Time Travel is About Contradictions
Posted by Literary Titan
The Monster interviews author Allen Brady, author of The Fruithandler Time Engine.
The Fruithandler Time Engine is about time traveling, from the past to the preset. There are many paradoxes involved with time traveling. How did you handle these in your novel, or were they an obstacle in any way?
The paradoxes aren’t an obstacle; they’re a large part of the charm.
Time travel is all about contradictions. At its core, every single time travel story is about the inversion of cause and effect—about someone in a place they cannot be, armed with information they couldn’t possibly have. When contradiction is your starting point, paradoxes are not merely inevitable, they’re where the fun begins.
Exploring the logical ramifications of esoteric premises is precisely what science fiction was invented for. In no other genre does more entertainment derive from learning the rules, then expanding upon them, and there are no subjects more rife for this kind of speculation than time travel. If thrusting a character out of his proper time leads to paradoxes, my preference is not to ignore or dismiss them, but to embrace them.
One of the primary ground-rules of The Fruithandler Time Engine is that no one in the novel really understands how time travel works. Both Colonel Fruithandler and Deirdre are experiencing a brand new phenomenon for the first time. There are no subject-matter experts to consult here. Deirdre’s decisions are her own to make, and she has no way of knowing what the full consequences of those decisions will be. I wanted the reader to be in the same boat.
The Whenstones do indeed cause paradoxes in the world of the novel. For the most part, the universe doesn’t care. The novel’s focus is on individual timelines. The stones change characters dramatically, but only with respect only to themselves. Thus will effects endure even when their causes cease to be. The daughter will remain even when the mother never had children.
Not because it makes sense, but because it’s fun.
The book was more satirical than expected. Did you intend for the book to be created this way or was this more of an organic growth?
The time travel genre lends itself to satire almost by default. When you remove a character from his own culture and transpose him into another, you’ve created a natural springboard for commentary upon both those cultures. Add humor to the mix, and satire is inevitable.
From the outset, I knew the subject matter of this story would require a comedic tone. The Fruithandler Time Engine is a story of time travelers who know nothing about history. This provides an ample playground for satirizing not only the characters and the worlds they inhabit, but the time travel genre itself.
But while the book may be satirical, my hope is that it will not be read as ridicule. If I play with the conventions of time travel, it is only because I find them fascinating. The Fruithandler Time Engine is meant to contribute to the genre, not to subvert it.
Which part of The Fruithandler Time Engine did you enjoy writing the most?
This is a bit like picking a favorite child. In truth, the book was a hoot to write from start to finish. The Estimable Fellowship of Esteemed Fellows was where the book began, both in concept and finished product. The original germ from which the EFEF sprang was an idea for a radio play in which a group of 19th century gentlemen scientists struggle to conceive of an experiment that would suitably prove the efficacy of their new time machine. That survives in the novel in the form of Fruithandler’s demonstration with the cashew and the aventurine box. When I got the notion to expand that into a contest among the EFEF, I suddenly found myself with a forum for commenting upon phrenology, cryptozoology, and all my favorite pseudosciences.
As the plot of the story unfolded from this seed, each new scene seemed to be a goldmine for exploring a different facet of storytelling. The scene in the future allowed me to experiment with how our language may be evolving. The congregation of the Deirdres let me consider the possibility of a character literally growing tired of her own company. The explosion of the hyper-charged Whenstone gave me the opportunity for a stream-of-consciousness segment unlike anything I’d ever written before.
But if I’m honest, I think Deirdre’s escape from the Wykoff farm was probably the most satisfying section to write. I always find myself doing far more research for each of my projects than I had initially anticipated. Fact-checking one plot point inevitably leads to the discovery of half a dozen tangential bits of trivia, which in turn spawn ideas for new directions to take the story I had not considered before.
