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Now that I do honours, I get to write essays about time travel and stuff :3


When David Antin was asked to define narrative, he made a distinction between narrative and story: “story as the diegetic function, the articulation of the sequence of events and parts of events that shape a significant transformation, and narrative as the mimetic representation of a desiring subject confronting a transformation that he or she attempts to bring about or prevent or both.” Whether this is an effective nomenclature or it is sufficient to refer to diegetic and mimetic narrative, it is crucial to an understanding of time in fiction, particularly fiction with a non-standard approach to time, to take note of that separation between sequence and subjectivity. Time can be manipulated in either realm separately or together – in the diegetic by relating the plot of the story out of sequence with its chronology, and in the mimetic by changing the order of cause and effect for the subject.


Time is a difficult concept to understand, and as such has traditionally fallen into two philosophical domains: that of Science and that of Religion. In fiction, I believe these domains correspond most effectively to the literary genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy respectively. Just as religious or spiritual attempts to grapple with the concept of time are much older than the more mathematical approach of science, the genre of fantasy is far older than that of science fiction, tracing its origins back to the oldest myths and legends in the historical record. In religion and mythology, speculation on the nature of time often revolves around the concept of prophecy – foretelling the future. Accordingly, prophecy and predestination are also common tropes in the fantasy genre. In science fiction, the focus is instead the idea of time travel – physically defying the inexplicably unidirectional arrow of time, and generally as a side-effect dispensing with the concept of entropy. These genres are, of course, not impermeable. Robert Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) uses the traditionally science-fictional concept of alternate universes in a fantasy story about gods, devils and a distinctly religious apocalypse. And a number of stories blend the two by positing time travel as the means by which prophecy is created. Prophecy is, after all, only a form of time travel in which information is all that is sent back. Of course, not all of these stories are considered experimental. However, a surprisingly large number of science fiction stories in particular do use nonstandard ideas of time in their story or narrative, even those written before the present flowering of interest in science fiction as “real” literature.


When adjusting the time variable in experimental fiction, several different subversions of the classic beginning-middle-end story are common (insofar as their becoming common does not remove the work from the experimental category. The idea of beginning a story in medias res and the idea of flashbacks, for example, have already been assimilated into the mainstream sufficiently to disqualify them; other borderline techniques can be disputed). One involves constructing the story in reverse order from that which the audience expects – beginning at the end, such as in the film Memento (2000), a complex meditation on the nature of memory and revenge, which uses the conceit of its protagonist’s retrograde amnesia to tell the story backwards in five minute increments. This takes advantage of our tendency to mentally fill in the events that may have occurred prior to a scene to misdirect the audience, creating the same kind of suspense over the information contained in the story’s beginning as traditional narrative does for the story’s end. Unlike a traditional forward motion of narrative time, where speculation is contained by self-consciousness as the viewer explicitly considers various possibilities for the ending in a similar process to the prediction of events in real life, the audience may be entirely unaware of the preconceptions they have formed about the story’s beginning. The film’s structure thus creates a parallel with the way the human brain processes memories of the past even in the absence of any pathology – memories are constantly revised using new context, but people are rarely aware that this has occurred. (Schacter, 2001)


Besides tampering with the time variable in the diegetic structure of the narrative, which is equally plausible inside and outside the genre, it is also possible in science fiction to create paradox or complexity in the cause-and-effect chain of the mimetic narrative. Robert Heinlein’s short story “-All You Zombies-“ (1958)[1] is a compact and interesting example of this. In it, a time-travel agent posing as a bar-tender listens to a young man’s story of growing up female, becoming pregnant and discovering post-caesarean that sie was actually intersex, and had now been reassigned to the male sex by hir doctors. The time-traveller recruits the young man and takes him back in time, where he seduces his then-female younger self. The time-traveller then reveals himself to be an older version of the other man, who, by facilitating the paradoxical pregnancy and removing the newborn baby into the past so it could grow up to be its mother and, later, father is a human uncoupled from history – his life is an ontological paradox, like the Ouroboros ring he wears: “the Snake That Eats Its Own Tail, Forever and Ever. I know where I came from—but where did all you zombies come from?” Thus Heinlein not only reveals in his narrative a causal loop, but calls into question the assumed normativity of a life lived in the usual chronological form: with a DNA sequence stretching backward into the unknown mists of time, where religion posits an improbable divine First Cause and science provides multiple competing theories derived largely from esoteric mathematical formulae. The predestination paradox appears in many time travel stories whether science fiction or fantasy (one of the earliest and most well-known is Oedipus Rex), but perhaps none so concisely embody it as “-All You Zombies-“ does. A story with such mimetic time entanglement defies attempts at classification in the diegetic. From our perspective as non-time-travellers, the plot sequence is highly irregular. From the perspective of the point of view character, it is a linear story – but of course, all the other main characters are simply other versions of the point of view character, and their narrative isn’t linear at all. Interestingly enough, Heinlein chooses to begin his tale at the moment when the character becomes the agent of his own ontology – all younger versions are being manipulated by the older version whose eyes we see through.


