Several years ago, as I was still developing the themes and story arc of Finding George Washington, I had lunch with a friend and told him the plot of my debut novel.
He listened to my description of the story, which starts with General Washington disappearing from the winter encampment at Valley Forge on a cold night in 1778, only to turn up at a dog park on San Francisco Bay in the summer of 2014.
“That’s not a typical time travel story,” said my friend. “Usually, people in the present are sending someone into the past, in order to change what’s already happened.”
It’s not atypical for time travel yarns to speculate about alternative realities or universes, to ask “what-if” questions and present possible answers. And that’s certainly the case here.
But in Finding George, Washington is propelled into the present, or the near present, and the drama of the story centers on the consequences of his absence from the American Revolution. This conceit does bend the rules a bit, but on the other hand … what rules? What laws of the space-time-continuum can be bent by a “scientific” concept that so far seems only grounded in fiction?
In his Theories of Relativity, Einstein speculated that time travel might be possible for an object of near-infinite mass traveling at or near the speed of light. But an object of near-infinite mass is nothing but a theoretical construct at this point in our scientific development, and speeds that fast are not attainable for “solid” objects.
“Don’t try to explain how your time travel works,” another writer admonished me. “People will just pick apart your science. Instead, focus on how it’s used and what it does.” This was great advice. I didn’t have to invent phony scientific concepts to explain time travel. I spent most of a chapter or two cobbling together a funky device to make it all happen, but I left the quantum physics and temporal displacement theories to someone else.
A professor of astronomy wrote to me recently about my book. “Of course, I’m going to argue that such a tale is impossible in reality, but I also very much enjoy such tales anyway and think time travel is a good literary device.” He openly acknowledges that there may be no place for time travel in real science, but he enjoys stories that use the concept for dramatic storytelling.
In many time travel tales, a change in the past often leads to momentous — and immediate — consequences in the present. With some exceptions. In the Back to the Future movies, Marty McFly, the Michael J. Fox character, goes back in time and learns that his very existence depends on his future parents meeting and falling in love while in high school. Marty has to go through often-hilarious machinations to make sure this happens. At several points, when events seem to be conspiring to prevent his folks from meeting, Marty notices that his own image in a precious family photograph has begun to fade. When the parents do get together, his image becomes clearer, less vague.
I loved this idea, that the consequences of changes in the past might not be sudden and immediate, but gradual and incremental. I enjoyed creating a world in transition. Washington’s absence from the past causes a slow pattern of change from the world his new friends in 2014 can still remember, devolving to an impoverished colonial backwater they would rather forget.
One more thing I had to deal with: does time travel necessarily also include geographical displacement? In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge goes backward and forward in time with the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future — at a variety of different locales in Victorian London. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the eponymous device moves its occupants through time and space. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, Hank Morgan suffers a bump on the head and wakes up in King Arthur’s England in the 5th Century. But in the contemporary novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, Henry, the protagonist, travels through time and space, often randomly, and always without his clothes.
In the world of Finding George, the temporal displacement device, a time machine, has the capability to move people through time, but not space. So I still had to find a plausible way to get George from Valley Forge to California. Did I succeed? Check it out.