Trans Time Travel (Queering SF #25)
“Time travel fictions present special problems because they play with foundational things like time, causation, and the personal identity and free will of the time traveler—and it is not at all clear what any of these things are like in the real world.” (John Bigelow)
“The future feels lighter than the past. I think I know why you chose it over me, Mama.” (Nino Cipri)
Who among us has not wanted to take a trip in time? Who has not wanted the opportunity to go back and have another chance? To fix a personal mistake? Who has not wanted to leap ahead and take a glimpse at the world to come, to see what we might otherwise miss? But traveling back in time so often creates these classic paradoxes. Traveling back in time and having sex with a direct relative, which starts one’s own lineage. In such a story (genetics aside), the notion of time seems fixed, since the events of time are in a closed loop. Traveling back in time and altering one tiny fact. The time traveler then returns “home” and finds everything changed, or else winks out of existence altogether. In such a story, the notion of time is malleable, but the effects are unknown. Traveling ahead in time and bringing back future knowledge, thereby altering the future just visited.
Apart from the mechanics of time travel fiction (read: David Wittenberg, John Bigelow, or David Lewis), what is the thematic desire? What does the author accomplish narratively by using the time travel trope? What does an author of Queer SF hope to accomplish? The Finnish writer Nino Cipri might offer us some thoughts.
Nino Cipri (they/them) has been busy. Just look at their Twitter feed. Apart from tweeting, Cipri has published 23 short stories since 2012, with 3 chapbooks, 1 collection of stories and 2 novels. Their story “The Shape of My Name” first appeared on Tor.com. The story has been reprinted 4 times, including in Trancendent (K. M. Sparza), and it as a finalist for the James Tiptree Award in 2015. Cipri has also noted in several interviews that they like to play with form. Cipri writes one story in the form of a magazine poll (“Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You?, 2017). In an interview in Nightmare Magazine, Cipri says they have written stories “told as audio transcripts, Wikipedia articles, and editorial notes.” “The Shape of My Name” is told in the form of a letter from a child to their mother.
The story posits a family that travels in time. The time machine (“anachronopede”) was built in 1905 and works only for members of the Stone family. Something about their DNA. It resides in an underground bunker in the backyard of a house held by the same family for centuries. Time travel is limited to the span between 1905 and August 3, 2321. No one knows what happens on that date and why time travel cannot go past it. Probably not something good. . . . Uncle Dante has a hefty book in which he keeps track of all the family members during those 306 years. Except for our protagonist, whose name is blank and sex are left blank. Unprecedented.
(Our protagonist’s name is revealed in the final paragraph, and so I’ll continue with these circumlocutions to avoid saying his name.)
His mother comes from a future moment in time. But she knows who she will marry and when. And so she is an “exile” in time in 1947 when Mariam Stone marries Tom Guthrie. Their child is born in 1950. But because the child had no name in the official family history, no one expected the child to live. So no one had a name ready.
In some ways, Mariam’s plight parallels that of many a 1950s housewife. She felt exiled and trapped there. She stayed at home and took care of the house while Tom was away at work. She did not travel in time during pregnancy nor after the baby was born. Desperate, she takes the child on the first time trip at age twelve. But the feminine mystique has her feeling inadequate and alone.
Mariam does have company, though. Dara often stays at the house while Tom is at work (he works two weeks stretches in an oil field). Dara, too, is from the family. Dara, too, is from a future moment in time. Mariam and Dara are lovers.
In 1963 (the year The Feminine Mystique was published), when the child is not yet thirteen, mom makes that first time trip to see Dara—but a Dara who has not yet met the child. They stay in Dara’s house in 1981 for a while, the child amazed by all the future technology. Mariam was looking for something else.
The day after they return to 1963, Marian Guthrie (Stone) packs her bag, leaves a brief note, and leaves her family. She travels as far into the future as she possibly can, beyond the reach of time travel and time travelers. In some ways, Marian Guthrie (Stone) is a postmodern Nora. When Nora slams closed the front door of the Doll House, where does she go? What does she do? Has she really escaped the patriarchy that kept her trapped like a plaything? Here, Mariam walks out the front door, with no slamming. She didn’t want to wake anyone. And she heads to the end of time. Maybe she’s found a way out of the doll house.
When mom bails, Dara is there for the child. Mom had resisted the idea that her child could be trans. Mom insisted on the name she had given the child at birth. Mom bristled when Dara visited and “indulged” the child with name games. And when Mariam can no longer deny her son, she escapes. Leaves him behind. In 2076 Dara helps the child with surgery and recuperation. Dara the queer mom with her queer kid in queer time.
Just prior to having surgery, the child returns to 1954, to see mom, to see if forgiveness was possible. Mother cannot recognize the child as her son.
So, what does Nino Cipri have to tell us about time travel tales? Bigelow suggests that we don’t necessarily know what time, and identity, and (I’ll extend it to include) family are like in the “real world.” “The Shape of My Name” (drawn from Audre Lorde’s poem, “Artisan”) similarly suggests that time is just as malleable and fluid as identity. That each of us may be a different person, with a different name, from one day to the next, from one decade to the next. The protagonist notes that the future is free of the weight of the past, and so offers the possibility of change. Of being who you’re meant to be.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction (Palgrave), editor of “The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism” (Aqueduct), and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls (McFarland).