The story you think you’re reading

Time travel stories come in different flavors. There are the “fish out of water” historical fiction or futurefic stories; alternate history “what-if” stories; and stories where the actual mechanics of the time travel are a crucial part of the plot. Most take a little from column A and a little from column B, of course. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 does hinge on time travel mechanics and does present a (brief) alternate 2011, but what really makes that book tick is its lovingly crafted descriptions of life in the late 50s and early 60s. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is weighted the same way, with the historical fiction immersion the biggest selling point (although the mechanics of time travel have become more plot relevant in the more recent books). Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book is definitely weighted toward the historical fiction side of things; Blackout and All Clear are more evenly balanced between “historical fiction” and “the sort of story that can only be told through time travel”; and To Say Nothing Of The Dog, though a delightful romp through Victorian manners and mores, definitely hinges on mechanics. And misunderstandings. Lots and lots of misunderstandings.

The sort of time travel story that prioritizes mechanics is almost by definition a story that hinges on misunderstandings and misinterpretation—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say on multiple-perspective interpretation. These are the stories that tend to show you the same scene more than once, the second time with additional context that changes its place in the story arc. Done right, that sort of perspective flip leaves the reader gutted—or barely restraining a cheer. Sometimes both. I love it when the story I think I’m reading turns out not to be the story I am actually reading.

My favorite example of this is a Star Trek episode—and it’s not even one of the franchise’s actual time travel stories. I like a bunch of those too, but at its core, Yesterday’s Enterprise is really an alternate history story. The Voyage Home is really a fish out of water story (seewhatIdidthere?). And I love them both, but not the way I love Timescape.

Timescape is a sixth season TNG episode that rarely shows up on anyone’s “best of” list. And yet. Picard, Troi, Data, and LaForge return to the Enterprise from a conference to find that A) the ship is frozen in time, having encountered a temporal anomaly wandering about, as my husband phrases it, in search of a plot to adhere to, and B) Romulans were in the process of taking over the ship when time froze. One Romulan is in Sickbay shooting Dr. Crusher, another has taken over the conn (and the conn officer lies injured on the floor), a third is looming threateningly over a fallen Commander Riker. The evidence absolutely 100% percent supports the hypothesis of a Romulan attack.

But sometimes the story you think you’re watching isn’t the story you are actually watching. When Our Heroes back time up (you know, like you do) and start it again, we see the Sickbay Romulan firing at a third-party mutual-enemy threat temporarily between him and the doctor. We see the ship shake in a distortion field, throwing the conn officer out of his seat and knocking Riker to the floor. We see the young Romulan lieutenant smoothly take over for the injured conn officer and the looming Romulan senior officer reach out a hand and help the stunned Riker to his feet. The same evidence can support more than one hypothesis, particularly when you haven’t gathered all the evidence yet.

Which also is how a well-constructed mystery works, with clues that appear to lead to one conclusion equally well supporting another, once the entire context is uncovered. And it’s how prophecy works, when prophecy is used as a story element in speculative fiction. Audience perspective is a tool you can use in branching interactive fiction as well, and oh, I do. (The same scene can be a beat in the arc where you overthrow the government, put down the rebellion, or become Jack the Ripper. Just ask Garrett Finch.) Nor is this technique confined to genre fiction; any nonlinear narrative can gut-punch the reader by suddenly providing the contextual clue that alters the reader’s entire perspective. The story you think you’re reading is often not the story you are actually reading. Time travel is just one of the more fun ways to pull that off.

And sometimes it works on the writer too. Sometimes the writer is as surprised by the story she finds herself writing as any member of her audience. Oh. That’s what this is about.

I loved Babylon 5, back in the day, among other reasons for its masterful use of prophecy and time travel. And also because the character arcs of Londo Mollari and Ambassador G’Kar are beautifully constructed even just when viewed by themselves, never mind the way they reflect and refract and amplify each other as they twine together. Londo is one of my very favorite characters. “I can’t shake the feeling,” someone wrote on a fan website back in the day, “that this whole story is really about him.”

This whole five-year ensemble-cast multi-plotted story is really about a character who doesn’t even have top billing? Really? But JMS posted to that website all the time. And didn’t say she was wrong.

I finally got traction on writing Timebound when I realized who the Keeping Time story is really about.

It’s not Elizabeth. She plays a starring role in her story, as Bilbo does in his, but The Lord of the Rings cannot correctly be described as Bilbo’s story.

It’s not Maxwell either. I thought of Timebound as “Maxwell’s story” for a long time, and it is, admittedly, largely Maxwell’s story; but it isn’t entirely Maxwell’s story, and as far as the whole story goes, Keeping Time, the trilogy and the tendrils of it that stretch before the beginning of book one and past the end of book three—it is so not Maxwell’s story. Maxwell plays one supporting role of many to the person whose story might equally well be described as a self-created epic and a long con.

You might guess who, from what I’ve just said here, by sheer process of elimination. But you haven’t been given enough clues in Timepiece or Timekeeper to logically infer. You haven’t seen the beginning of the story yet. Any of its beginnings. You’re about to become acquainted with at least three. Maybe four; it depends how you count. Timebound, weirdly enough, turns out to be a series of beginnings.

I think you’ll like it, when you see whose story this actually is. I found myself surprised and delighted in equal measure.

Sometimes the story you think you’re writing isn’t the story you’re actually writing. Sometimes that’s okay. And sometimes it’s wonderful.


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