Traveling Through Fantastic Modernity: Reconsidering Time Travel Fiction as a Landmark of Historical Fiction

by Baoli Yang

Regarding denial of the historical features of time travel fiction and the confusion about the identification of this genre, I propose that literary genres are not mutually exclusive categorizations but perspectives through which different aspects of literary texts can be enlightened. Some time travel fiction in world literature can actually facilitate modern audiences to approach  and understand  historical events and formulate a historical consciousness more easily. Thus, time travel fiction can be regarded as a sub-genre of historical fiction. This paper will compare “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” by Lilian Lee, “Incident at Sokolniki” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and Laughing Wolf by Tsushima Yuko, to discuss how time travel fiction engenders personal empathy by using the history of personal experience which reconstitutes an individual’s national identity. These three works highlight the confrontations of human trauma in their collective history or personal memory. Structurally, time travel fiction creates defamilarization of historical events by manipulating “chronotopes” and forming novel patterns of fabula and sjuzet.  From the perspective of affect theory, time travel literature subjectifies history and opens a new avenue for historical awareness. These texts show that time travel as a device does not inhibit the preservation of informative historical accuracy or the production of an imaginary empathetic power for the modern reader, but rather celebrates emotions and feelings that were not recorded in historiography. Furthermore, the rise of time travel fiction symbolizes a new morality in the writing of realism in modern times.

In March 2011, under the pretext of preventing their audience from receiving an inaccurate perception of history, the government of China banned a number of popular time travel television dramas which had characters traveling back and forth between the past and the present. Most of these time travel dramas are based on popular fictions. Their official censorship announcement reads: “[…]several time travel dramas have arbitrarily fabricated mythical stories with strange and quirky plots, their means of expression is absurd and they depict superstition, fatalism and reincarnation […] In light of this, hopefully all the institutions involved in their production will rectify the ideology of their creative output…” “别申报备案的神怪剧和穿越剧,随意编纂神话故事,情节怪异离奇,手法荒诞,甚至渲染封建迷信、宿命论和轮回转世…对此,希望各制作机构端正创作思想…( The State Administration of Radio Film and Television)[i].  In a conference explaining the announcement, a government spokesman expressed special concern over the classification of time travel themes: “apparently [time travel dramas] do not fit into any of the categories of costume, modern or mythical drama.” He also pointed out: “now there is no conception of history in the prevailing time travel fiction and the connotation of the whole genre has no positive influence… it has no respect for history or culture.” “古装、现代、神话似乎都不合适。穿越剧可以成为题材百花齐放的品种,但题材内容表现方式有很多可商榷的地方。…现在穿越剧毫无历史观可言…对历史文化不尊重。(  Chinese censorship betrays a certain dangerous and threatening, yet seductive, attractiveness of the time travel theme, which is powerful enough to confuse the audience’s perception of the historical past and literary genres. At the same time, this announcement discredited the attribution of literary creativity and the possibility of serious reflection on history in the time travel genre.[ii]

Since the publication of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, traditional Western literary criticism has mainly regarded themes of time travel as science fiction.[iii] This categorization has prevailed, thus contributing to the abundant output in the genres of literature, film and other media. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, both of which did not emphasize the aspect of science fiction.. However, there are also some doubts about this, from insiders such as Paul Nahin, a mentor to time travel fiction authors, who comments: “The only place you could find people writing positively about time travel and time machines was in science fiction, and even science fiction writers didn’t really believe the concept was anything more than a fantasy. They wrote time travel stories because readers loved the idea, and editors would pay for what the writers produced” (2). H.G. Wells explained how he arrived at this realization: “[Works of time travel fiction] are all fantasies, they do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream”(Nahin, 6-7). These two opinions on the classification of time travel are based on the plausible probability that it could technically happen in real life.

However, similar to Chinese censorship, Nahin fails to explain why audiences fancy this “nonsense” genre. Consistent with banning time travel fiction in China, the views of Nahin and H. G. Wells convey that time travel fiction has nothing to do with reality and history.  Therefore, they consider time travel narratives as fantasy, namely “self-coherent narrative[s] that [are] impossible in the world we live in.”[iv]  Since fantasy is strongly connected to “unrealistic” narratives, the perspective of realism would view time travel fiction as ahistorical, and thus deprived of a specific, real-world history.

