It’s hard to write a time-travel story without it turning into a metaphor for something. The past and the future are too pregnant with meaning; too tied into what we are. The immutability of the past doesn’t prevent us from obsessing over it. The uncertainty of the future doesn’t discourage us from trying to fix it securely. We, perhaps alone amongst the animals, live and breathe time.
No surprise, then, that some version of this well-worn speculative device has made so many literary appearances across and between genre lines. Writers from Mark Twain to Kurt Vonnegut to T.H. White have put their spin on it. Back when I used to dabble in short fiction, I revisited this basic premise no less than four times. One of these variations on the theme was published — in an anthology of time-travel stories.
Robert Charles Wilson’s novel A Bridge of Years, recently reissued by Tor, is one more entry in this grand tradition, and one more unique twist on it. In it, Tom Winter, retreating from a failed marriage and stalled career, moves to a quiet cabin in the Pacific Northwest. He is at a crossroads — or perhaps the word is impasse; his future seems to have dead-ended. Then he discovers the escape hatch from his life: a tunnel in his basement that leads to New York City, circa 1962.
It sounds at first blush a little like 11/22/63, Stephen King’s recent time-travel novel, which has been receiving a lot of attention beyond his usual readers. Or perhaps Woody Allen’s light-hearted Oscar nominee, Midnight in Paris. A Bridge of Years, which predates these 2011 releases by a good two decades, is a darker variation on the same theme as Allen’s film, while the tone and atmosphere does bear a passing resemblance to King’s style, something I wouldn’t say about any of Wilson’s other works. But this story of pain and the quirks of causality is still something altogether different.
Where King focused much more on the protagonist’s efforts to set right a world gone wrong (by preventing JFK’s assassination), Wilson is more interested in the personal. His Tom Winter is a man literally afraid of his future, in the very practical sense many of us might relate to. He had a plan laid out, a happily-ever-after, before things went sour. Larger concerns of the present day — endless bad news on global politics and the environment — simply mirror the basic concern of his life: the worry that nothing will ever get better, only worse.
The immediate problem with escaping into the past is that there is a proper proprietor for this tunnel through time, and the very fact that Tom found it unguarded — indeed abandoned and quite damaged — suggests frightening forces at work which he cannot hope to comprehend. We learn before he does that a monster from a not-so-distant century is on the move. But the deeper problem with his plan is that the idyll of a more innocent past just doesn’t exist.
Yet one can appreciate his temptation. With the gift of hindsight, a time-traveller has a perspective on an earlier decade its temporal natives lack. The early 1960s were a turbulent time, but also exciting, optimistic, and meaningful. Through the inevitability of history, Tom perhaps can feel a sense of destiny and purpose in experiencing these events that is lacking in his present-day life. And if the world truly is trending downward, as he believes, the existence of an earlier, better world seems a natural corollary of that theory.
So Tom Winter lives a while in the era of Bob Dylan and MLK. He falls in love with a folk singer, gets a job fixing radios (with vacuum tubes, no less). All the while he’s thinking to himself that this electronic component will be banned by the EPA in ten years because of heavy metals, he’d better wear gloves; and that protest march is going to go sour, best to stay out of it. He’s living in this place but not really of it. It’s all happened already. He’s walking among ghosts.
In some ways this novel reminded me of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — even though I think of Charles Yu’s novel as not quite a story so much as an extended allegory; less science fictional than meta-fictional.
It’s natural to become introspective on some of the questions both novelists raise, even implicitly. Wilson keeps this introspection grounded in the story, where Yu takes the ball and runs with it, going through the motions of plot while being clearly more interested in extended philosophical dialogues. Still, both authors go to the same emotional place: The desire to literally escape, or even reverse one’s life is something many of us may have experienced at some point.
Time travel tales stretching back to H.G. Wells’s Time Machine have shown us that all things eventually come to an end. Things fall apart. In the long run, there’s no circumventing the third law of thermodynamics. Wilson’s hints at the societal origins of 22nd-century marauders and a far-future post-humanity reflect this basic truth; but it’s Tom’s struggle with this lesson in examining the past and future of his own life that lies at the heart of this novel. Our lives are merely brief flickers of existence in a slowly decaying world. Once we accept this, Wilson’s novel asks, what do we do with the time available to us?
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.