Monday, March 20, 2017

Chrononautics 101: Time Travel in Fiction

Image: Zamanda Yolculuk

Given the perhaps over-serious tone of my last post, I though I'd return to a lighter topic this week. Since I've already gone down one rabbit hole (see my Other Worlds: Fiction and Reality post) why not hop into another? (I can hear everyone groaning at my bad pun this very moment).

So, time travel. Where do we start? Maybe with a brief definition of terms. Technically, we are all engaged in time travel just by existing - you have all traveled into the future since reading this sentence. But this is rarely what we have in mind when using the term "time travel." Rather, it refers to a concept in fiction (and some current scientific theories) whereby the sequential process of time is alternately suspended, accelerated, or reversed - usually from the perspective of a lone observer (or group of observers) carrying the unique status of "time traveler." The functional result is that a person is able to experience events in various periods of time outside of normal sequential order as well as the limits of their own finite lifespan.

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Thus defined, we can see that, broadly speaking, there are two main forms of time travel as it appears in fiction. We can label them "forward-directed" and "backward-directed", respectively. The first concerns travel from past to future (at a vastly accelerated rate across great temporal "distances") while the latter concerns its opposite. Both have a long history in speculative fiction. In contemporary times, we usually think of the latter, but, interestingly, early time travel stories usually involved the former (as in H.G. Wells' classic The Time Machine).

Within this basic framework, things get a little more complicated as we move into methods and effects. I'll somewhat suspend judgment on the former given the debatable nature of the science and engineering involved (I invite anyone with an even remotely feasible design for a time machine to step forward and allow me to accompany them to the Patent Office).

So what are the likely effects of time travel? I speak here of the backward-directed variety given that (one-way) forward-directed travel avoids the more problematic questions of cause and effect. Fiction writers (probably the only profession so far to explore this topic at any meaningful length) have largely settled on three main scenarios, each implying a different theory on the nature of time:

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Fixed Timeline. This assumes that any hypothetical "time traveler" is able to make literally no changes to past events. His journey to the past is simply part of those events. Someone traveling back in time to assassinate Adolf Hitler, for example, will instead facilitate his rise to power. While seemingly the most logical (if paradoxical) scenario, it carries the drawback of largely rendering human free will an illusion.

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Dynamic Timeline. This is basically the exact opposite of the fixed timeline theory. A time traveler's intervention in past events will produce direct, observable changes in his own time period (though he himself is the only one aware anything has changed). Attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler brings the desired result of his death (though almost always with an unforeseen outcome that is worse than the original). Incidentally, this is perhaps the most prevalent theory found in time travel fiction - "threats" to the timeline and how they're dealt with form the basis for the plots involved (as in the "Time Cop" franchise). The main drawback of this theory is that it begs the question of what exactly happens to the original, unaltered timeline. Most authors simply assume it's been "deleted" and provide no further explanation.

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Alternate Timelines. As we've seen, the prior two scenarios almost necessarily do violence to either causality or free will. This theory seems to avoid both by incorporating a version of "many worlds" multiverse theory. A time traveler's intervention in past events, rather than paradoxically facilitating the events of his own time period (fixed timeline) or changing them (dynamic timeline) results in the creation of a parallel universe where outcomes were different than in the original. The main drawback here is the association (implied, but not logically necessary) with "many worlds" theory and its fundamental overtones of meaninglessness, particularly from a Christian viewpoint (our actions in life don't matter because in some other universe some other versions of ourselves will do the opposite).

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I should perhaps mention there is also the "Dr. Who" theory of time travel, which incorporates elements of all three scenarios. Some points in time are fixed, some are dynamic, and some (if changed) branch out into alternate timelines. It's interesting in a "chaos theory" sort of way, but makes little logical sense (like much else in that particular television franchise; not a judgment, jut a statement). 

As I hope I've made clear, my purpose is not to assess the actual, scientific possibility of any of these scenarios (I regard time travel in general as slightly less possible than extraterrestrial life). My concern is simply to identify which makes the most sense within a fictional storyline - and which fits the most smoothly with a biblical worldview. I'll point out that none of them are as awkward a fit as they might seem at first. One Christian novelist I've read, Alton Gansky, has pointed out that as the universe further decays from its original perfection, time and space are gradually losing their integrity. Paradoxes and anomalies are possible and could become increasingly prevalent. Would this make time travel (in any of these imagined forms) more of a possibility? We can only wait and see.

