Thursday, August 19, 2010

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Where Are All The Time Travel Romances With Time Machines?

I love a rollicking good time travel story as much as the next Morlock gal. Some of my favorite films involving time travel include THE TIME MACHINE, BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, BACK TO THE FUTURE, and LOVE STORY 2050 (yes, I plan to watch that Bollywood train wreck again in the future). Not to mention television series like DOCTOR WHO and all of those Star Trek time travel episodes across the various series. I was also a casual fan of Quantum Leap back in the day (and golly, that’s a classic title if there ever was one).

That said, the time travel tales I enjoy the most are those wherein the means of travel has a scientific basis, however nebulous the actual theory behind the device (case in point: phone booths). I find that I’m much more willing to suspend my disbelief about the phenomenon of time travel (albeit one of the most fantastical ideas ever) if a character has to invest blood sweat, and tears to create a machine for the journey—or at least learn how to operate one. The experience is even more rewarding if the device is tied to an external plot and has thematic significance, as opposed to simply being a means of transplanting a hero or heroine from one time period to another.

As a science fiction romance reader, however, I don’t really seem to have much of a choice. To wit: Several months ago, I was visiting Dorchester Publishing’s site and noticed that in the submission guidelines for time travel romances, the publisher clearly stipulates that it’s not interested in time travel romances in which a scientific device is involved:

TIME-TRAVEL ROMANCE: A hero or heroine travels through time and falls in love. For present-to-past time travel, traditional guidelines for historical romance apply. The challenge here is to maintain credibility during the transition between the present and the past. The fun is seeing another way of life through the eyes of someone from a different time. The conflict and resolution of the romance arise from the fact that the hero and heroine are from different eras, but should involve more than the secret that one comes from the future.

Beware of philosophizing about the meaning of time, and how the past affects the present. No time machines, please.
[Emphasis mine]

Given the long tradition of time travel romances with their unique nature of decidedly unscientific approaches, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but my head still spun wildly at such a statement. The reason is that I come to time travel from a science fiction reading background, so I associate time travel devices with science. The fantasy/supernatural fan in me enjoys the woo-woo version of time travel, but ultimately I have a stronger preference for science based ones.

For example, I loved Sandra McDonald’s THE STARS BLUE YONDER which involved very trippy time travel adventures for the hero and heroine (and for the full impact of the SF and romance elements, you really need to read the entire trilogy starting with THE OUTBACK STARS).

Recently, I enjoyed an advanced copy of Pauline B. Jones’ steampunk romance TANGLED IN TIME (December 2010) in which characters travel through time by means based in both steampunk and futuristic technologies. In THE LEGEND OF BANZAI MAGUIRE by Susan Grant, the heroine travels to the future by way of "bio-stasis." Colby Hodge’s TWIST has time travel elements, but the device seemed to be paranormal based rather than scientific (but that book also straddled the fence between horror-based paranormal and science fiction romance since it features vampire-like aliens).

My personal preferences aside, the question that begs asking is this: What is it about science-based time travel romances that don’t match the needs of romance publishers? During a scintillating exchange with blogger BevBB of Bev’s Books, I gained some insights into the possible mis-match.

One possible answer is that in a non-time machine time travel romance, the displaced hero or heroine doesn’t usually have control over his or her circumstances. Subsequently, the lack of a time machine keeps the story focused on the romance. The displaced character can’t use the machine to return to her time period, and it's less likely that the story will venture into cross-genre territory by way of an external plot.

Another possibility stems from the fact that while many romance authors have written a time travel romance or two during the course of their career, as a rule, they don’t specialize in time travel romances. If an author decides to write one, she is bound to choose a type more familiar to readers. In other words, time machines are not the default device for the time travel romance subgenre. Why? Could be the other kinds sell better, or perhaps authors consider time machines too technical, and/or too closely tied to mainstream science fiction.

A third possibility is that the time travel mechanism (whatever its nature) has the sole purpose of bringing the hero and heroine together. Anything more and the mechanism becomes a distraction. As an SF fan, I'm still puzzled as to why an author would introduce such a mechanism and not explain it any further, especially if it's a clever one. As a romance fan, I can understand why the mechanism would be exist merely as a means to an end, that end being the romance.

As a science fiction romance fan, however, I don’t see why we can’t have both types of time travel romance. Maybe the market couldn’t support science-based ones during the time travel romance heyday, but the digital market opens up the possibilities considerably. And the idea of the heroes and heroines taking control of their destinies as well as their romantic choices is exciting to me.

For example, it’s easy enough to have a story where the machine breaks down upon arrival, thus keeping the hero and heroine together until it’s repaired. Naturally, the characters would have to jump through hoops in order to achieve that goal, and the h/h can fall in love in the process. That’s just one idea. I believe there are a variety of plot twists that authors can explore.

I want to be sure and feature science-based time travel romances here, but during my routine research of SFR titles, very few stories have jumped out at me that fit the criteria I’m seeking. Now, it’s possible I’ve been looking in the wrong places (and one could argue that LOVE STORY 2050 is a very wrong place to look, heh). If that’s the case, can any of my fine passengers recommend titles? Also, do you think romance readers are ready to try time travel romances in which some type of machine is involved?

Joyfully yours,

Heather