Can We Escape from Time?

A scene from ‘The Web Planet,’ from the sci-fi television series Doctor Who, in which the Doctor and his crew travel in their time machine to the planet Vortis, home of the butterfly-like Menoptera (center), the ant-like Zarbi (right), and the Zarbi’s woodlouse-like Larvae Gun (left), 1965
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A scene from ‘The Web Planet,’ from the sci-fi television series Doctor Who, in which the Doctor and his crew travel in their time machine to the planet Vortis, home of the butterfly-like Menoptera (center), the ant-like Zarbi (right), and the Zarbi’s woodlouse-like Larvae Gun (left), 1965

Thanks to Joseph Campbell and his many acolytes in the world of screenwriting instruction and story analysis, we have grown used to the idea that stories are based not just on archetypes, but on one specific archetype. It’s known as the “hero’s journey” or the “monomyth”: a hero undertakes a quest through an uncanny land full of magic and danger and returns transformed and victorious. The monomyth has exerted a great deal of force in the world of Hollywood.

Too much force, perhaps. It sometimes seems the culture has forgotten that while narrative archetypes are potent, part of the point of telling stories is to make up creatures and characters that are new. We might all be thoroughly sick of stories about vampires and zombies and schools for wizards and emotionally damaged omniscient detectives, but the fact is that when readers first met them, the inventions of Bram Stoker and George Romero and Ursula K. LeGuin and Arthur Conan Doyle were thrilling and strange and daringly original.

Now, there’s a pleasure in the imaginative worlds that build up around the different versions of imaginary beings; the encrusted lore, so similar to the ancient myths, that accumulates and enriches their fictional worlds. It’s fun to compare Stoker’s Dracula with Anne Rice’s vampires, Max Schreck’s Nosferatu with Robert Pattison’s Edward Cullen; entertaining to wonder who invented the thing about vampires being invisible in mirrors (Stoker), sensitive to garlic and crucifixes (not Stoker), or unable to cross a threshold unless invited (again, not Stoker).

The extended franchise worlds of Marvel and DC Comics are a ruthlessly commodified way of experiencing the same pleasure. A keen consumer of contemporary mass culture has many opportunities to indulge in this feeling of marinating in an imaginative canon. (My fourteen-year-old son and his friends use the word “canon” more often than literature Ph.D.s.) What we don’t have enough of, however, is the genuinely new. More new stories! Give us more things that are as sexy and unpredictable and new as the first vampire, the first werewolf! Is that too much to ask?

James Gleick’s illuminating and entertaining Time Travel is about one of these once-new stories. We have grown very used to the idea of time travel, as explored and exploited in so many…


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