Time travel narratives are in some regard a paradigm for speculative fiction itself. They focalize the broader tradition of setting a story at a distant historical moment, future or past, passing that experience of change through the character of the time traveler who must confront both the radical difference and the certain knowledge that this world, however different, nonetheless evolved out of, or will evolve into, the world our time traveller knows — asking them, and us, to reflect on the known world with the certainty that it contains within it the real possibility of radical difference, as well as the reality of structural forces that constrain historical change. In short, the time travel narrative is more or less a purification of Darko Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement” hypothesis about speculative fiction, and always has been.
But to say that this aspect is internal to the time travel story is not to deny that the genre is also historically particular, and does the work of thinking about different things at different times. In part this is because there are subgenres, often overlapping, often mixed and matched. And those subgenres themselves might contain different questions within them: the rise of the machines tale, e.g., has proved flexible enough to encompass any number of anxieties since H.G. Wells or longer.
The subgenre that we could give a pompous name like “Transtemporal Murder” but might as well just call the “Baby Hitler” genre takes on a particular salience in the present. You will know it well already. In the most familiar iteration, it is not a published story but one of those ethics-based thought experiments, the kind best conducted around 4:25 in the afternoon, contemplating the merits of voyaging backward in time to kill baby Hitler and thus [maybe] avert the Holocaust. The other best known version of this subgenre is, no doubt, the movie Terminator, also a rise of the machines tale, wherein Team Machine sends, well, uh, a Terminator backward in time to kill the mother of the messiah who, as the future knows, will lead the counterrevolution of Team Human.
An ur-version of the Baby Hitler subgenre is Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder,” wherein hunting trips into the deep, past are required to stay on a narrow path hovering over the unspoilt nature lest the slightest disturbance of the pre-human habitat have enormous consequences on the story’s present — as inevitably happens. The changes on the present, summarized in a paragraph or two, are are in many ways micrological.
Eckels stood smelling of the air, and there was a thing to the air, a chemical taint so subtle, so slight, that only a faint cry of his subliminal senses warned him it was there. The colors, white, gray, blue, orange, in the wall, in the furniture, in the sky beyond the window, were… were ….
It is a matter of less than a page when we get to the big reveal: it turns out that a single stumbling step off the path has changed everything, and by everything I mean the outcome of the presidential election. Whereas our party had departed from a world in which the apparently desirable candidate Keith had defeated his “militarist, anti-Christ, anti-human, anti-intellectual” opponent (named after a guy who had recently published a famous biography of Stalin), they have returned to a world where the winner is “Deutscher, of course! Who else? Not that fool weakling Keith. We got an iron man now, a man with guts!” Cue thunder.
Are these not all the elements of the present, of the only thing that time travel can mean in 2020? It is easy to focus on the election, and the choice between the authoritarian and…Keith, who I guess is amazing though he sounds like another white christian. Despite the improbable, by which I mean entirely probably echoes of the present, the function of the election here is to set the time frame, or rather, to set the opposing time frames: on the one hand the four-year cycle of presidencies, and on the other the 60 million years of environmental history, both utterly transformed by the murder not of baby Hitler but of a single Jurassic butterfly.
The mismatch of these time frames appears as the core problem for addressing climate collapse. Here I do not mean to place too much significance on the presidency, but simply on the difference in time frames between political-economic and environmental consequences. Drilling in the Arctic or building more condos or Kentucky mining or for that matter any industrial production — and the underlying financing and political support that such things require — cannot bear their poisoned bear their poisoned fruit swiftly enough for the poisoners to be held accountable. On this mismatch all of political and economic life, in their false separation, depend.
Time travel narratives of the present, that is to say, confront this problem before all others: how to conceive of adequate response in the present to events whose true significance will only be disclosed in the future, and more particularly, how to arrive at the destruction of climate collapse causes in necessary advance of their worst effects. There is no more traveling from the future to kill baby Hitler or the messiah of counterrevolution. There is only traveling from the future to destroy factories, shut down mines, block pipelines, and more broadly to eliminate the social compulsions toward accumulation and toward wage-labor that mobilize society toward maintaining such processes.
In this sense, the occupation of Standing Rock was a kind of time travel, Ende Gelände is a kind of time travel, the factory-breakers when they arrive will be a kind of time travel. And more broadly, this is the simplest of our obligations: we must all be Cyberdyne Systems Model 101s/frail Schwarzeneggers, having arrived here from a future that will not exist if we fail.