I was brought up on a diet of portal travelling stories such as the Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian Chronicles. From Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the successful children’s and young adult fantasy fiction novel often focuses on contemporary protagonist with access to another world. Often theses are parallel or alternative dimensions, such as Narnia in C S Lewis’s The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe, or time travel as with Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden. Recent books such as The Multiverse of Max Tovey can be a blend of both genres; Alistair Swinnerton takes a contemporary character into the past, into a parallel dimension where the Roman Empire still rules and to the underworld of the Awin of Welsh legend. It's the portal through time I want to look at here, and how the concept has evolved.
Are there any rules for novelists who write about time travel? This depends on the balance of fantasy against science in the novel. ‘… it was OK (for early science fiction) to simply make up your own rules for time travel. After all, who could say you were wrong?’ says Paul J Nahin in Time Travel: A Writer’s Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel. The rules start out being fluid, but as science evolves, so does science fiction – a genre that can be out of date within a few years of publication. Many writers look to popular science for inspiration, it is evident that the theories of Newton, Einstein and Hawking have informed the science fiction writer as the genre has matured.
H G Wells published The Time Machine in 1895. The back cover of 2009 paperback edition describes the book as, ‘the first novel about time travel and its impact on the science fiction genre is unparalleled.’ This is not strictly true as the concept of time, through the foretelling of events, has been part of storytelling for as long as there have been stories to tell; from myths, legend and religious text to the weird sisters from Macbeth, prophecy has been an important ingredient of narrative. Physical time travel into a future was explained through decades or centuries of sleep: as in fairy tales such as The Sleeping Beauty. Dickens employs a ghost from the past, the present and the future in his 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, but, according to Johnson’s introduction to The Time Traveller’s Almanac (2013), the first true time travel story was The Clock that went Backwards by Edward Page Mitchell, 1881. However, The Time Machine’s impact on science fiction writing is immense, going on to inspire many twentieth century writers, including the creators of Doctor Who.