Future Tense

Yes, We’re in the Wrong Timeline

How time-travel stories explain our uncanny era.

A butterfly
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Sometimes you find a profound political statement in the middle of a goofy adventure story. In Season 2 of the superhero show DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, our team of superpowered misfits use their badass time ship to correct historical “aberrations” during the Civil War. Jax, one of the team’s black characters, is shocked when he meets slaves for the first time. Not because of how horribly they are treated—he already knew about that—but because they still have so much hope for the future, even when they’ve been beaten and tied up for disobedience.

Jax is there to prevent a malicious time-traveler from changing the course of the war, but he decides to make his own unauthorized changes. Untying the slaves so they can escape, he realizes he’s creating new potential historical aberrations. But Jax welcomes this possibility. “Slavery is the aberration,” he says. With that one line, he explains both the lure of time-travel fiction and the reason why it feels so vital during periods of dramatic political instability like our own.

In time-travel stories about the past, history isn’t merely an exotic setting—it’s a problem that needs to be solved. In some cases, this means guaranteeing that the past remains unchanged. But as with Legends of Tomorrow, we’re seeing more stories about time-travelers who aim to change history for the better. Call it temporal activism.

I finished my new novel, The Future of Another Timeline, in late 2017. That whole year, a lot of people were saying half-jokingly that we were in the wrong timeline. It wasn’t just that a long-shot presidential candidate, reality TV star Donald Trump, had won the U.S. election. There was a sense that history was out of joint, as democratic countries across the world changed course and rallied around right-wing populist leaders. That year changed my novel too. My time-travelers go to the 19th century to secure more rights for women. Originally, I had planned for them to fail. But the events of 2017 persuaded me that they should succeed.

There’s nothing like witnessing radical, unexpected social changes to make you realize that the timeline is constantly being rewritten—and its authors are not always so-called Great Men. Sometimes they’re groups of ordinary people, whose connections to each other form a field of resistance to tyranny.

This counterintuitive sense of hope crops up in many recent time-travel stories. In Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War, agents on the opposite sides of a battle over the timeline fall in love. In the process, they undo the toxic history of white-settler colonialism in the Americas. Kelly Robson’s brilliant novella Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach imagines scientists using time travel to help remediate the worst effects of climate disasters. Even the new Doctor on Doctor Who has become something of a temporal activist, protecting historical figures like Rosa Parks to ensure that the long arc of history bends toward justice.

Though time travel has always been a popular plot device, it doesn’t usually encourage us to root for the people who are changing history. Instead, the premise of most time-travel stories is that changing the past would be a disaster. Ray Bradbury’s influential short story “A Sound of Thunder” describes a time-traveler who accidentally kills a butterfly during a trip to the Cretaceous. As a result, millions of years later, a fascist named Deutscher has won the presidential election in the U.S. This story introduced the idea of the “butterfly effect,” which posits that even tiny changes can have far-reaching effects.

The butterfly effect also assumes that changing history is a dangerously political act, affecting outcomes of wars and the fates of nations. We see a similar notion behind real-life debates over how U.S. history should be written. It’s why conservative pundits reacted as if they’d been assaulted when the New York Times and other publications covered the 500th anniversary of the first slaves being brought to the U.S. It’s why academic historians are embroiled in debates over whether accounts of “Western civilization” should include the experiences of people of color and immigrants.

When we put the histories of those who have been marginalized or oppressed at the center of our stories, it changes the way we understand the present. Time travel literalizes this process, showing us clearly how revisiting history changes the current moment. Heroes who fight to keep the timeline fixed are therefore on a deeply conservative mission. They believe there is something inherently great about our past, and that messing around with it is both morally repugnant and destructive.

It’s no surprise that so many of us feel like we are in the wrong timeline right now. Our political leaders are trying to lock down our histories, tying them to nationalist narratives that exclude many of us. Meanwhile, activists who resist their power are radically destabilizing the histories that most Americans were taught in school, challenging the idea that white men had the right idea when they colonized the Americas and burned a bunch of fossil fuels to power the Industrial Revolution. The war for the present is a war over our histories—both political and personal—and sometimes it feels like time-travelers are messing with us.

But today’s time-travel stories offer a vision of hopeful historical change. That’s why my novel has a happy ending, with the time-travelers succeeding in changing the timeline. It’s not a spoiler to say that; it’s my promise to you. Like time travelers, we can go back and retrieve what’s been lost: the suppressed voices of slaves, the life stories of women, the contributions of immigrants to our economic prosperity. We can rebuild the history that’s been stolen from us, and in the process we can create a timeline that’s open enough for all of us.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.