The Trouble With Time Travel

Have you ever noticed in science fiction stories involving time machines, that the machines in question seem to defy all logical explanation? And I don’t just mean the physics of time travel, though that’s an interesting topic by itself. No, what I mean is how the machine seems to ignore physical location when travelling through time.

In any story, a degree of narrative convenience is necessary simply for the sake of having the story happen. But one convenience—or more accurately, contrivance—time travel stories too often suffer from is failing to take into account the fact that Earth is a celestial body travelling at some 67,000 MPH. It wouldn’t be in the same place when travelling through time!

Let’s say you build a time machine in your London flat’s basement. You climb in, start the machine up, and decide that as a simple test you’ll go back in time by precisely 24 hours. So where was the Earth 24 hours ago? If it travels 67,000 miles every single hour, then multiplying that by 24 gives us a rough figure of 1,608,000 miles travelled.

Our scientist, who probably isn’t very bright if he’s not thought about this issue, sits in his machine, prods the buttons, sets the Flux Capacitor just so, and hits the big red GO! button. He travels back 24 hours to the exact same spot he’s in right now. Unfortunately, the spot he’s in right now is based on the position of Earth right now as well, not the Earth of 24 hours ago.

As a result, he appears in space and immediate dies from being exposed to hard vacuum. This is something I’ve never actually seen mentioned or explored in any show, book, or movie that deals with time travel, and it’s a fairly major issue that I feel should be explored. (If you do know of any fiction works where this is addressed, I’d love to hear about it!)

Maybe the assumption is that the time machine somehow compensates for the Earth’s movement and not only travels through time, but space as well? But if that’s the case, this is no longer a time machine, it’s a teleporter with time travel functionality, because it would have to be by sheer necessity.

In a sufficiently advanced future setting this is less of an issue because you can simply mount the time machine onto a spacecraft and sidestep the issue to some degree. But even then, you’d have to have faster-than-light—warp, hyperspace, whatever—capability for this to be viable, because if you travel back in time and the Earth is now on the other side of the sun, that’s a hell of a long trip back home in normal space at sub-light speeds.

At the end of the day, narrative convenience often trumps logic, but I’d argue that if you’re writing a sci-fi work where complex subjects such as time travel are involved, you should be putting in that extra bit of legwork to ensure it adheres to some of the basic laws of reality, even when your story breaks those bounds in some form.

If you’ve just created a time machine, chances are you’ll have the knowledge and ability to create a teleporter to go with it, so why not? Just throw a bit of technobabble in there to explain why and how this issue was fixed, then you can happily focus on the time travel portion of the story if that’s the important part.

You might think I’m picking nits… and yeah, I kind of am, because I enjoy it 🙂 But just because something is a bit nit-picky doesn’t mean it’s not also valid. And I’d really like to see more time travel stories properly tackle the issue of traversing not just time, but space.


Yurika S. Grant is a writer and yuri lover who writes lesbian fiction and lives in the sunny yet unbelievably flat East Midlands. Secretly a witch.

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