The aforementioned attempts at categorization reveal an endeavor to recognize literary works by means of fixed taxonomies of mutually exclusive literary genres in order to seek the text’s “absolute truth.” However, many literary critics have challenged the stability of these concepts with respect to the genre of narrative. Jonathan Culler asserts that genre is “a set of expectations, a set of instructions about the type of coherence one is to look for, and the ways in which sequences are to be read” (Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach 51). Similarly, Foucault points out in The Order of Things, that categorization is “a limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that (xv). With novels as an example of literary narratives, Mikhail Bakhtin notices their rise in modern times, but also states that “the novel precisely as a genre-in-the-making, one in the vanguard of all modern literary development” (11).  While Culler reveals the psychological motivation behind labeling genres onto literary texts,  Foucault challenges the legitimacy of categorization. Nevertheless, by the comparison of narratological features of epic and novel, Bakhtin argues that even if we are justified to discuss the genre of the representative of the “absolute past,” namely the epic, it is premature to judge the genre of the representative of lengthy prose narrative, namely, the novel. Notably, Bakhtin does not deny the necessity of genres when discussing prose works – he also suggests that there could be new perspectives with which to view this issue.

Bakhtin implies that any literary text is a heteroglossic locale and has various identities within literary genres and could thus meet various subject expectations. Any conclusion regarding time travel fiction as representative of a single genre only highlights one aspect of the whole narrative. The attempts to categorize the time travel theme suggest multiple possible interpretations from the perspective of various literary genres as long as the classifications are all relevant to the texts. Time travel could be seen in ancient drama to reveal  traditional lifestyles, modern drama to show modern trends, myth to idealize national origins, or science fiction that displays advanced scientific inventions or fantasy involving the supernatural. Because time travel pays strong attention to the changes of time, we could also expect to read this genre as historical fiction.

Strikingly, critics from both East and West have rebuked the idea that texts featuring elements pertaining to time travel could also relate to the genres of historical fiction or realism. These critics arbitrarily assume that time travel fiction completely fails to meet certain expectations people have for the genre of historical fiction. So then, what are people’s expectations of historical fiction? To what extent is it true that time travel fiction does not fit the criteria of historical fiction?

Historical fiction is far more complicated than mere prose narrative that is “set in the past” or a “fictitious narrative […] that makes use of historical personages or events.”( Murfin and Ray 157).  First of all, history should play a significant role in the plot of this genre: “in serious examples of this genre, historical events, processes, and issues are central to the story line rather than providing peripheral or decorative touches” (Murfin and Ray 156). Since human      perceptions of linear and progressive time are the basis of truth,” it is reasonable to follow that  human perceptions of these aspects are needed to write  convincing historical fiction. Therefore, historical fiction is a sub-genre of realism. Even though authors could use narrative techniques, (such as flashbacks) to manipulate the representations of time in fiction, the causality of plots still indicates a coherent linear time inside the texts. If time travel fiction disturbs human perceptions of linear time and challenges the causality, it could be easily charged as “the other” of historical fiction. Thus, the conventional historical novel established its legitimacy by giving audiences the impression of linear time. Accordingly, Sir Walter Scott shows that “linear time” becomes a moral code for the conventional writing of historical fiction.

However, history does not only manifest itself via linear time. In addition, history is about human and human feelings. When discussing the purpose of historical fiction, many critics have used “historical novels” as examples: “historical novels are often vehicles for their authors’ insights into historical figures and their influences or into the causes and consequences of historical events, changes, or movements.” (Murfin and Ray 157) In other words, historical fiction expresses an author’s reflections on the causality related to history through certain personages in certain historical settings. Moreover, the role of historical events, changes or movements, and the characters themselves, should have interactions with and impact one other. Nicola Chiaromonte noted the irretrievable duality in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and pointed out that “historical events [… appear] as a series of happenings that have neither meaning nor rationality, insofar as they do not spring directly from the ‘normal’ existence of individuals, and have no clear connection with their ordinary motives” (32)  In this sense, Tolstoy does not represent the ways in which history is involved with individuals, especially their personal lives, he only “exposes rather than solves the antinomies inherent in a rationalistic view of history.”(Chiaromonte 35)

