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Many of my favourite stories feature time travel. I think they fascinate not just me but many people because our relationship with time itself is mysterious and...
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I’m a wizard in search of magic, an astronaut in need of space, and a hopeless enthusiast of frivolity. I’ve shot things with giant lasers, worn an astronaut costume for over 100 days to try and get into space, and made my own soap. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, I write science fiction and fantasy in the Canadian prairies.
Humanity has benefited tremendously from the fruits of scientific discovery, particularly since the Enlightenment. Most of us rely on electricity for day-to-day needs, and are moved to awe upon seeing our species extend the known boundaries of existence, in space exploration for example. We are naturally inclined to value freedom, and these discoveries augment our sense of it. No one has any living memory of the historic times scientific study was considered utterly heretical, and in direct opposition to the values and norms any good citizen ought to hold dear.
Until, perhaps, quite recently.
Rather than the religious banners under which anti-science rhetoric assembled in Galilean times, it now aligns along the political spectrum. It is a war of ideology rather than spirituality. Is it all that different? Each side lays claim to their status as outsiders trying to subvert or prevent manipulation by powerful “other” forces. It’s left or right, blue or red, us versus them, down and up, matter and antimatter. Each side claims to be a victim of the sinister manipulations and devious schemes of the other.
With sources of information so tunneled directly into our eyeballs, we report multiple realities. We inhabit the era of alternative facts, and have moved far beyond George Orwell’s doublethink and into a realm where an infinite series of paradoxes no longer contradict one another. Maybe one day this will be looked upon as the greatest unintentional invention of our generation.
There have been some studies that attempted to link personal psychology with political leanings. The one I am most aware of revealed that a conservative political bias tends to be associated with fear, whether that be fear of the future, fear of the government or fear of the unknown. On the other hand, a liberal political bias tends to be associated with psychologies leaning toward hope and anticipation of possibilities. This result probably sounds quite biased, and as though there is a one-size-fits-all model to describe every conservative or liberal. That’s an extreme supposition, and not what I think can be taken away from these results. I think it’s more a useful way to try and situate where another person might be coming from. Because we all know hope, and we all know fear.
The question of fear is pertinent to the overall climate surrounding science (pun intended). Here, we see fear playing out on multiple levels. There are people afraid of the effects of climate change on our planet. There are other people afraid their fundamental freedoms will be restricted if the liberal agenda to restrict our carbon footprint is allowed to pass. What I find compelling is that both sides hold positions that fundamentally stem from an existential fear. In one case the fear of death is sparked by the fear of losing ecosystems that support us. In the other case, the fear of death is sparked by the idea of losing independent, conscious action.
If we can find no other common ground, we can safely say that we are united in our fear of death. That sounds more morbid than I intend. I actually find a great deal of comfort in the notion that at the end of the day, we are all just scared little lumps of flesh trying to our best.
Returning to the question of humanity’s relationship with science, we have to ask the question: when did our perspective shift from awe, to one where we question the notion that the Earth is round? Many people ranting online about conspiracies to hide the truth of our flat Earth are seemingly unaware that the messages they’re sending, and the community they’ve formed is entirely reliant upon satellite networks orbiting a spherical body. But I digress.
I think our relationship with science comes down to the news science is trying to tell us. In most cases where scientific discoveries are appreciated, they are associated with the fundamental extension of our freedoms. We can communicate with more people around the world? Great. We don’t have to cook our food over a fire? Fantastic. If we process this black sludge, mix it with air and pressurize it in a one ton hunk of metal with wheels, we can travel great distances? Sign us up.
Science is valued and trusted when it allows us to do more. We don’t see a lot of argumentation over the fundamental principles of semiconductors, even though we use them every day in our computers and smart phones. If scientific results expand on the ways in which we can interact with the world, and conduct our lives, then they are not questioned.
Quantum mechanics, one of the branches of physics most difficult to understand, nevertheless gives us results that we’re coming to rely upon more and more. Multi-junction solar cells rely on tunnel junctions to work properly. Tiny computer processors have to take quantum effects into consideration.
If all of a sudden, however, a physicist emerged from a lab and said that quantum physics tells us our regular everyday conduct is going to tear apart the fabric of reality, we would probably have an inrush of people wanting to understand the nuances of Schrödinger’s equation.
Scientists, as enablers of freedom, are beloved liberators. Scientists as police officers telling us what we cannot do, are burned at the stake. We are fine when scientific discovery gives us iPhones so that we can never feel bored again, but heaven forbid if those same principles and practices start telling us that we have to give up some of the conveniences of modern life.
