The Epic Time Travel Story I Will Never Write

Has anyone ever written the Game of Thrones of time travel? By which I mean the definitive, sweeping epic that exemplifies the time travel subgenre in the popular imagination? I’m honestly asking; I don’t know the answer. I can point to the definitive time travel film—Back to the Future—but not necessarily the definitive time travel book. Which is weird, because I love time travel.

For every other genre of speculative fiction, there’s a particular, well-known book or two that encapsulates the genre in its grandest, most complex, most fully realized and developed state. Fantasy fans might point to A Song of Ice and Fire or the Malazan series. Sci-fi fans would probably point to Dune, or maybe Foundation. Horror fans can point to The Shining, or if not The Shining, then at least to the best of Stephen King’s work.

Even subgenres have definitive works. Military sci-fi has Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Cyberpunk has Neuromancer and Snow Crash. Weird fiction has the Cthulhu Mythos, post-apocalyptic fiction has The Stand, urban fantasy has The Dresden Files. I could go on.

But for the life of me, I’ve never been able to find the single time travel book that anyone can point to and say, “That! That right there. That one book is the time travel genre, defined.” You might say H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine fits the bill, but it was published in 1895, and is more of a proto-sci-fi work, influencing the genre but existing long before its conventions and more sophisticated ideas had formed. Author Connie Willis makes a good effort in her “Oxford” time travel series. They’re prestigious books and they’ve won a lot of awards, so I was excited to start reading them, but now that I am, I’m kind of disappointed. (Although I haven’t finished the series yet, so maybe the books get better as they go on.) I’m sure some would say The Time Traveler’s Wife or the Outlander series would qualify—and as the definitive time travel romance books, they might—but they’re not the type of book I’m talking about.

I’m talking about a story that takes place over the entire course of human history, from the Bronze Age all the way until we’ve colonized our entire galaxy. There’s a team of bad guys who, for whatever reason, are traveling throughout history trying to create enough time paradoxes that the space-time continuum rips itself apart. They want to unravel time itself. And there’s a team of good guys trying to stop them.

The series would be as sweeping and epic as A Song of Ice and Fire, with dozens of main characters, scores of supporting characters, and hundreds of tertiary characters interacting as our travelers split up and journey to various time periods to do their parts in saving history. It’d be a completely adult story, not shying away from the darkest parts of our past, frankly and honestly discussing both the best and the worst that human beings have done to each other. None of this YA will-she-choose-him-or-him nonsense. This story needs to feel like real life.

We readers would be immersed in numerous historical periods, but not overused and obvious periods like Europe in the Middle Ages or World War II. There’s so, so much fascinating history that neither science fiction nor popular fiction have ever explored, and this epic time travel story would be the perfect vehicle to use to finally investigate these obscure historical eras.

Over the course of several books, this series would tackle the big questions. Where did we come from and where are we going? What’s the optimal way to organize a society? Why do civilizations rise and fall? And imagine the time travel gimmicks you could use with such a storytelling tapestry! You could explore multiple timelines, with a past character’s choice immediately and radically changing a future character’s reality. You could write multiple versions of each character, some of them wildly different from their counterparts in response to life events that each doppelganger did or didn’t experience throughout the course of the story. You could even take people and items far out of their normal context: What would Ancient Greece think of a 29th century starship?

But far more important than the historical philosophy or the time travel gimmicks, the story would be about individual people struggling toward diverse goals, in conflict with themselves, with each other, with their societies, and with the arc of history. Much as good old GRRM’s story tells a grand political saga through highly personal snippets of individuals’ lives, this time travel series would tell our story—the human story, and the entire human story at that—on a small, intimate, nail-biting scale. It would be the Game of Thrones of time travel.

Someone ought to write this book.

For a long time, I wanted to write it myself. I first had the idea for it when I was twelve years old and realized no writer had ever attempted something like this (to the best of my knowledge—and please correct me if I’m wrong). But I recently took a long look at my notes for this epic time travel story, and I had a few revelations. As I read the notes, the phrase “kill your darlings” kept repeating over and over in my head.

If you’ve never heard of “kill your darlings,” it’s an excellent piece of writing advice, and I wish I’d taken it to heart earlier in life. It took quite a few atrocious short films under my belt for me to finally realize I wasn’t the God of Storytelling, I didn’t have unlimited resources to keep churning out all this garbage-art, and maybe I should approach my work with a bit more humility and finesse. It’s a good lesson for any artist to learn, but it’s also a hard lesson when you realize that sometimes it means you’ll have to cut a good idea. Sometimes you’ll have written a brilliant scene or character, but then when you’re honest with yourself, you realize that the scene or character doesn’t fit well within the larger work it’s a part of, so you have to cut it. And as every writer knows, that hurts.

Well, I am hurting now, because I recently decided to delete not just a character or a scene from a larger story, but the entire multivolume time travel epic… from my life. Here’s why:

1.) Time travel stories should be about people, not about time travel.

As I read my notes for this time travel idea, I noticed that most of them were about time travel gimmicks. “A character fights her past self” or “instead of time traveling, a hero just straight-up lives through a fifty-year time period, growing old in order to accomplish a certain objective.” Stuff like that. Stuff that might sound cool as an idea, but is completely meaningless without long setups to make the reader care about these characters and their plight. They’re ultimately just gimmicks, and they comprised well over half of my notes. I’d developed the timey-wimey gimmicks far more than I’d developed the characters, the story, or the story world, and gimmicks aren’t enough to sustain my passion for a story over the course of time it’d take to write it.

