Author Interviews
5:25 pm
Tue April 8, 2014

In This 'Almanac,' Fiction Makes The Best Time Machine

Originally published on Wed April 9, 2014 5:24 am

From Back to the Future to The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who, the theme of time travel is timeless on the screen and on the page. What is it about time travel that's so darn appealing?

"We all have this idea in our heads that, if only I had said this, if only I had done that — we all want to go back and do something," says Ann VanderMeer. She and her husband Jeff are the editors of the new Time Traveler's Almanac, a giant compilation of time travel stories ranging from classic to very, very modern.

VanderMeer says that while compiling the book, she was surprised to find that fictional time travelers mostly didn't want to save the world. "As we dug deeper, we found, basically, a lot of love stories."


Interview Highlights

On "science romance"

When H.G. Wells was first writing The Time Machine and War of the Worlds and all of the stories that he was writing back then, those types of stories were actually called "science romance." They were not called science fiction; that term didn't come until years later. And it really kind of struck me, yeah, that actually kind of fits in a way. When you take a look at all these stories, you think it's really about the gee-whiz, look at all these cool gadgets and all these wonderful science-fictional things. But when you come right down to it, all of these stories really are about people connecting with people and trying to understand themselves better.

On the rules of time travel writing

What's really funny is that all the rules that you think there are, got broken along the way ... and the thing that's great about that is, it doesn't really matter. The bottom line, when you're reading the stories, is you're saying to yourself, is this a good story? Was I entertained? Did I come away and go, wow? Because in the end, fiction really is the most effective time travel machine in the universe, and it always has been.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now we're going to take you...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN TIME")

HUEY LEWIS & THE NEWS: (Singing) I'll be back in time...

CORNISH: From "Back to the Future."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN TIME")

NEWS: (Singing) Got to get back in time...

CORNISH: The "Twilight Zone."

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "TWILIGHT ZONE")

CORNISH: To "Dr. Who."

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "DR. WHO")

CORNISH: The theme of time travel is timeless in movies, TV and books. What is about time travel that is just so darn appealing?

ANN VANDERMEER: It is very common, when you think about time travel, of people wanting to go back into the past and to change something to make it better.

CORNISH: That's Ann Vandermeer. She's co-editor of "The Time Traveler's Almanac," a new anthology of short stories by some of the best sci-fi writers. Now, forget saving the world or preventing the next natural disaster. Nope. She says characters are mostly concerned with changing their love lives.

VANDERMEER: Originally, when we were approaching this, we thought that it was going to be pretty much adventure, science fiction, that type of a anthology. But we found basically a lot of love stories. I had read something somewhere when H. G. Wells was first writing "The Time Machine" and "War of the Worlds," those types of stories were actually called science romance. They were not called science fiction. That term didn't come until years later.

And it really kind of struck me, yeah, that actually kind of fits in a way. When you take a look at all these stories, you think it's really about the gee-whiz, look at all these cool gadgets and all these wonderful science-fictional things. But when you come right down to it, all of these stories really are about people connecting with people and trying to understand themselves better.

CORNISH: One of those stories that you're talking about is called "The House that Made the Sixteen Loops of Time."

VANDERMEER: Yes.

CORNISH: Tell us a little bit about it.

VANDERMEER: You have this older woman and she's been living in this magic house. And, you know, weird things happen when you live in a magic house. You know, not terrible things but strange things happen and she's been used to it after living there for so many years. But then something really strange happens to her where the house keeps rebooting and taking her back in time, maybe an hour. It's like rebooting to this certain moment over and over again. And it was the house's way of telling her that she really needed to change her life. She was in a rut. She needed to make a decision about a particular romantic relationship in her life. And the house was basically giving her a kick in the butt, saying, hey, you need to be looking at this. So I love that story.

CORNISH: It's very "Groundhog Day," right?

VANDERMEER: Yeah. It was kind of "Groundhog Day." But what's really interesting is things don't always come out the way that you think they're going to.

CORNISH: Right. Essentially, it never seems to work.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Which seems to speak to these rules of time travel that have emerged in writing.

VANDERMEER: Yes. Yes. And I think what's really funny is that all the rules that you think that there are, they got broken along the way. When my husband and I first started doing research to put this book together, we had four sections of how we were going to organize the book. But when we were done, it's very interesting that all the rules that you think you know about time travel just got broken by all these stories.

And the thing that's great about that is that it doesn't really matter. The bottom line, when you're reading the stories, is you're saying to yourself, is this a good story? Was I entertained? Did I come away and go, wow? Because in the end, fiction really is the most effective time travel machine in the universe, and it always has been.

CORNISH: Ann, thanks so much for speaking with us.

VANDERMEER: Thank you.

CORNISH: Ann Vandermeer is co-editor of "The Time Traveler's Almanac." That story she told us about is called "The House that Made the Sixteen Loops of Time" by Tamsyn Muir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.