This can versus cannot paradox lies at the heart of the climate change debate. There’s also, admittedly, the notion that scientific results that we can’t easily observe with our five senses firsthand can be hard to take in. Most people can’t see electrons and protons, but they trust the results of physicists from generations before them.
The weather, on the other hand, is something people can observe. And everyone has an opinion on the weather. Inevitably, ideas of the weather are conflated with climate. For some reason it seems absurd to trust a scientist telling us about the long-term global climate future when a meteorologist can’t even predict the next day’s weather. Observability and comparability to experience certainly plays a role in the climate change debate.
When else has scientific discovery been met with such scrutiny and skepticism? The best example I can think of is the tobacco industry’s campaign against the cigarette-lung cancer link. Smoking (or not) was a choice that arguably affected individuals rather than entire countries, and it took twelve years (between 1954 and 1966) between the first scientific discovery, and governmental intervention in the form of warnings on cigarette packs. Nevertheless, the pernicious effects of that campaign are still felt today. I’ve met people who don’t believe in the harmful effects of cigarettes, and who swear based on a single outlier of an uncle who smoked every day and lived to 85 that the rest of the statistical results can be discarded.
This all-or-nothing thinking, or certainty-or-nothing thinking, is willfully encouraged when science gives us a result that threatens our existence. Objectivity is thrown out when it inconveniences us. So-called enabling science is welcomed, and restrictive science is spurned.
As a thought experiment, let’s flip climate change on its head. Let’s suppose that climate change scientists were telling us that as a result of anthropogenically-produced CO2, the climate has and would become more stable, that more people would live in favourable conditions on Earth. Would we have a debate? Would we question scientists and their results more than had ever been done in the last century? Even the naysayers would eventually have to acknowledge the evidence borne out by reams and reams of data around them, wouldn’t they? In this case, oil corporations would benefit from this news, so the widespread narrative would be more or less aligned. The alignment of realities is one effect, but there’s also the effect that this news, as an expander of freedoms, would be met with open arms.
Regardless of what your own stance on climate change is, I think an important act of self-awareness to take when you’re having any gut reaction to something climate-related is to examine where that reaction stems from. Does it come from a fear of death? Is it a fear of limiting your freedoms? By labelling an emotion, we empower the use of our entire brain’s circuitry to think through things more clearly and fully. Rather than staying rooted in lower-level reactional habits, this act of labeling an emotion to engage our whole brain can help us better understand ourselves and each other.
If we can acknowledge the fearful roots of our beliefs and reactions, we can examine them for what they are. If we value freedom so much that we treat any threat to limit it with outright hostility, then we ought to engage our whole brains in the examination of our fears, and beliefs, to truly express that freedom we hold so dear.
Many of my favourite stories feature time travel. I think they fascinate not just me but many people because our relationship with time itself is mysterious and deeply personal.
There are other forces in the physical world for which we have gleaned enough understanding to manipulate and tinker to better suit our needs. We’ve learned about the intricacies of the atom, in particular the movement of electrons. You’re probably using electromagnetism to read these words off a screen. We use chemical knowledge in everything from transportation to better food production. We use physics to understand how materials behaviour at small scales can be used to store and transmit information in computers. The need for physical representations of various objects and records in our lives has shifted rapidly into the ether of the digital world. In other areas, we’ve only just begun cracking some of the secrets inside nature’s bounty, delving more deeply into what’s inside of us as well as the life so blessedly surrounding us.
Yet through all these discoveries, little has been gleaned on the subject of the ticking clock that shortens our telomeres, wrinkles our skin and necessitates saying goodbye to so many things and people we love.
Time was a hook in his mouth. Time was reeling him in jawfirst; it was reeling him in, headlong and breathless, to a shore he had not known was there.-Annie Dillard
Yes, Einstein learned about time dilation, and relativity gives us a glimpse into how time’s steady march might be nudged the tiniest fraction. There are some physicists such as Julian Barbour who suggest that the next great revolution in physics will come when we construct a model of the universe that is independent of time, and that this is in fact the key to linking two giant but disparate theories of the world: quantum mechanics and general relativity. There are some fascinating ideas on this front, but as far as I’m aware we have yet to realize that physics revolution.