Another speculative fiction trope that disrupts a conventional understanding of cause and effect is the reversal of the arrow of time. Unlike Memento, in which the fictional events happen in one chronological order but are structured so as to present us with information in the reverse order, science fiction and fantasy have resulted in several interesting variations on the concept of time either literally rewinding, or being experienced by different people in different directions. A classic example of the latter is T. H. White’s books about the King Arthur mythos, in which the wizard Merlin ages backward so that when Arthur first meets him he is old and wise and knows everything that’s going to happen (has, for him, already happened) but gradually grows younger and more foolish throughout the story. A similar invention is incorporated into the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons (1989-1997), in which quasi-mythical monster/anti-hero The Shrike and the temple it inhabits are revealed to travel backward in time, as does the daughter of one of the main characters. This series is unique in incorporating both actual time travel (in the form of stepping out of one era and into another through a portal AND in the form of experiencing time backwards) and pseudo-time travel, in which characters are transported into a perfect replica of a historical period (on two separate occasions, each resulting in a different clone of John Keats dying of tuberculosis). This juxtaposition highlights a seldom-examined link between the idea of predestination as embodied by a closed time-like loop and the idea of predestination as a narratively satisfying pattern. There is nothing special about Keats’ death in an objective sense, nothing like Heinlein’s story requiring certain events to take place for a causal loop to be stable, but Simmons seems to suggest that its narrative gravity, its cultural place as a Tragic Ending, performs the same function, making it an inevitable occurrence given a setting that calls to mind the real death of Keats. This equation of narrative destiny with causative destiny is particularly interesting on a metafictional level. After all, the book we begin to read is already written. Within the confines of fiction, everything is predestined, we simply do not know what that destiny is until we have read it. When Simmons writes and rewrites the death of Keats, he does not imply that that death was truly inevitable in every possible universe, but rather narratively anchors his text in the work of Keats, whose own unfinished Hyperion Cantos was one of Simmons’ inspirations, by literally invoking the death of the author amidst his reuse and reimagining of Keats’ ideas and work. By extrapolation, the causal predestination in the story should also be read less as a logical pattern and more as a narrative one.


A more global application of time rewound can be found in Kelly Link’s short story Lull (2002). Like Simmons, Link makes use of the story-within-a-story convention – in this case the nesting doll structure, with her signature twist of having characters read a story about characters who tell a story about the original characters. These recursive nesting dolls may or may not represent a psychological breakdown instead of a literal storytelling sequence, or it may in fact be both, in the grand tradition of magical realism. In Lull, a group of suburban husbands plays poker and listens to palindromic music before calling up an unusual sex chat line, the operator of which tells them a story about a cheerleader telling the Devil a story about one of the original men, Ed, and his wife’s attempts to contact aliens in order to resurrect her dead brother. The cheerleader lives in a world where time flows backwards, having reached the Big Crunch and turned around to go back to the beginning. People come back from the dead, live their lives backward and eventually de-age to their birth.

“What about your children?” the Devil says. “Do you wonder where they went when the doctor pushed them back up inside you? Do you have dreams about them?”

“Yes,” the cheerleader says. “Everything gets smaller. I’m afraid of that.”

Unlike Memento, where the time variable is manipulated only diegetically, or “-All You Zombies-” where the focus is on mimetic time, Lull combines the two and aligns them in the story structure. The flow of time in the story mirrors that Big Bang – Big Crunch – Big Bang pattern, by moving forward in the first nesting doll, backward in the second and then forward again. This also parallels the palindromic music cassette (contributed by a character named Stan, surely not by coincidence) in the first act, which itself ties in to the Devil’s involvement in the second act through the old urban legend about Satanic messages encoded backwards in pop music. Like Heinlein’s Ouroboros, Link’s story chases its tail in numerous iterations, each contributing more than the sum of its parts to the interweaving themes of regret, grief and the immutability of time, upon which regret is dependent. And after all of the winding and rewinding of time, it ends with an implication of time standing still – the titular lull.


The methods with which experimental fiction can mess with time are many and varied, but it seems conclusive that speculative fiction is uniquely positioned to play with this concept, if only because the conventions of the genre provide an existing framework for the suspension of disbelief regarding the introduction of time travel in the first place, allowing authors to focus on the narrative and structural consequences of their chosen variant thereof. Whether purely diegetic, purely mimetic, or some combination of the two, a non-traditional interpretation of Time can be manipulated for effect in many ways. Major redefinitions of time have the advantage of not being reliant on artificial novelty – many once-experimental techniques only caught by surprise the audience too accustomed to fiction in a different paradigm, but human consciousness is uniquely rooted in a past-to-future framework of time, which serves the dual function of keeping a future-to-past or temporally uncertain story strange and counter-intuitive, and of keeping such stories rare enough never to completely become mainstream.



Antin, D. 2004, Talking Narrative: A Conversation with David Antin, Narrative magazine (ed. Brian McHale)

Heinlein, R. 1958, “-All You Zombies-“, first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, currently available at

Link, K. 2002, Lull, first published in Conjunctions magazine, currently available at

Memento 2000, motion picture, Summit Entertainment

Schacter, D. 2001, The Seven Sins of Memory, Houghton Mifflin

Simmons, D. 1989-1997, Hyperion Cantos, Doubleday

[1] Note that the quotation marks and dashes are part of the title, which quotes the narrator’s musings near the end of the story, mimicking the narrative loop.

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