Jason Heller on The Time Travelers Almanac
If there's one thing science-fiction writers love as much as exploring space and meeting aliens, it's traveling back in time and screwing things up. From H.G. Wells to the recent reboot of Star Trek, time travel is one of the genre's most well-explored tropes, but authors keep finding new ways to spin it. The brand-new anthology The Time Traveler's Almanac encapsulates that storied history, collecting almost seventy tales of altered timelines and unresolved paradoxes from across the trope's history, from its roots to its latest twists. To celebrate the book's release, three local contributors -- Jason Heller, Connie Willis and Carrie Vaughn -- will be signing and reading from the book, as well as discussing what makes time travel so special, this Sunday, March 23 at the Broadway Book Mall. In advance of that event, we caught up with Jason Heller to talk about his contribution to the book and what makes time travel such an enduring favorite.
Westword: Who all will be present at the release event at the Broadway Book Mall? It's you, Connie Willis and Carrie Vaughn, is that right?
Jason Heller: Yeah, it's the three of us. As far as I know, we're the only three Colorado authors who are in the book. I'm pretty sure. I guess there could be others, but not only are those the names I recognized as being local [laughs], but they're the ones I know have done events at the Broadway Book Mall before. Carrie and Connie both are big supporters of Broadway Book Mall, even as big as Connie gets. She's one of the most highly awarded and respected science fiction writers in the world, really. And when she has a new book come out, she still comes down and does it at Broadway Book Mall.
You know, Ron and Nina Else from the Book Mall have always been really huge supporters of local science fiction and fantasy writers, so it's really great to have it there and be part of that whole scene that they've built up there.
So you'll be reading excerpts, signing books, taking questions... the usual book-signing stuff, right?
I think it's a pretty standard reading. Each of us will read, I assume, something from what we contributed to the book. Then we might just open things up to questions, if anyone wants to start a conversation about the appeal of time-travel stories, why there's a thousand-page anthology of this stuff coming out and there's still a call for that kind of thing. That would be great, too.
Hopefully, it will be us doing our thing for a little bit, then have everyone have a conversation or a discussion. Really, the Book Mall is even more open to that than other bookstores. It's smaller, more intimate and it definitely attracts lots of people who are into that sort of thing. Hopefully, it will be fun that way.
Can you tell us a bit about what you wrote for the anthology?
It's an essay on time travel in music -- music with a time-travel theme. I go as far back as Sun Ra. A lot of people like to focus on the fact that Sun Ra, when he started releasing his music in the '50s as Sun Ra, the focus was on, here's a guy who says he astrally traveled through space, particularly to Saturn, and brought back his music. Sun Ra, in his music, was trying to translate, musically, that experience that he had had, that transcendental astral experience. The thing was, it was also a time-travel thing. While he did that, he also claimed to have traveled astrally to the past, not just through space but through time. He traveled in the past to ancient Egypt and things like that.
I start from there and I tease out this thread of the theme of time travel winding its way through music since then. It's not just rock and roll. I talk about jazz, funk, hip-hop, country, all kinds of stuff. Then, of course, there's all the progressive rock bands. That's the first thing you think about, right? The nerdy, geek prog bands who like to write about science fiction and, of course, those are in there as well. That's what my essay is about.
In general, one of the things I wanted to hit on was not just make it a list of songs, like, "Hey, this song is about time travel!" What I wanted to do was tie together this idea that music, in a way, recorded music is time travel. Maybe not the most profound idea you could possibly put forth, but I wanted to draw that out and reinforce that sort of idea, that there's this time-capsule, time-travel quality to listening to recorded music that we all sort of take for granted now. But it is worth stepping back and looking at.
The others are short stories. There are maybe four essays in the book, so I'll be reading my essay and I assume Connie and Carrie will be reading their short stories.
What are your thoughts on time travel in general? It's such an enduring trope of science fiction.