It’s no wonder that humans have long dreamed of ways we might be able to manipulate time. Unlike some of the physical phenomena mentioned above, which are somewhat difficult to observe under regular circumstances, time is something everybody’s been able to see for eons. We can see it in the swinging pendulum, the rising and setting of the sun, and the growth and decay of plant life. Perhaps it’s because time is so deeply embedded in absolutely everything that its full understanding has eluded humanity for so long.
There are different philosophies and spiritual practices that seek to alleviate our tense relationship with time. Many religions are based around the promise of a distant future after we are gone from this world. Mindfulness emphasizes the importance of focusing on the now and that the past and future are illusory. Time management is a life skill many adults struggle to tame, and there seem to be as many related strategies as there are humans.
Terror management theory discusses how many of our actions are driven by the fear of death, and many psychologists can explain a wide swath of human behaviour with this principle alone. The fear of death is deeply intertwined with our insecurities with time. Perhaps if we fully grasped death, we would understand time, and vice versa, but in the meantime, we have these various approaches and strategies that help us try to accept it, but do not necessarily bring us closer to understand it.
The notions of time and death are also related to questions of self and what exactly we mean to this universe. Thoughts of time in this sense become deeply personal questions for which there are no set answers (besides 42).
Time travel stories, for me, explore all these unanswered questions. Traversing this space means imagining new situations that transform our relationship with time. Maybe on some level I’m hoping the stories will bring me closer to an epiphany about the clockwork of the universe.
There are several categories of time travel stories which I think illuminate key fascinations we share with time.
The simplest kind of time travel story, in my view, is one that treats time travel with the idealistic view of endless possibilities. H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine” falls into this category, using the endless possibilities as a means to delve into another society and examine it without the bias we might otherwise have for existing Earthly ones. This is where time travel is treated as a means to an end, and the focus is not necessarily on the contrasts and understandings about time that we glean as a result of the journey.
Quite often when people complain about bad time travel stories, it’s when it’s used as a way to get out of narrative plot holes, and is used unfairly or inconsistently to resolve tension in an unsatisfying way. I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that these stories are bad, but I do believe there are a great many good time travel stories out there.
Time travel stories that deal with identity are inherently more interesting to me. I’ve already mentioned how time is deeply intertwined with questions of identity as a result of its inevitable tie with death. Robert Heinlein, who I acknowledge was misogynistic but nevertheless left a big impression on me as a young reader, has a story called “All You Zombies” that presents an answer to the question of “Where do you come from?” that at first seems silly, but eventually shakes the foundation of what we really know about our roots. The recent movie “Looper” dealt with questions of the self as well, but wove in a grander narrative about preventing a future disaster.
“Looper” shared two common characteristics of time travel stories: averting future disasters, and dealing with regret. The aversion of future disasters is probably the most ubiquitous form of the time travel story, with box-office hits like “Terminator” remaining fixtures in our cultural consciousness, infinite time loops from which we cannot seem to escape. “Time Cop” with Jean Claude Van Damme, “12 Monkeys” with Bruce Willis, “Back to the Future” with Michael J. Fox… even the Avengers movies incorporate time travel to prevent disaster. With this sub-class of time travel, there is something deeply satisfying about knowing the outcome beforehand, or at least the one our herores are trying to avoid. That allows us to cheer for them with certainty, knowing without a doubt they’re doing the right thing. It provides a moral clarity that is so often lacking in our lives. With so many forces acting on us from behind the curtain, it can be hard to know where and when to fight. Disaster-aversion time travel stories let us know that the fight is justified, and that we’re on the right side of it.
Interwoven with the aversion of future disasters is a topic that is a bit more nuanced: the notion of regret. This flavour of time travel stories probably fascinates me the most, because it deals with what might have been, and what could be, and all the deeply personal wishes and expectations we have of the world. This is such a universally human notion that it transcends the bounds of sci-fi stories, and holds examples well outside what would normally be considered within the genre. “Groundhog Day” is probably the most famous example, where the main character initially experiences little regret but comes to it gradually until he has to do the best he can for the world he’s stuck in. There’s romance in the notion that we can undo some of our past mistakes, and do the right thing that better expresses our beliefs after we’ve had the benefit of hindsight.
On the other side of this spectrum are time travel stories that take the approach that there is one timeline that is fixed, predetermined. To try and tinker with it is to incur the wrath of the gods. “The Butterfly Effect” takes this approach, although focusing on the idea of unforeseen consequences, and the fundamental assertion that we cannot know enough to properly make the “right decision” on a given timeline. Therefore we’d best not mess with it. Even in this bleak perspective, there lies hidden a comforting notion that absolves us of responsibility. If the timeline is ultimately fixed, then we needn’t feel guilty about our decisions. We are free to enjoy what we can, knowing that there’s no significant way our actions will alter history’s course. These stories free of us of the paralysis of choice that can loom over every waking moment of our lives.