I could take the time to develop the larger story, but if I’m honest with myself, I no longer have the interest necessary to do that. I’m honestly more interested in how much of a tangled time web I could weave. I tend to enjoy the puzzles of time travel stories more than anything else about them, and that’s simply not the right way to approach a time travel story. All good stories are about the characters first and foremost.

2.) Time travel stories should have a genuine curiosity about history.

This is where most time travel stories get stuck in the weeds, and where mine inevitably would have. Sure, the past is a cool place to set suspense plots or action scenes, but the past was also real. When a time travel story is set in a certain place and time but only uses it as window dressing for its “real” story (about the time travelers), that feels a bit disingenuous to me. Michael Crichton’s Timeline is a good example of this problem. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 serves as a good counterexample, really delving into the time period when it was set.

Don’t get me wrong: I am curious about history. But not curious enough. To write a book series set in many different time periods (and alternate versions of those time periods), you’d need to become a pseudo-expert on each of them—on their economies, politics, religions, cultures, etc. The research alone would take years. Even most professional historians specialize in a very specific time period or culture, because there’s just so much to learn about every single place and time that’s ever existed. I don’t have the patience for this type of undertaking. You’ll need an intense, burning passion for history if you’re going to write a time travel story like this.

3.) Time travel gets extremely complicated extremely fast.

There’s a good reason why time travel stories tend to focus on small journeys—there and back again, and that’s it. When you start getting into paradoxes, multiple timelines, and multiple versions of each character, your story begins to look more like a math problem than a narrative with characters and conflict. And if you don’t tell that story just right, readers will start to have an exceedingly hard time keeping track of what’s going on. Books that have this problem don’t usually get read; I only know about this phenomenon from first-hand experience of trying to write really complex time travel stories. I think the best example of a popular time travel story that got too convoluted for its own good is the indie film Primer. Or at times, Doctor Who.

(Although when Doctor Who does time travel well, it does it very well. In fact, one of the main reasons I decided to abandon my own time travel story was because I realized most of my timey-wimey gimmicks had already been done on Doctor Who. Much of the show, in my humble opinion, is pretty bad and not worth watching, but if you’re new to it, I highly recommend watching the episodes “Blink,” “Silence in the Library,” “Forest of the Dead,” the entirety of series five, and “The Day of the Doctor.” Then you’ll have seen the best of the best, including the best time travel bits.)

But there’s a more common result of time travel writers getting in over their heads. In an effort to make their story understandable for a wide audience, they’ll dumb down the time travel elements. And then their time travel only makes sense at face value but falls apart when you start to pick apart its logic. Looper is a good example of this problem.

There are some rare works that handle super-intricate time travel stories well. The indie film Predestination will pretty much blow your mind. I’ve heard that the indie book series The Chronos Files skillfully juggles its temporal intricacies, although I haven’t read it myself. And I’m sure many of you will object to me saying that Lost told a cohesive time travel story, but I will fight you to prove you wrong.

But yeah. As much as I’d enjoy the challenge of writing an ultra-complicated time travel tale, I think that for me, the headache would ultimately not be worth the trouble. For a writer who’s more interested in history and who has good ideas for the characters and their individual struggles, the headache might be worth it.

4.) The idea has already been done… poorly.

The world of television has tried to do a “war across time” on a few different occasions.

The main plot of Star Trek: Enterprise revolved around a “temporal cold war,” with two factions from the far future pulling on history’s delicate threads in the past, each trying to reshape the timeline for their own ends. Unfortunately, this idea was forced on the showrunners by the network. The showrunners lacked passion or interest for the time travel plot (and maybe for the entire show???), so it feels kind of shoehorned in, and was never developed much before the series got cancelled.

More famously, Doctor Who features the Great Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks. But we hear much more about this war than we actually see it. It only plays a direct role in a few episodes, and even then it seems more like a regular war than a “time war.”

The closest television has come to my idea just might be a show called Timeless that’s premiering next week on NBC. It seems to have a similar premise and looks like it could maybe, maaaaaaayyyyyyybe actually be good.

I maintain that to the best of my knowledge, the idea for my time travel epic has never been done the way it should be done. (But please correct me if I’m wrong!) It’s been hinted at plenty of times by other works, but never fully executed. Still, I’m practically obsessed with writing stuff that’s super-duper ultra original. If a bunch of other people have written a certain type of story, I’m going to run in another direction and try to write something no one’s ever done. The fact that other writers have tried so many times to make this idea work makes me a little less passionate about the idea… even though, in my humble opinion, none of those other writers completely succeeded. And in order to write a story of this scale—one that will take at least a decade to write well—an extreme level of passion is absolutely required.

Despite all this, I hope that if you’re reading this blog post and you’re a writer, you’ll scroll back up and reread the paragraphs where I pitched the idea to you, and the gears will start turning in your head. There’s so much to love about this idea. It’s just that I don’t have the interest or the patience to write it the way it should be written. Please steal it from me! Please write it yourself!

Because someone ought to write this book.

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