Out of Time: Time-Travel Tropes Write (through) Climate Change

Rose Michael

Abstract


“What is the point of stories in such a moment”, asks author and critic James Bradley, writing about climate extinction: Bradley emphasises that “climatologist James Hansen once said being a climate scientist was like screaming at people from behind a soundproof glass wall; being a writer concerned with these questions often feels frighteningly similar” (“Writing”). If the impact of climate change asks humans to think differently, to imagine differently, then surely writing—and reading—must change too? According to writer and geographer Samuel Miller-McDonald, “if you’re a writer, then you have to write about this”. But how are we to do that? Where might it be done already? Perhaps not in traditional (or even post-) Modernist modes. In the era of the Anthropocene I find myself turning to non-traditional, un-real models to write the slow violence and read the deep time that is where we can see our current climate catastrophe.

At a “Writing in the Age of Extinction” workshop earlier this year Bradley and Jane Rawson advocated changing the language of “climate change”—rejecting such neutral terms—in the same way that I see the stories discussed here pushing against Modernity’s great narrative of progress.

My research—as a reader and writer, is in the fantastic realm of speculative fiction; I have written in The Conversation about how this genre seems to be gaining literary popularity. There is no doubt that our current climate crisis has a part to play. As Margaret Atwood writes: “it’s not climate change, it’s everything change” (“Climate”). This “everything” must include literature. Kim Stanley Robinson is not the only one who sees “the models modern literary fiction has are so depleted, what they’re turning to now is our guys in disguise”. I am interested in two recent examples, which both use the strongly genre-associated time-travel trope, to consider how science-fiction concepts might work to re-imagine our “deranged” world (Ghosh), whether applied by genre writers or “our guys in disguise”. Can stories such as The Heavens by Sandra Newman and “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” by Ted Chiang—which apply time travel, whether as an expression of fatalism or free will—help us conceive the current collapse: understand how it has come to pass, and imagine ways we might move through it?

The Popularity of Time Travel

It seems to me that time as a notion and the narrative device, is key to any idea of writing through climate change. “Through” as in via, if the highly contested “cli-fi” category is considered a theme; and “through” as entering into and coming out the other side of this ecological end-game. Might time travel offer readers more than the realist perspective of sweeping multi-generational sagas? Time-travel books pose puzzles; they are well suited to “wicked” problems. Time-travel tales are designed to analyse the world in a way that it is not usually analysed—in accordance with Tim Parks’s criterion for great novels (Walton), and in keeping with Darko Suvin’s conception of science fiction as a literature of “cognitive estrangement”. To read, and write, a character who travels in “spacetime” asks something more of us than the emotional engagement of many Modernist tales of interiority—whether they belong to the new “literary middlebrow’” (Driscoll), or China Miéville’s Booker Prize–winning realist “litfic” (Crown).

Sometimes, it is true, they ask too much, and do not answer enough. But what resolution is possible is realistic, in the context of this literally existential threat?

There are many recent and recommended time-travel novels: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 Life after Life and Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2014 End of Days have main characters who are continually “reset”, exploring the idea of righting history—the more literary experiment concluding less optimistically. For Erpenbeck “only the inevitable is possible”. In her New York Times review Francine Prose likens Life after Life to writing itself: “Atkinson sharpens our awareness of the apparently limitless choices and decisions that a novelist must make on every page, and of what is gained and lost when the consequences of these choices are, like life, singular and final”. Andrew Sean Greer’s 2013 The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells also centres on the WorldWar(s), a natural-enough site to imagine divergent timelines, though he draws a different parallel. In Elan Mastai’s 2017 debut All Our Wrong Todays the reality that is remembered—though ultimately not missed, is more dystopic than our own time, as is also the way with Joyce Carol Oates’s 2018 The Hazards of Time Travel. Oates’s rather slight contribution to the subgenre still makes a clear point: “America is founded upon amnesia” (Oates, Hazards). So, too, is our current environment. We are living in a time created by a previous generation; the environmental consequence of our own actions will not be felt until after we are gone. What better way to write such a riddle than through the loop of time travel?

The Purpose of Thought Experiments

This list is not meant to be comprehensive. It is an indication of the increasing literary application of the “elaborate thought experiment” of time travel (Oates, “Science Fiction”). These fictional explorations, their political and philosophical considerations, are currently popular and potentially productive in a context where action is essential, and yet practically impossible. What can I do? What could possibly be the point? As well as characters that travel backwards, or forwards in time, these titles introduce visionaries who tell of other worlds. They re-present “not-exactly places, which are anywhere but nowhere, and which are both mappable locations and states of mind”: Margaret Atwood’s “Ustopias” (Atwood, “Road”). Incorporating both utopian and dystopian aspects, they (re)present our own time, in all its contradictory (un)reality.

