Used Time Machine for Sale: The Nature of Time Travel

Our piece for this week is Used Time Machine for Sale by Becky Boban, which is a flash fiction piece from Periphery 55. This piece can be found both under the Story of the Week tab and in Periphery’s online archives.

As the end of the Spring 2021 semester approaches, I feel that this is the perfect opportunity to discuss a story that explores the nature of time. Like many other flash fiction pieces, Used Time Machine for Sale is a study in using targeted details to craft a broader narrative. More specifically, this piece contrasts realistic details with fantastical ones to paint a vivid portrait of both the narrator and their reality. Consider, for example, the following passage:

“Transmission good, steering good, right front headlight punched out by Bucephalus’ hoof. Ash from Pompeii melted onto the body.”

The first half of the first sentence reads like that of any other vehicle advertisement, and as such serves to both align the piece more closely to our reality and show that the narrator finds time travel machines normal enough so as to be mundane. In contrast, the rest of the passage re-emphasizes the incredible nature of time travel by highlighting visits to famous creatures and events. Thus, these four, simple details create a reality in which time travel is simultaneously mundane and awe-inspiring.

This reality, in turn, is used to explore the nature of time itself—particularly the ways in which humans make use of such a limited resource. The most powerful example of this exploration comes from this sentence:

“Used to keep dinner warm, save the cat from being run over, visit Joel before he died in prison, and family vacations to the Chicago Columbian Exposition.”

This passage, which describes the most common ways in which the narrator utilized their time machine, doesn’t include a list of fantastic adventures. Instead, it shows that the narrator largely used the time machine for small, family-related things, such as preserving dinner and visiting an ill friend. This is somewhat unusual, as in most famous works of time-travel-related literature, characters have used their time machines to save the world.

But then, that’s the point—the narrator of this piece isn’t famous, and they don’t have to save the world. Instead, they’re like us, with daily responsibilities, a fascination with the weird parts of human history, and a junky vehicle that they’re trying to sell. And doesn’t that list exemplfy the most important things we spend our time on? Home-cooked meals, precious time with pets, and visits with loved ones are all the soft, quiet moments that make us who we are. These experiences may not be particularly glamorous, but they are decidedly worthwhile, and I know that if I had a time machine, they are the moments to which I would return.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a time machine–none of us do, at least, not yet. So for now, we must continue travelling through time in the only way we know how: forward. Yet as we go, we should hold tight to the memories and moments that have shaped us, just in case we can someday afford a 19-million-mile junker with its gear shift stuck in reverse.

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