Literary time travels

With Time as the theme of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Ben East considers its relevance throughout literature, from One Hundred Years Of Solitude’s cyclicality to the time-hopping adventures of Cloud Atlas

As a theme for the forthcoming Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature in Dubai, Time seems almost impossibly broad. After all, as Shakespeare – whose works play a significant part in this year’s festival – wrote in Henry VI, Part 2: “we are time’s subjects”. In fact, it’s arguable that all fiction is about time in some sense, whether that be times past, the contemporary world, or even the future.

The most explicit way in which the festival explores its theme, however, is at the Time Travel dinner, where authors Anthony Horowitz, Michael Dobbs and Suhel Seth explore HG Wells’ succinct idea that “we all have our time machines... those that take us back are memories, and those that carry us forward are dreams.” 

With his 1895 novel The Time Machine, Wells essentially invented the concept of not just time travel but science fiction as a popular medium for storytelling. Without Wells, there is probably no Doctor Who, no Star Wars, no Blade Runner. And yet the most interesting facet of Wells’ work – in fact, all successful science fiction – is that The Time Machine (and later, The War Of The Worlds) isn’t a mere flight of future fancy. It’s actually a complex study of deeply human fears: the end of life as we know it. The end, indeed, of Time.

Some of our most interesting contemporary writers grapple with the concept of time, too. David Mitchell – who appeared at the festival last year – is a novelist whose exciting time-hopping adventures Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks sweep from centuries past into future decades. In 2014, he asked himself the question at the heart of many a novelist’s concerns about the nature of epic storytelling.

We all have our time machines... those that take us back are memories, and those that carry us forward are dreams

HG Wells, The Time Machine

“How to immerse oneself in the moment-to-moment nature of a time and place you’ve never personally experienced – and perhaps cannot?”, he pondered. Mitchell’s answer, which underpins all his writing, was to concentrate on the specifics of what a particular generation might take for granted. “That allows me to examine change and permanence,” he explained. Or, put another way, he could investigate how time often appears to have a pace all of its own. How often, after all, do we hear how quickly the world is supposedly changing?

On the other hand, the title alone of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s most famous novel, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, suggested life as a slow, painful process to be endured. But its main focus, as generations of the Buendía family struggle to escape their fates - is actually time’s cyclical and repetitive nature.

Time as a reminder of permanence rather than simply the past is something Steven Berkoff also investigates in his Shakespeare’s Villains show at the Festival: he argues that the Bard’s effortlessly human language and imagery actually transcends time and allows for a connection across the centuries. The cyclical nature of time in Shakespeare is manifest in characters whose motivations are no different from our own, 400 years later.

Pondering the nature of time, then, has exercised our finest writers for centuries. And perhaps making time to enjoy reading itself is the best by-product of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature’s fascinating theme.