The Philosophy of Time and Time Travel
“For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Science and Time Travel
Perhaps you don’t really need The Eye of Agamotto from the Marvel Comics, the TARDIS or even that bizarre time travelling Hot Tub to usurp Time when you already have Albert Einstein. Don’t his theoretical equations after all give credence to Time Travel itself? Actually it was his friend the mathematician Kurt Gödel who famously presented Einstein with a theoretical paper for his seventieth birthday, that used Albert’s very own mathematical calculations as set out in the General Theory of Relativity to prove that, at least in theory, time travel was possible. And in the SWIDGERS Time Adventure book series, Kurt Gödel features as an important cog in the Swidger understanding of Time Travel. And indeed Albert Einstein himself makes a cameo appearance in Book Three, THE TIME OF YESTERDAY’S RETURN.
But most Time Tales don’t have an Einstein or a Gödel and so they make do with The Explainer. This is a useful character to have in a Time Tale for it is their role to explain the science, much like Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers series. In this scene from DÉJÀ VU, we have The Explainer (Denny), the non-scientist who wants everything put in plain words (Doug Carlin), plus the true scientist at the end who sums up the actual science itself (SHANTI):
DENNY: We were attempting to use concentrated bursts of energy to enhance the sensitivity of optical telescopes. In the process, we had a breakthrough. Getting enough energy, we could warp the very fabric of space.
DOUG CARLIN: I said explain it to me, not talk science.
AGENT PRYZWARRA: They found a way to –
DOUG CARLIN: Look, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you guys just keep talking? I’ll just sit here until you figure out what it is you really wanna tell me.
AGENT PRYZWARRA: They found a way to fold space back upon into itself.
DENNY: All right, look…
(DENNY TAKES A SHEET OF PAPER AND HOLDS IT FLAT.)
DENNY: We’re used to viewing space as flat, right? Like this piece of paper.
DOUG CARLIN: Right.
DENNY: To see something from a distance, light has always had to travel the long way across the flat space in between. But given what I was trying to explain, we can fold the space, bring the target closer to us, create what’s known as an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, otherwise known as a wormhole, suspend it via gravitational field.
DOUG CARLIN: That’s what we’re looking at?
DENNY: That’s it.
DOUG CARLIN: What’s on the other side of the bridge?
DENNY: Claire’s house.
DOUG CARLIN: Wow.
SHANTI: Basically, we’re folding space in a higher dimension to create an instantaneous link between two distant points.
In the scene itself, this dialogue is spoken incredibly quickly, but it’s done with conviction and once it’s over and done with, the science of the ‘Time Window’ in DÉJÀ VU is pretty much left alone.
Some stories and films set out the scientific foundation for time travel in great detail. Much of the first half of PRIMER, for example, is taken up with laboratory gobbledegook. In BACK TO THE FUTURE, much is made of the “flux capacitor”. In fact, in many Time Travel stories you’ll hear phrases such as “time continuum”, “looped quantum gravity”, “Vortex Manipulator”, “a bend in the fabric of space” or “time is not linear but is curved” or “folded up space” and “light speed is to stop in time”. One trick of the Time Tale is to take some legitimate mathematics and then embellish it with fairy tale science. You’ll find this sort of thing in THE ADAM PROJECT, ALICE and PRIMER. But, as said, there are often some scientific truths in these hypotheses. For example, technically speaking, the U.S. astronaut, Scott Kelly, after spending nearly a year going round the Earth at great speed on the International Space Station, came back 13 milliseconds younger than his twin brother. This was due to the relative speed at which he was travelling in space compared to that of his brother back on earth. And this phenomenon is called Relativist Time Dilation. However, travelling at great speeds cannot, according to Einstein’s Special Relativity actually send you back in time. Unless you travel faster than the speed of light and according to Einstein that isn’t possible. But don’t tell Kal-El that as he tries to save Lois in SUPERMAN (1978).
A brief tangent. It has been calculated that in order for Mr Kent to spin the Earth backwards, he would have to travel at approximately 660,000,000 miles per hour, nearly light speed. Of course in doing so his own mass would increase by 13.7 million and according to Einstein’s mass/energy equivalence equation E=mc² that would mean he would have done irreparable damage to the Earth, plus increase its gravity to such a degree that nearby objects, nearby in cosmic terms anyway, such as asteroids would come hurting towards us. But hey, SUPERMAN is only a movie.
