[(essay date July 1987) In the following essay, Hollinger explores aspects of time travel in literature, contending that The Time Machine achieves an ironic deconstruction of Victorian scientific positivism.]
Time is, of all modes of existence, most obsequious to the imagination. ...--Samuel Johnson
The idea of time travel has for many years exercised the ingenuity not only of SF writers, but of scientists and philosophers as well; neither the equations of quantum physics nor the rules of logic have managed definitively to prove or to disprove the possibility that this most paradoxical of SF concepts may some day be realized.2 The purpose of this present essay is to examine some aspects of time travel within the framework of Derridean deconstruction, since, as I hope to demonstrate, the time-travel story always achieves a deconstruction of certain received ideas about the nature and structure of time. It may be that deconstructive activity of some kind is characteristic of all SF, in which case this present application of post-structuralist critical theory may serve to suggest new approaches to other SF motifs. The final two sections of this essay focus in detail upon H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), the novella which first applied technology to time travel and which remains the most influential time-travel story ever written. Anticipating post-structuralist strategies by a good many years, The Time Machine accomplishes its own ironic deconstruction of Victorian scientific positivism, couched in the very language of the system which it sets out to undermine. And this, as I will discuss below, is the very essence of the deconstructive enterprise.
1. Time travel is a sign without a referent, a linguistic construction originating in the metaphorical spatialization of temporality. As Mark Rose observes, "the visualization of time as a line generated the idea of time travel" (p. 108). To write about time travel, therefore, is necessarily to have performed a kind of reading, to have interpreted time in order to structure it as the "space" through which a traveller can undertake a journey. As linguistic construction, time travel is never "true," but its very status as pure sign gives rise to one of its most valuable functions within the SF genre: the time-travel story provides literary metaphors of our ideas about the nature of time; it is a means of working out the logical (and the not-so-logical) implications of our interpretations of this most nebulous aspect of human experience.
As in all SF, the relationship in time-travel stories between narrative event and empirical reality can be characterized as either analogical or extrapolative. The analogical tendency is exhibited, for example, in James Tiptree, Jr's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976), in which time travel is used both to literalize Tiptree's critique of contemporary sexual chauvinism and to demystify the signifying coerciveness of concepts such as "feminine" and "masculine." Her fictional future is relatively discontinuous with contemporary reality. At the other end of the spectrum, a novel like Gregory Benford's Timescape (1980) emphasizes the interrelationships among present, past, and...