Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Best Time Travel Story (By Someone Else) (And four other Time Travel Stories I Wrote Myself)

UPDATE: even though the title says "Four" it's FIVE stories.  I am incapable of counting, I guess.  But there are FIVE short stories in this post. 


I don't believe in time travel, which is appropriate to say because while science isn't a matter of belief or not, time travel hasn't been invented in the whole history of time and so it's not science, and I am free to believe or not believe that time travel has ever existed.

Which I say that way -- that time travel has never existed-- because if time travel existed once, it exists in all times, and so we can certain that time travel is not possible because if it was possible, sometime in the future then it became possibly instantly throughout all time.

This is all stuff I've been thinking since I listened to the Lightspeed podcast of My Wife Hates Time Travel, a reading of a short story by Adam-Troy Castro.  That story, besides being the only story I can remember reading recently which explicitly deals with time travel, is also the best one because it points out the absurdity of, and the extreme beauty of, time travel.

I wish it could exist, time travel.  The fact that it doesn't exist makes it, like superheroes, the Higgs Boson, and beautiful girls who really like guys for their sense of humor, fictitious things that should be part of our universe but sadly, are not.

Here, before I go on, is a short story I myself wrote just now about time-travel.  It's a 250=1 story.*

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Time Travel Has Always Existed.


Saturday, I invented time travel. 

Well, what I did was sit down and think: “I need to invent time travel and from this day forward I am dedicating my life to that,” and suddenly a time machine appeared in my living room.

This is not as impossible as it may seem, at first blush, even if you consider that I’m not a scientist.  

I’m an artist.  I work in scented marker, like the kind you probably used in 3rd grade and I never stopped using.  My paintings have made me rich.  Everyone’s heard of is “Black Licorice Lincoln.”

I sold that Markerwork ™ for millions, which left me, I assume, a lot of time in the future to learn science and study quantum mechanics or whatever it is one has to do to invent a time machine.  I’m not sure what, exactly, is required, beyond a serious amount of determination because, to be honest, once I invented time travel I simply sent the machine back in time to myself so that I wouldn’t have to go through all that again. 

I know that because of the little card I also sent myself.  The card had a picture of a cat hanging from a tree branch.  It said Never forget 2052! which is an inside joke in the future. It also said it was a lot of work, inventing a time machine, and I’d be better off not having to suffer through that again. 

Or ever.



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In My Wife Hates Time Travel, something like that happens: the story begins with the premise that either the narrator or his wife are going to, in the future, invent time travel, and continues on with the protagonists dealing with their future selves coming back to intervene in their lives -- not to make them invent time travel, but instead to avoid the various ramifications of every single thing they do, and then to avoid the ramifications of not doing the things they were warned against doing.

It's a wildly inventive story that sits at the end of the sci-fi spectrum far away from "hard" sci-fi or space opera, doing what the best and most interesting speculative fiction does: it posits one simple-but-earth-changing idea, and lets the story unfold from that idea.

That's not to disparage Star Trek/Star Wars-type sci-fi, in which a world exists and heroes do the things heroes do in that world, with the trappings of the world hardly mattering, or maybe it is to disparage them, a bit.

If, for example, you are going to invent a world where Superman exists -- where the laws of physics allow a man, simply because he lives under a different spectrum of light, to fly under his own (presumably mental?) power without dealing with such things as inertia, for example, if you are going to invent such a world, why would it still have newspapers and people having jobs in it?

Superhero comics have, for that reason, always been somewhat disappointing in retrospect, because they have rarely explored what it would actually mean to live in such a sci-fi world, not just for superheroes (we all know, by now, that superheroes can never have wives or kids because it would put their families in danger, even though we have presidents who have wives and kids and we have rock stars who have wives and kids and we even have, say, drug lords in Colombia who have wives and kids, and while there is no doubt that those people's families face extra dangers that most of us might not, we don't see a lot of people saying "I want to be president so I can never marry because it wouldn't be fair to my future wife and kids") but also what it would mean for regular people.

Think about reverse engineering: if you know Superman can ignore the effects of inertia and can do so via his mental processes alone, you are that much closer to being able to figure out a way for us to do that, because knowing something can be done is half the battle, right?

