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Time Travel in Fiction: Why Over How

After having a conversation with my agent the other day, I’ve decided my next novel project is going to be time travel based. I wasn’t really planning to write this particular novel at this particular time, but he feels its the best career move right now and that’s basically what I’m paying the guy for – his advice – so why wouldn’t I take it? Anyway, the point here is that I’ve been thinking (a lot) about time travel in stories today and I want to share some of my ramblings.

One of the questions I’ve gotten recently is how the character in my time travel story is going to travel through time. What are the rules, in other words? Is time linear or non-linear in this story? Are we going to be dealing with the Grandfather Paradox or the Butterfly Effect or what? What about free will? Now, it just so happens that I have answers to these questions, but I’m not going to list them out here today. Instead, I’m going to talk a fair bit about how those questions aren’t actually that important. Or, at least, not as important as they first appear.

Pick a method – it doesn’t really matter.

Time travel stories, you see, are really never about how time travel is accomplished. Never. Time travel stories are actually all about why the characters in question are traveling in time in the first place. This is also true more broadly of many science fiction stories of whatever subcategory – the special technology is usually more a metaphor for something present and actual rather than a literal exploration of technological progress – but it is particularly true of time travel, since, of all speculative technologies, time travel is possibly the least plausible outside of traveling at relativistic speeds (and then you could only go one direction – the future). If you want to go back in time instead of just forwards (in other words if you want an actual time machine), you kinda have to throw away most known physics anyway. If you’re doing something that impossible, does the fact that you’re traveling by Police Box or hot tub or phone booth really matter?

In other words, the rules, in large part, are arbitrary. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to tell a time travel story in terms of how the deed is accomplished and the rules surrounding said deed. Do we really question that the time machine in the Terminator can only send organic matter? I mean, it makes no sense, but do we care? Likewise, in Back to the Future, the Flux Capacitor makes absolutely zero sense, but, again, we don’t really care. We don’t care because we aren’t watching to movie to learn about how time works. We’re watching the movie to revisit our past.

And that’s really the crux of it: the journey through time is always (always) a metaphor that directly pertains to the main character’s conflict. Sarah Connor has to face the reality of her world ending and how best to prepare for that (the precise dimensions of that preparation and what it symbolizes varies from film to film). Marty McFly has to come to terms with his own parents and, thereby, his own identity. It is a crisis of self confidence, not a Hill Valley crisis. Even the Doctor and his TARDIS aren’t exploring space-time to teach us lessons about history, but rather to explore the human condition (and an outside observer’s opinion of it) in infinite contexts and scenarios. It’s not a show about aliens at all – it’s a love letter to humanity.

So, if you’re going to put together a time travel story, how you have the character traveling through time is a question subservient to why you want them to travel through time to begin with. Depending on what your purpose is – what themes you want to explore – the way time travel happens will itself be altered to fit your narrative goals. And you can do this, too! Time machines are impossible – as impossible as magic and even more impossible than things like hyperdrive or lightsabers or giant battle robots. In other words, it’s something of a blank slate – tell the tale you need to. Your audience isn’t tuning in for technical merit – they’re expecting a story about the human condition.

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Laughing From the Mountaintop

My Technology in Literature class wrapped up discussion of HG Wells’ The Time Machine recently. Every time I read the work, the thing that most interests me is the simple explanation the Time Traveler gives at the very beginning regarding the feasibility of time travel. In essence, he suggest that we already do travel in time–when we remember something or dream of things past–but we cannot remain for any period of time. Thus, we are as constrained in travel in the fourth dimension just as primitive man was in the third (i.e. you can jump up and down or fall of a cliff, but you can’t remain or travel freely through the dimension of height without the assistance of technology).

Wells envisions the solution to this problem pretty simply–the Time Machine works rather like a railroad engine. It can go forward and in reverse, it has a throttle and brakes, and the ‘engineer’ manipulates the whole process with a pair of simple levers. On the whole, it seems even less complicated than driving a car.

Many have been the time-travel tales since then. However, we have envisioned the process differently. One does not

Some theories of time travel are more plausible than others...

travel through time in the same way as we walk down the street or fly to Atlanta; the devices involve some kind of sudden leap or jolting transference. The process is instantaneous, or nearly so. We go there in Deloreans or weird tubes (12 Monkeys) or telephone booths or even hot tubs. I sort of doubt, however, that time travel (assuming it’s possible) would work that way. I kinda think that Wells, for all his antiquity, had the better theory.

Consider this: How has all travel, thus far, functioned? Air, sea, space, or land, we move progressively across space. Now, granted, that’s space, and we’re talking time. Time, though, isn’t supremely different than space. We can’t define what makes up space anymore than we can time (ask a physicist sometime about ‘what space is made of’ and get ready for some weird, mostly theoretical stuff). The primary difference, though, is that we are better able to  perceive of space than we are time. Perhaps, for this reason, time travel is beyond us–we just aren’t smart enough to ‘see’ it as it is.

Not a Straight Line

The average person on the street sees time as an arrow–we proceed from point A to point B along the minutes and the hours and so on. This is why time-travel stories are so concerned about ‘altering the past to destroy the future’. We are, arrogantly, considering time to be a single path of causality and that, if we change something back then, then we will necessarily alter something right now. Time, though, isn’t a line or an arrow. It’s a dimension, like width, depth, and height. If you could travel through time, you could go sideways as well as back and forth. You could even, perhaps, look at time from a different direction.

The Mountaintop of Boethius

Oddly enough, much of my knowledge of theoretical physics has been supported by existential philosophy, and vice versa. I don’t claim to be an expert in either, but I can readily see the connections. Thus, my reading of The Consolation of Philosophy in my freshman-year western culture seminar fundamentally changed my perception of what time travel might consist of.

In this work, there is a part where Philosophy is trying to explain to Boethius how it is that God can be omniscient while, at the same time, mankind can be given free will. I don’t have the text in front of me right now, but in summation, Boethius asks how it could be that all of his actions and the results of these actions could be known to God and, yet, he might still have command over what he does. Couldn’t he then do something God didn’t expect and upset the whole divine apple-cart?

Philosophy’s answer goes like this: God is not part of the flow of time as Boethius or, indeed, as any mortal sees it. God looks upon the world from a mountaintop, and beneath Him is spread all that Was, Will Be, and Is, existing for Him as a kind of eternal Present. He is able to perceive of all time simultaneously. Thus, He can look down at what any one person is doing now, see how it relates to what they have done, and then see how it will lead to what they will do. Presumably, when taking quantum physics into account here, God would be able to see the outcomes of all possible outcomes of all possible actions, viewing them simultaneously, and thus be omniscient without really interfering with an individual’s decision-making process. This idea is echoed in Grendel’s discussion with the Dragon in Gardner’s Grendel, as well as the Architect of The Matrix: Reloaded.

How does this connect to time travel? Well, it makes the device needed to make it happen both monstrously more complex than any other we’ve seen, but also simpler in operation. All that is needed is to be able to see time as it is–as a kind of dimension across which we may travel in any direction–and then make the machine go there. It’s not an instantaneous jump or a lightning-bound explosion, it’s more like a stroll down from a mountain.

The thing is, though, it’s the kind of stroll only a God seems to be able to make.