Imagine you could go back in time and have a drink with a younger version of your wife. Would it be cheating? What if you went back to the apartment you share? Would it be a betrayal? How do you think the younger version of your wife would feel if she knew?
The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas asks this question, along with many others. In 1967 four women scientists invent a machine that can transport them through time, but only as far back as the creation of the machine and only as far forward as its destruction. What results is a novel about the psychological and social consequences of time travel; how it affects the families of those who can travel in time and how it affects the relationship the travellers have with themselves.
One woman visits her own wedding day again and again, filling the crowd with slightly aged versions of herself. Another turns to conceptual art – re-sewing her own baby blanket to include the anticipated date of her death and painting a self-portrait in reverse, travelling back an hour at a time to work on it.
At the centre of the novel, surrounded by a murder mystery, is a love story between two women that asks what responsibility we have to those we love and how much we can, and should, meddle with the past. From a feminist perspective it’s also immensely satisfying that the inventors of time travel are four women scientists and that it stays, more or less, in their control (or at least the control of the systems they’ve built).
Mental health is also very sensitively explored in the novel. One of the time travel machine inventors suffers a breakdown on the eve of the technology’s unveiling. The aftereffects ripple throughout the novel, with the incident directly influencing one character’s hiring decisions for generations of time travellers – a rare example of prejudice in action.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer also uses time travel to explore interpersonal relationships. The protagonist, Greta, finds herself with the ability to travel between three versions of her life. Grieving the loss of her brother to AIDs, she is reintroduced to him as a closeted dandy.
Other time travel novels of note include Tentacle by Rita Indiana, where a transgender man is tasked with saving all life in the oceans, and Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, where a young African-American woman finds herself pulled back in time to a pre-Civil War plantation by her white ancestor. All these novels explore the tension between the responsibility we have to our kin and the responsibility we have to ourselves – and help us confront what might be a major issue in the future, the psychological effects of time travel.
Words: Ana Hine