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But I digress. Which time travel scenario do I specifically favor within Christian fiction? All of the backward-directed ones have their pitfalls. For that reason, I tend to lean toward the one-way, forward-directed variety, whereby information, objects, and (perhaps) individuals would be transmitted/propelled across several years or centuries instantaneously (from their own perspective) with no means of returning to their original time period (thereby avoiding the causality problem completely). Backwards-directed "travel" could take place via a "chronovisor" device allowing people in the present to witness past events rather than participate in or change them. 

It would, however, be quite unfair of me to completely write off backward-directed time travel as a fictional device without any consideration. What follows is yet another elaborate "thought experiment" from what I consider a biblical viewpoint. Again, this is not what I actually believe, but rather a construct for any interested fiction writers.

Image: Praban Japriyan
Out of all three of the scenarios we've covered, the one I personally favor the most would be "alternate timelines" - with the following two qualifications:
  • In its "natural" state, physical reality consists of a single universe (our own) rather than an infinite number of parallel universes with an infinite number of outcomes as postulated in "many worlds" theory ("Narnia"-type scenarios I regard as something else entirely - I'm sure most Christian fantasy writers will also grasp the difference). Artificial intervention by time travelers causes a "branching off" of "subsidiary" universes from the "primary" universe. Some people would have "counterparts" in the alternate timelines, will other would never be born in those timelines. Such a "double" would, in fact, be a separate person with their own soul and consciousness - the time travel intervention causes their "birth" at the point of divergence from the primary timeline. Up to that point, they have the exact same memories as the "original" person. To an extent, the process mirrors that by which a child emerges into a separate existence from its parents' bodies - a sort of "flash birth", as it were. 
  • Certain points in the timeline are not subject to such alteration. From a biblical standpoint, these would consist of events playing an essential, immutable role in the Grand Plan of Salvation (the Garden of Eden, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, etc).
Observant readers will see that this places virtually all biblical history "off-limits" as it were. That's one of the main reasons I favor forward-directed time travel scenarios over backward-directed. But at the same time, these limitations still leave a potentially rich playing field for scenarios involving post-biblical historical events (it would also mesh well with Gansky's theory on the universe's continuing decay - we could assume that the Old and New Testament eras occurred when the universe's structure still retained a degree of integrity that made artificial time travel impossible).
I believe there's flexibility here even if we consider future biblical prophecy. Ted Dekker presented a rather original perspective on this (along with the nature of free will) in his Circle series: prophecies are foreordained of God and will be fulfilled someday no matter what; but the exact times, events and people who fulfill them can be changed through conscious action and, presumably, the power of prayer. 

With all these being said, if time travel in this manner with these consequences was possible, it would probably not be an ethical enterprise. One consideration that's often overlooked in analyzing past events is that there are people alive today who would have never been born had those events not unfolded the way they did (even atrocities such as the Holocaust). Time travel would, therefore, almost necessarily involve the creation and destruction of human lives as a means to an end in a way similar to human cloning. 

Image: Movie Pilot
What a time traveler would ultimately become? 

This would, however, still provide a fertile ground for fictional plots - perhaps involving a villain seeking to create numerous alternate timelines for their own twisted ends and the protagonists trying to repair what damage they can. God is, after all, capable of bringing good out of man's evil - Pharaoh's evil facilitated Israel's journey into the Promised Land. Similarly, human clones and alternate timelines could be used for God's purposes even though He would not condone the actions that resulted in their creation. 

So there we are. That's my ridiculously complicated, over-analyzed, a priori perspective on time travel (in fiction) from a biblical worldview. Just a little something for other fussy writers like myself who feel irresistibly compelled to pursue every fantastical subject to its logical conclusion in the name of an ever-illusive "plausibility". I neither expect nor enjoin every fiction writer (Christian or otherwise) to adopt this model in their storylines, but I hope it can at least provide some imaginative stimulus.

Image: The Daily Beast
I invite you all to join me again as we continue our journey through the Dark Corners of Heaven and Earth. 

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