovered
it in Charles Harness's "Child by Chronos," a time-as-an-endless-circle
story in which the past creates the future which goes back and creates the past
which... My second encounter was Robert
A. Heinlein's terrific novel, The Door into Summer, which features Pete,
a cat who meows at one wintry door after another, convinced he'll eventually be
able to find one which opens onto summer.
those books hooked me on time travel, so much so that I've spent the better
part of my life writing about it. Why do
I love it? Let me count the ways:
1. The past is
the one place you can't go, and time travel can take you there. Going to Mars and even other galaxies is a
real possibility, but we can never go back to the past. It's truly a "forbidden
country." But time travel allows us
to go back to the Middle Ages (Daphne DuMaurier's The House on the Strand)
or Pearl Harbor (The Final Countdown) or pretty much anywhere else (Dr. Who).
I adore the
Victorian era and would give anything to go back to that earnest and silly
world of butlers, boating, croquet, and tea parties on the lawn, which is why I
wrote To Say Nothing of the Dog.
Time travel can
take us back to the 1880s or the late Cretaceous (BBC's Primeval), to VE-Day in
Trafalgar Square (Blackout/All Clear) or our own lost childhood, as in Ray
Bradbury's Dandelion Wine or the movie Peggy Sue Got Married, which
contains my favorite time-travel moment ever: when Peggy Sue picks up the phone and hears her long-dead grandmother's
voice. It's a moment of joy and sorrow
and regret only time travel can give us.
2. You can't change the past, and time travel
lets you. It makes it possible to go
back and correct that mistake you made, to take advantage of that lost
opportunity, to take the other fork in the road--all the things you wish you
could go back and change, but can't because it's too late, and there are no
Except with time
travel. In Run Lola Run, Lola gets to
try dozens of paths, searching for the right one, and in Dreamchild, my favorite
movie ever, an eighty-year-old Alice is able to heal, finally, her broken
childhood relationship with Lewis Carroll. In my story, "Chance," a college student made a careless,
clumsy mistake, and its consequences have haunted her for years--till time
travel helps her atone for it.
3. Time travel lets you mess with history--and
then shows you what a terrible idea that is. Knocking the gun out of John Wilkes Booth's
hand and then using it to shoot Hitler may seem like a great idea, but things
don't always work out the way you intended, as witnessed in Alfred Bester's
"The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" and Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever." In Ward Moore's Bring the
Jubilee, a time-traveler accidentally changes the outcome of the Civil War,
and in Ray Bradbury's "A Distant Sound of Thunder," a hapless tourist
bent on seeing dinosaurs accidentally changes everything.
In Blackout/All Clear, my time-traveling historians find themselves trapped in the middle of
World War II and terrified that they may change history just by being there--because
history is unbelievably complicated, full of connections and cascading
consequences, and nothing makes that clearer--or more terrifying--than time
travel. We're all in this together. Literally.
4. Finally, (and most important) time travel
can work magic. It can make the
impossible possible, so that being born into the wrong time (Richard Matheson's
Bid Time Return) or meeting at the wrong point (Sliding Doors) or being
too young or too old (Robert Nathan's Portrait of Jennie) are not the
insuperable and tragic obstacles we know them to be.
Time travel can
make love and longing and reconciliation possible. It's the gateway to all
those things we long for and have lost forever. It truly is, as Heinlein said, the door into summer.