Georg Lukacs intensifies the interplay between history and the individual by emphasizing the importance of characters to convey the meaning behind historical fiction: “What matters[…]in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality” (42).  Therefore, the accurate “retelling” or restoration of historical facts is not the major expectation of historical fiction for Lukacs, but rather the transmission of human feelings and emotions under certain historical conditions is the prime task that historical fiction is required to fulfill. Lukacs tries to shift the core of historical fiction from the representation of historical events to the impact of history onto human beings. As a result, linear time is not the central concern for historical fiction. Lukacs’ argument bears a new ethic in the writing of historical fiction, which gives full attention to a more humanistic mentality in certain historical periods. Indeed,  the genre of time travel  serves as a good example for the new ethics of historical fiction.

Time travel fiction can be defined as an imaginative work which violates mans’ biological perceptions of linear time; it creates interactions of events and characters in different temporal and spatial zones, and therefore presents characteristic patterns of  a “chronotope.”[v]  Time travel fiction does disturb  the linear time-frame from which people normally rationalize history, while seemingly violating the Marxist progressive stages of history developments and betraying the principles of realism.  Therefore it goes against the “totality of the life” (Lukacs 219).   In contrast, conventional representations of history in literary works, such as those by Sir Walter Scott and Shakespeare, intended to abide by linear time and attempted to imitate reality. However, should linear time as “an objective presentation of details and events” set the criteria for historical fiction ? (Murfin and Ray 329). Can fiction with a time travel theme be an alternative which reveals the aforementioned “poetic awakenings in history?”

Jerome de Groot discusses the function of realism in The Historical Novel: “the realism of the novel allows the reader to engage with and empathize with historical individuals and thence gain a sense of their own historical specificity” (29).  Linear time, as a supposed mimetic reality,  facilitates “a subjective concentration on personal feelings, perceptions, and imaginings of various characters” (Murfin and Ray 329).  If the alternative presentation of time in fiction  functions equally or even more effectively in this regard, time itself may embody a “communicative intention” of historical fiction (Culler 53). Most works of time travel fiction deal with different historical periods, focusing on transitions and comparisons of time and space and underline the concern of communicating emotion evoked by historical specificity through dramatically transporting characters into different historical periods. Moreover, “time travel” as a scientific act or a supernatural phenomenon is just a device to catalyze or dramatize a plot and usually does not determine the nature of the entire text. Variations of time travel do not affect historical or realistic features if a fictional work possesses them and may even help grasp the zeitgeist of different periods.

Thematically, there are three directions of time travel in fiction: the past, the present and the future. Traveling to the future in a work such as The Time Machine is based on pure imagination, detached from history or reality, but the nature of “the future” is an anticipated  one, derived from an established past and present. Derrida dispelled this illusion of “future” by distinguishing it from “l’avenir”: “The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There’s a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival” (Fagan 104).  Once a text depicts a future, it becomes an “artificial” future predicted by current historical assumptions. Therefore, “the future belongs to the ghosts” (Derrida 35).  In his book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Fredric Jameson further describes how utopia in science fiction functions as an unsatisfied wish-fulfillment that reflects reality: “Even the process of wish-fulfillment includes a kind of reality principle of its own, intent on not making things too easy for itself, accumulating the objections and the reality problems that stand in its way so as the more triumphantly and ‘realistically’ to overcome them” (83). In other words, time travel fiction transports characters to the future as a way to project a commentary on current affairs.  The “future” is a mirror facing the present. Human history, as such, is rooted in this sub-genre of time travel fiction.

The second sub-genre of time travel fiction in which characters travel back and forth between the past and the present creates comparable experiences in different times and spaces, highlights the discrepancies of the past and present, and enables people to perceive and enhance their awareness of history. From Homer’s Odyssey, wherein Odysseus meets his mother in the underworld to the Hollywood movie Men in Black 3, released in 2012, this mode of time travel has appeared in many works of world literature (and other mediums) across space and time. In these texts, imagined scientific developments are used to rationalize the settings, while in fantasy “time-slip” and supernatural events such as resurrections, accidents, and identity exchanges are employed to make time travel believable. No matter how the author explains time travel, they have to rely on the contrast between the former historical period and subsequent happenings to build two different time periods. Hence, this sub-genre is not ahistorical, but instead, it is intimately related to history.