Here's another story of my own:

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He’s A Perfect Boyfriend, But…

Dear Anny,

I have the perfect boyfriend but for one thing: he’s a time-traveler. I’m finding it a little annoying how awesome things always are.

The other night, we’re watching a movie, and he asks me to pause it so he can get a soda.  Maybe I sighed a little but I wasn’t really annoyed. I said “sure”, we pause, he gets soda, and we start the movie again.  But I looked at him a second later and he had shorter hair than before.

Then I realized I hadn’t paused the movie after all.

So I asked him why he’d changed time and he said he hadn’t meant to bother me with pausing the movie. It honestly wasn’t that big a deal.  But he does this, like, all the time!   

And it’s not just me.  Our world is getting more and more perfect every day.  My yard is beautiful.  My neighbors and I all recently won the lottery.  And remember that car wreck in I-43 last week?  No, and I probably won’t for long, either.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain, but it still bothers me and I don’t know why. I can’t tell when he comes and goes, usually.  I’m sure living with him and marrying him would be awesome but it doesn’t seem like it would be real…

And another thing? What if I’ve tried to break up with him already but he didn’t let me?

Signed,

In Love (?) With A Time Traveler. 



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One of the things I liked so much about My Wife Hates Time Travel wasn't just the unique way it presented an old trope but the way it made me think about time travel and then the way I was able to take that thinking about how things would work and apply it to other areas of life, like superhero comics, or sci-fi movies, or anything, really.  I like stuff that makes me think, and this story in itself did that.  Since then, in fact, I have been thinking more or less all the time -- honestly, it's in the back of my mind most of the time now -- about time travel and what it would mean.

This led to me talking to one of the lawyers that works for me yesterday, as we drove back from a trial in which he defended me against a speeding ticket I got but totally shouldn't have, and we were discussing how time travel might work.

He presented the idea that if time travel works, what it does is create a whole new universe -- so when you go back, and change time, you are simply creating two timelines, one in which the original events took place, and one in which they did not, or something.

For example: If I die in a car wreck today, and you use your time machine to go back and tell me to just stay home this afternoon, so that I don't die, then Lawyer said, what you've done is create a new branch of the universe, an alternate reality where I don't die -- but in this reality, I still die.

That strikes me as an especially useless form of time travel, and one that needlessly creates all sorts of other universes.  Think about it: You aren't actually stopping me from dying; you're leaving this universe where I died as it is, with all the people grieving me (I'm sure the funeral would be worldwide) and at the same time creating a universe where I didn't die and therefore nobody is sad, but that doesn't help me.

I posited, instead, time being like a river: it could travel in this direction, but you could divert it to travel in another direction, leaving the old timeline to dry up slowly while the new channel digs its way in.

Another story:

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Time Was…

Pete liked to tell people there was a chance they’d become the Real Time again, but Pete was always a dreamer like that.  Jenna knew it wouldn’t happen. Sometimes she was tempted to tell him to knock it off, to remind him people didn’t want to remember they were slowly going to fade into nonexistence and never have been.

Jenna wasn’t disturbed by it, not too much. There were those who took solace knowing their OtherSelves went on in the Real Time; they argued they were still living, Then.  Jenna wasn’t one of those.  She figured everyone has to end some Time, and This was hers.  Better than going out horribly, or painfully, she thought, late at night, lying awake, pondering how long before they Faded.

Articles still speculated on what had Changed – was there a war? A plague? Had some rogue gotten hold of the Time Machine and altered a personal history, stranding an entire universe of people in a cut-off pool of time, growing no older, not dying, not graduating, not ever giving birth, all so someone could have a second chance with her boyfriend?

They would never know, Jenna was sure. She didn’t allow herself to mourn, but she didn’t allow herself to hope, either.  She just went on with her job at the bakery each day because what else could you do? A person has to eat, and pay the rent, and keep the lights on, even when there is no Time, not anymore.


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Once you start really thinking about time travel, it's hard not to see why it's impossible and also why it might not be, even though it is.

What people always say about time travel is that it creates paradoxes: that you could subvert time by, for example, destroying your own existence, thereby ensuring that you never existed to go back in time to destroy your own existence.  That's the problem that Back To The Future never answered, to my memory:  Marty McFly goes back and, creepily, makes his mother fall in love with him instead of his father -- and has to fix it before he fades from existence.

