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Writer’s Craft #62 – Time Travel Rant

March 5, 2012
Justine Graykin, author

Justine Graykin


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?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. JohnP permalink
    March 5, 2012 9:27 am

    Well . . .

    Count me in with the tinfoil hats, I guess. Not because I am in a position to argue with Mr. Hawking or you but because I’m in a generation with connections to generations that constantly revised the “possible”.

    It was once believed that achieving 60mph was impossible, then 100mph (it was believed it would “suck the air out of your lungs”). Then the sound barrier, then twice mach speed . . .

    Just because we *think* it isn’t possible is pretty much meaningless, always has been.

    Best,

    – John

    • March 5, 2012 9:55 am

      That’s the beauty of science, John. It is constantly revising the possible. And as science advances, we may find out that everything we think we know is wrong. But looking back over the history of science, it is striking that we tend to build on the shoulders of giants, not tip them over. Einstein didn’t negate Newtonian laws of motion. We are constantly learning new and surprising things about the Universe, but we are unlikely to find that Copernicus was wrong about the heliocentric solar system. There is such a thing as solid science. Think of it as a map with a detailed, fully documented center, and edges that fuzz out into realms where there be dragons. (Or strings and things.)

      I prefer SF that follows the map until it gets to the edge, then plays with the possibilities. Too much SF tries to rewrite the map, or ignores it altogether. I’m not saying that’s bad writing; I’m just saying that’s not SF. Its fantasy, or SpecFic, or one of those other odd beasts.

    • Kolya Ivankov permalink
      March 6, 2012 5:13 am

      There’s a big difference between 60 mph and the speed of light. Reaching 60mph, or the Earth orbit had to do with technology – people just needed new engines to reach it. It is completely different for the speed of light. Here the barrier is theoretical: to make a massive particle (that is, with whatever small, but nonzero mass) travel with the speed of light, we need an infinite amount of energy.

      In fact, the idea why the speed of light is unreachable may be put in quite simple words: in fact, You ARE traveling at the speed of light. Even just sitting in Your chair and reading this text, You have traveled with a speed of light through the TIME, the fourth dimension of the space-time. For instance, You are now 2 to 3 seconds away form the place and moment, where/when You’ve finished reading the word “ARE”. While walking in Your room, you’ll be traveling with nonzero speed through the space, but simultaneously the speed of your time-penetration will be less, and together they will “always” add up to c.

      That’s beautiful theory of the great symmetry of everything in the world, confirmed by an enormous amount of experimental data. This doesn’t mean that it is The Truth in it’s final form that could not be doubted. But a breaking of this symmetry – just as Justine says – would by as shocking as finding a planet with a square-looking orbit. Of course, it is not that science is afraid of finding an evidence of the possibility to break the symmetry – to the contrary, for many young rivaling minds it would be a chance to get an easy-peasy PhD or Noble prize, just because everything will be as new as in the beginning of the Quantum Mechanics era in the beginning of XX century. But for now there is none, and the marvelous Einstein’s insight proves itself to hold.

      Here I’m not talking about time travel – to do this, a separate article is required. Though, I think it could be briefly discussed in some separate post.

      • JohnP permalink
        March 8, 2012 11:01 am

        Well . . .

        I would add a couple of words to your opening statement.

        “There’s a big difference –in hindsight– between 60 mph and the speed of light.” Please don’t treat me like a simpleton. I absolutely resent it and absolutely promise you you would not speak that way to me face to face.

        Again, what we firmly believe is possible has been shown wrong over and over. While the “current” state of theoretical physics does not allow for the time travel Justine is talking about, it does indeed allow for instantaneous travel between points, which again opens the door for other opportunities.

        Back to what I believe is Justine’s main point, my own suspension of disbelief is flexible, contingent on the basic quality of the story and largely upon the use of the mechanism as an interesting but otherwise ignored sideline. Two stories that come to mind are “A Wrinkle In Time” by Madeleine L’Engle and “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury.

  2. March 5, 2012 1:32 pm

    I have to respectfully disagree here. First of all I don’t think it’s necessary to hang a genre label on every story, and secondly time travel is too fun a story device for a writer to ignore. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief from the start if the writer has a good tale to tell. Two examples come to me. One is a movie I saw the other night, “Midnight in Paris”. What a marvel! What a joy! I haven’t enjoyed a cinematic experience like that in years. And I don’t care whether you call it sci-fi or fantasy or science fiction or whatever. It was simply dynamite storytelling by a screenwriting master. The other example is 11/22/63 by Stephen King. I don’t read much King but the subject matter drew me in, and despite the length it held my fascinated interest the whole ride. I think trying to over-analyze the whys and wherefores might have slowed things down.