Therefore, it would be advantageous to discuss time travel fiction from the perspective of historical fiction. Using three time travel works from modern world literature I will discuss the ways in which the theme of time-travel evokes historical awareness and elucidates human emotions under certain historical circumstances.

The first piece is a well-known work of time travel fiction in Chinese, the novella “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” by Lilian Lee (Li Bihua) from Hong Kong. The novella became especially famous after its 1989 movie adaption Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior, starring Zhang Yimou and Gong Li. The novella begins with a love story between General Meng Tianfang, who is appointed by the First Emperor of China to supervise the building of the latter’s mausoleum, and the Emperor’s maid Dong’er who was about to be dispatched overseas to search for the elixir of immortality for the emperor. The maid voluntarily sacrifices her life for the general and gives him the elixir which was made by an alchemist. However, the general is buried alive in the mausoleum when the emperor dies in 210 B.C. When a Japanese spy travels to northwestern China to steal treasures from the mausoleum during the turbulent 1930s, the general wakes up and falls in love with the spy’s companion, an actress, who resembles his former love Dong’er. The novella ends when Meng becomes a worker repairing antiquities in the state-owned museum of the unearthed mausoleum in 1989 and encounters another Japanese girl also resembling Dong’er. This work portrays a man who becomes immortal, similar to Virginia Woolf’s 1928 work Orlando, but General Meng is somewhat more stable and reflects more the historicity of the ancient period.

As the winner of the 2001 Osaragi Jiro Prize[vi] Laughing Wolf [vii] by Yuko Tsushima is set in postwar Japan. A twelve-year-old girl Yuki in Tokyo encounters a strange seventeen-year-old orphan Mitsuo who claims that she has witnessed her father’s suicide, which is then followed by Mitsuo kidnapping her. The two children travel around the country by train and observe all kinds of Japanese people suffering poverty, starvation, disease and despair in railway stations and on trains after the war. Eventually the girl is rescued by the police, but only after she develops an emotional attachment to her captor. This novel features intertextuality when the children quixotically co-play the roles of Akela and Mowgli in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, and Remi and Capi in Noody’s Boy by Hecor Malot. Even stranger, news clippings about social events in Japan from 1945 to 1947 paralleling and corresponding to the narrative make their way into the latter part of the novel. We see aspects of time travel in that the  length of their travel and the time required do not correspond. The children have not traveled very far or very long, yet the novel begins in1959, during postwar Japan, and ends when the girl follows her mother home and sees the leaders of North and South Korea shaking hands on television, which happened in 2000. However, all of the inserted news clippings are dated from 1945-1947.

The Russian text “Incident in Sokolniki”[viii] by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya tells a ghost story set during wartime in the Soviet Union. Lida, who lives in Moscow, is married to a pilot, but one day she learns that her husband died when his plane was shot down. She attends the official funeral, yet only sees the coffin of her late husband. Afterword, a malnourished and pale man follows her and tells her that he is her husband. They live together again for a couple of months until the man asks her to bury his flight suit that he had  left in the forest. Lida goes to the forest and covers the flight suit with dirt. As soon as she finishes, the man disappears. That evening her husband appears in her dream, thanking her for burying his body. In this story, the  husband’s ghost must embrace his previous life by resuming his past relationship with Lida in order to obtain a proper burial for his corpse. The ghost enables Lida to reconnect with her marriage and live with her husband again for a period, even though she is unaware that the husband is only a ghost desperately trying to have his corpse buried.

All three of these fictional works are set in a specific historical past and contain explicit interactions between their characters and historical events. However, the authors chose different raw material with which to reconstruct the past and to depict historical details in different ways. Notably, they all emphasize the psychological trauma that history can inflict on human beings.

