Book Review: Time Travel - The Popular Philosophy of Narrative

Thursday, September 10, 2015
Frederic Jameson

It is probably not immediately obvious what interest a new theoretical study of science fiction holds for the mainstream adepts of literary theory; and no doubt it is just as perplexing to SF scholars, for whom this particular subgenre of the subgenre, the time-travel narrative, is as exceptional among and uncharacteristic of their major texts as SF itself is with regard to official Literature. To be sure, so-called alternative or counterfactual histories have gained popularity and a certain respectability; my personal favourite is Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, in which John Brown’s raid succeeds and a black socialist republic emerges in the South, as prosperous and superior in relation to its shrunken rust-belt northern neighbour as West Germany was to the East in the old days. And there remains the lingering mystery of what would have happened had the time traveller not stepped on the butterfly: this is from Ray Bradbury’s immortal ‘Sound of Thunder’, but the idea is adaptable to any number of wistful daydreams – had Lincoln not been assassinated, or Bobby Kennedy – or more sombre fantasies, like Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, in which Germany and Japan win the Second World War and divide the US between them. But these historical variants are not genuine time-travel narratives on the order of H.G. Wells’s Time Machine (1895), which inaugurates the standard narrative of the history of science fiction, to the detriment of Jules Verne or that other increasingly popular recent candidate, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

Read the rest of the review at London Review of Books: