“It’s not about the destination…it’s the journey”
Sometimes I think this is especially true for time travel novels.
The “Journey novel”
I absolutely love The Man who Folded Himself (…the book ;)) which primarily focuses on time travel paradoxes and various complications arising from them. The journey through time and its implications are central to the read.
Running in the same vein are novels which focus on the actual mechanics of time travel itself.
These journey novels have the juicy stuff and work to separate time travel novels from other genres.
The “Destination novel”
On the other hand, I was extremely disappointed with Time and Again where someone goes back in time and pretty much nothing happens after that. The Mirror is a similar example of a time travel novel where nothing happens.
In these destination novels time travel is used to get a character into a different period and the historical or futuristic setting is described. The story is based in that period and the time travel takes a secondary role at best. It’s barely more than a scene setter.
This kind of book is interested mostly in the temporal destination and I don’t see how these destination time travel novels differ from a ‘regular’ novel. For me, these books aren’t ‘real’ time travel novels. (And I must admit to finding them rather dry, descriptive and not interesting…as you’ll see from my ratings.)
Time and Again could have missed out the time travel element and have simply taken place in its entirety in 1882 New York. Whether the character started out in present day New York and went back in time to 1882, or whether the book started off with “Once upon a time there was a man in 1882” makes no difference.
The destination novel can be about anything. It can use a time machine to go back (or forward) in time, or a car or plane to go to another place. The temporal and spatial mobility devices serve only to change the setting…from somewhere/when to…who really cares?
So for me it’s clear – I need time travel in a time travel novel to be more than a transporter. Some level of thought into the time travel element. But at the same time, would reading a novel concerned only with the nuts and bolts of time travel be like reading an instruction manual for a car, for example? Or is it chavvy to obsess about a vehicle and not care where/when it goes?
Characters must surely do something during or after their journey. I had a friend at university who was studying French. We used to tease him that without learning about anything else, he could go to France but do nothing. I think it’s a bit the same with time travel novels; you can go back to the past or forwards to the future, but once there surely something needs to actually happen.
So a bit of both, then. I like the science, the nuts and bolts, complications – and philosophy – of time travel…but given all of that, something actually needs to happen too!