Friday, January 7, 2011

Time Travel Pastoral: Connie Willis is Amazing

I've been reading time travel novels, lately. They're fun, but some have a troubling message. They turn time travel into a pastoral genre, and I don't think that's a good thing.

 Pastoral? Pastoral:

It sticks in my mind that Virgil wrote a pastoral as practice before writing epic, but I won't stand on it. The only bit of the Eclogues I remember is as a means to win an argument, and  if I ever talk about the Aeneid, it will be via Purcell. It rings true because it puts the pastoral on the road behind us on our trip to whatever might be like, but better, than what Aeneas went through.

But what if you get a time machine? Can you put it in reverse gear and go pick that girl up that you passed by the way? Isn't that what a time machine is about? Going back? Not so much.

So you haven't heard from Connie Willis, winner of 10 Hugos and 6 Nebulas, since she punched us in the stomach in the nicest possible way with 2001's Passage. That's because she got started on a book that bloomed into almost 1400 pages, and a-thing-which-is-good-about-it (I'm trying to swear off "awesome") is that she divided it into two, and then published them together. No waiting a decade for this story to end.  (And no coincidental completion just in time for the TV series, either.)

So what's it about? It's her time travellers from Oxford University circa 2060 going back into time and then getting stranded when their time machine-thingie malfunctions. They're stuck in the Blitz, wondering, as time travellers do, if they have somehow screwed up history, and the reason no-one's come to retrieve them is that the future no longer exists. And being bombed. A lot. Because that's what happened. Holy crap do they get bombed.

 And then ...stuff happens. I'd say more, but in 2001 we got a book where an eligible female protagonist got thrown together with the equally eligible Doctor Wright, and then look what happens! An author who does that has earned the right not to be spoiled. (Except Passage, because if you haven't read the spoiler at Wikipedia, you have no idea what I'm talking about.) Towards the end of All Clear, one character asks another, "is it a comedy or a tragedy?"

The question, by the way, is not about being funny as opposed to a tear-jerker. Comedies are about lovers getting together, while tragedies are about heroes failing. Passage is a comedy, not a tragedy, and time travel can be tragic without being sad,as witness this:

Sometimes, a writer gets old, the brain goes soft. Joe Haldeman, who got famous young for writing Forever War, decided to write it again. Matthew Fuller, a graduate research assistant at MIT is wasting his life away TAing and toying with his thesis when he discovers that a piece of lab equipment he's been playing with has malfunctioned and is now a cosmic stringy-graviton time travelling-forward thing.

When his girlfriend and his thesis supervisor and his student/rival piss him off, 'cuz they're all jerks and he totally didn't do anything to deserve it, he ends up jumping on and going ahead to the far future. There, of course, America is a theocracy with pliable handmaidens and an Evil Computer running things from behind the scenes. Or it's a libertarian fantasy of abundance. Ruled by an Evil Computer. Or it's the last human city on Earth, hidden behind its walls and decaying into irrelevance. Ruled by an Evil Computer. Jump, Matthew, jump! About the time we see the huge Rosetta Stone monument commemorating the existence of our species on this planet ("Hi, future aliens. We humans used to live here. We are teh suxx0rs"), we've run into godlike future people who know a reverse gear for the time machine.

Look, am I allowed to make a Spinal Tap joke, here? Because this is totally dialling it up to 11.

So Matthew  ends up in 1890 with his handmaiden. And he becomes a professor at MIT and keeps his head down and they have a nice life and make some babies and he dies in the 1970s. Is that a comedy? No. It's a pastoral, and a tragedy.

Honestly, what can you say about the "good old days?" That they were never as good as they seemed? Surely if you knew then, what you know now, surely they would be. (Here's an evil, horrible thing that I found looking for something else about that.) You'd never hurt for money, never be uncertain what's going to happen next. Old Professor Matthew spares some time coming back from his wife's funeral (yes, she's that disposable; I wish they all could be theocracy girls) to tell his former colleagues that the first H-Bomb test isn't the end of the world.

Well, hey, Professor Emeritus Time Traveller, that's what my grandfather said, too, back in the day. You know the difference? My grandfather was wise. (Or optimistic.) You? You're cheating. Sure, I know, if you'd live life on the wave of now, it would have been hard, all that uncertainty. You'd have had to get that fellowship and job on the merits. You won't know history, that the H-Bomb will work out just fine. You'd have to propose without knowing the answer in advance.

We can all think of things that we did, or said in the past, and imagine that we could just go back to that moment and fix it, unsay it. We could live in that world, always going back, reversing and rewriting our every little mistake and living forward again and again, living at the first moment that we made mistakes that mattered, forever adolescent in a world of grownups. That is, I assume your regrets start then. Some people say not, but they're pretty obviously arseholes, so there you go.

Think about it, though. You'd be an adult trapped in an adolescent body, trapped in circumstance, until the moment you refuse to play nice and change the future. It's a thought I've had before, and if I'd expressed it more smoothly that one time long ago, maybe I would have got a girl. Groundhog Day! But Groundhog Day is a lie. Well, the idea of winning Andie McDowell by learning to be a completely different, better person isn't a lie. Winning her by getting your script right? That's a lie. The future has better than Andie McDowell coming down the road towards you. When you meet that person, they will help you with your script because you matter to them, too. Because that's what living on the crest of the wave of now is all about, a chance to  live in a future that can be someone else's future, too.

At one point in this awesome novel, Willis puts the dilemma in very human terms. The POV character is hanging out with some ambulance driver girls, and Willis dives into her sources to bring these girls to life: "boyfriends were more important than bombs."

Which, me not being a girl, is something I get told now and then but will never really get, and probably for the best, as I'd just get a swelled head and all. To these girls, it matters that they can get "Maitland to propose to Talbot," or persuade Flight Lieutenant Lang* to take another look at Paige. Maybe Willis could tell us what is really going on in Maitland or Lang's mind. Maybe she can't. (Let me digress here. Maitland might fear rejection, and that's a scary kind of uncertainty. Lang, though, might not be as oblivious as he seems, precisely because he's known Paige since childhood. He knows that if he admits his feelings for Paige, he has no excuse not to get serious right away. Talk about taking the scary to 11!) The reality of the world is that these are achingly important things and we just don't know how they're going to turn out. If Paige is going to win, she is going to have to win by advancing. That's how battles are won.

We can go forward or even stand still, but what we can't do is do, and then go back and do again. I'm a historian: I'd love to have a time machine. But never in this world, only in the world of Willis' girls, who never know who ends up with who, time machine notwithstanding. That's what makes Blackout and All Clear great books, and Accidental Time Machine a great, steaming pile of crap.

Live behind the wave, with Matthew, and you're not living in life. That's why the time travel pastoral is a tragedy, a seductive tragedy, but a tragedy, none the less. Yes, there is pain ahead as well as happiness. "Vicar Goode," might be as misleading as "Dr. Wright.  Willis' characters live in uncertainty. So do we. If we want to run away from the worst, though, we can always choose to run to the future. The past has no closure,

but the future? It has possibilities.

*It's a pity that while Willis writes about professional historians embedded in historical events, she's not very good on the historical details of strategy and ranks. I'm calling Templer a "Flight Lieutenant," which is the rank equivalent of Major, and which he should be given his responsibilities and age, but she calls him a "Flight Officer." Which there is not: Flying Officer, or Pilot Officer.)

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