But if, in 1955, Marty had ceased existing, then he didn't exist in 1985, and so he didn't use the DeLorean to go back in time and make his mother, creepily, fall in love with him.  So: Problem Solved! His mother falls in love with his father and he exists in the future... where he will go back in time and interrupt the process again.

That, at least, seems more fun than the idea behind a movie I'm not going to see, Looper, which I understand has opened in theaters soon.   Here is the IMDB description of Looper:


In 2072, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to 'close the loop' by transporting back Joe's future self.

The first problem I have with that is this: The mob has a time machine, and uses it to kill people?  That's what they're doing with it?  If you are the mob, why are you bothering using a time machine to kill enemies when you could use a time machine to corner the world and become the king of the universe, endlessly tinkering with history until you have absolute power.  Here's how that would work:

1. Fat Tony gets a time machine, decides to rule the world.
2. Fat Tony goes back 30 years in time to put his plan into motion.
3. Each time Fat Tony doesn't take over the world, he goes back a little further and tells himself what went wrong and fixes it, until he then controls the world.
4.  That process would, in effect, be instantaneous because eventually Fat Tony would know enough to tell himself how to do it right the first time and then it's done.

So long as there's only one time machine, that's what happens.  Now, if there were two time machines, things get a little more complicated -- or even if there are two people who know about the time machine because someone could learn of its existence, and then sneak in, use it to go back in time and tell their earlier self about the time machine and then invent it themselves and and go kill (or somehow otherwise prevent) the original inventor so that only Someone knows about, and just ignore the paradox there, please.

(I note that in my future selves, I am particularly unscrupulous.)

So if the Mob in Looper controls the world, they don't need to send people back in time to kill them, and if they don't control the world, well, they're stupid.

Also: The explanation I was given for why the Mob would do this is that in the past, the people would be unidentifiable, which (a) is not true, unless you send them to a time before they existed AND before DNA analysis was possible) and (b) ignores the fact that anyway there would be these mysterious bodies showing up and someone's going to investigate that, aren't they?

That's just a terrible premise: it takes sci-fi and does nothing with it, making everyone dumber in the process.

As I've been writing this, I've been thinking about other time-travel stories, ranging from the interlocking stories Robert Heinlein wrote in which people could travel in time and used it to change people's personal histories, avoiding or eliminating things that were unpleasant in the past, or Hot Tub Time Machine, when the guys realize that maybe they couldn't entirely change their teen histories (or they could?) to The Time Machine when H.G. Wells' character went forward in time to discover how horrible things got for us, and it occurred to me that there are (I think) relatively few stories in which people go into the future, or at least relatively few I can think of.

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The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Hunker Down Behind This Lead Windowshade.

The thing about time travel you’ve gotta remember is to travel outside of your own lifetime, because when you land in your lifetime, you instantly become the age you were at the time you landed, and a lot of scientists reverted to babies or fetuses before anyone realized that.

The other thing you want to remember is not to lose your time machine, because that is a bitch.  

Aniston wouldn’t admit she’d lost her machine.  She sat in the bunker and waited out the latest nuclear volley and privately suspected that her great-great-granddaughter had hidden it from her because that chick was jealous as hell and probably thought that her great-great-grand-son-in-law was flirting with Aniston, which was because he was but she wasn’t encouraging him.

It wasn’t like she could get in trouble for borrowing the boss’ machine because she’d get it back at the exact same time she’d taken it, i.e. lunch time except that because she lost it here, time was flowing here and there and they might get back from the pizza place and realize it was gone and use the other one to track her down and she couldn’t be fired, not again

There was an explosion, nearby, and she felt the flash pass even through the lead.  I’m going to have to be decontaminated after this, she thought.

Another thing to remember about time travel is: your future relatives might be total jerks.

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Maybe that's because I haven't read (or remembered) many of them and maybe because the idea of going to the future and returning with new gadgets and cures and stuff, a la Booster Gold, doesn't hold the appeal for many people that undoing the past does, but if so, why not? Why is it more appealing, say, to go back and kill Hitler before he takes power than it is to go to the year 3050 and get a cure for cancer and bring it back?  Aren't you saving the same number of people either way?  Or is it because we know all those people died in World War II but we don't know for sure that all those people will die of cancer next year?