“A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” is set in three historical periods: the Chin (Qin) dynasty in 210 B.C., the Republican period in 1930s and the Communist period after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between China and Japan in 1974. Lee chose material from the “great history,” namely influential events in Chinese history with their corresponding historiography and cultural relics to demonstrate the veracity of her historical settings. The massive mausoleum of the First Emperor of China, which was built before the emperor’s death in 210 B.C., has now become a tourist site in northwest China. Ancient Chinese historiography, such as Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, and modern scholarship on Chinese archeology[ix] have provided detailed information about the building of the mausoleum and the emperor dispatched envoys who searched far and wide for magical elixirs. When General Meng wakes up and meets the flirtatious actress Zhu Lili, the plot imaginatively combines the notorious Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, the genesis of Chinese cinema since 1905, and the never-ending grave robbing of mausoleums. Lee unveils the third historical period, a new diplomatic and economic epoch in China[x] by arranging for Meng to encounter the female Japanese visitor.

Laughing Wolf includes various historical events following the defeat of Japan in WWII, but the author intentionally avoids choosing any examples of grand narrative in the historiography of that period. Instead, she draws from the “public history” ignored by mainstream historiography, while juxtaposing fiction with actual news clippings[xi] which reported minor crimes as well as peoples’ suffering during postwar Japan. The psychological suffering and living conditions during that period have not been of major concern to historians in that they are  briefly mentioned or totally ignored.[xii] Important sociopolitical and international topics such as Douglas MacArthur’s administration, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials and Emperor Hirohito’s controversial Humanity Declaration focused on how postwar Japan was rescued, and subsequently sped forward to achieve economic success. Mainstream historiography offers some background for the novel but the emotional movement within the novel transcends the brief and impersonal data and generalizations found in history books.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “Incident at Sokolniki” deals, in part, with “particular history,”[xiii] episodes from a commoner’s life in Moscow during WWII. Compared to the “Great World Patriotic War,” Lida’s husband’s death and burial is far too insignificant to note in a history book and Lida’s life as a widow is too mundane to be of interest. However, the story contains vivid details such as a “ration card,” an “abandoned pilot jacket,” “labor service” and “evacuated Moscow,” all of which lend strong political and historical specificity. As a feature of “Russianness,” proper burial of “the bad death” is a long-standing form of Russian superstition and custom.[xiv] Failure to perform this ritual reveals how their authoritarian government failed in its humanitarian obligations for its soldiers and how it impugned their human dignity even after death. Moreover, Lida is portrayed as a representative of Russian women who were witnesses and victims of the war. The encounters of Lida and her husband represent the norm in that immoral historical period and the suffering of both sexes in the Soviet Union.

The power of these three works does not derive from their accurate, impersonal facts portraying a grand picture of a historical movement or from some specious logic that reluctantly explains the causality of history, rather their literary charm lies in their ability to transmit the “poetic awakening of the people who figured” in historical events and leading the reader to re-experience historical realities.

A common theme of these three works is that they reveal the physical and mental suffering of the masses during the most traumatic moments in the history of their respective countries. They all frame their stories with romance but their goal is far more ambitious than merely telling stories about people in love. These cases of dysfunctional romantic love symptomize the damage inflicted on common morality and the disillusionment of basic desires in these chaotic historical periods. Lilian Lee, a Hong Kong writer, never visited the historical locations or directly experienced the historical transitions in mainland China she writes about, but imagines the suffering people confronted in ancient and modern China. In her novella, General Meng is buried alive in the mausoleum by the First Emperor’s command while the life and death of his lover depends on the capricious moods of those in power. Their romantic relationship exposes the cruelty of absolute power in ancient China. During the 1930’s General Meng’s genuine effort to resume his romance is unceasingly disrupted by the materialism of the object of his affection, Zhu Lili. The bombs and bullets of the war eventually force him to abandon his wishful thinking.

Born in 1947, the author of Laughing Wolf, Yuko Tsushima, possesses an instinctive sympathy for the people who suffer in her novel. The children traveling among the masses of the  displaced Japanese are also depressed by an absence of  home, hob, and hope. The reality of great despair and depression overshadows their childish fantasies to act out roles from works of fiction and eventually their games are discontinued in the middle of the novel. The girl’s forced separation from her captor after they have developed an intimacy and the massive crimes they encounter during their travels suggest how disconnected and devastated the Japanese were during the postwar period.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, the authoress of “Incident at Sokolniki” maintained a strong stance of dissent toward the Soviet Union. In her story, she employs a ghost who returns to the human realm to ask his beloved wife for simple human decency in order to expose how common life was traumatized by the war and socialist governance. However, the loss of her husband and the fear of burying a corpse in the dark display the grief and mourning of one female’s unfortunate life beyond any written description. Her wish that they return to their normal marital life becomes disenchanted by the ghost’s intentional subterfuge. These three works successfully capture certain devastating moments in the most intimate of human relationships under exigent historical circumstances. Those moments manifest “poetic awakenings” that naturally evoke the emotional empathy of readers from any historical period. In addition, these three works also manage to reflect certain stable characteristics of their respective historical periods by portraying characters with specific historical features.