    • March 7, 2012 7:24 am

      Actually, I don’t think we are that far apart. There were some excerpts from that above-mentioned episode of the Broad Pod that sounded very intriguing. I tracked down Sue Bolich’s short story to see how it ended. Unquestionably, some excellent stories have been woven using the Time Travel device. But one does have to suspend one’s disbelief, which I have difficulty doing. That’s why I don’t care for Fantasy writing in general. This is simply a matter of taste and opinion.

      My point is that if a story wants to call itself “science fiction” it ought to earn its pedigree by holding true to the “science” part. These labels are helpful to readers who are looking for certain kinds of stories — vampire romances, or cozy murder mysteries — and are convenient for the purveyors of such stories, so they know where to shelve them. But when you get right down to it, genre labels can be very limiting, forcing a story to fit into a slot it is perhaps not suited for. I’ve been frustrated myself trying to work out what category my work fits into. I suspect that’s why the term “Speculative Fiction” was invented, to incorporate those works that are neither fish nor fowl.

  3. March 7, 2012 9:51 pm

    I think that if a time travel story uses science to advance plot, and it addresses the main theme of technology vs. humanity, then it’s science fiction. Those are the basic tenets of science fiction, no matter what the elements of the story are.

    And I think it can be reasonably done without making it fantasy with magic, or poor science. All you need is at least some form of plausibility with a natural progression of where science might lead in the future. Time travel can do this, if it’s done right.

    • March 9, 2012 7:07 am

      @Jonathan: “if it’s done right” is a big “if” for me. I think I can safely say that the number of times I’ve seen Time Travel made plausible is vanishingly small. Let me emphasize that I am not saying it isn’t an interesting and useful device; it just has no basis in science. What current science DOES allow for is such a rich and broad field of possibilities, that it wouldn’t seem necessary to resort to non-scientific devices to tell the tale. But that’s between an author and her readers. Speaking for myself as a reader, Time Travel almost never works for me (the exceptions being as outlined in my essay above).

  4. Kolya Ivankov permalink
    March 9, 2012 1:59 am

    Dear John. I’m really sorry for insulting You this way. But currently there are too many people which I meet both live and in the net, who are impenetrably convinced that the spreed of light is a restriction put by close-minded scientists (sic!) just to prevent good people from flying faster than light. And “men walked on the Moon, infinity is not a limit” is too often a part of their reasoning. Too many folks do not see the difference between technology and theory and for them these elementary things are to be explained.

    Now we’re definitely not having a face-to-face conversation – if I saw You, I’d soon guess that You are not from their type and, perhaps, it is me who is to ask You about science, for my own knowledge is very limited. Although I also knew and argued with very smart, reasonable and well-educated people, who didn’t believe in evolution and continental drift “just because”.

    This is, of course, not an excuse for me – I have to assume my conversation partner to be a highly intelligent person unless he or she deliberately proves the contrary. So, for being prejudiced in my comment, I sincerely beg Your pardon. But I also beg You not to underestimate me. For when I hear something like “c’mon, why can’t we just push a little more and go beyond c” – I will argue that there is a difference between technology and theory, as I do and as I did both in the net and personally.

    So much about the c. As to the literature part, I totally agree with You. The question is not whether time-travel is good or bad, but, actually, how much science is someone’s science fiction.

    • March 9, 2012 7:21 am

      @Kolya: I know what you mean about how a lack of real understanding about science and how it works underlies a great deal of popular discourse on the subject. There is also a very unfortunate misperception in our society that the right of an individual to her beliefs means that all beliefs are equal, and that scientific truth is the same as religious or occult truth. This lies behind the horribly misguided push to teach “Intelligent Design” along with evolution in the classroom. Yes, in a free society you have a right to be wrong. But no matter how firmly you cling to the notion of a flat earth, physics isn’t going to cooperate. (This is not to say that religious “truth” is wrong; it is simply irrelevant. The science required to send a man to the moon works whether it is done by a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist or an Atheist.)

      • Kolya Ivankov permalink
        March 9, 2012 2:34 pm

        Well, I’m afraid I’ll going offtopic now, but I think that as a novelist and a philosopher You may be interested in that.

        By my name, You can easily guess my origin. Though I’m living in Europe for quite a while already, most of the blogs I read and conversations I have are in Russian and with Russians. Now Russia has its own cultural specific. Unlike USA that was a religious patchwork of from it’s very beginning, Russia had an organized religion for the most part of its history. For three fourth of the XX century the state religion was called “scientific atheism”. Scientific atheism was a compulsory subject in every high school, form math to music to cuisine, every student had to pass an exam on this. “There is no God and the Science is his prophet” – that was mainly the Creed.

        The prestige of science in Russia is very high – I dare guess, it could be higher than the prestige of all the confessions and movements altogether. “Science made is reach the stars, and religion only knows how to burn scientists,” – that’s the motto for many people today. But if You start asking, what do they really know about science – left alone religion – then in overwhelming majority of cases You discover that their knowledge does not exceed much the maha-mantra from the previous paragraph.

