26 May 2020
Travelers: A Work of Science Fiction
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term Science Fiction as “Fiction in which the setting and story feature hypothetical scientific or technological advances, the existence of alien life, space or time travel, etc., esp. such fiction set in the future, or an imagined alternative universe.” (Science Fiction, 2020). The origin of Science Fiction can be traced back to Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), a revolutionary novel including elements of Gothic literature, mythology, and travel narratives, that portrayed its main character as a forward-thinking scientist that moved away from the antiquated beliefs of the past, which were centered around pseudoscience and the supernatural, and adopted a modern belief system influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and Romanticism. The novel cautioned society about the negative consequences that could result from a hubristic and irresponsible approach to science and technology. The SF genre, which commenced with Frankenstein, is now comprised of various subgenres that all contribute to it in unique ways.
Science Fiction differs from other works of fiction in that all content found in SF must be able to be logically explained, while in fantasy fiction for instance, it is not a requirement. John W. Campbell Jr. (1910-1971), a notable SF writer and editor, describes this when he states, “To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made. Ghosts can enter science fiction- if they’re logically explained but not if they are simply the ghosts of fantasy. Prophetic extrapolation can derive from a number of different sources, and apply in a number of fields. Sociology, psychology, and parapsychology are, today, not true sciences: therefore instead of forecasting future results of applications of sociological science of today, we must forecast the development of a science of sociology” (91). In the television series Travelers, available for streaming on Netflix, the creator does an excellent job of explaining his science saturated story in a logical way.
The Science Fiction series Travelers is Canadian-American in origin and consists of three seasons released between 2016 and 2018. It was created by Brad Wright, a Canadian producer, screenwriter, and actor, who is well-known for co-creating Stargate SG1, Stargate Atlantis, and Stargate Universe, all science fiction television series, as well. Travelers stars, Canadian actor Jared Abrahamson as Trevor Holden aka Traveler 0115, Canadian actress Nesta Marlee Cooper as Carly Shannon aka Traveler 3465, Canadian actor Reilly Dolman as Philip Pearson aka Traveler 3326, Canadian actor Patrick Gilmore as David Mailer, Canadian-American actor and singer Eric James McCormack as Grant MacLaren aka Traveler 3468, and Canadian actress and musician MacKenzie Porter as Marcy Warton aka Traveler 3569.
Travelers is reflective of the type of SF described by Isaac Asimov as Hard Science Fiction when he stated: “By hard science fiction, I mean those stories in which the details of science play an important role and in which the author is accurate about those details, too, and takes the trouble to explain them clearly” (299). Like Asimov’s definition, Wright explains the scientific aspects of the story in detail and ensures that they are accurate and do not conflict. The story takes place in the present-day United States where the consciousness of operatives from a post-apocalyptic future arrive suddenly and inhabit the bodies of pre-chosen individuals at the historical moments of their deaths. The Travelers are sent by an AI known as the Director to change specific events from the past in an attempt to prevent the future destruction of society. Having historical knowledge of the past and advanced technology, the Travelers are successful at funding their operations by placing gambling bets, curing themselves when injured, and manipulating present-day technology, but also struggle as a result of raising the suspicion of those closest to them due to the sudden change in their personalities, caused by their taking over of foreign bodies without possessing the memories and the small details of the hosts day to day lives. While performing their mission the Travelers must follow protocols that have been established by the Director such as, the mission comes first, leave the future in the past, don’t take a life; don’t save a life, unless otherwise directed, do not interfere, do not reproduce, in the absence of direction, maintain your host’s life, and do not communicate with other known Travelers outside of your team unless sanctioned by the Director. Doing so affects the timeline, which results in changes to the future, and subsequent changes to the mission, and can also result in death. The Travelers also engage in armed conflict with a rebel group from the future known as the Faction, which disagrees with allowing the AI the power to control their lives, and wants to give authority back to humanity. The rebel group is not per se “bad” but they do attempt to sabotage Traveler missions and use violent means in an attempt to accomplish their goal of disruption. The team must also confront their nemesis Vincent Ingram, Traveler 001, who is the leader of the Faction, and the first traveler to arrive from the future on September 11, 2001. Traveler 001 was supposed to die in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, but escaped the attack and went into hiding from the Director, and has attempted to destroy the AI and preserve his life by doing so, ever since. The Traveler team ultimately fails its mission, allowing Ingram to transfer his consciousness into cyberspace, from where he causes the nuclear destruction of civilization, but not before Traveler 3468 is able to travel further into the past, to a time minutes before Traveler 001 is scheduled to arrive. Traveler 3468 sends the Director a message telling it that the mission has failed and should be aborted, canceling Traveler 001’s scheduled arrival and saving the world from nuclear destruction.
