The new idea, time travel, is appealing because we know time better than we used to. We know, much better than our ancestors, the exact lineaments of what Kipling called “the unforgiving minute.” Our time is more universal and more precise than ever, and we’re more than ever aware of the fact; it’s no wonder that we dream so much and think so fervently of ways in which time might be bent, stretched, reversed, made less unyielding and less unforgiving. All prisoners dream of freedom, perhaps never more so when they know there isn’t, and will never be, any possibility of escape.
Jack Finney, author of a sort-of time-travel novel named Time and Again, once tackled this idea indirectly in another, widely anthologized story called "I'm Scared." In it, a man recites to the reader a collection of bizarre, Fortean anecdotes about people and things that seem to have become displaced in time. The conclusion he draws is that this is happening because we want it to happen, because the pressure of billions of minds against the very nature of things is causing it to kink and warp here and there, and maybe someday burst altogether. We can't stomach the idea of time being linear, so we are kicking against that particular prick with greater and greater force.
I loved this idea when I first read it as a kid, and I hearken back to it often as a possible seed for a story — not one in this precise vein, but as a general idea. I haven't thought about what form it would take, but I suspect it would in some way be a tragedy. Here's why.
We long for escape from everything, especially the crumminess of the present moment. and from that longing comes a great many of the things that make up the substance of our world. This is not by itself evil; if it were not for the longing to escape hunger, thirst, cold, and misery, we would never have developed agriculture, industry, medicine, civilization. I have never been a fan of the quietist philosophy that any attempts to disturb the universe are either futile or reprehensible.
What I advocate is the idea that we should recognize our burning thirst for escapes of all kind as just that, a burning thirst that may never be quenched. We need to equip ourselves with the need to look down into ourselves and tease out the difference between a dream that lifts all of us up and a dream that is only something to lie down into and slumber inside. It's not the dream itself that's the problem, but the nature of the longing for that dream, and how we let that torment us needlessly. We're not failures because we haven't yet invented faster-than-light engines or time travel.
Now why would I, someone who makes his name (at least in some very small part) as a dealer in escape, take this view? It's not because I want to shoot myself in the foot; it's because I want escape to be treated as a fuel, not as a narcotic. If we defy things as they are, it should not be in a way that only makes us resent all the more our condition if and when our defiances fail. Most of them do, anyway, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying — it means we should reappreciate the light in which we try.
I come back time and again to Philip Johnston, a now-retired professor at Vancouver Island University, British Columbia. He once wrote an essay about Shakespeare's The Tempest that contains one of the finest and wisest insights I have ever seen into this matter:
The theatre metaphor [used in the play] also helps to explain why, in the last analysis, Prospero has to surrender his magical powers. Life cannot be lived out in the world of illusions, delightful and educative as they can often be. Life must be lived in the real world, in Milan or in Naples, and Miranda cannot thus entirely fulfill herself on the island. The realities of life must be encountered and dealt with as best we can. The world of the theatre can remind us of things we may too easily forget; it can liberate and encourage youthful wonder and excitement at all the diverse richness of life; it can, at times, even wake people up to more important issues than their own Machiavellian urge to self-aggrandizement, and, most important of all, it can educate us into forgiveness. But it can never finally solve the problem of evil, and it can never provide an acceptable environment for a fully realized adult life.
... Dreams may be the stuff of life, they may energize us, delight us, educate us, and reconcile us to each other, but we cannot live life as a dream. We may carry what we learn in the world of illusion with us into life, and perhaps we may be able, through art, to learn about how to deal with the evil in the world, including our own. But art is not a substitute for life, and it cannot alter the fundamental conditions of the human community. The magic island is not Milan, and human beings belong in Milan with all its dangers, if they are to be fully human. Life must be lived historically, not aesthetically.
Emphasis mine, as I think that phrase as the end is the best way to take all of the above and put it into a slogan for one's convenience.
I come back to this statement often because more than anything else it provides what I feel to be a program for how our creative work must operate. Entertainments have to comment on life, and can armor us for how to deal with it, but they cannot replace it. I do not mean this in the sense that we shouldn't go to fandom conventions and cosplay as our favorite characters — like me saying that is going to stop anyone! — but more in the sense that we should always bear in mind why we do these things. We do them to escape, yes, but we also do them to be able to come back to the real and messy and unforgiving world and deal with it all the more squarely and directly and whole-heartedly. We do it to recharge our batteries, not deplete them.
Besides, you can't ever really get away from it all anyway. Because you always bring it all with you. You probably know by know that whole shtick from Buddhism about you and the world being one; well, it's true. You're a product of this world, and so even if you ran away from it you'd still be embodying it in some form, somewhere. Escape isn't about running away, but changing your view of things, altering your perception temporarily to allow new understanding to filter in, and then taking what you've picked up and re-applying it to the world you're going to have no matter what.
That's what I mean by fuel vs. narcotic. And I think now that's also what I mean by the tragedy of time travel — it's not that we can't travel through time, but that we ever think it would be necessary. Here and now is all we ever have.