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The best time travel stories from an author who writes and loves them
Let your mind fly with Low Ying Ping, author of the Mount Emily series
Let’s face it – who among us wouldn’t want to travel back in time?
Think of all the things we’ll get to see and do – and the people we’ll get to meet!
Well, it sounds fun when we say it like that… until we have to deal with tough situations ourselves, without the help of loved ones and modern technology.
Maybe that’s why time travel is more appealing in our imagination and in books? Especially when you happen to be transported to the year 1987.
“I remember a simpler world – one without the constant distractions of handphones and the Internet!” recalls Low Ying Ping, the author behind the popular Mount Emily series for kids aged 14 years old and below.
Why 1987? There are four books in Ying Ping’s series, in this order: Mount Emily, Mount Emily Revisited, Midnight at Mount Emily, and Goodbye, Mount Emily. They follow the adventures of Patsy Goh and her best friend, Elena – two teenagers who travel back in time to the 1980s (1987 starting from Mount Emily, to be exact) with the help of a magical time crystal.
Along the way, they battle a cult called the Midnight Warriors, figure out what it means to be Time Keepers, and discover valuable lessons about growing up, friendship, loyalty and family.
The series won the Singapore Book Awards 2017, and was shortlisted in the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award 2018 and the Popular Readers’ Choice Awards 2016, 2017 and 2018 under the English (Children) Books Category.
“My original intention for setting Mount Emily in 1987 was so that my characters have to really figure stuff out on their own, and not just Google for answers on their handphones and computers!” Ying Ping admits.
“And when they go on adventures and are separated from each other, they can’t just WhatsApp or call each other, but have to think on their feet instead.”
Besides, the 1980s were actually kind of fun.
“When I started writing the books, other things that I loved about the 1980s crept in, such as A&W root beer floats and curly fries, which my characters chomped down on when they travelled back to 1988 in Book 2,” she relates.
“By the time I was writing Book 4 in 2017, A&W had announced that they would be reopening in 2018. Since Book 4 is partially set in 2018, I had my characters go to the newly-reopened A&W, keeping my fingers crossed that the restaurant would open as scheduled.
“As it turned out, the reopening was delayed by a year, resulting in a slight factual inaccuracy in my book. I think that’s fine, though; I’ll just call it a ‘time breach’. (Readers of Mount Emily will know what I mean!)”
“I like the idea of time travel very much”
And why wouldn’t she? After hearing her experiences, you realise that there are just so many things Ying Ping can do (and has already done) with it. The possibilities are endless.
“It’s a complex concept to play with, and every author who does that comes up with different rules,” she observes.
“Some, for example, allow their characters to change the future; some don’t. Some allow information to transfer both ways; some don’t.
“It’s a challenging theme to pursue because if you don’t set your rules right and keep to them consistently, it will be confusing and unconvincing for the reader. But if it’s done right, it’s really fun for both the author and the reader when they see the connections between the past and the present.”
Here are Ying Ping’s five favourite things about time travel stories done right.
#1 The idea of second chances
“That time travel potentially allows you to go back and undo some of the mistakes you or someone else made. It is very hard to resist the temptation to do so when you hold such immense power in your hands, as some of my characters in the Mount Emily books realise!”
#2 There’s a chain reaction
“The corollary to the above is that when you go back and change something, you invariably affect the future in more ways than you anticipated – giving much scope for the author to pack the story with unexpected twists and crises!”
#3 Things may not work out as planned
“And then there are the stories where you can never change history. Even when you travel back into the past with the intention of changing things, you end up doing the very things that result in the future you are trying to change,” she maintains.
“The beauty of this type of story is that the author can, through masterful foreshadowing, show how past and future events intertwine in inextricable ways, often giving the stories a poignant air of inevitability and regret.”
#4 You discover different sides to people
“Travelling back and forth in time also allows characters to have startling insights about their past/future, giving depth to how they view certain incidents or the people around them.
“In the Mount Emily novels, Patsy and Elena travel back to when their parents were teenagers, and find out things about them they would otherwise not have known. The books are hence not just about Patsy, Elena and their friends, but about the life journeys of the older generation as well.”
#5 One “reality” can be enough
“In recent years, the idea of time travelling giving rise to multiverses has become quite popular. However, I still prefer stories of time travelling where its effects are contained within one universe. I find it more fun to see how the author works through the complications of time travel when there is only one linear timeline to fit everything in!”
These stories are proof
If you love time travel just as much, Ying Ping knows and recommends five tales that’ll keep you enthralled.
“I’m not going to tell you if they correspond to any of the above types of time travel, to avoid giving away spoilers!” she teases.
Care to hazard a guess?
#1 “A Sound of Thunder”, a short story by Ray Bradbury
“This popularised the concept of the butterfly effect in time travel stories, where making a very small change in the past can have major repercussions for the future.”
#2 To Say Nothing of the Dog, a comic science fiction novel by Connie Willis
“Its title is taken from the subtitle of Jerome K Jerome’s classic, Three Men in a Boat – a witty and humorous story about three Victorian gentlemen rowing down the River Thames with their dog,” she explains.
“Willis’s novel pays homage to Jerome’s masterpiece by having the central character – a bungling time-travelling historian – go back to 19th century England and meet the characters from Three Men in a Boat. Even if you haven’t read Jerome’s novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog is still sure to have you chuckling away at the antics the characters get up to.”
#3 The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
“Make sure you have lots of tissues before you take up this book, unless you have a heart of stone, in which case you have no business reading this beautifully sad love story anyway.
“A librarian inflicted with Chrono-Displacement Disorder (which causes him to involuntarily travel back and forth in time) meets his future wife while on one of his time travelling trips, and against all odds (and lots of heartbreak), they try to build a life together. If you enjoyed the movie, do try reading the book. The movie is great, but the book is ten times better.”
#4 The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a Japanese animated movie directed by Mamoru Hosoda and written by Satoko Okudera
“This movie is a loose sequel of the novella with the same title by Yasutaka Tsutsui, with both exploring how a young girl uses her newly acquired power of time travel and the consequences of her actions.
“As is common with anime, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is full of both comic and poignant moments. This is one of the very rare instances where I found the movie better than the book, with fuller characterisations and a more engaging plot.”
#5 “The Snow of Jinyang”, a Chinese short story by Zhang Ran, translated by Ken Liu and collected in the science fiction anthology Broken Stars
“This story is set in ancient China, and relates how a time traveller from the future comes up with innovative ways to replicate modern technology using primitive tools. Very inventive and humorous!”
So how about it? Do they make you want to travel back in time even more? Until it becomes real, we simply have to read on and dream. That’s not such a bad thing. And thanks to Ying Ping, we can.