The once-novel, now-generic “novum” of time travel has become a metaphor—the best possible metaphor, I believe, for the climatic consequence of our in/action—in line with Joanna Russ’s wonderful conception of “The Wearing out of Genre Materials”. The new marvel first introduced by popular writers has been assimilated, adopted or “stolen” by the dominant mode. In this case, literary fiction. Angela Carter is not the only one to hope “the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode”. This must be what Robinson expects: that Ken Gelder’s “big L” literature will be unable to contain the wine of “our guys”—even if it isn’t new. In the act of re-use, the time-travel cliché is remade anew.

Two Cases to Consider

Two texts today seem to me to realise—in both senses of that word—the possibilities of the currently popular, but actually ancient, time-travel conceit. At the Melbourne Writers Festival last year Ted Chiang identified the oracle in The Odyssey as the first time traveller: they—the blind prophet Tiresias was transformed into a woman for seven years—have seen the future and report back in the form of prophecy. Chiang’s most recent short story, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”, and Newman’s novel The Heavens, both of which came out this year, are original variations on this re-newed theme. Rather than a coherent, consistent, central character who travels and returns to their own time, these stories’ protagonists appear diversified in/between alternate worlds. These texts provide readers not with only one possible alternative but—via their creative application of the idea of temporal divergence—myriad alternatives within the same story. These works use the “characteristic gesture” of science fiction (Le Guin, “Le Guin Talks”), to inspire different, subversive, ways of thinking and seeing our own one-world experiment. The existential speculation of time-travel tropes is, today, more relevant than ever: how should we act when our actions may have no—or no positive, only negative—effect?

Time and space travel are classic science fiction concerns. Chiang’s lecture unpacked how the philosophy of time travel speaks uniquely to questions of free will. A number of his stories explore this theme, including “The Alchemist’s Gate” (which the lecture was named after), where he makes his thinking clear: “past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully” (Chiang, Exhalation). In “Story of Your Life”, the novella that the film Arrival is based on, Chiang’s main character-narrator embraces a future that could be seen as dystopic while her partner walks away from it—and her, and his daughter—despite the happiness they will offer. Gary cannot accept the inevitable unhappiness that must accompany them. The suggestion is that if he had had Louise’s foreknowledge he might, like the free-willing protagonist in Looper, have taken steps to ensure that that life—that his daughter’s life itself—never eventuated. Whether he would have been successful is suspect: according to Chiang free will cannot foil fate.

If the future cannot be changed, what is the role of free will? Louise wonders: “what if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?” In his “story notes” Chiang says inspiration came from variational principles in physics (Chiang, Stories); I see the influence of climate calamity. Knowing the future must change us—how can it not evoke “a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation”? Even if events play out precisely as we know they will. In his talk Chiang differentiated between time-travel films which favour free will, like Looper, and those that conclude fatalistically, such as Twelve Monkeys. “Story of Your Life” explores the idea that these categories are not mutually exclusive: exercising free will might not change fate; fatalism may not preclude acts of free will.

Utopic Free Will vs. Dystopic Fate?

Newman’s latest novel is more obviously dystopic: the world in The Heavens is worse each time Kate wakes from her dreams of the past. In the end it has become positively post-apocalyptic. The overwhelming sadness of this book is one of its most unusual aspects, going far beyond that of The Time Traveler’s Wife—2003’s popular tale of love and loss. The Heavens feels fatalistic, even though its future is—unfortunately, in this instance—not set but continually altered by the main character’s attempts to “fix” it (in each sense of the word). Where Twelve Monkeys, Looper, and The Odyssey present every action as a foregone conclusion, The Heavens navigates the nightmare that—against our will—everything we do might have an adverse consequence. As in A Christmas Carol, where the vision of a possible future prompts the protagonist to change his ways and so prevent its coming to pass, it is Kate’s foresight—of our future—which inspires her to act. History doesn’t respond well to Kate’s interventions; she is unable to “correct” events and left more and more isolated by her own unique version of a tortuous Cassandra complex.

These largely inexplicable consequences provide a direct connection between Newman’s latest work and James Tiptree Jr.’s 1972 “Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket”. That tale’s conclusion makes no “real” sense either—when Dovy dies Loolie’s father’s advisers can only say that (time) paradoxes are proliferating—but The Heavens is not the intellectual play of Tiptree’s classic science fiction: the wine of time-travel has been poured into the “depleted” vessel of “big L” literature. The sorrow that seeps through this novel is profound; Newman apologises for it in her acknowledgements, linking it to the death of an ex-partner. I read it as a potent expression of “solastalgia”: nostalgia for a place that once provided solace, but doesn’t any more—a term coined by Australian philosopher Glen Albrecht to express the “psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change” (Albrecht et al.). It is Kate’s grief, for a world (she has) destroyed that drives her mad: “deranged”.

