Updated: Jan 26
Yeah, yeah, we are all time travelers in our personal journeys to the future, blah blah blah. Let’s forget about our aging process and think about the fantastical, shall we?
Time travel is my favorite trope ever! It can be so dynamic and gripping and simply fun. To prove this point, I compiled a list of ten creative mechanisms to time travel we often find in fictional stories. And I paired them with some neat recommendations for you.
So buckle up! Let’s journey through time.
Before we continue, try to think of some and let me know how many of those you got right.
#1 Time Machines
There’s no way this list would start differently. Is there a more iconic way to time travel than using a machine? I don’t think so. Time machines can come in all sizes and shapes, be it phone booths or DeLoreans.
Of course, the top recommendation for this entry could be none other than The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells, the story that made the term “time machine” famous.
#2 Speed: time is relative
At this point, you are most likely familiar with Einstein’s theory of special relativity. It says that time and space can suffer a dilation (or contraction) depending on how fast you move. The best illustration of this fact is the so-called twin paradox. One twin sibling that goes off and back on a high-speed space journey will be younger than the sibling who remained on Earth when (if) they reunite.
This is to say that running with a velocity near the speed of light can be a neat way to travel to the future, although the journey would not be instant. Knowing this, we could ask ourselves, what would happen if we could run above the speed of light? Could we travel to the past? Well, fiction writers surely think so.
The best example of this trope is the famous scene of the 1978 movie Superman. The superhero speed flies around the Earth counter-rotationally to reverse time and save Louis. Wait, was it a spoiler? Oops.
So here is another mechanism borrowed from the abstraction of theoretical astrophysics. A wormhole is, in theory, a shortcut to a distant point of the universe, and it drastically reduces the time needed to complete the journey. Thus, one could think of going through it as time traveling. Naturally, fiction can extrapolate this concept to view a wormhole as an effective time portal, with openings to the future and the past.
Recently, an over-the-top but entertaining movie used this structure to justify the time travel in the story. The Tomorrow War is a movie in which it is easier to build a wormhole to time travel to the past than to synthesize a toxin to kill an alien species. It’s super silly. I loved it!
Speaking of portals…
Yes, portals are a great way to travel in time! It is a window to the past, present, or future, and usually, one can cross it without any trouble. Think of Rick’s plasma portals (no matter how taboo he thinks time-travel stuff is) or Dr. Strange’s magical ones.
However, my recommendation for you today is the first short story in Ted Chiang’s second collection. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is fantastic! As are the other stories in Exhalation.
#5 It’s quantum!
The quantum explanation for intricate stuff is slowly becoming a tiring trope. If you don’t get it, pretend it’s quantum physics, and all is good. Bo-ring! says the one writing a story in which quantum theory explains time travel (I’m a physicist, leave me alone!). Of course, I still think it could be done well with the same probability that it has the potential to become a disaster. This is Schrödinger’s entry: quantum time travel is great and horrible at the same time. You have to read it to find out which one it is.
Or watch it. I thought Avengers Endgame used this mechanism reasonably well. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers, but really? Haven’t you watched it yet?
#6 It’s magic!
Magic and quantum explanation can often be interchanged in most stories. The difference is that magic gives a more fantastical vibe to the story. It may be a good way to avoid all of the paradoxes science-based time travel creates.
For those with kids, I have an excellent recommendation for your child. The Triplets is a Catalonian cartoon that tells the history of three sisters, Ana, Teresa, and Helena (or Annie, Tessa, and Nellie), and their shenanigans with the Bored Witch. She often sends the sisters to the past to teach them a lesson. I used to love it as a child.
#7 It’s genetic!
A race of time travelers--people with the power to travel through time because they were born with the right genes. I haven’t read it yet, but I think this is the setup of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. It’s on my TBR.
About Time is a super-heartwarming movie based on this premise. Its main character is from a family in which the male individuals have the power of time traveling. If you are into romance, I highly recommend this movie! It is so underrated.
#8 Body exchange
Think Freaky Friday but in time. Two characters from different eras swapping bodies and living the lives of the other. It can spawn amusing situations since the characters are, technically, not them, nor in their timeline. To make things worse, another person is living their lives in their place.
Unfortunately, the best recommendation for a story where this happens would be a huge spoiler. Hint: it’s an animation (click it at your own risk).
#9 Mind transmission
In a sense, it is similar to the last entry but without the swapping part. A conscience is uploaded to a body from a different era. So it’s not your body that travels in time, but your mind. If you stretch this concept a little, you could think of The Matrix this way, although the “different era” in there was a simulation.
This “body” could be a younger version of the character, like it happens in X-Men: Days of Future Past, or to the body of a complete stranger, like in Source Code. This last one, I highly recommend!
#10 It fits the plot
Why bother explaining? If the story is compelling enough, then the mystery around the precise mechanism that allowed the time travel might be unnecessary. Don’t you believe me when I say it could be done well? Just read Kindred, then, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
That’s it for today, folks!
How many of those did you guess beforehand? Were there any mechanisms you thought that I did not include on this list? Let me know in the comments, and drop your recommendations for time-travel stories there as well. I want to read/watch them all.
See you next post,
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.