Time's Arrow

This is my first attempt at a blog, so bear with me.

For my inaugural post, I thought I'd answer (in painstaking detail) a question that I often get: how did I come up with the idea for my books? In short, it was because I was dissatisfied with what was out there. Specifically, the whole sub-genre of science fiction that dealt with time travel always bothered me. Whether in books or movies, it never quite sat right with me. After sitting down to think about it, I realized that my issues with time travel and its treatment in pop culture fell into three main categories. (Just to be clear, I'm talking about time travel into the past. Time travel into the future doesn't give me heartburn.).

If you're wondering what this has to do with my books (since they don't chiefly deal with time travel on face value), then keep reading... I get there, I promise. Here are the three main categories of time travel literature as I see it:

1. The present sucks, so go back and change it - Examples: Terminator, Back to the Future, Looper

This represents the most common treatment of time travel in popular literature, but also the most problematic -- that's because of paradoxes. A paradox is a logical inconsistency. The classic example would be going back in time and murdering your own grandparent (accidentally or otherwise). Doing so would make you no longer exist in the future. But if you no longer exist in the future, you would never have been able to travel back in time to murder your grandfather. But if that were the case, then your grandfather would still live and you would then exist, and would then go back in time to murder you grandfather. Et cetera. This is an extreme example, but pretty much any change in the timeline would cause some kind of paradox, and therefore is impossible. This kind of brain-hurting plot makes for awesome action movies, but unravels entirely at the briefest nudge. Honorable mention: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (because it doesn't take itself seriously).

2. The past is written, and therefore you can't change anything no matter how hard you try - Examples: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Twelve Monkeys

Imagine that an unknown assailant shot and killed your best friend when you were a kid. You grow up and invent time travel (congratulations) in an effort to go back and save your friend's life. You plan to camp out where the murder took place and take out the assailant before he (statistically it's a "he") can carry out the murder. But somehow things get messed up and you end up accidentally shooting a random kid on the playground you were staking out -- your best friend. It turns out the mystery shooter was you all along! In an effort to prevent an event in the past, you inadvertently caused it to come to fruition because nothing can violate the timeline. Period. Now on the surface of it, I have no problem with these stories. They're logically consistent (on face value, but not really... as I'll get to in a minute).

My main problem with this style of writing is that it's not interesting. You already know what's going to happen because the ending is the beginning's premise. Furthermore, it violates free will. Now some will argue that free will is an illusion, but I prefer to think it's not, so there. It argues for destiny -- the protagonist has no actual choice in what's going to happen to him or her. Everything is going to play out exactly as it should with no deviations from the script.

However, there is something else that does make this treatment of time travel inconsistent: the djinn. A "djinn" in this context is an object or idea that exists only because of time loops. For instance: a scientist from the future comes back in time and gives Einstein the idea for general relativity. This future scientist only knows about general relativity in the first place because of his or her studies on Einstein. So... where did the idea actually come from? Who actually thought of it? A much more tangible example: you go back in time and give a watch to your father when he was a kid. Your father then grows up and passes the watch to you. You then go back in time and give the watch to your father. Where did the watch actually come from? Since the watch at the end of one loop would have to be identical at the end of the next loop (since the end of each loop is the same moment in time), every single molecule of the watch has to be in the exact same place. You've just created an eternal item that cannot be destroyed or altered in any way.


3. You can change things, but that creates a new timeline - Examples: X-men: Days of Future Past, Star Trek (the reboot)

Now this is just silly. It's a device employed to reboot a series so that you can recycle characters and plot lines without having to come up with a new story altogether. But aside from those points, there are some logical problems with it as well. (Spoiler alert) In Star Trek, Nero travels back in time to wreak havoc on the Vulcans and (presumably) prevent the future destruction of his own home planet in the process. Here's the problem with that: if you just created a new timeline, then you're not actually affecting the future you came from. You're affecting someone else's future. In your home universe, when you traveled into the past you just disappeared from that reality, never to be heard from again. But everyone else in that reality would just continue along their merry way without you and without any noticeable changes to their reality (because you didn't actually change their reality). 

In my mind, this type of literary mechanism is how you solve the logical inconsistencies with the first one I mentioned -- you can change things, but instead of creating a paradox you popped into an alternate reality. But in the process of solving paradoxes by introducing the multiverse (the name often given to this idea), you make time travel moot. In this version of Terminator 2, Arnold Schwarzenegger is sent into the past and prevents Judgement Day in the new timeline he's in, but Judgement Day still happened in his original timeline and every human in that timeline is still bad off, so what was the point?


Back to my books. I reasoned that all three of these types of inconsistencies came from a fundamental misunderstanding of what time is. They all treat time as some physical environment that you can move around in at will (like places on a map), but time isn't that at all. Time as a physical thing is an illusion of our consciousness mind and should instead be viewed as our experience of causality. As such, causality can never be violated. Moreover, "time" doesn't exist on its own. This is a key point that is lost in most of literature and one whose omission probably causes much of these issues. What we should really be talking about is "spacetime" -- the notion that space and time are inextricably linked. 

In that way, what I introduced in the books was the notion of "spacetime traveling," even though I don't actually call it that in the novels. In this way, traveling in time necessitates that you also travel in space. Therefore, instantaneous (if you can call it that) time travel has to come along with instantaneous space travel. In light of this, the "space" part of "spacetime travel" tends to be the much more applicable half. So in the reality that I created, they use this "spacetime travel" chiefly as a convenient way to colonize the galaxy. This then leads to all sorts of downstream effects of the technology -- on politics, economics, social inequalities, etc (for details, read the books :).  

But if I was messing with the timeline, I had to preserve causality or paradoxes would still be possible in my books. So that begged the question: well, what would this "spacetime travel" actually look like? If I go a year into the past in this reality, how far away (distance-wise) do I go in space? In order to eliminate paradoxes, you would need to be far enough away that you couldn't communicate with yourself in any way before you leave. What I mean by that is suppose I go to a planet a light-year away (in distance) and there turn out to be giant man-eating shrimp all over the planet. If I traveled greater than 1 year into the past in the process, I could easily send a radio communication back to my point of origin warning me not to make the jump (or else warning me to bring extra tartar sauce) and it would arrive before I left, thereby altering my future actions and creating a paradox. Therefore, I reasoned that any meaningful spacetime travel would have to be proportional to light speed: I travel one year into the past means I travel one light-year away in distance.

 So what started as my love-hate relationship with the time travel sub-genre, ended up morphing into a novel about colonizing the galaxy -- paradox free. And while this may look like it also makes time travel moot, it doesn't. This fact about causality and the "time" piece to the spacetime travel figures integrally into the plots. What it does do is completely remove any of the more traditional uses of stand-alone time travel employed in books and movies -- uses that always seem to introduce inconsistencies and weaken the narrative (and genre) as a result.