        Now this generates a remarkable number of people who, honestly speaking, thread science as a religion, and simultaneously know nothing about scientific methods and philosophy. Not much surprising, these beliefs are often driven to the point of blind fanaticism – as weird as it may sound. And, as it is usual for an implicit faith, the real “holy texts” are not necessarily to be read.

        There is, however, a slight difference from a religion. The irrecusable belief that “nothing is impossible for Science The Almighty” and a total lack of understanding of how the REAL science REALLY works make many people think that every restriction that appears in any theory is just a rootless inveterate dogma. And, feeling theirself a Galileo’s heir, this human being proclaims: “Yet it moves faster than light!” If then someone tries to ask “Why don’t You mind learning a bit of SRT?” the answers will generally range from “This paradigm is outdated” to “Einstein was a Jew”. Subsequently, the scientists are divided into the “hidebound bigots” (almost all real scientists) and “heroic pathbreakers” (freaks that do “patriotic” science). The last thing in brackets is even not a joke – a book called “Russian logic”, written by a man deliberately unwilling to learn anything from the current mathematical logic, is published and sold.

        Well, I believe that there are lots of such folks in USA as well – as there are lots of the type You were talking about in Russia. But this kind of world view was not intentionally cultivated there, as it was in Russia. That’s why my motives may sometimes look unclear – well, that’s my background.

        As You see, even fostering a respect to the science may have its side-effects, sometimes not less pitiful than the ones caused by a neglect. Maybe, someone can use this observation in their fiction. And maybe someone else will read this fiction and because of that will not become a scialot. What could be a better reward for an evening spent on writing a comment.

      • March 9, 2012 3:48 pm

        @Kolya: Thank you very much for your unique insights, particularly interesting to me, as someone born and brought up in the US and understanding Soviet/Russian history and present miseries only by what I have read. Whenever dogmatism and ignorance take hold, they poison the waters. It doesn’t matter if it is politically or religiously motivated. I suppose that is why I have such a great respect for the scientific method, that is, the careful testing and observation of the world through rigorous experimentation. No authority is sacrosanct; even the most respected individual cannot be taken at his word. All that matters is: can it be proven? Can the results be independently verified? Is the theory falsifiable, so that it can be meaningfully tested? Any hypothesis is worthy of consideration, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

        Unfortunately, science is only as good as the humans doing it, and is always imbedded in a culture. I’m assuming the imperatives of Soviet Communism warped scientific understanding the way the Fundamentalist Christian Right (and other groups with their own agendas) have warped it in my country. As an atheist, I must say that I have been embarrassed by other atheists who are as dogmatic as any religious fundamentalist.

    • JohnP permalink
      March 9, 2012 8:55 am

      My sincere apologies to Kolya for being a boor and Justine for pushing the thread off track. Also, add my agreement to both sentiments about what is generally thought to be science and “truth”.

      For my own tastes, I only occasionally trip over problems with the realism in fiction. On reflection, I would say that poorly constructed fiction is more apt to use bad speculation as a mechanism and –again, for myself– overlook it if it is skillfully used.

      • March 9, 2012 10:01 am

        @JohnP: No apologies necessary, at least for pushing us into what I think is an interesting digression. Thank you for contributing to the discussion. If we all agreed about everything, this would be nothing but an echo chamber.

      • Kolya Ivankov permalink
        March 9, 2012 2:46 pm

        The only boor here was me. And I enjoy “Back to the Future”🙂

  5. March 24, 2012 5:02 pm

    I don’t get so hung up on genre definitions as to worry about which side of the SF-vs.-Fantasy line a story occupies. I happily call myself a “science fiction writer,” except when I call myself a “fantasy writer,” except when I call myself a “writer.” I mean, really.

    More to the point, I include within my definition of SF “fiction based on alterations of existing scientific laws.” E.g., there was a story about 10 years back in which the writer imagined that planned economies actually functioned more efficiently than market economies, which violates several established principles of economics. (Yeah, I know, economics ain’t physics. The point is that he based his story on a reversal or inversion of an established theory.

    If you don’t allow that definition of science fiction, then you have the odd result that stories that are valid “SF” one year become “fantasy” the next, as science advances. Mars stories with Martians, by this definition, was valid SF in 1939, but fantasy after the Viking probe. This strikes me as rather silly. Science fiction is not the same thing as science, and it doesn’t need to be double-blind reviewed. I *do* know a thing or two about physics, and I understand most of the objections to time travel (although, note, some of those objections actually have exceptions in discrete instances).

    As to time travel, it fosters a certain type of emotional-narrative feedback that is very hard to create otherwise. If some people want to insist that the story is therefore fantasy, I will just shrug, unless it makes a difference to the editor or my audience.

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