The Travelers series includes several elements that allow it to be categorized as SF. The first element is time-travel using technology, first demonstrated by H.G. Wells (1866-1946) in his famous SF novella, The Time Machine (1895). In the novella, an English scientist builds a device that allows him to travel forward and backward in time. Dr. Sorchá Ní Fhlainn, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University further explains Well’s contribution to SF in an article published in the August 2016 issue of the magazine Adaptation where she writes, “His fictional invention, a sled-like yet static machine capable of gliding through the fourth dimension of time, to the future or the past, has been noted by scholars as being the first popular instance of fictional time travel based on scientific method and theory rather than wishing or dreaming methods associated with time travel in earlier narratives” (165). Just as in the Time Machine time-travel in the Traveler series is accomplished with the use of technology. The characters all travel to the present-day from hundreds of years in the future, but unlike in the Time Machine only their consciousness is transferred, and traveling is unidirectional, from future to past. The second element of Science Fiction that is present in Travelers is the use of body enhancements. The Travelers team-members use devices that are embedded in their heads to communicate with each other, which technically makes them cyborgs. Two examples of cyborgs appearing in Science Fiction are the characters, Automatic Jack and Rikki, in the Cyberpunk short story Burning Chrome, written by William Gibson and published in the science and science fiction magazine Omni, in July of 1982. Automatic Jack is a cyborg because he has a prosthetic arm due to an accident and Rikki becomes a cyborg by getting cybernetic eye implants for cosmetic reasons (pp. 72-107). The third element of SF found in Travelers is the strict protocols the team must follow. They seem eerily similar to the rules established in the short SF story “The Cold Equations”, a short SF story written by Tom Godwin (1915-1980), and published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding Magazine. In “The Cold Equations” a young woman named Marilyn must perish because the ship she has stowed away on does not contain enough fuel to complete its mission with her aboard. Those in charge will not even consider trying to save her and she is ultimately disposed of into space where she dies (pp. 62-84). The protocols in Traveler must not be broken under any circumstances as well. The Director has calculated every move the team must make and breaking protocol can be punished by death. The fourth element of SF found in Travelers is the transfer of consciousness which occurs when the Travelers time-travel into host bodies and also when Traveler 001 transfers his consciousness to cyberspace. The transfer of consciousness into another body has occurred in SF for a long time but the transfer of consciousness into cyberspace is a more recent development and an example of it can be observed in The X-Files, Season 5 Episode 11, “Kill Switch,” where two computer hackers transfer their consciousness’ into cyberspace where they will exist indefinitely. Finally the fifth element of SF found in Travelers is the existence of an AI that controls the actions of humans. An example of an AI in a work of Science Fiction is in the short story “Reason”, written by Isaac Asimov, published in the April 1941 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. In the story, two men build a robot capable of reasoning that eventually takes control of the space station on which they are deployed. The robot does not harm the men but does infringe on their ability to do as they please (pp. 33-45).
When you compare Travelers to other works of Science Fiction you quickly realize that it contains many elements that can be found throughout the SF genre and its subgenres. The show is science saturated and its plot is explained clearly and logically, with no unexplained conflicts existing in the storyline. It contains technology that is more advanced than that which is available today but not so far-fetched that it won’t be possible in the future. When compared to Shelley’s Frankenstein with which the genre started, the series continues the forwarding-thinking and always advancing direction that Shelley envisioned. Travelers represents a modern-day work of Science Fiction. It follows established and accepted rules of what SF is and does so in an entertaining and understandable way.
Asimov, Isaac. “Reason.” Astounding Science-Fiction, Apr. 1941, pp. 33–45. https://archive.org/details/ Astounding_v27n02_1941-04_dtsg0318/page/n43/mode/2up
Asimov, Isaac, editor. Stories from the Hugo Winners. vol. 2. New York: Fawcett Crest Books, 1973.
Campbell, Jr., John W. “The Science of Science Fiction Writing.” Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction-Writing. Ed. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. Reading, PA: Fantasy Press, 1947. 89-101. Print
Gibson, William. “Burning Chrome.” Omni, July 1982, pp. 72–107, https://web.archive.org/web/20190519005941/http://www.housevampyr.com/training/library/books/omni/OMNI_1982_07.pdf.
Godwin, Tom. “The Cold Equations.” Astounding Science Fiction, Aug. 1954, pp. 62–84, https://archive.org/details/Astounding_v53n06_1954-08_Sirius-Starhome/page/n59/mode/2up.
“Kill Switch.” The X-Files, season 5, episode 11, Fox, 15 Feb. 1998.
Ní Fhlainn, Sorchá. “‘There’s Something Very Familiar About All This’: Time Machines, Cultural Tangents, and Mastering Time in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and the Back to the Future Trilogy.” Adaptation: The Journal of Literature on Screen Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, Aug. 2016, pp. 164–184. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/adaptation/apv028. Accessed 21 May 2020.”science fiction, n. and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2020, www.oed.com/ view/Entry/172674. Accessed 21 May 2020.
Shelley, Mary W., Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, London, 1831. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42324/42324-h/42324-h.htm. Accessed 21 May 2020.
Wells, H.G., The Time Machine – Abridged Version. The World’s Greatest Books. William H.
Wise Co., New York, 1941, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1302961h.html.
Wright, Brad. “Travelers.” Netflix Official Site, 23 Dec. 2016, www.netflix.com/title/80105699.