Well, Einstein messed everything up with the concept of spacetime, but it’s taken decades for the fictional consequences to take hold. There’s been a paradigm shift in recent years, and not just in science fiction. I believe we have moved from a fictional obsession with space travel to a new fascination with time travel.
Granted, H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine ages ago, but if you do a quick brainscan of iconic sci-fi books and movies in the half century after the Theory of Relativity, we’re talking rocket ships, space operas, and aliens. Think of The Martian Chronicles, the Foundation or Dune series, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Wars. That’s takes us into the 1970s.
But sometime after Dr. Who gained traction (the 7th Doctor?), weavers of stories looked up from the glut of alien worlds they had colonized, and must have felt a strange attraction to traveling through Time. After all, you can still go to a new place if you time travel. And with the new post-Einsteinian physics, there were some awfully interesting things you could play around with; time machines were actually becoming plausible.
Around the new millennium, appropriately enough, things went beyond Back to the Future, Timequake, and The Terminator. Time travel began to show up everywhere. Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, a YA fantasy, used a brilliant time-jumping device. A literary romance, The Time Traveler’s Wife, spun a beautiful and complex time-bending narrative. A historical fiction series and TV phenomenon like Outlander takes for granted the time travel at its center.
Even a sci-fi blockbuster like Interstellar, totally in the 2001 space travel lineage, depends as much on a time travel conceit as it does on worm and black holes. All thanks to spacetime. And is there a good Einstein biopic out there? (Should be). No it’s a film about Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time. French crime thrillers, Japanese manga, and Boyhood — all play on our current fascination with Time, traveling in Time, and observing the process of Time.
So the obvious question is: why the paradigm shift from space to time travel in our culture over the past half century? If you have an obvious answer, let me know. I have to think about it, and then I’ll get back to you, all in good Time.