In teaching Ray Bradbury's landmark short story "A Sound of Thunder" to 98 sophomores this fall, I was bemused to learn that for today's average teen, the phrase "the butterfly effect" evokes more conversation about Ashton Kutcher than about the concept of time travel. Not surprisingly, my students were equally bemused to find that I hadn't seen the movie, and was instead, for some reason, nattering on about a Tyrannosaurus Rex hunt on a metal walkway that changed the course of human history, mwah ha ha .
Call it a generation gap (literature gap, maybe?), but I will take the power of an incredible short story over middling sci-fi movies any day. The best part? By the time we finished with the story, I believe many of my students agreed.
This week the Red Room called for its writers to discuss their favorite time travel stories, and in the past year I've read three books that earned a permanent place on my bookshelf, for which, believe me, they feel duly honored. Each share the factor that has made time travel fascinating to read about since H.G. Wells -- they make readers wish, even with all the danger and horror, "Man, I wish I could do that."
11/22/63 by Stephen King
King's latest (and the first of his I've read) uses an oddly specific time-travel window as an excuse for revisionist historians everywhere to speculate gleefully: what if someone had stopped Lee Harvey Oswald from taking one of history's most infamous shots?
It appeals to the conspiracy theorist, history buff, and decent human being in all of us. Given the chance to stop one shot and save, not only Kennedy, but subsequent lives lost in Vietnam, who wouldn't be tempted?
It's hard to tell what is best about this book. Is it King's meticulous history blended with warm characterization, his ability to juggle so many equally compelling plots, or his ability to frighten with time's disturbing penchant for patterns? The fact that the JFK/time-travel related climax actually felt secondary by the time I got to it cemented to me why Stephen King is -- well, Stephen King. I both rushed through and savored the book, which was immensely satisfying.
(Note: this book is a doorstop, so unless you have steel wrists, I say unto you, ebook.)
Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis
Again, the first book I read from this author, but one of the many she has penned in her Oxford historian series. In Willis's future, historians don't just research the past, they visit it. Historians at Oxford have been doing it for years, all on the understanding that nothing they do can change the future. But that doesn't make the past less dangerous -- some eras are rated "1," and some are "10" -- and everyone wants 10's. Of course.
One of those places? London, World War II, during the Blitz. The two novels follow the brave young historians who get stuck there, and ones who have to fight time to bring them home. These novel are also painstakingly researched, but like King, Willis manages not beat the reader with a ten-pound textbook.
The novels are addictive, and play with the concept of history's fluidity in fresh ways. These novels literally kept me up nights, especially All Clear.
To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
Another take on the Oxford historians, but here, Willis tips her hat with asperity to the English comedy classic Three Men in a Boat. Same concept as above, but follows the plight of a henpecked historian struggling to keep up with time lag, overbearing and dramatic Victorian divas, escaping cats and the hideously ugly and impossible to find bishop's bird stump.
Time travel has a tendency to be dramatic and frightening (thanks, Bradbury!), so a lighthearted tumble through the over-embroidered Victorian era was fresh air.
Would I want to be chased pell-mell through the English countryside by the overdramatic and foppish, dodge bombs, evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk, or race to stop an assassination, all while knowing I could irrevocably change life for all time?
But that's time travel.
Causes Kyla Perry Supports
National Fibromyalgia Association