In “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” the artless general symbolizes simpleminded loyalty to his ruler and his love that lasts forever, a stubborn brave masculinity that only existed in pre-modernity, and a humble attitude towards life that has been lost in the commercialism and materialism of modernity. His archaic mentality results in torture, as he lives in the modern world, and his longing for his emperor and the old country persists throughout the novel. The contrast between his original obedient and committed lover Dong’er and the materialistic and superficial actress Zhu Lili reflect the dramatic historical transition of human mentality during the intervening two thousand years. Even though Zhu is moved by Meng’s loyal affectation towards her and also thinks “only things from the ancient times can be like this,” in the end she chooses to sell out General Meng as a living antiquity.

In Laughing Wolf, the pervasive mentality of postwar chaos overshadows the entire novel. “Even small children had to put up with various sufferings and sorrows” (Yuko 85).  Females  fear displaying their femininity because too many males can easily take advantage of them. People everywhere are “scrawny-looking,” “sluggish” and “exhausted.” Even though the girl who was kidnapped forty years prior narrates the beginning of the novel in the form of a flashback,  she still maintains a nostalgic yet depressing mood throughout. In addition, instances of large-scale crimes in the novel are extreme outbursts of repressed emotions in postwar Japan.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “Incident at Sokolniki” focuses on a typical Russian woman Lida, who follows all of the prescribed societal norms. She becomes numb when she learns of her husband’s demise because that is the role of pilot’s wife in wartime. The Soviet Union required such sacrifices from women like Lida. However, when she could not find her husband in the woods after burying his flight suit, her instinctive fear overtook her composure. That moment betrayed the helplessness of a widow in Soviet times, whose emotional cries  mainstream historiography largely ignores. Through engaging with these three works, readers can immerse themselves in the emotions experienced by others in past historical moments.

Hence these three works employ various time travel themes, and thus unravel the poetic awakenings of people living in different historical periods while conveying the feelings and emotions that their characters experienced in the past. In this sense, these narratives fulfill the expectations of historical fiction. However, compared to conventional historical fiction, time travel fiction has its own unique structures which defamiliarize common notions of time and space. Even though Terry Eagleton points out that “defamilarization” is only a “deformed ordinary language in various ways” (3) and “an art that estranges and undermines conventional sign-systems,”(86), the time travel motif not only marks an artistic breakthrough in the genre of historical fiction but also indicates a change of perception regarding the modern and post-modern period. How then does the time travel function as a narrative device to facilitate the artistic creation of historical fiction? I will explore how these three texts use this device in order to elaborate on their structural novelty.

Viewed from the vantage point of Russian Formalism, these three stories involve three different types of relationships between fabula and sjuzet.  Per narratology, fabula describes “the raw material of story events as opposed to the finished arrangement of the plot.”(Baldick 123). It equates to histoire (story) in later French narratology. Sjuzet is the “finished arrangement of narrated events as they are presented to the reader,” (Baldick 309) which also has an equivalent recit (plot). Scholars such as Culler and Derrida have debated the relationship between fabula and sjuzet.”[xv] These three time travel texts reveal interesting interactions between fabula and sjuzet, to which we now turn our attention.

In “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” the protagonist travels dramatically forward from the remote past, but it is also a literary example where fabula dominates sjuzet.  His mentality and knowledge about life is preconditioned by everything in the historical stage of the Chin (Qin) dynasty before the male protagonist General Meng is resurrected into the modern world. His remembrance and subconscious rooted in the ancient past controls his behavior after he meets the girls in 1930’s and 1970’s, both of whom resemble his lover in the Chin (Qin) dynasty of 210 B.C. Therefore, the fabula determines his faith in love and his loyalty to the superior, which was popular two thousand years ago. This precondition overwhelmingly dominates his awkward lifestyle in the modern times. The development of sjuzet, symbolized by his interaction with his desired objects (namely his lovers in modern times) follows the fabula. Meng, the protagonist,  not only jumps through time,  but is also a passive “agent” who keeps the old ideology of his age and displays the merits of the ancient historical period.