If you could make your life perfect... in the past... would you do it? Or are you the sum and substance of your experiences and if you went back to change your life so that, say, the girl you invited to The Hooters concert because you thought she was hot wouldn't end up making out with Rob Sandoz in the car on the way home instead of you, if you changed that would you suddenly not be you and be someone else who looks like you?

And would it matter?  Here's something to think about: I lived through that concert-and-rejection and it sucked and made it a pretty awful night.  If I go back and change that, completely aside from the effect it would have on my personality, here's this:  I'm 43 now, not 19.  19-year-old me went through a bad night, and 43-year-old me remembers it.  If I go back and get the girl, then 43-year-old me has only the memories of that night, so did I live through it after all?

In Cory Doctorow's Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom they work on doing something like that: they implant in people memories of rides at Disney World, so instead of going through The Haunted Mansion, you simply remember going through it, the memories stored in your brain the way they would have if you'd gone on it, but you never went on it.

So is that the same?

And if it is, could you change history -- alter time -- by altering one's memories?  Suppose you hypnotize me so that I remember that night as having gone perfectly: Missy liked me, and not Rob, and we hit it off and totally made out in the back of Marks' car, and that alternate version of my timeline dries up and disappears.

Would I then be the same person as I am now, and have you changed time?  Not for Missy, or Rob, or Mark -- but for me, a little, you have, haven't you?

Great sci-fi, great speculative fiction, doesn't just tell you a great story.  It changes the way you look at the world and how you think about everything.  In listening to My Wife Hates Time Travel, I opened up this whole new way of examining what it means to be in a given world -- and whether those experiences would be real.  I've been applying that to everything.  I just read Startide Rising, by David Brin, too, and marveled at how he seemed to have given thought to what it would be like to live in a universe where extraterrestrials exist, and how the things-that-don't-exist of that universe shape how we would act and think and feel.  

This expands; in my book the After (which got a great review from Michael Offutt)(and which I wrote well before reading My Wife Hates Time Travel) I wrote a story that began with the idea "What if Heaven really is everything we want it to be? What would that be like?" and I wasn't crazy about the answer I came up with, really, but it was the honest answer.

It's all well and good to have Luke go barreling around the galaxy fighting gundarks; but the stories I like the best are the ones that when I wake up in the middle of the night, they rattle around in my head and make me think think think and then one day I realize I see the whole world a bit differently.

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Thinking About Time Travel At The End (Or The Beginning?) Of The Universe(s).



Who knew the Universe had an end?

Or should I say an EDGE?

It took me forever to get here – at least as far as you all are concerned. 

I made it here, but I won’t be coming back because once you’ve seen the edge of the universe there’s nothing to come back to.

Literally.

I told her, before I left, this was good-bye, for real, and she understood.  She’s a mathematician, the smart one.  I’m just the space-jockey, the pilot they picked to experience the first faster-than-light travel, the first guy who would go, really, outside of time.

“No, that’s not right,” she used to tell me, a billion billion light years, and years, ago.  But it’s how I understood it.  I mean, if time stops flowing for me while superaccelerating for all of you, isn’t that right?

“No, that’s not right,” she’d say about that last part, too. 

She’s farther from me now, in space and time, than dinosaurs were from her.

That would be sad, except I knew what I was in for, and also: I’m at the edge of the universe, the END of the universe.

Out there, beyond my windshield, is something else: Not our universe.  I can’t make heads or tails of what’s going on in it, but it’s not for us. It’s not ours.

It’s beautiful, though, this edge, this end.

I wish I could show her.

Someday she’ll see. 


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*In 250=1, I write short stories that are exactly 250 words in length, including the title.  There are more of them here.

2 comments:

Andrew Leon said...

Here's my thing:
I think time travel may be possible, but I think it would also be kind of useless. I think events in time are static, meaning you can't change the past. If you were to go back to the past anything you did would facilitate the thing that actually happened.

Aside from that, though, I'm pretty sure forward time travel is possible because we know that time is relative. That, however, would not leave someone a way to get back, so what would be the point?

I did really like Timescape but Benford. That one deals with sending a message to the past and the whole splitting of the time stream because of it. It's an interesting read, and Benford is a physicist, so it's pretty heavy into the science of it.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Patrick Dilloway needs to comment on this post. He writes about time travel all of the time. His Scarlet Knight books are basically time travel. So is Virgin Territory.