Sunday, November 10, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Annihilating Time and Space for Fun and Profit

One of my favorite themes is time travel. The prospect of full immersion in another time attracts me like open reading matter attract cats. I've thought about it enough to have a consistent, yet flexible, concept of how it needs to work for my stories; settled the predestination/paradox problem to my own satisfaction (though it's surprisingly difficult to get people to break out of their preconceptions enough to grasp my simple solution); and generally am comfortable with doing it. From a writing perspective, the main work in writing such a story now involves doing the research, evolving the characters and plot that arise naturally from the research, getting the butt in the chair - and, eventually, pitching/selling the damn thing, which is always the hardest part and no one wants to hear me whine about it.

But one aspect of the time travel concept remains largely unaddressed, and the gap is glaring. But it's so far removed from my own motivation for time traveling, that I have a hard time approaching it.

One of the technical difficulties of time travel, normally handwaved, is that the earth moves constantly through space. Not only does it orbit the sun, but the solar system moves through the galaxy, which in turn moves through the universe. If you go back in time a year, or a hundred years, or eleven millennia, without shifting in space (as my protagonists generally appear to do), you wind up in the vacuum of space where the earth is going to be at the time you leave. And if you go back in time and simultaneously shift in space (as so many books have people doing, with modern children winding up in Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, Medieval France, etc.) it'd take an astronomer and a high-powered computer to run the data to arrive safely.

An effective time travel method is also, ipso facto, an effective method for traversing or bypassing vast regions of space.

Which means you should be able to repurpose the method in order to enable instantaneous interstellar travel.

That's - a pretty freaking huge concept. Arguably, huger than would fit into one book; though one of the pleasures of speculative fiction is the way large numbers of mind-bending concepts can be evoked and compressed into a single work as backdrop.

This connection is hinted at in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which both time and space are spindled, folded, and mutilated as the plot/comedy requires and "Infinite Improbability Drive" covers a multitude of contingencies (well, an infinite number) - but the Guide is a special case.

You could spend a career writing a loose series, either setting-based like Darkover or character-based like the Vorkosigan Saga, exploring the consequences of such a technology. One book could depict the experimental phase, as the Laws of Paradox and Free Will are formulated; any number could be spent on the Exploratory Phase; the political, economic, and social ramifications would run constantly in the background as plot complicators. Ancient cultures. New planets. Ancient cultures on new planets. Rivals forming alliances with the same culture in different eras. Extreme anthropology, with "experimental archeology" taking on a whole new meaning.

The author would have terrifyingly few limits. Success would mean a terrifying professional commitment. Disappointing sales on the first couple of books would mean a frustratingly curtailed creative experience.

I wish I'd stop having Big Ideas.


  1. A few weeks ago I read a book called "How to Build a Time Machine" by a British popular science writer named Brian Clegg. ( bought the book because I know Brian -- I've never been very interested in the physics of time travel (even though I've got a degree in physics) since it's so restrictive as to make it all but impossible for practical purposes. This means you have to bend at least some of the laws of nature to get it to work in fiction, in which case you might as well forget the whole thing and go with technobabble like everyone else! However, since the book is fresh in my mind, I'll mention a couple of points that struck me. First, as you say, you can't separate time travel from space travel. You have to think of four-dimensional space-time, and moving from one point in 4D space to another. We do this all the time, except that motion along the time axis is constrained to be at a "speed" of one second per second. According to the Clegg book, the only time travel mechanisms that are allowed by current theory would involve a short cut (either backwards or forwards through time) between devices at two different points in space-time. The big catch, which is another point that most time travel fiction ignores, is that you can never go back to a time before the time machine was first built!

  2. Ah, but we can still use this method of time travel if an alien civilization has built a time travel device in our distant past! That'd be a cool story - you've got a space travel device that also allows this limited time travel, but the lab assistant or a student accidentally tunes in the wrong frequency and catches a similar, partially-compatible device left in the Pleistocene by some unfortunate space tourist who got eaten by a short-faced bear!

  3. Now that really is a good idea! As with all good ideas it's probably already been done, but it's good enough to do again!

  4. I could really care less if an idea's been done before. I assume they all are. When I'm talking to a class about this, and we work out a group story, we always reach a point where they're starting to all hare off in different directions with the same base premise and I can tell them that if everybody in the room walks out and writes a story from this idea, they will all produce different stories.Each one original. That's how it works.