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Mary Robinette Kowal – Go Back to the Future With Fantasy’s Top Ten Time-Traveling Devices


You know what I need in my life? A little more time — just a few extra hours to squeeze into the day. If I could borrow Hermione Granger’s time-turner, or Doc Brown’s DeLorean, then I might stand a chance at actually getting everything turned in on time. It would make my editor happy, I’m sure. But like airlines, there are just so many time travel methods from which to choose.

10. Groundhog Day, Groundhog Day (1993)
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I could wind up stuck in the same miserable day, like Phil Connors (Bill Murray), doomed to repeat events over and over and over and… well, you get the idea. As time travel goes, this method is pretty poor since it only covers one twenty-four hour period. Granted, I might be able to play the piano by the end…

9. The Staff, Forbidden Kingdom (2008)
This method of time travel is very simple: It involves grabbing an ancient mystical staff and then getting beaten up and falling off a building. Presto! You can get transported back thousands of years and across the world to ancient China. Once there you embark on a year long martial arts course so that when you return to the exact moment you left, you kick ass. A much less mind-numbing way to learn a skill, but not so useful in your day-to-day life.

8. The Earthquake, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995)
Closer to what I’m thinking about as ideal time travel is this thing that Calvin Fuller (Thomas Ian Nichols) does. He’s playing baseball and strikes out. Fortunately, he can go back in time, learn the necessary skills and then come forward to a few moments before he struck out get it right. Granted, the mode of transportation (an earthquake and a bottomless chasm) is a little iffy. But the range is just swell.

7. Ye Olde Medallion, Black Knight (2001)
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Another possible time-travel mode is Ye Olde Medallion, which transports Jamal Walker (Martin Lawrence) back to 1328. Same range as the earthquake, but without all the trauma and endless falling. The only trouble, as I see it, is that I’m fairly certain you couldn’t have a wi-fi connection back then. And I do so need my Internets.

6. The Potion, Just Visiting (2001)
Another breed of time travel is moving forward in time, as Lord Thibault does. Now, his particular method involves a potion, which strikes me as being pretty sloppy: Sure, it causes time travel, but he was supposed to go back in time. Plus, it makes no arrangements for a return journey. Going into the future sounds good, but really, don’t we do that every day?

5. The Portal, Kate and Leopold (2001)
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OK, so you really want to go into the future. If you do, opt for Stuart Besser’s (Liev Schrieber) method instead. He’s got this way of calculating time portals so he can pick and choose where and when he’s going. (Return trip included!) This, to me, seems very smart. Plus, the portal transports Hugh Jackman, which is always a bonus.

4. Thought, Somewhere in Time (1980)
But why mess with portals, potions or earthquakes when all you have to do is think yourself back in time? First, obsess over a woman (or man) of your choosing. Then, buy the necessary period clothing (after all, it wouldn’t do to turn up in today’s fashions). Now, simply think about the past and voila! The only downside is that you can’t think about the present any more. Oh, and instant death when you return. Bummer.

3. The Time Machine, Time After Time (1979)
Time_After_Time_125x125.jpgNow, it’s much smarter to have a machine of some sort to control your traveling. H. G. Wells has one of them — because apparently in this movie he’s not only a novelist, but an inventor as well. The machine works so well that even an amateur, like say, Jack the Ripper, can work it. Cleverly constructed, it will return you safely home, whenever that time that may be.

2. The Map, Time Bandits (1981)
Of course, who needs a time machine when a map can do the traveling for you — and make sure you’re pointed in the right direction. These handy tools are given out as a matter of course when you work for the Supreme Being, but you will have to land a job as a  Space-Time Continuum Repairman. The downside? Evil wants your map, too.

1. The Phone Booth, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Easiest by far is the time-traveling phone booth. A simple gadget that even idiots can work, this can take its travelers to any time and right to the doorstep of the person they want to see. Now if only it were bigger on the inside than the outside… Anyone know where I can find something like that? Perhaps something in blue?

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Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.

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