Back when I had a literary agent sending my work out to major publishers, we ran into a little problem–editors at the major publishing houses didn’t know how to categorize my books, especially Take Back Tomorrow. It’s science fiction, a time travel novel set in 1940 Los Angeles. But it’s also a mystery, as the protagonist has to figure out the secret that an older, somewhat mysterious character has been harboring. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that the secret involves traveling through time, but then the mystery deepens as the protagonist has to figure out what to do with the information he’s uncovered and how he can use it to save his own skin once he realizes the first time traveler has gotten him into some pretty serious trouble through his shenanigans.
So it is science fiction or mystery? A recent review wondered the same thing. Granted, the explanation for time travel in the book is based on things other than science, but then you could say the same thing about most time travel stories. H.G. Wells had his Time Traveler go into a discussion of time as the fourth dimension and theories about moving through that dimension as easily as we move through other dimensions, but as to the workings of his time machine…not very specific. Other writers have taken various stabs at it, some more science-based than others. In Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, both excellent time travel books, there is simply reference to the “net” that enables time travel and not much more explanation (if she’s gone into more explanation in her later books in the series, forgive me; I haven’t read them yet). And those plots work because of the authors’ ability to get readers to suspend their disbelief. The characters are strong enough and their dilemmas complex enough to get us to look beyond the questionable science.
But are these books science fiction? I’ve often thought that most time travel plots are more fantasy than science fiction since there’s not much real-world science to support the idea that time travel is possible. And if time travel is questionable, then what about alternate histories? They’re a great source of What If? stories, but are they truly science fiction? It depends on how you define the genre. Must science be integral to the plot? Or is it better defined as the “literarture of change” as James Gunn and the Center for Science Fiction Studies has argued? These sorts of questions have led many to argue that we’re dealing with speculative fiction rather than science fiction.
I take the position that time travel novels and alternate histories are, in fact, science fiction simply because of the possibilities suggested by quantum physics and theories of multiple universes branching off of each other. This is something I tried addressing in Take Back Tomorrow, but phrased in the characters’ 1940 way of thinking.
I think I pulled it off successfully without getting bogged down in time travel paradoxes that seem to turn a lot of readers off. Most readers who talked to me about it have agreed, but I’m curious to hear from others. I’d welcome your thoughts, on the book if you’ve read it, or on the overall subject of time travel in science fiction.