Stories about time travel, and those who'd like to be time travelers themselves (raises hand), inherently ask two central questions: where are we going, and where do we come from? Where we exist right now, in the present time, is the point of fracture between the past and the future, the moment we are living in perpetually severing what we knew from what we will know. Kindred, by Octavia Butler, and The River of No Return, by Bee Ridgway, both follow the journeys of two time travelers, Nick and Dana, and their fractured timelines, one jumping forward from 1815 Georgian England into the present, and one jumping backward from 1970’s Los Angeles to 1815 Maryland. These initial fractures in the linear timeline highlight other fractures present in each book: the tension between the titled rich and the indentured poor in 1800’s England, the growing rift between the Northern and Southern states before the Civil War, and the tearing apart of the self when an individual is thrust into a scenario where their sense of ethics and identity no longer qualify as valid.
The desire to go back in time to right the wrongs of the past are a familiar dream, whether that wrong is slavery in the antebellum South or an era of tenant farming akin to feudalism in Georgian England, when the Corn Laws passed to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. Last week, John Oliver quipped that if Donald Trump (Drumpf) wins the presidency, we will remember January 20th, 2017 as the day time travelers arrive to stop it from happening (he quipped, while I crossed my fingers that his joke of intervention was a moment of prescience should Trump get elected, but I digress). Both The River of No Return and Kindred present the reader with the complications that arise when our ethics of the present clash with the systems and ethics of the past. Nick and Dana each have to grapple with the nakedness of lost identity, wondering who they are without their code, the internal system of devising right and wrong that determines how we behave and live? By traveling to the present, Nick has learned the value in equal rights for women and a system of government that eliminates inherited titles to keep power in the hands of the same families for centuries. Those values are challenged immediately upon his return to 1815 when he must re-assume his role as Lord Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, dependent on tenant labor for his fortunes. Dana, a novelist in 1976, has to grapple with 1815 society’s view of her as a slave with no purpose but to serve a white master, a view that threatens beatings and death to anyone with theories of inherent freedom or equality. When both time travelers are forced to corrupt their code of right and wrong as a necessary tool for survival, the authors force the question: how does your sense of self survive unchanged when you must choose to break your own code? Can it?
In Kindred, Dana holds on to one element of herself that is perpetually challenged by both her fellow slaves and the slave owners: her blackness. “I’m black,” she tells her distant ancestor, Rufus, when he tells her his mother can almost imagine Dana is white when she closes her eyes. Reclaiming her identity as black is critical in Dana’s struggle to maintain her sense of self in an environment where all of her knowledge of human rights has no safe place to exist, and to be called “white” is to be called a willful imposter. In The River of No Return, a Guild Alderwoman tells Nick, “but in fact, at every instant you are actually in the process of recalling who you were a second ago and becoming yourself again the next second. In each moment your emotions reinterpret you, invent you anew, move you forward – remember, they are your time machine.” Both Nick and Dana, like all of us, have little control over their own movements through time, except for the resolve to hold tight to the fabric of their sense of self, no matter how thread-worn that sense becomes in their unfamiliar time periods.
The frightening element to us, in reading the struggles of these characters, is to wonder what ethical struggles a traveler from the future would feel if visiting the present day. Would they fracture our own sense of moral superiority as Nick does when he lashes out at sister after returning to 1815, insisting, “In time the dark ages will be understood to include our own!”