In the 2002 movie adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine (which bears only passing resemblance to the book), its chief character is driven to complete the invention of his time machine by the murder of his fiancé. Traveling back in time, he repeatedly attempts to prevent the murder, only for her to die in some other way. In despair, he travels far into the future and meets someone of highly advanced intellect who explains that since the murder triggered the invention of the time machine, it can only exist in a time stream where the woman dies.
Ever since Wells’ novella, time travel has been a staple of science fiction. Usually, as with Wells, the ability to travel through time represents a technological triumph, although ultimately a mixed blessing as various versions of the paradox perplex or endanger the participants.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, both the novel by Audrey Niffenegger and the recent film adaptation starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, makes it a disability. It even has a genetic marker and a piece of pseudo-medical jargon (“chrono-impairment”) to describe it. Henry DeTamble is not so much able to travel in time as unable to stay in the present. Without warning he will disappear, leaving behind an empty pile of clothes, and reappear stark naked at some other point on his lifeline, or occasionally just beyond. There he must survive as best he can for an unpredictable length of time (it could be only seconds, it could be weeks), until he returns to his proper time. His traveling is not completely random – he returns time and again to places and times of emotional crisis or joy – but it is completely beyond his control.
This is one of those genre-bending stories, a science fiction romance. It is a love story framed by repeated time slips. The result is a circular plot, and an interesting and perplexing meditation on determinism and free-will.
In an early nod to The Time Machine, Henry survives the car accident that kills his mother by time traveling seconds before the crash, returning minutes later naked but unhurt near the scene. Drawn back time and again by the trauma and his own survivor guilt, he tries unsuccessfully to prevent the accident.
At other times, the link between past, present and future is more complex and confusing. The adult Henry repeatedly meets his future wife, Clare, as a child and a teenager. Already married to her in his “present”, he gets to know her past self and nurtures her love for him, before the visits cease as she turns 18. Years pass until she finally meets him in the “present”, in what for him is their first meeting. Already deep in love with his future self, she asks him out and they leap into the romance which is a lifelong passion for her but completely new for him.
So, who made what happen? The story can be read as a creepy bit of grooming, with Clare brainwashed into childhood love by the adult Henry. Yet this Henry is already married to the adult Clare, who swept him off his feet in his 20s, and this love is what drives him back time and again to her childhood home. It’s like that Escher drawing where the steps climb continuously round a rectangle, with no bottom or top. Do they have a choice? When Henry proposes to her she says no – then laughs and says of course she’ll marry him, she was only trying it out to see if she could say no. It proves nothing, she marries him anyway, the circle continues.
This is the biggest, but not the only, circle in the plot. In each one, cause and effect, past and present mix together in a way that makes it impossible to know what caused what, and whether anyone ultimately has any other choice. If someone comes back from the future and tells you what will happen, has it already happened? Is such a question meaningful in the context of time travel? Can you create another future, or another past, or are your actions in both times already factored into the universe beyond time?
It could be depressing, but somehow its not, because both Henry and Clare embrace their fate. Despite hard times, they have a love to envy, a deep lifelong passion which is so rare in Hollywood romance. Perhaps that is the ultimate answer. The past and future, even the present, may be beyond our control. Yet even if we understand nothing, we can love and go on loving, leaving the rest to whatever powers are in charge.