Stephen Fry and Time Travel

My previous post on lines – time lines, story lines – prompted a memory and thank God for You Tube, here is Vonnegut talking about the shapes of stories – delightful.

Now, I have been meaning to write about Stephen Fry’s novel, Making History, for some time – but there’s been ‘an issue’ – you see I sent Stephen Fry a copy of my own humorous novel, Dreams of Gold, hoping that he would read it and be amused and post a comment about what a wonderful book it was so that all his Twitter-followers would rush out and buy the book [available here (UK) or here (USA) or here (Canada) or here (Germany) or here (Italy)   – Not that I’m desperately pushing it or anything!] – but so far he hasn’t. (Stephen, if you find yourself reading this, it’s the one with the vibrant orange cover in your book mountain). Now the reason I know that my book is in Stephen’s book mountain is that he responded to receiving the book with a personal note from his secretary to that effect, which is really extremely civilized of him)

But onwards. Let’s look at his book. Making History is a classically humorous novel in the English style. I’ve already mentioned the key ingredient of this in relation to Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive, it is the bumbling, well-intentioned, bright but stupid, ineffectual protagonist (that presumably we can all identify with because that is how we see ourselves? Hmm? Not entirely convinced) – however, I have to say that Michael Young, the would-be History PhD, who is the person occupying this role in this novel, is a particularly irritating example of the species. The other signature element of this kind of novel is the romantic interest (the happy ending). Fry manages to squeeze this in at the end in a slightly quirky (but not at all surprising to the alert reader) way.

But all of this is padding. The key elements of this narrative are eruditely manoeuvred into play. There is the time travel, which as in The Dalkey Archive, is presented in an absurd way – there’s no point trying to create a realistic scenario for corporeal transfer to the past and back again – but with this kind of novel we cannot judge it on its credibility, all we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride (or not, as may be). But whereas Flann O’Brien uses his time travel as a throw-away dimension of his narrative, one in which he pokes a few jokes at the Catholic Church, Fry has serious fish to…bake.

In Making History, his hero goes back in time in order to prevent Hitler from being born. But the consequences of this act are not quite as he had hoped; very, very badly not as he had hoped. There is an amusing re-entry to the present which he discovers is not at all like the present he had left. In fact…  of course… there needs to be some form of rectification and so… I’m afraid so, you’re going to have to read the book to find out what the hell I’m talking about.

But as all readers know there is a point in every book where you say, why on earth did he do that? And then you realise that if everyone did the normal sensible thing there would be no story. The irrationality is at the heart of the book.

And this is true of Making History – the truth is that if one somehow managed to arrange matters so that Hitler (to take an example or Genghis Khan’s father (with whom 10 percent of us share a genetic relationship to take another) never existed, then very few, if any of us would be alive today, would ever have existed. Instead the world would be peopled by others who, because we came into existence, didn’t. Think about it. How many of our parents would have met if Hitler hadn’t been born? How many of our great great grandparents would have existed if Genghis Khan hadn’t decided to send his armies west? And since if time travel was possible there would always be some idiot  going back and tinkering with the result that the present time would be continually ceasing to exist – but since it hasn’t ceased to exist or since there hasn’t been a convulsive change in personnel, we can conclude that time travel is not possible.

So the minute our protagonist (well, not mine – Stephen’s)  succeeded in arranging things so that Hitler wasn’t born, he would have himself flashed into non-existence – which is an impossible reality to include in a humorous novel (in the English style), which is no doubt why Stephen – who is a bright man and would have thought of this – ignored it.

Tangent: I remember reading a description of the world as it was 20 million years ago. The author said that it would have looked very similar in many ways to the present time with one curious fact, every single species of life – animal and vegetal – would have been different. I was in Australia at the time where all the animal and vegetal species were all looking similar but were, almost entirely, very different to the natural background I was more used to, so I comprehended this point immediately. 20 million years ago the world looked like Australia.

About Jonathan Chamberlain

I am a novelist and creative writer attacking all genres indiscriminately - Dreams of Gold (humour) - Alphabet of Vietnam (literary suspense) - Whitebait & Tofu (noir suspense) - Wordjazz for Stevie (memoir) - King Hui (biography) - Chinese Gods (cultural analysis) - The Cancer Survivor's Bible (self-help) My literary blog is In Praise of Older Books see My Fighting Cancer website is My cancer information archive is at
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1 Response to Stephen Fry and Time Travel

  1. ron mcmillan says:

    A big vote of thanks for the link to the Vonnegut clip, which I enjoyed very much. I have only recently begun to address a shameful and total lack of exposure to Vonnegut’s work, starting out with Slaughterhouse Five, which from the outset is quicksand-like in its grasp of this reader, at least.

    ron mcmillan

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