When I’ve reviewed Diana Gabaldon’s novels in the past, I’ve complained about the fact that her novels never really explain to my satisfaction how time travel works. In my opinion, when a writer writes science fiction or fantasy, she has two choices: she can flatly state the realities of the fictional world and then move forward without trying to explain them scientifically, or she can come up with a plausible explanation for the fictional technology, modes of transportation, etc. In Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card simply announces that their study of the buggers’ telepathic communication allowed the human race to invent the ansible, which enabled instantaneous communication among groups of humans no matter how far apart they are – a development that allowed for the colonization of space. Card makes no attempt to explain how the ansible works physically, and he doesn’t need to. He just describes it in a few sentences, and bam – for the rest of the series ansibles exist, and extended space flight is possible as a result.
Problems happen, though, when writers try to account for the fantastic elements of their stories and can’t fully get there. In Outlander, Claire travels through time when she happens upon an enchanted stone circle in rural Scotland on the pagan holiday of Samhain. If, like me, you grew up fascinated by those ads on TV for Time/Life Books’ Mysteries of the Unknown, you’re familiar with the mythology of stone circles and were probably perfectly happy to accept this pretext for some good old-fashioned TIME TRAVEL.
The problem, though, is that it would be implausible for Claire, the protagonist of Outlander, to accept the fact that she has traveled through time without question. In her own reality, this kind of travel is impossible, and it makes sense that she should try to find out how time travel works. The early Outlander novels are told entirely in first-person (and the later novels partially so), so we experience these stories through Claire’s perspective. Claire follows any leads she finds that may help her understand what has happened to her: first there’s Geillis Duncan’s vaccination scar, then the mysterious Monsieur Raymonde in Paris, and then there’s Otter Tooth and the skull Claire finds in North Carolina, and so forth. At some point we find out that gemstones are an important part of time travel, and later that gold is helpful as well. But in spite of these hints, Gabaldon never really explains time travel to my satisfaction. If anything, my understanding gets hazier and hazier as the series progresses. It made sense when Claire just stood near the stones, heard a weird noise, and woke up in 1745. But then we learned about gemstones and gold, and Roger almost died going through the stones, and let’s not forget Geillis Abernathy née Duncan’s weird time travel/pedophilia cave in the Caribbean (and WHY exactly does she have the same name as Claire’s friend Joe Abernathy from Boston???) and Wendigo Donner and Roger’s father and Jem and Mandy’s weird telepathy and the horrible men in the 20th century who seem determined to kidnap Jem and/or rape Brianna as part of some vague time travel/gold acquisition scheme. And I still don’t understand how time travel works. I was happier when I thought it was all about Samhain and dancing women and magical joo-joo.
I don’t have a solution. I don’t think I could have done the job better. I am writing in the fantasy genre for the first time myself, and I struggle with these same questions. I wish Diana Gabaldon had left well enough alone and just allowed time travel to be mysterious and inexplicable – but that would require Claire to be completely dense and passive and incurious, and she is none of those things.
All of this is a long way of saying that I was a bit annoyed to find that Gabaldon’s recent novella The Space Between seems to exist only to help fill in the gaps in the science of time travel. It’s about two very minor characters from the Outlander series: Michael Murray (Ian and Jenny’s son; brother of Young Ian) and Joan MacKimmie (younger daughter of Laoghaire; sister of Marsali and stepdaughter of Jamie Fraser). Joan is on her way to Paris to become a nun, and Michael – who is returning to Paris, where he is a wine merchant, after visiting his family to grieve when his wife died. There is sexual tension between Michael and Joan, and of course Joan doesn’t actually become a nun. The Comte St. Germain, a minor character in Dragonfly in Amber, plays an important role, and the mysterious Monsieur Raymonde returns as well.
We learn a bit more about time travel, including the fact that the Comte is using time travel to “hide” and is very interested in whether he can travel to the future with any accuracy (a question that annoyed me a bit, since Claire travels to the future at the end of Dragonfly in Amber and Roger, Brianna, Jem, and Mandy travel to the future at the end of A Breath of Snow and Ashes, so the reader already knows it can be done). The Comte is also roaming Paris impregnating various prostitutes for reasons that have something to do with time travel, and he also likes to touch people and see if he can make them turn blue, which connects him with the mysterious doctor Roger and Buck meet in the 1730’s, who is also able to make people turn blue if they have the time travel gene. The Comte kidnaps Joan for a while because he thinks she is the daughter of Claire Fraser and assumes that she has the time travel gene. Which she doesn’t – but she does have the hearing-voices gene and is compelled to go up to various strangers on the streets of Paris and say, “don’t do it” – which she says to the Comte right before he vanishes, presumably bound for the future.
Diana Gabaldon may be the sloppiest writer on record. I do enjoy her stories and am mostly happy to laugh off their ridiculousness, but I don’t think she understands that the need to write and publish additional novellas in order to attempt (unsuccessfully) to explain things that she didn’t get around to explaining in the eight thousand-page novels she has already written is just inexcusably inefficient. In the hands of a different writer (Orson Scott Card comes to mind…), the novels in this series would be half their current length AND would account satisfactorily for time travel (possibly not by explaining it but by letting it be an unquestioned part of reality) without the need for additional novellas.
I’ve always assumed that Joe is an Abernathy because he was a descendent of Ishmael, who escaped from the Abernathy plantation. It is logical to assume he took his master’s surname as many escaped/freed slaves did.
Claire, Roger, and Brianna could travel to the future because they were from that time period. None of them have tried to time travel to a point in the future outside their lifetimes, which is what the Comte is trying to do. I don’t think that is a question that has been answered in the books to date.
Yes, I think I remember assuming that Joe was descended from the escaped slave. I was really interested in that plot thread when it was hinted at in Voyager, and I’m always bummed when it isn’t followed up on in each successive book.
As far as traveling to the future beyond one’s own lifetime, what about William Buccleigh Mackenzie, who traveled to the 20th century in An Echo in the Bone? Can he do this because his mother was born in the 20th century, even if he himself was born in the 18th?
Thanks for reading and commenting – these books provide endless subject matter to discuss!
I forgot about Buck but I think we must assume he has the ability because his mother was from the 20th century. Roger and Bree’s kids are interesting because they were both conceived and born in the 18th century but can travel to the 20th century. Both their parents were born in the 20th century although Bree was conceived in the 18th. It gets more confusing the more one tries to figure it out! 🙂
Oh good – I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s confused! I think the saving grace is that none of the characters really know for sure how time travel works either. We can all be confused together. 🙂
How did Jamie become a stepfather to Joan?
When Claire went back to the 20th century and Jamie thought he had lost her forever, Laoghere (I’m sure I’m spelling that wrong) became a widow. She had two young daughters and no way to make a living, so Jamie married her in order to protect and provide for her and her children. This all happens in Voyager, the 3rd book in the series. Joan’s sister Marsali ends up marrying Jamie’s adopted son Fergus and coming to North America with them and is a key character in the later books.