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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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Time Travel Tales: Now Available from Chappy Fiction!

It’s release day! My friend Zach Chapman has just put together a ripping collection of Time Travel Tales, just in time for the holidays, and it is now available in both paperback and e-book.

But don’t just take my word for it! Consult with your FUTURE SELF who is, right at this moment, emerging from my time machine. Here we go…

(opens door)

Hmmm...you've looked better...

Hmmm…you’ve looked better…

(closes door)

Just some…well…technical difficulties. I’m sure you’ll be fine. That you probably wasn’t even from this timeline. Right.

316892976Anyway, this anthology has tons of treats beyond simply my own humble tale (oh, did I not mention that? I HAVE A STORY HERE! Yes! MEEE! MEEEEEEE!)

Ahem. Also included are such luminary authors as Sean Williams, Robert Silverberg, Martin Shoemaker, Stuart C Baker, SL Huang, David Steffen, and many, many more!

So go and get it! Go! Time is wasting!

Well, unless you have a time machine, in which case you can get it now whenever you like.

Your Evil Time Travel Loan: Terms and Conditions

Dear Chronomenator Supreme,

Thank you for your interest in Financial Operations and Underwriting Limited (FOUL) and our time travel loan service. If you are here from the future, I’m certain you will have found our terms generous. We would also like to take this opportunity to make you aware of our Henchman Recruiting Service, our Insurance offerings (please note: time travel is not covered as of this point in the timeline – please visit our agents in 2132), our catalog, and this basic overview of our operations and dossier of our more successful clients.

Please understand that, as we take client confidentiality very seriously, we must ask you to make certain to return to just before you received this message and eat it before you can read it, thus keeping any evidence of our existence a secret from those pesky Time Cops. Failure to do so will have resulted in a killer robot from the future having gone back in time to eliminate your Uncle Freddy just before he would have surprised you as Santa Claus on your fifth birthday, thereby giving you a debilitating nervous condition which will render you useless for villainous enterprise forever. You have been warned.

Basic Terms

  1. All interest compiles based upon your current timeline, relative to the moment you sign the papers. Any attempt to tamper with the timeline to alter this term will result in immediate payment being made in full by whatever version of yourself we happen to track down first. Barring that, we will garnish the wages of your ancestors (see #6).
  2. If you are visiting from the past, please remember that all payments must be made in parcels of land or gold bullion. Bags of spices from the exotic Orient are no longer acceptable, especially given the coriander-synthesizing technology available on the 2065 Home Shopping Network.
  3. All payments are due on the same day at the exact same time: January 1st, 1929, Brooklyn, New York. Feel free to visit that time as many times as you wish to make as many individual payments as you deem necessary, but try to avoid meeting yourself if at all possible. Ask for Stu at the bar. Wear something snappy, but try not to look German. Dames should expect to smoke cigarettes and look mysterious. No, we do not know what that means – it’s Stu’s operation, so it’s his stupid rules.
  4. Failure to pay your loan on time will result in the dispatch of Time Loan Sharks to be dispatched to your location to collect. Yes, they are actual sharks from the future genetically spliced with humans and augmented with cybernetic weapon systems. No, they have never gone rogue. Well, not in this timeline.
  5. By signing the loan agreement, you are forgoing any indemnity on the part of any alternate self in any alternate timeline. Yes, we will repossess your alternate universe casino. Yes, we will break the kneecaps of your pacifist hippie self in the timeline where the Age of Aquarius actually came to pass. Pay up.
  6. Traveling back in time to warn your past self to not take out a loan with us on account of you not being able to pay it off in a post-apocalyptic future constitutes a violation of your loan agreement and entitles us to garnish the wages of your ancestors to make ends meet. If you want your Great Uncle Joe to starve on account of your delinquency, be our guest.
  7. As of this time, we do not offer loans to robots, AIs, or aliens. Sorry, but it’s an insurance matter.

Delivery of Payment

  1. For your convenience, we will convey your loan in the full amount at any point in time. Though we prefer electronic transfer, we can also stage “inheritance from strange old man” (i.e. you) or any number of crazed lunatics shoving old Wal-Mart receipts with account numbers scribbled on them.
  2. For our ancient-world customers, we will provide a treasure map to a secret vault filled with death traps to prevent grave robbers. The map will have information on how to avoid the traps, but the ink is prone to smudging, so don’t squeeze too tightly.
  3. You will be required to fill out a questionnaire about your life and family in order for us to verify we are delivering payment to the right you in the right timeline. Those who perform the survey will be shot by their past selves after they have verified your identity in the future. No, this has never caused a problem. Why do you ask?

Let Us Help You Help Us

Consider doors. And locks.

Consider doors. And locks.

As we already know if you are going to take out a loan and whether or not you are going to default on that loan, please listen to your loan officer’s advice. If he says don’t eat Chinese tonight, listen to him. That Triad hit squad is a real bitch and no, your ancient kung fu secrets won’t cut it this time. Trust us. Some general rules:

  • Do not date your grandmother, no matter how hot she is.
  • Please acquire or construct a time machine that any idiot cannot stumble into and utilize. Being stranded in time helps no one.
  • Bring your food with you. Futuristic fast food is a horror show.
  • Do not teach the Romans how to use gunpowder.
  • Do not kill Hitler. No, not even that way. No, not that way either. Cut it out.
  • Even though time is not linear, it is helpful to pretend like it is. Insane people are terrible at paying back their loans.
  • While we encourage bringing henchmen forwards and backwards in time to support your evil aims, we caution you against any time paradoxes caused by said henchmen returning to their own timeline. Better to strand them in time when they are through.
  • It is possible to build a time machine that can transport you with your clothes on. Try a little harder, you exhibitionist pervert.

Good luck, and welcome to the FOUL family!