Laughing Wolf reveals how the signposts of time can prevent active travel between locations, and how fabula and sjuzet can entangled with one another. According to the explicit records of time in the novel, the girl and her captor’s trip begins in 1959 and ends in 2000. However,  from the beginning to the end, their physical ages never change. Meanwhile, the news clippings which disturbingly ooze throughout the fictional plots are all marked with times from 1945-1949. Without these temporal markers, the sjuzet seems identical to the fabula and the characters move continuously forward.  However, distinctions of time actually become stagnant with these deliberate textual markers. The protagonists who do not age, as well as the haunting news clippings point to aspects of the fabula, and are also devices of the sjuzet. It is hard to tell, then, which plots are raw material or artistic arrangements.  Both the fabula and szujet are interchangeable and therefore questionable.  In this novel, time in the actual plot is solidified by  peoples’ static mental experience of evolution and the development of history.

The ghost of the husband in “Incident at Sokolniki” arranges to travel to the past, and in doing so, he shows that sjuzet is hierarchically superior to fabula.  The ghost attempts to restore his past relationship with Lida in order to improve his life in the other world. In this pattern of time travel, there are two sets of fabula and sjuzet. The presentation of Lida’s normal life as a wife in the beginning of the text constitute the first set while the ghost’s encounter in the other world and his seeking for Lida form the second set. The sjuzets in those two sets have overlapped and create suspense in the story when the ghost pretends he is the living husband. However, until the last moment, when the ghost of the husband thanks Lida for burying him in her dream, the meaningfulness of the husband’s strange return and the final significance of the whole incident are revealed. As in Jonathan Culler’s example of Oedipus story, (“Fabula and Sjuzhet In the Analysis of Narrative: Some American Discussions”, 29-31) the final revelation functions as a determinative force to show why the storytelling technique, namely the “sjuzet,” is responsible for the more  interesting aspects of the narrative. Actually, it has also been suggested that the two sets of the fabula and sjuzet are very popular in detective stories to attract readers (Holquist 75-101).

As I have argued above, time travel fiction can fulfill the expectations readers attach to the genre of historical fiction and also reveal some intriguing structural arrangements. However, I do not wholeheartedly agree with Terry Eagleton that the defamiliaration represented by structures of time travel only twists language artistically and inflicts a “linguistic violence” (6) onto texts. Time travel is not just a showy contraption which superficially attracts readers. To a certain extent, time travel texts, especially the three texts I have analyzed, manifest some fundamental changes of human perceptions of history, past, and memory in the modern and postmodern period.  So how does the time travel theme in historical fiction manage to reflect this transitional historical consciousness? How do these three works suggest a new trend in the writing of historical fiction?

Firstly, time travel in historical fictions implies fragmented national or collective past identities. Lilian Lee sees the long history of China, where her cultural roots lie, through three crucial moments in two thousand years;  Tsushima Yuko never expected that the Japanese people could step out of the haze of postwar trauma or embrace a brighter future; Ludmilla Petrushevskaya mourns the irretrievable happy life of a couple by hopelessly resurrecting the past. History is no longer an integral and supposedly linear object and humans cannot believe that they are progressively and continuously moving forward. History is constructed by the loops, lingering and jumping of human emotions generated from individual experiences. In most  circumstances, human emotions are ambivalent rather than clear-cut, as Hegel’s hypothesis of  progressive history suggests. Human emotions are not congruent to the the development of certain historical events. These three writers of historical fiction have focused on fragmented personal encounters in their national history rather than dedicating their works to great figures or great feats connected with a grand narrative of their national past.

