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Why I Hate Historical Time-Travel Books

March 20, 2011
In yesterday’s review of Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, I proclaimed my disdain for books that involve historical time travel. This outburst has elicited a bit of a response via the Twitters, and several people have asked me “Why, why, why in God’s name why do you not like books about time travel?” [Just to be clear, that isn’t an actual tweet I received. But if it were, that person would receive 1,000 gold stars.] Since it takes more than 140 characters to explain, I’ma do it here.

First of all, I want to make it very clear that I don’t hate books about time travel. I hate books about historical time travel. The difference is that in historical time travel, the main character, typically from present day travels back in time through some sort of portal or dream or magic to a time period that he or she is studying/way into/has some sort of importance for them. (Sometimes it’s a historical character who comes to modern times, but that is more rare.)

This sounds like a great idea, right? I mean, who hasn’t daydreamed about seeing Classical Rome in its heyday or looking at Impressionist paintings in a French salon or going to a Bob Dylan concert in the ’60s? It would be an amazing experience, one that we would never forget. But the difference here is that we know what happens after that day–we know how its all going to go down. And that knowledge, though great, is kryptonite for the historical time traveler (HTT).

You see, typically, the HTT and all of his (or her) modern sensibilities ends up wreaking havoc on the lives of the people in whatever century it is that he (or she) travels to, makes a complete and total ass out of himself (or herself), and then at the end realizes that he (or she) misses his (or her) life back in his (or her) own time period, but he’s (or she’s) learned something that he’ll (or she’ll) never forget. Huzzah.

Now, if that was all that happened, it wouldn’t be so bad. But normally there are a couple narrative devices thrown in for funsies that just really aren’t okay. Most notably, the love story in which a person from modern times falls in love with person from olden times and then there’s a crisis–does modern person stay in olden time, or does olden person come to modern time, or do they just call it a day? No matter which solution the author chooses, it’s never quite a “happy” ending–one of the characters has to give up quite literally everything they have ever known to be with the other person. Another problem that can arise in this sort of story is the “I ended up marrying my great great grandfather, which means that I’m my own great great grandmother” as exhibited in the classic American film Kate & Leopold. It’s just creepy.

Another weird narrative device is the one where the HTT ends up helping invent something/solving a problem/finding the answers to something that he/she has been pondering or working on. This is especially true in mystery novels where the HTT is trying to solve a mystery, hits a dead end, travels back in time, and just so happens to run smack into the VERY PERSON that they need to run into to solve the mystery. This is just ridiculous. And if it ends up that the HTT used their modern knowledge to help invent some sort of great thing, it’s kind of rude to history–it’s basically saying “Hey, you, historical person. You weren’t smart enough to figure this out. No, siree. A time traveler obviously helped you do this.”

This actually happens in Revolution [Prepare for SPOILERS]–Andi meets the oh-so influential composer she’s writing her thesis on, and he listens to her iPod and is really into the very musicians whose music he informed through the music that he has yet to write when he meets Andi, which basically means that she introduced him to the musicians that were inspired by him, but now he is inspired by both them and by music he has yet to write. Which means!, Andi is the person who is responsible for the piece of music that she considers to be so fantastic because she’s the one who introduced him to the musicians who were inspired by the music he has yet to write. It’s nonsensical! Okay, it’s a little romantic. But mostly, it’s nonsensical.

I’m sure that there are those of you out there who are thinking “All of this sounds cool. You’re just no fun.” And maybe that’s the case. But I think the main reason why I hate historical time travel books is because I always come away from them really, really unsatisfied. Maybe it’s because I know I won’t ever be able to do it. Maybe it’s because I feel weirdly protective of history and don’t want it tampered with. Whatever the case, I seriously dislike historical time travel.

If you need some convincing of my position, just watch the BBC mini-series Lost in Austen. You’ll understand afterward.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2011 9:53 PM

    I'll check it out! Thanks for the rec!

  2. March 23, 2011 6:48 PM

    One word: Outlander. The book, obviously. By Diana Gabaldon. It is so good (it's actually a series, and they are all good, but the first book is the best) in so many ways, in spite of the fact that it contains just about every one of your pet peeves. And is like 700 pages. But seriously. One of the best loves stories I have ever read. (And I realize that since this is the first time I've commented on your blog, and thus you don't know anything about my taste in books, my recommendation may not mean quite so much, but I had to make it!)

  3. March 21, 2011 12:58 PM

    Great post! I like HTT if it's done right or I can believe it. I do totally understand your problem with it though. I do have to admit I liked Lost in Austen…it was just another viewpoint for me.

  4. March 20, 2011 9:42 AM

    Hey I saw on Twitter that you need a new header.Maybe I can make one for you with an illustration and text for a nice price!Here's my site: http://www.marjoleincaljouw.nlMy blog: http://www.marjoleincaljouw.blogspot.comMy email: Byebye 🙂

  5. March 20, 2011 12:54 AM

    I'm not a sucker for HTT either, or TT of any kind. I kind of decided that time travel is pointless when I realized that if I go back in time, so does everyone else, and no, I won't remember the future. So I can only travel back in increments of 100 to when I wasn't alive, I can't change my future, and well, I could potentially end up messing up the whole country. Come back and the world is like Panem for instance. So not cool.

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