Yeah, I kind of have a love/hate relationship with time travel, to be honest. When it's done well, it can be done really, really well. I think it's really hard to read any kind of time-travel story and not just feel the whole thing could be fixed by someone going back in time again. Time-travel stories, for me, really have to address that paradox -- instability, uncertainty of reality that comes up from it. A lot of times time-travel stories will kind of play around with a nonlinear narrative, and that can be done really well, or really gratuitously and really poorly. Those are the kind of things that can sometimes make time travel less appealing or harder to work with or more challenging.
It's also kind of hard not to make it feel heavy-handed. It's such a deus ex machina kind of thing, the author can just move time around as they see fit. I think time-travel stories in particular and for me specifically are those things that can really capture your imagination. When you're a kid, you haven't become so blase about how crazy time works -- how time seems to fly by sometimes and crawl other times, and how memory relates to the way you interact with the past in your own mind. At least for me, when I was a kid, those things were still really mind-boggling to me. I think that if you get into time-travel stories at a particular time in your life, they can become really captivating in that sense.
That's what makes it even more amazing to me. I'm in this book and some of those stories that did captivate me as a kid, and some of those authors, are actually in this book. Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, some of the people who wrote about time travel and did it in a way that really captured my imagination as a kid. So it's like a total honor to be in this book with him.
Speaking of a love/hate relationship, can you tell us a favorite time-travel story, and maybe one that really gets under your skin for doing it wrong?
[Laughs] I just have to go back to Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder," which is obviously one of the most famous time-travel stories. It's in this book, so that's pretty amazing and I love that. The book goes all the way back as far as H.G. Wells, so it tends to want to encompass as much of the canon of time travel as possible. But "A Sound of Thunder" is just one of those things that Bradbury was so great at, which was so vividly capturing these images, and having them really embody his ideas in these really potent ways, very impactful ways. When you think of "A Sound of Thunder," you immediately think, not of the ideas, but of the images that pop out at you and did so when I was a kid. The dinosaurs. The butterfly, right? The whole butterfly effect, that came from that.
It's really weird, because my book, Taft 2012, when I came out with it, in a way I intentionally wanted it to be a riff on Ray Bradbury's butterfly effect, where something small and insignificant that changed the past can have this exponentially more important effect and widespread effect as time goes by. What a lot of people don't remember about "A Sound of Thunder" is it's actually a presidential piece of science fiction, like Taft 2012 is. It's actually about a presidential election and how what happens in this time-travel incident winds up changing who becomes president.
So when I did Taft 2012, I wanted to kind of riff on that and react against that. I tried to do a butterfly effect in reverse, poking fun at Taft a little bit and how inconsequentially he's viewed. I wanted to do a large event happening in the past, in American history, which is Taft disappearing from the face of the Earth and never being found, and that hasn't changed anything in the modern-day. I wanted to do the butterfly effect in reverse. To me, the fact that story has stuck with me to the point that I was still bouncing off that when I was writing my own book goes to show how that story has lodged in my mind, and stayed there as a kid.
Now, a terrible one?
I would say as a Star Trek fan -- and I love Star Trek -- it has committed some of the worst crimes in time-travel storytelling ever, with a few exceptions. I think that Deep Space Nine is the only series that managed to do a couple of time-travel stories that actually worked out really well, but for the most part that always bothered me about Star Trek. I was like, "Why can't they just not have time-travel be a thing?"
What made it even worse was when they rebooted Star Trek a few years ago, the way they used the alternate timeline thing in that movie drove me nuts. To me, it invalidated the whole idea of why they were doing a reboot and underscored the whole thing that can be problematic about time travel. It can be an easy way out, a catch-all way to gloss over inconsistencies or holes in narrative logic. There's more creative and fun ways to do that that people should be looking for. For me, time travel is one of those things where it's a very specific tool to use for a very specific reason. In Star Trek sometimes, it's just the expedient thing to use. When JJ Abrams does that in the Star Trek movie, it's basically him saying, "Eh, fuck. People will buy it. People are dumb enough to let me get away with that." You know, like the ending of Lost [laughs], like, "I can just sweep all this under the rug." Star Trek does that sometimes. It's probably my least favorite use of time travel in fiction.
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