Second, works of time travel fiction pose a subversive gesture to the conventional writings of historical fiction and historiography. “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” crosses through more than two thousand years and aggravates  Chinese censors; Laughing Wolf invents a new form of novel full of pastiche and cosplay; and even with its explicit fantastic features and superstitious plot, in the “Incident at Sokolniki,” the dissident Ludmilla Petrushevskaya more than once emphasizes “I think of myself as a documentary writer.”(Schwartz 2) These three authoresses show us that no matter what length the fiction is or what period a text focuses on, historical fiction is a carnival inviting all kinds of literary features such as parody, heteroglossic voices and so on. As long as the fiction can effectively portray characters in a specific time, historical fiction can happily incorporate various literary techniques including time travel. The fact that various time travel literature and movies are thriving in the cultural industries of Asia and Hollywood  illustrates that time travel fiction reflects a deconstruction of postmodernity. Time travel fiction challenges the hierarchical realism and celebrates David Harvey’s “time and space compression.”

Last but not least, time travel fiction redefines truth, which the genre of historical fiction perennially attempts to pursue. Aristotlean philosophers seek “truth” for human life.  But since Nietzsche, thinkers have started to questions the notion of truth which has been rationalized by the Enlightenment. Perhaps we can never reach the rational truth because human intelligence can never reach the ultimate end of the universe. The only reliable truth might be in the emotions  people sense in everyday life. Nicola Chiaromonte points out that there are limitations  on historiography and fiction with respect to truth and reality: “What was left in the end was, on the one hand, the history of historians, either unreal or mythical, and, on the other, reality itself, history as it is actually experienced by the individual and the community. Between the two was an unbridgeable chasm, as between fiction and truth” (31). However, time travel may reflect man’s psychological movement in his original state by debunking the contrived formula of writing linear historical fiction and by challenging the coherence of linear time and human emotional experience. Perhaps the time travel theme just demonstrates that the historical “affect,” namely, the emotions and feelings evoked by certain historical circumstances which can be empathized with by readers living in other historical periods, is the ultimate truth.

T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets, “Only through time, time is conquered.” Historical fiction mixes literature’s ambition to conquer time with man’s consciousness of the lapse of time, which is also the reason why historical fiction has been popular throughout worldwide literature. In 1955, Georg Lukacs suggested that “the historical and formal relationship changes a great deal in modern times.”(“From the Historical Novel” 219) Two hundred years ago, the transition from historical dramas to historical novels demonstrated the changes that Lukacs astutely observed. Currently, time travel themes copiously occupy popular literature and other forms of cultural industry. Time travel is a literary invention that may not seem incompatible with the current stage of scientific knowledge and conventional human perception of concrete reality. Moreover, the genre celebrates the imaginative power of literature, a power that deserves to be preserved and protected because it is a source of generating knowledge and mining unexplored human potential.

Works Cited

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[i].  I am responsible for the English translation’s of the Chinese text.

[ii].  Given the fact that science fiction in which characters can travel to and from the future has never reached the mainstream, according to broadcast records around 2011 in the Chinese media, it is understandable that the government does not treat time travel fiction as a sub-genre of science fiction.

[iii].  See Schneider and Nahin.

[iv].  According to the definition of fantasy in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative. When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.

[v].  “Chronotope” is a term initiated by Bakhtin to describe time and space as a whole presented in literature (425), but he never gives a concrete definition in his works.  In “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope.” Bakhtin scholars Cary Morson and Michael Hoquest define it as “literally, ‘time and space.’ A unit of analysis for studying language according to the ratio and characteristics of the temporal and spatial categories represented.”

[vi].  Osaragi Jiro is a Japanese writer famous for her historical fiction.

[vii]. See Yuko.

[viii].  See Petrushevskaya.

[ix].  See Wood 49.

[x].  For example, after 1974 when China and Japan signed the “Agreement regarding Air Transportation between China and Japan” and Vice Prime Minister Wang Zhen officially visited Tokyo and Osaka by airplane announcing the first reciprocal air exchanges. See

[xi].  According to the translator Professor Dennis Washburn, those news clippings are excerpts from actual newspapers printed from 1945-1947.

[xii].  See Dower and Allinson.

[xiii].  “Particular history” is defined by Maxwell as: “the life of a town, a country, or especially a renowned figure, often reproducing original documents too specialized for the purposes of general or universal history” (13).

[xiv].  See Warner 255-281.

[xv].  See Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction.