Bryan Brandenburg will be doing a panel at the upcoming FanX in Salt Lake City on Time Travel and Light. He’s a scientist. I’m not, but I love the concept of Time Travel, and as a writer, I recognize it both as a tool which is generally over-utilized and under-analyzed.
I plan to attend Bryan’s panel (conflicts allowing) and thought I’d jot down some of my thoughts about Time Travel and literature. This isn’t a science paper, nor is it a serious academic study, but just a record of the impressions I have concerning the topic from my interaction with it in various media.
Enjoy. Like, Comment, or Share as appropriate.
Time Travel is the single most hallowed of science fiction tropes, and the Holy Grail of actual science. The idea that Time is not simply a one-way phenomenon through which we are destined to pass is an enticing one. From H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine”, to The Terminator, to Philip K. Dick’s “Paycheck” and “The Adjustment Team,” to Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies,” science fiction writers return again and again to the idea that Time is not something simply to be endured, but examined, controlled, perhaps even exploited.
How those writers approach time is, perhaps, as equally compelling as the idea of Time, itself, and equally as variable as the sensation of Time between living beings. Often referred to as the Fourth Dimension, Time seems, on its face, to be different from the other three dimensions. Length, Width, Height: these things are measurable. They are absolute. They are generally considered to be constants, agreeable to by all.
But are they, really? For a marathon runner, a one-hundred meter dash is nothing, a pittance, a mere trifle of distance. For a man in battle, one-hundred meters can be a hundred miles if he is under fire. For a condemned prisoner approaching the gallows or the electric chair, one hundred meters might seem but a single step. Regardless of direction, then, each of these three dimensions shares that most important aspect as their lesser-understood and more often mythologized brother Time: relativity.
Einstein postulated that Time, and hence our perception of it, was relative. As we approached, if possible, the Speed of Light, then Time will slow down. This is not merely a perceived slowing of Time, then, as one might expect, but an actual slowing of Time, as evidenced by the fact that, relative to someone who is not moving at the Speed of Light, the speedster will age less than they would have otherwise.
To be clear: Einstein theorized that if a pair of twins volunteered for an experiment in which one of them would travel at the Speed of Light through space and return to Earth, that traveler would be markedly less aged than their twin. Time then, is not a singular phenomenon. We can agree on the length of an inch, that twelve inches equals a foot, and we can agree that sixty seconds make up a minute, but we cannot agree that my second is the same as your second.
This is what makes Time so perplexing to the scientist, but so intriguing to the science fiction writer.
And, as I mentioned above, writers approach the phenomenon of Time in vastly different ways. Most uses of Time involving travel through it will, inevitably, fall into the trap known as the Paradox, where the future will intrude into the past and thus change it, often to the detriment—or even elimination—of the future which allowed for such an incursion in the first place. The result of such influence might be the loss of the ability to go back in time to make the change in the first place. Does time them, proceed to “skip” like a scratched record, continually resetting to the moment the change either did or did not happen, only to skip again as future circumstance influences (or not) the past?
Does time end there, then? At the point of the future’s influence or lack thereof upon the past? Does time become a road which continually circles back upon itself to that moment of change/stability? Or does each point of influence in the past generate a new, unique future? A different version of running Time for those who inhabit each outcome. And, as each decision made by each person has the potential to dramatically affect what comes after, countless varying outcomes must exist. These “alternate timelines” have been used throughout the literary past to invoke discussion of Time Travel and its philosophical underpinnings.
[Editor’s note: As physics tells us that 2 bits of matter cannot occupy the same space, it must be considered a given that each “alternate timeline” occupies differing spots in the continuum known as Space-Time: that is to say, they exist at the same moment in Time, but not in the same Space. Generically referred to as different “dimensions” these Space-time locations might be considered layers of reality, in which consequences are played out from each decision, until such a moment as they realign with another dimension, or until they run themselves out of existence. As an example, it is possible that President John F. Kennedy’s decisions concerning Cuba brought such a timeline into existence in October of 1962, only to have it end a short time later in a catastrophic exchange of nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union. Even then, does the timeline end, or continue on without humanity’s involvement?]
Countless versions of the question “if you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, would you?” populate the literary and cinematic landscape. While this often leads into a discussion of the morality of killing an innocent child for the deeds their future selves will do, it is more than that. It forces us to look at what we know (Hitler will grow up and be responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews and plunge the world into war) as well as what we don’t know.
We cannot possibly know, for example, whether killing Hitler would simply cause the Second World War to not happen, or if it would happen regardless, due to the circumstances of post-World War I sanctions against Germany, and be led by a different leader. We cannot know whether the Great Depression ends with the start of the War, of if the war is farther removed, causing the Depression to last even longer, collapsing countries both large and small.
