You’d be hard pressed to find a person on the planet who doesn’t love a good time travel story. To travel through time, either forward or backward, is one of mankind’s great dreams. But as things stand now, time travel unfortunately appears far from possible within our lifetimes—even with Virgin Galactic on the horizon, the thought of a Virgin Temporal sounds preposterous.
We’ll just have to keep glutting our time travel desires with stories for now, and thanks to the editorial work of husband-and-wife team Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, we have the perfect book to devour. Clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, The Time Traveler’s Almanac includes time travel stories from dozens of authors. It’s a veritable history of the genre, in addition to being a rollicking good read. Paste chatted with Hugo Award-winning editor Ann VanderMeer about her work on the Almanac, the elements of a good story and the ethics of time travel.
Paste: What prompted the idea for The Time Traveler’s Almanac?
VanderMeer: My husband and I had completed editing The Weird, another large anthology spanning more than 100 years of weird fiction from all around the world and weighing in at over 1,200 pages. The Weird was a great experience and I am very proud of what we accomplished, but it was a very dark book. Since we don’t like to repeat ourselves, we were ready for something completely different. We loved the idea of an almanac for time travelers. And after looking over the previous anthologies with the same theme, we noticed that so many of them were very conservative. We knew we could bring a new slant to this popular sub-genre with new voices and different ideas.
Jeff and Ann VanderMeer
Paste Why has this sci-fi motif stood the test of time?
VanderMeer: Human beings are a curious species. We ask a lot of questions, and we seek answers to everything around us. We want to know how the world works. We look up into the sky and wonder at our own existence. Science fiction is a way for us to answer some of these questions—a way to experiment. The imagination of a writer gives us the opportunity to explore possible futures and new worlds and see how they make sense in our lives. I don’t think we’ll ever stop seeking answers, and with every answer we get, there will come more questions, of course! Most of us are interested in at least a glimpse of the future, right?
And time travel fiction speaks to questions beyond our own personal lives. Our curiosity demands that we investigate what happened in the past. Look how popular genealogy searches are today. So many people want to know about their ancestors and where they came from in order to better understand where they are going. And there’s huge nostalgia for the past—even if that past is only a few years ago. There is a desire to go back into the past and fix something—warn someone. How often do you say to yourself, “I should have done this, I should have said that?” And we want a do-over. Or we want to relive a fond memory. This goes well beyond the typical science fiction fan. Time travel, in all its guises, appeals to our human nature.
Paste: What are the elements of a good time travel story?
VanderMeer: A good time travel story will have the same qualities of any good story, such as good writing, a compelling plot and interesting characters. As for time travel—the story itself must engage the element of time travel or play with time in some manner. This can’t just be a small fragment of the story, but a central part without which the story would fail. A bad story is poorly written, all-too-familiar and does not engage the reader. A bad story may also be a rehash of some movie or TV show. I am often saddened to see how many stories are inspired by television rather than by life.
Paste: In compiling the stories for the collection, did you find any author’s thoughts on time travel more compelling and believable than others?
VanderMeer: What I found was that there are so many different ways to approach time travel. So often when we think about this, we envision some kind of machine or conveyance in which to travel through time. After delving into these stories, I learned there are so many different ways to travel through time. You would think that time travel via the Devil isn’t plausible, and yet, Max Beerbohm makes it totally believable (as well as highly amusing).
Paste: Do you have any favorite stories in the collection?
VanderMeer: Gosh, do I have a favorite? They’re all my favorites for different reasons. I love the history behind Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and how it birthed the popular phrase “the butterfly effect.” I love the quirkiness and humor behind Douglas Adams’ “Young Zaphod Plays It Safe.” David Masson’s story “Traveller’s Rest” is one of the most unique stories I’ve ever read, and every time I read it I see something new in it. I love the father-daughter relationship behind “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” by Alice Sola Kim. The surrealism in Joe Lansdale’s “Fish Night,” the twists and turns in Tanith Lee’s space story “As Time Goes By.” Karin Tidbeck’s semi-fairytale “Augusta Prima,” and Langdon Jones’ commentary on life in “The Great Clock.” Tony Pi’s inclusion of linguistics in “Come-From-Aways.” It would be easier to tell you why I love each story instead of selecting favorites. They each do something different to me. And now I am inspired to write this all down—listing all the reasons I love each story (another project for another day).
Paste: After compiling such a huge collection of stories on this theme, do you think there are still original things to be said and stories to be told about this topic?
VanderMeer: Absolutely. There are so many other great time travel stories out there—if only this book could have been bigger! But seriously, every editor has to make decisions when curating an anthology. All the stories have to play well together, so there are great stories that didn’t fit for one reason or another. Also, not all stories are available to us due to various reasons, so I cringe when readers and reviewers blast us for not selecting so-and-so. There is only so much time and space…
As for new, original stories—of course! Perhaps this anthology will even inspire other writers to tackle the subject. It will never get old, and a great writer can bring new life to any familiar idea.
Paste: Should time travel ever become possible, do you think it would be ethical or advisable given what all of these stories teach us about it?
VanderMeer: We are already in the process of building a time machine (truth!). The science is there and the scientists are doing it. What this will mean, I don’t know. But one thing I learned in my research on the subject is that time travel to the past won’t be possible—at least as far as we know today. You can’t travel back past the time the machine existed.
And we are already traveling into space, even though there are many, many stories that caution us against that, too. Won’t stop us, because as I said before, we’re a curious bunch and we’ve just got to know.
Paste: Do you have plans for any similar projects in the future?
VanderMeer: Surprisingly enough, someone joked with me just the other day that our next mega-anthology should be 3,000 pages of The Normal! This made me laugh, and then I started to think about it (always a dangerous notion). What would a book like this look like? What stories would fit—how can I present it and make people want to read it? I am still thinking about it—although probably not 3,000 pages, ha!
My husband and I do have a dream project—still working out the specific details. The short answer is a World Fantasy anthology that spans at least 100 years. We’re thinking it would have to be at least two volumes. This is a project near and dear to my heart.