In this story, this pattern was most prevalent when I was trying to figure out how Deirdre might charge her Whenstones with only what she could find on an 18th century farm. Once I had decided on the overall plan, I needed to research what kinds of materials Deirdre would need to implement it. That in turn led to consideration of where she might find components like copper and zinc. In the end, I spent hours reading about the history of currency and coinage in pre-Revolutionary America, as well as a good deal on how batteries work.
The end result is a sequence I’m particularly happy with. Deirdre’s plan feels natural, logical, and well within the means of a twelve year-old girl. Being able to produce this kind of material, while simultaneously feeling like I’ve learned something, is exceptionally gratifying.
The characters were smart, but sometimes bumbling and humorous. What was your inspiration for creating these characters?
The first seeds for The Fruithandler Time Engine were planted during an online conversation about time travel. Someone had posited a device that could send you back to any place or time, but only as an observer. If you could not interact with anyone, but only watch events unfold around you, invisible and intangible, where and when would you go?
I suggested that this would be a good way to unravel the Ripper murders. Just post yourself in Buck’s Row on the night of August 30, 1888, and you’re bound to learn something interesting. Another participant, on the other hand, suggested that he would like to be present for the Sermon on the Mount.
I found this answer preposterous. Setting aside the question of whether the sermon actually occurred at all, and wasn’t simply a collection of material culled from other sermons, a conflation of speeches by other prophets, or invented out of whole cloth by the author of the Matthew Gospel, we’re still left with no clue as to when or where it is supposed to have taken place. Forget about the date or time; even selecting a year would be a matter of pure conjecture. And even if you stumbled upon the right location at the right time, would your grasp of ancient Aramaic really be strong enough to allow you to follow along?
This answer reminded me of a sketch from the old Ben Stiller Show, in which Janeane Garofalo played “B-Minus Time Traveler”. The premise was that Garofalo found herself shunted back into the middle of crucial historical events, with only a typical high-schooler’s understanding of what actually transpired. When she met George Washington, she could offer no better advice than that his troops would need more shoes. She tried to warn General MacArthur about the attack on Pearl Harbor, but couldn’t quite remember exactly what day it was that would live in infamy.
Without the opportunity to study rigorously for a specific place and time, a time traveler couldn’t help but do a good bit of bumbling. Transplant anyone a century or more into the past, and he is necessarily going to find himself out of his element. Even the most educated time-displaced character is going to need some time to catch up.
Besides, smart characters who are in over their head are a lot more fun to write than morons.
Alright, you have a time machine, it can only go in one direction, which way do you go; to the future or to the past?
Forward. Always forward.
Realistically speaking, there is a huge risk inherent in traveling anywhere outside your natural lifespan. Imagine finding yourself flung back even as much as a century. Does you body have any immunity to the Spanish Influenza that infected half a billion people between the World Wars, killing as much as five percent of the world’s population? What about Bubonic Plague? Whooping Cough? Scarlet Fever? The Vapors? Or any of a billion pathogens and parasites that had their day in the dank, then disappeared before anyone could think to give them names? Conversely, imagine all the nasty little hitchhikers that you’re coated with at this very moment being abruptly introduced a hundred years into the future, into a population with no defense against them. If you don’t get yourself infected with some horrid, long-forgotten ailment, even money says you’ll wipe out at least half the native population.
But even if we disregard practical concerns, I would favor seeing the future. I’ve got a fairly good grip on where we’ve been as a species, but only the vaguest notion of where we’re going. I’m not talking about the near future, of course. I’m more than content to explore the next half-century or so the old-fashioned way. Ideally, I want to know what’s going to happen in a thousand years. Or ten thousand. Or a hundred. This might be overly optimistic, I know. Set your time machine for the year 102,015, and you may very well find yourself choking on an atmosphere rich in methane or CO2. If humans still exist, they might be helpless to do anything but watch as the unfiltered sunlight boils the flesh from your bones. Or perhaps clouds of sulfuric gas are thick enough to have rendered the surface an uninhabitable ice ball. Perhaps transporting yourself to future Earth would be as instantly fatal as sending yourself to Venus.