That's a line I just passed in a book I am reading and it struck me quite hard. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and I love stories about time travel, and all the different ways that different authors handle the idea of time travel; what the possibilities are, what it might MEAN, how it would work or not work. But this is the first time I've read something that describes what is happening to you and to me, right now, in such a truthful and meaningful way. The character that said the line wasn't talking about an actual machine...he was referring to how LIFE works. LIFE is a time machine, isn't it? It only goes one way, but it gets you there. It takes you into the future.
It's so human to want to go back and fix the past. Or to want to go back and visit it, at least. Our memories are so patch-work, so prone to misinterpretation and fog, that the idea of going back to see ourselves, or the places we've been, or the people we miss, is a powerful desire. What is nostalgia but an attempt to travel in time, mentally, back to a better place? What is memory, but an attempt to do the same thing, on a factual level?
Why would you want to go into the past? Some people think of it as a grandiose do-over...kill Hitler and stop WWII from happening, is the typical example. And many stories go into great depth about what would happen if that was possible. Sometimes WWII still happens, just with a different catalyst. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes no matter how hard the protagonist tries, actually changing the past is impossible. The book I'm reading posits that if you went back into the past, the very act of doing so would change the future to the point that you would no longer remember it because it would no longer exist.
Some people see it as a chance to make better decisions for themselves. Fixing the bad choice they made, not saying the hurtful thing they said, going or not going to that party, agreeing or not agreeing to that experience; getting to do over the things that you regret doing or not doing. Regrets are simply wishes for time travel opportunity do-overs.
Some see it as a chance to visit someone again who has died...knowing that there is no way to do that in your actual living present is a hard thing to deal with and the idea of time travel as a way to see them again is powerfully attractive. Who would you like to see again? I'd like to see my dad. I'd like to show him his grandchildren. I'd like to see my grandfather, and my uncle Sam. I'd like to spend time with them and not with just my memories of them, which are unraveling and thinning. The idea of traveling back in time is a selfish one, in those cases, isn't it? It's about satisfying MY desire to have something I can't have. The regret isn't about the fact that someone loved is gone; it's about the fact that they don't get to know me NOW. They don't get to see how I turned out.
I like the idea of life as a time travel machine better than the idea of it as a conveyor belt, anyway. I like the idea that it's taking us somewhere...that there is a destination, even if that is death, I suppose, and not just dropping off the end of the belt. It's a rare time travel machine that goes forward, in stories. Most of them are concerned with the past, and most of the supposed mechanics of time travel seem to think that you can't go into the future, though you CAN, and you ARE. I'm in the future now, of my 15-year-old self, of my 25-year-old self, even though they're still here, inside me, sharing my delight in the imagination and cleverness of storytelling and ideas.
If I could go back and tell those earlier selves something, it would probably be: keep reading. Except that I wouldn't have to. They would, regardless. I have regrets about things I've done and said, sure, but I don't know that going back and changing them would make that much of a difference to the way I've turned out. And since this time travel machine only goes one way, I can only work on the decisions I have ahead of me and try to make the best ones I can. I'm looking into the future, while trying to enjoy the past I'm creating every minute.
*from Version Control by Dexter Palmer