The Serious Side of Speculation

In The Great Derangement Ghosh laments the “smaller shadow” cast by climate change in the landscape of literary fiction. He echoes Miéville: “fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals; the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or short story to the genre of science fiction” (Ghosh). Time-travel tales that pose the kind of questions handled by theologians before the Enlightenment and “big L” literature after—what does it mean to exist in time? How should we live? Who deserves to be happy?—may be a way for literary fiction to take climate change “seriously”: to write through it. Out-of-time narratives such as Chiang and Newman’s pose existential speculations that, rather than locating us in time, may help us imagine time itself differently. How are we to act if the future has already come to pass?

“When we are faced with a world whose problems all seem ‘wicked’ and intractable, what is it that fiction can do?” (Uhlmann). At the very least, should writers not be working with “sombre realism”? Science fiction has a long and established tradition of exposing the background narratives of the political—and ecological—landscapes in which we work: the master narratives of Modernism. What Anthony Uhlmann describes here, as the “distancing technique” of fiction becomes outright “estrangement” in speculative hands. Stories such as Newman and Chiang’s reflect (on) what readers might be avoiding: that even though our future is fixed, we must act. We must behave as though our decisions matter, despite knowing the ways in which they do not.

These works challenge Modernist concerns despite—or perhaps via—satisfying genre conventions, in direct contradiction to Roy Scranton’s conviction that “Narrative in the Anthropocene Is the Enemy”. In doing so they fit Miéville’s description of a “literature of estrangement” while also exemplifying a new, Anthropocene “literature of recognition” (Crown). These, then, are the stories of our life.

What Is Not Expected

Chiang’s 2018 lecture was actually a PowerPoint presentation on how time travel could or would “really” work. His medium, as much as his message, clearly showed the author’s cross-disciplinary affiliations, which are relevant to this discussion of literary fiction’s “depleted” models. In August this year Xu Xi concluded a lecture on speculative fiction for the Vermont College of Fine Arts by encouraging attendees to read—and write—“other” languages, whether foreign forms or alien disciplines. She cited Chiang as someone who successfully raids the riches of non-literary traditions, to produce a new kind of literature. Writing that deals in physics, as much as characters, in philosophy, as much as narrative, presents new, “post-natural” (Bradley, “End”) retro-speculations that (in un- and super-natural generic traditions) offer a real alternative to Modernism’s narrative of inevitable—and inevitably positive—progress.

In “What’s Expected of Us” Chiang imagines the possible consequence of comprehending that our actions, and not just their consequence, are predetermined. In what Oates describes as his distinctive, pared-back, “unironic” style (Oates, “Science Fiction”), Chiang concludes: “reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilisation now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has”. The self-deception we need is not America’s amnesia, but the belief that what we do matters.

Conclusion

The visions of her “paraself” that Nat sees in “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” encourage her to change her behaviour. The “prism” that enables this perception—a kind of time-tripped iPad that “skypes” alternate temporal realities, activated by people acting in different ways at a crucial moment in their lives—does not always reflect the butterfly effect the protagonist, or reader, might expect. Some actions have dramatic consequences while others have minimal impact. While Nat does not see her future, what she spies inspires her to take the first steps towards becoming a different—read “better”—person. We expect this will lead to more positive outcomes for her self in the story’s “first” world. The device, and Chiang’s tale, illustrates both that our paths are predetermined and that they are not: “our inability to predict the consequences of our own predetermined actions offers a kind of freedom”. The freedom to act, freedom from the coma of inaction.

“What’s the use of art on a dying planet? What’s the point, when humanity itself is facing an existential threat?” Alison Croggon asks, and answers herself: “it searches for the complex truth … . It can help us to see the world we have more clearly, and help us to imagine a better one”. In literary thought experiments like Newman and Chiang’s artful time-travel fictions we read complex, metaphoric truths that cannot be put into real(ist) words. In the time-honoured tradition of (speculative) fiction, Chiang and Newman deal in, and with, “what cannot be said in words … in words” (Le Guin, “Introduction”). These most recent time-slip speculations tell unpredictable stories about what is predicted, what is predictable, but what we must (still) believe may not necessarily be—if we are to be free.

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Keywords


time travel; speculative fiction; the Anthropocene; climate fiction



Copyright (c) 2019 Rose Michael

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