Connie Willis’s “Doomsday Book” uses time travel as a means to learn about history, with historians making every effort to observe the timeline while preserving it. This takes the perspective of the timeline being mutable, but that we want to hold onto in its existing format for as long as we can, acknowledging our humble place and inability to see all the effects future changes might have. This type of story asserts that, even in a world where we’ve cracked the code of time travel, we still do not know enough to start tinkering with it. We are gazing at the surface of the moon but we know we shouldn’t yet guess what type of cheese it’s made of.
Time travel is woven into our cultural discourse, as we make statements about living in “the darkest timeline”. Have we incurred a significant “regret debt” in our time on planet Earth, and if so, does that increase our fascination with time travel? Does a fascination with time travel imply a deep need to root ourselves in the present, to prevent future regrets?
Reading about time travel lets us journey from possibilities back into our present selves, and learn from what we hope is foreknowledge. The process becomes quite a Moebius strip, and one in which I don’t mind being looped around.
What type of time travel stories do you enjoy most? Which ones are your favourite? I’d love to hear your suggestions and learn about any more flavours of time travel I’ve maybe missed, or missed in this timeline.
Featured image from Max Pixel.
Recently Matthew Rettino, one of my former Odyssey classmates, interviewed me for his Archaeologies of the Weird blog. He asked some very interesting questions, and it was great to talk to him and dig a bit deeper into my process, inspirations and beliefs about my story in “E is for Evil.”
Check out the interview here:
Recently I was struggling with a story where there was a deep mystery for the protagonist to uncover as the story went on. As I got feedback from readers, I realized the problem was that the mystery was so opaque that readers didn’t have enough information to have any hope of anticipating what was to come. I wanted the story to be both mysterious and suspenseful, but without any insight into the future, suspense was out of the question. While the question of how to balance the right amount of mystery against the number of facts the reader knows is somewhat subjective, there was a middle ground I needed to achieve.
I realized, after a lot of elaborate rituals, rune-crafting and keyboard slamming, that my problem could be solved through point of view.
The point of view in my story was close third person omniscient. This meant that I couldn’t really describe things that were outside of my main character’s point of view. Obviously, if they knew what was going to happen to them, they wouldn’t go along with the events of the story, so I needed to pull the camera out a bit. I shifted the point of view a bit further out so that I wasn’t locked into the protagonist’s perspective. This allowed me to seed information in that the main character wouldn’t (and couldn’t) know.
This subtle change made a big difference to the story. Instead of events happening mysteriously and somewhat randomly, the reader was let in on a bit of the secret. This sprinkling of information gave readers enough that they could buy into the story. They could start trying to puzzle out what might happen, which let them invest in it. They could then start worrying about it, and lo and behold, I would have both the mystery and suspense I was after.
Putting the right amount in is referred to as leaving out the egg, something first done by the great Betty Crocker. It amounts to giving enough, but not everything. If I’d shifted the perspective so far out that the narrator could now describe everything, the situation would be too neat and tidy, and there be no story to tell. Leaving out the egg is kind of like the way IKEA sells furniture. They give you everything you need, including the instructions, but you have to build it yourself. What IKEA discovered, and what applies to storytelling and many other areas, is that when people had to invest something of themselves into what they’re building, they develop a stronger affinity for their furniture. We cherish what we build.
The same goes for a story. If I can have a reader invest while they’re reading a story, then they’ll ultimately get more enjoyment out of it, even if it is a little wobbly and the cupboards are about to fall off.
There are other ways I could’ve handled this problem. I could’ve maybe had a sage character who teases information that would then build suspense. I could’ve had a legend holding some of the information with questionable reliability. The character could’ve gotten hints in a dream. Some of these tropey choices are better than others, while others are better if you’ve eaten black mold and need to induce vomiting. I hope you can see why I went with the decision I did, but there are probably ways of justifying and maybe doing the other options tastefully.
That’s one mystery solved.
Now, as far as the greater mystery of why stories can share so many commonalities yet be so difficult and unique to wrangle into shape, that will have to wait for a lengthy session of rune-carving into IKEA particle board. So many wonderful things to learn, and not enough dark rituals to host.