(remember: go back in time and eat this message. It is peppermint flavored – your favorite. Don’t ask us how we know – we already shot that guy)

The Ups and Downs of Being a Wizard

Say you had a time machine. Not a Delorean, but a real, honest time machine under your control with no strings attached. Say it just makes doors from the modern world to whatever time you like – you can pop back and forth, like commuting. Also, given that time is not linear, you don’t actually have to worry about altering your current timeline if you go back and, say, step on a butterfly or something. Quantum theory accounts for all that stuff – if your timeline gets messed up for whatever reason, you can just travel sideways in time. Time, no matter what the Doctor says, has no fixed points we know of.

Anyway, say you had one: where would you go?

The beard? Oh, the beard would be fake. I can't grow a beard that awesome.

The beard? Oh, the beard would be fake. I can’t grow a beard that awesome.

Time machine stories usually answer this question by sending their protagonists to a point in time that is crucial to their character development. Marty McFly winds up in the 1950s because his unresolved issues with his parents are what is holding him back and preventing him from reaching true maturity. The Time Traveler of HG Wells goes to the distant future because the Time Traveler is an Upper-class British Imperialist sent to witness and experience the (proposed) endpoint of the British social system and imperialist doctrine if extrapolated through the aeons. None of this, of course, really helps us in making our decisions. Ultimately, where each of us goes would be a facet of our psychology and personality, perhaps settled upon by factors we are not even consciously aware of.

For my part, I always think about going back to the Middle Ages and becoming a wizard.

I don’t mean to say that I think magic is real – of course it isn’t – but science and technology sure are real and would appear to be as magical as anything else in the context of medieval Europe. Now, mind you, this plan is almost certainly a bad idea. The dangers are tremendous – disease and violence alone would account for most of the reason not to go. Even assuming you weren’t murdered by a bandit or burned as a witch, you’d probably catch something nasty, like the Plague or Smallpox, and wind up in pretty deep trouble. Now, granted, you’re just one short time-machine trip from the good old 21st century, but still it would be a pretty crazy risk. Even all of this stuff wouldn’t be much help.

It would be cool, though, right? To see a medieval tourney, to walk the streets of medieval London, to see the castles when they were still operational – all the stuff of fairy tales. Of course, you’d see the ugly side of it, too: filthy people, suffering and starvation, barbarism and ignorance. You’d be pretty badass, though, with your layer of high-tech body armor under your robes, a stun-gun up your sleeve, and a whole bunch of scientific and technical knowledge to impress the locals. Once you learned the language, you’d be a pretty important and dangerous guy.

Me, I’d build myself a tower off in the wilderness somewhere. I’d fortify it against attack (reinforced concrete, steel doors, tear gas emitters, strobe lights, etc.), stock it with all the supplies I’d want, and let the rumors of my existence spread. I’d be a legend. Hell, even at my age (mid-30s), I’d be pushing old age anyway. I’d get to entertain knights and priests, peasants and kings. I’d give them wise counsel, impress them with my ‘magical’ knowledge, etc.. Perhaps they’d write legends or stories about me.

Of course, at this point in my little fantasy I usually realize something: man, how self-centered! Is my only reason for travelling back to this time to exercise my ‘power’ over the people of that era? Is it all about me? Wow, talk about egocentrism. One might think I don’t feel powerful enough in this world so therefore I’d feel the need to go to another better suited to realizing my ambitions. Its purpose, ultimately, is an ego-boost.

Come to think of it, is such egotism all that far from the vast majority of  time-travelling stories? I mean, even if the time traveler eventually realizes he isn’t superior to the people he meets in the past (or future), all too often the storyline involves the feeling of superiority or, at least, of a higher level of cool. Marty McFly is cooler in the 50s and also cooler in 2015 than those he meets there. Sylvester Stallone is superior to the future he encounters in Demolition Man and Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the story of a guy who goes back to the court of King Arthur and modernizes the whole operation (even if, in the end, he regrets doing so). One wonders, given the prevalence of such a theme, if the very idea of time travel itself is, essentially, egotistical. We, the blossom of modern humanity, wish to travel back (or forward) to a time and place in need of the enlightenment we can bring them and, in turn, hope to receive the adulation of the benighted masses. No imperialist or colonial power of any era could have goals any more selfish, right?

So, on second thought, let’s scrap the time machine idea for the nonce. Let’s see if we can’t clean up the now before we go prancing off to the then.

Pockets in Time

I'm writing this entire post in 13 minutes, FYI.

Having a very busy week; no time to put together a proper post. So, instead, I’m going to treat you to some ramblings.

Say you could freeze people in time; even yourself, if you like. What happens? See as all of our activities are accomplished in time, it is plausible to say that we (or whoever trapped in the bubble) could do nothing whatsoever while thus frozen. Nothing could be done to you, either, seeing as nothing is capable of changing without occupying some period of time. To borrow HG Wells’ term, you can’t have an ‘instanteneous cube’.

If you’ve ever been confused by the definition of time as the ‘fourth dimension’, this mental exercise I feel is a good way to wrap your head around it. You can’t lack ‘time’ anymore than you can truly lack width, depth, or height. To do so ‘breaks’ the world. It violates the rules of existence as we understand them.

Of course, the ‘as we understand them’ part is the real kicker. Maybe there is a way, somehow, to ‘delete’ some dimension of existence. We could become two-dimensional people, if you like. Even more interestingly, perhaps we could change these dimensions–create bubbles of slow-time, fold space to reduce distances, and so on. There is some evidence to suggest that such things become possible on the quantum level, and the dialation of time is widely supported as a result of travelling closer and closer to the speed of light. What we do with this, well, who knows?

All I know is that I could use a gadget that lets me do it. I could use an extra hour here or there, lately.

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.