Tock Tick: Why Fantasy Literature Loves to Mess with Time – Guest Post by Heather Child
Heather Child has returned to the Hive for Women in SFF with a guest post on the concept of time and how, as a theme, it crops up in fantasy literature – well, time and time again.
Heather herself played with the notion of time in her novel The Undoing of Arlo Knott:
What if your life had an ‘undo’ button?
Arlo Knott develops the mysterious ability to reverse his last action. It makes him able to experience anything, to charm any woman and impress any friend. His is a life free of mistakes, a life without regret.
But second chances aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. As wonderful as his new life is, a mistake in Arlo’s traumatic childhood still haunts him and the temptation to undo, undo and keep undoing could be too much to resist.
‘Time’ is the most commonly used noun in the English language.
We all have it to spend or lose, but never to keep. There are different grades of it – quality time to relish, bad times to endure. It is a mathematical concept, but also an inner experience.
How many books have you read in which there are repetitions, alternative timelines, loops or reversals? While researching The Undoing of Arlo Knott (in which a man develops the unusual ability to reverse his last action) I was struck by the wide range of narratives that bend time to their will, dating back to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and beyond. The subject has preoccupied writers for centuries, and, once you delve into the close, transformative relationship between time and language, you begin to see why.
We can’t see, hear or feel time, hence it has accumulated a crazy number of metaphors. Time is a thief, a trap, a teacher, a healer, a gift, a river, something that runs, or sand in an hourglass. We wrap it up in language – we’ve talked about time since the earliest stages of talking – and now it is peculiarly bound to our idioms. In some cultures it is described as a quantity (mucho tiempo), in others it is distance (good times ahead). We think of time as flowing in the same direction as written text. If someone has English as their first language and you ask them to arrange three flashcards on which ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ are written, they are almost certain to arrange them with ‘past’ on the left and ‘future’ on the right*. Other experiments have shown that we perceive time as a horizontal line (in the West, anyway – in China time is vertical). And perhaps you are one of the 20 per cent of people who actually visualise time? Does the year have a shape? Does each day of the week have a colour? One in five of us picture it, almost without thinking.
We have used language to make time more tangible, often viewing it in the same way as space – in our heads we can easily wander between past, present and future. This mismatch means it can be a shock to the system to find ourselves suddenly on the last day of a holiday, or that what’s done is done and there is no way to alter the past.
In writing The Undoing of Arlo Knott I wanted to see how a character would fare if he could undo his mistakes, live a life free of regrets. I think such narratives appeal because of the cold hard shock of reality, in which time is not some landscape to wander around but more like a surging river, with no clinging to the banks or swimming against the current. Just one shot at life – is that all we get?
Fiction is a world built of language, in which we can imagine life with our more flexible version of time and how wonderful that could be. In C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, the Pevensie children can reign as kings and queens without having missed a day of their ‘real’ lives. The characters in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, or Ken Grimwood’s Replay, or Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, or my own character Arlo Knott, can relive and alter events, for better or worse.
And sometimes it is for worse. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife is an example of time gone rogue – the protagonist’s husband has a genetic disorder that causes him to flit about within his own lifespan. Chronological chaos is also to be found in Margarita Montimore’s The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart, with the protagonist living the years of her life in a random order. Time is so restrictive in reality that any kind of shake-up is a joy to read (and to write).
For me this is yet another instance of fantasy literature magnifying something entirely authentic: our inner experiences of time. When we emerge from one of these books, we have a sense of what it might be like to live in the good bits of time, or the bad ones, or escape the claustrophobic present moment and wander freely between past and future. There is so much poignancy, longing and even tragedy clustered around our linear experience in the real world – time lost, cut short, wasted – that these narratives will always be compelling, always feel more real than they should.
* For these and other fascinating facts about time, see Claudia Hammond’s Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception.
Thank you so much Heather for joining us today!
Heather has ten custom book plates for any Fantasy Hive readers who would like a signed copy of The Undoing of Arlo Knott – contact via heather-child.co.uk or on twitter/facebook.
Heather Child lives in Bristol, UK, and her two novels Everything About You and The Undoing of Arlo Knott are published by Orbit. Alongside writing she has had an eclectic career in charity marketing and communications. You can find out more about her books at www.heather-child.co.uk or follow her on Twitter at @Heatherika1