Justine Graykin is a writer and free-lance philosopher sustained by her deep, abiding faith in Science and Humanity — well, Science, anyway –- and the belief that humor is the best anti-gravity device. Find her work and bloggings at justinegraykin.com
January’s theme for Broad Universe’s podcasts was “Time Travel”, a subject that always sets my teeth on edge. Mr. Wells’s novels notwithstanding, time travel stories are not science fiction, at least not the sort of SF I favor, which bases itself on real science, not fantasy. Physics as we currently understand it does allow for the possibility of time travel, but only in one direction: into the future, one way. And it requires near-light speeds to achieve.
I regret that the geek in me just can’t get past this when listening to time travel stories, no matter how well-written. So when, during the Broadly Speaking interview segment, host Tracy Morris asked Lynda Williams about Okal Rel and her version of time travel, my propeller beanie spun with delight. Her work grounds itself solidly in Special Relativity. Woot.
All right, I’ll confess, since those who also listened to January’s Broad Pod will likely hasten to point it out, I did have a time travel story in the line up, and it did involve an alien researcher traveling into the past and back again. But in my defense, I do attempt to address the paradoxes, although it involves metaphysics more than physics. All of existence including time is a seamless whole. Our sense of time’s arrow is an illusion, and volition is an illusion created by our inability to see beyond the moment. At the split-second of creation, our Universe was complete, including everything that would happen based on what would logically follow from that single, immense cosmic throw of the dice. That includes beings from different points in what seems to them to be time doing things which fit neatly into the continuum. One cannot change the past because everything is immutable.
It is difficult to explain, and hurts my head to think about it, but so does string theory.
There are other ways of playing around with time travel, such as the notion of parallel universes, where changing a key element in the past causes a branching off of the time line. That at least waves at real science, and science hesitantly waves back. However anything that manages to dance its way around the grandfather paradox still has to answer to physics for how it got back there. Redirecting the arrow of time generally relies on magic science, or just plain bad science.
The closest we can get to accessing the past legitimately, again comes out of Lynda Williams’ Reality Skimming, which postulates faster-than-light travel (and yes, present physics has always said that is a no-no, although recent events at the LHC are casting that into doubt). If one could overtake the light leaving the planet, one could “catch up” to 1963, look back, and given sufficiently precise equipment, analyze who actually shot Kennedy. But you couldn’t go back there and prevent it from happening.
As a literary device, Time Travel can be fun and useful. I like Dr. Who as much as the next person. But if you are going to use this entertaining tool, use it carefully, and at least try to nod to real science if you are going to call yourself a science fiction writer.
What do you think?