Does the United States survive in its present configuration, or does it break apart into smaller, more easily governable units under the weight of endless economic pressures? Are those units governed as smaller versions of the United States, or do they adopt different methods of governance? Do leaders more like Hitler than George Washington arise to rule them?
These “unintended consequences” are rarely addressed in the baby Hitler discussion, but their import is profound, once you realize their existence. It is in literature’s (and film’s) use Time Travel makes these unintended consequences clear to even the most casual observer.
Most notably with the Terminator film universe, we see the most direct version of the Time Travel Paradox in action. In the future, sentient machines will arise and attempt to destroy humanity. The human resistance proves stiffer than the machines would like, and so they develop time travel and send back a cyborg Terminator to kill the leader of the resistance before he is even born by killing his mother.
The leader of the resistance, John Connor, sends back one of his men to protect his mother. In the end, we learn that the man John Connor sent back becomes John Connor’s father. What we are left with is the Paradox of a self-creating future. If John Connor doesn’t send back his father, he won’t be born, so the machines will not send back a Terminator to kill his mother, so John Connor will be born because his mother was not killed, but only if he sends his father into the past.
It certainly gets a bit convoluted, doesn’t it? But that is just the beginning, as the Terminator universe ups the ante by also declaring that the sentient machines would not have been created in the first place except as a result of their sending back a Terminator, whose remains become the basis for the technology that creates them. So the machines are responsible for their own creation as a result of their efforts to prevent their destruction.
Various reboots and explanations have attempted to untangle the fundamental paradox of the future intruding into the past and changing it, but so far, no viable theory has come forward to do so, at least in the Terminator universe.
But at least the Terminator universe doesn’t suffer from the infinitely more complex machinations of Heinlein’s “All You Zombies.” Here, a baby girl is left abandoned at an orphanage, grows up, meets a man, falls in love, and gets pregnant. After the doctors find out that she should have been given gender assignment surgery at birth due to anatomical issues, she is given a C-section and made into a physical male, who is recruited by a man to be, effectively, a time cop. Taken back in time, he meets his younger self, still female, falls in love, and gets himself pregnant.
By the end of the story, we see that the baby left on the orphanage steps is none other than the same individual who got him/herself pregnant, effectively creating an entire person from nothing but a self-contained time loop in which the baby “girl” is (temporally) born after she is left at the orphanage, grows up to fall in love with herself before she becomes a he (who knows who he is falling in love with – ah! L’amour!), and who ends up becoming the man who recruits himself into the time organization, and then leaves his own child/self on the orphanage steps.
Time Travel is a messy business, isn’t it?
But consider the approach taken by Philip K. Dick in “The Adjustment Team.” Rather than people from the future going back in time, we are presented with people who have knowledge of how future events are supposed to turn out, and spend their time trying to ensure that circumstance allows for that to happen. Guided by a “plan” that shows the outcomes of events, they can see into the future and make adjustments to the present in order to put things back in on a path toward the ultimate goal for those individual. So the past is never changed, even for those with the knowledge of the future, but they are granted an awareness of how the present will influence the future. This plan is clearly intimated to be drawn up by some sort of deity, which implies its infallibility, but we learn that there were previous versions of the plan which are bleeding over into the current version, causing all kinds of problems for the Adjustment Team, as even their most creative tweaks are thwarted again and again by the influence of the previous plans, or Fate, if you will, which adds a version of free-will to the infallibility to even the grandest of plans.
In “Paycheck,” Dick presents us with a variation on that theme, as a man finds himself in possession of clues to how events are going to occur and some items that might be helpful in making sure that those events occur. But, and this is key, he has no actual knowledge of the end state, he only knows that he needs to figure out how to get from point A to point B using those items he has left for himself following a glimpse into the future, but before his memory of that glimpse was erased. Oh, and he has no idea where point B actually is. He is literally living and surviving moment to moment, aided only by the free will afforded him and his willingness to not surrender that to circumstance.
Here, then, we have perhaps the most sterile example possible of the future intruding into and influencing the past. While it still exerts its influence, it does so within the confines of the present (past) and how that individual reacts to what is around them, rather than a future person taking direct action.
In the end though, Time Travel still devolves into a moral/philosophic discussion of not only whether or not Time Travel is possible, but whether it is advisable. It is right to attempt a “correction” of past events? Whose version of “correct” is to take precedence over all others? With unintended consequences, what event could possibly need to be changed when any alternate outcomes cannot possibly be predicted?