What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?
Well, maybe you’d keep reliving the same day until you changed something about (dun dun dun) yourself, and something something inspirational. We’ve all seen the movie: Groundhog Day. Soon it will be February 2nd again, and some kind of creature... badger... thing will predict six more weeks of winter or (hopefully) an early spring.
Charlie Brown had a special for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and even celebrated Arbor Day, but he somehow failed to honor this singularly important day. So as it gets closer, take some time to really appreciate the one movie that does it justice, and respects the importance of oversized rodents—not to mention the increasingly popularized use of time loops in fiction. Yet there are many other examples of this trope from literature that remain largely unrecognized.
In honor of Bill Murray and groundhogs everywhere who find repeating time less suicidally funny and more unnerving, following are a few of the best examples:
(Spoilers to follow)
Martian Time Slip, by Philip K. Dick: Time travel is one of the hardest tropes to get right, so it figures that one of the best, trippiest examples would come from the incredible author who also believed a pink beam of light transmitted heretofore untold truths about the world. In short, a schizophrenic repair man moves to Mars, meets special children and robot historical figures, and becomes the center of another man’s time travel loop.
Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut: A bleaker look on the same topic comes from Vonnegut. In 2001, a “timequake” is coming, which sends everyone back to relive the past decade. While little action occurs, this novel focuses more on the question of whether people are unable or unwilling to change when they know they cannot make a difference. Intriguingly mixed in are aspects of Vonnegut’s life and opinions, not to mention another example of his self insertion.
To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis: In Willis’s work we see a softer version of time travel. An overworked time-traveling historian is sent to Victorian England to recuperate from “time lag.” Unfortunately, he is not an expert in Victorian history. And accidentally sets in motion a time travel paradox, which, naturally, can only be solved by more time-traveling historians.
The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman: Instead of writing about a character reliving the same bound period repeatedly, Gaiman illustrates a perhaps more terrifying example of insular circularity in his novel. When a magician accidentally binds Morpheus, god of dreams, rather than Death, he does not attain immortality. After his death, his son lets Morpheus escape, and Morpheus uses eternal, unending nightmares and awakenings as punishment. While not a major point in the overall story, this sequence stuck with me.
Replay, by Ken Grimwood: One of the classic examples of the time loop is this story of a radio journalist who dies and wakes up twenty five years earlier. And then continues to do so again and again, each time remembering the life that happened previously. Eventually he joins together with another “replayer,” and they try to use their combined knowledge to make the world a little bit better.
Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett: The most existential and meta example of the group would have to be Beckett. Waiting for Godot is, shockingly, about two men waiting for a man named Godot, who never arrives. As they wait, and converse, one can never finish a joke, the other never shares his dreams. Other characters come and go, while the protagonists wonder who they’ve met before and… well, it’s all a bit “timey wimey wibbly wobbly.” Not definitively a time loop, but these viewing the play as time slipping does make for an interesting reading.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J. K. Rowling: Come on. We’ve all read it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be mentioned (and spark a thousand debates on why time turners weren’t used more extensively in the series). As the only book in the series in which no one dies, it might also come as a pleasant reprieve from the darker takes on time loops.
And if you filled with ennui, wondering if you are just unknowingly reliving the same day, week, month, time and time again, try to stay positive. The characters in loops seem to be the ones who make it out in the end.