PLANET OF THE EARTH is a plot that relies on Relativist Time Dilation, in that for the astronauts returning to Earth from a mission in deep space, only eighteen months have passed by, but here on Earth, it’s more like two thousand years. The Icarus/Liberty 1 spacecraft isn’t designed to be a time machine as such but it becomes one simply by way of its speed. As said, time passes differently for someone fast moving compared to someone standing still. If Icarus/Liberty 1 did travel close to speed of light then that would in theory explain the Time Dilation. And of course what happens in the movie is the returning astronauts find a dystopian Earth future. This though is a change to the original book and it was made by Rod Sterling of Twilight Zone fame, who also gave the twist of the Statue of Liberty at the end. Yes, it was after all Earth to which the astronauts had returned, not another planet.
In DARK, there is quite a bit of talk about the scientists Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen and the theory known as the Einstein-Rosen Bridge (a wormhole named after Einstein and Rosen). There’s also references to Ernst Wilhelm Brücke, who was interested in a variety of scientific areas, including experimental physiology, and physicist Peter Higgs who gave his name to the Higgs particle. The design of a device that allows Time Travel in DARK came into the hands of The Watchmaker, Tannhauser. Essentially the device generates a Higgs field, increasing the mass of Cesium that is placed inside it. An electromagnetic pulse then turns this into a black hole, or wormhole, though which Time Travel is achieved. Simple really.
But science oddly enough is rarely what Time Travel stories are about. Essentially Time Tales are fantasies that explore consequence in people’s lives and in history, which is to say, Why do things happen the way they do? In this sense, Time Tales are in effect more essays in philosophical speculation than scientific theory.
“The bottom line is that Time Travel is allowed by The Laws of Physics.”
“Time is really the only capital that any human being has, and the only thing he can’t afford to lose.”
There are, it could be said, essentially two views of the Universe. The first is The Atomist perspective. Here the Universe is seen as merely a load of atoms, randomly bouncing about in space. Life has accidently come about, and we may be very thankful for it, but ultimately there is no real meaning or purpose to it all. As Professor Stephen Hawking used to say, “The Universe is just one of those things.” It is what it is and stuff just happens. It really is all just down to dumb luck and the roll of the dice.
The opposite perspective is that of The Destinist. Here we have a philosophy where life has purpose and certain things are meant to be. There is often a Greater Power or Cosmic Force behind such philosophies, but sometimes it is simply what the Greeks called Ananke, the guiding Force of Fate and the primordial personification of Necessity.
That there is a Big Plan and that certain things are Meant To Be, is at the heart of the vast majority of Time Tales. And it’s this underlying philosophy and view of life that is, perhaps, their greatest appeal. You’ll hear lines in Time Tales such as, “And if you have to die, it won’t be for nothing.” And the character can say that in the story because she or he knows the historical consequences of the self-sacrifice that is being made to save mankind.
In short, the Time Tale gives meaning to our actions. Everything we do has consequences, but only in The Destinist view of the Universe do these have an ultimate and discernable purpose. And it’s Time Travel stories that can demonstrate this. Human beings like the idea that life has purpose and meaning, and that in a way is the central philosophy of most Time Tales. Incidentally, The Destinist view is not necessarily Calvinist in its approach, which is to say The Destinist view is not necessarily opposed to the idea of human free will. The Big Plan is bigger than us as individuals. We can then to a degree do what we like, only Father Time will discover a means of getting his own way in the end. So choices and options are always there. And often the central dilemma of a Time Tale.
“Choices create circumstances; decisions determine your future.”
“What Time could there be that You had not created? Or how could ages pass, if they never were? Thus, you are The Maker of all Times … If there was Time, You made it, for Time could not pass before You made Time.”
God and Time, Aristotle’s Concept of First Cause and ‘The Origin’
‘Were Captain Kirk’s spectacles in STAR TREK: THE VOYAGE HOME ever actually manufactured or did, or do, they only exist within that Causal Time Loop?’ is one of the curious questions arising from paradoxes of the Time Loop. And it raises a series of fascinating ideas around The Concept of Origin, which now leads us to the philosophical idea of ‘First Cause’, as put forward by Aristotle, and the theologically relationship between God with Time. Big stuff.
The principle of the ‘First Cause’ assumes that each natural thing is caused by something other than itself. You had a mother and father, and they had mothers and fathers of their own. And there are further assumptions with First Cause: One, there cannot be an infinite series of causes, and, Two (and arising from that) there must therefore be a First Cause whose existence is not caused by something other than itself or anything that came before it. Saint Thomas Aquinas called such a thing ‘God’, while others have named it ‘The Big Bang’.
The most influential theological philosopher before Aquinas was Saint Augustine and in Book XI of THE CONFESSIONS, Augustine argued that Time belonged to God. In effect, God is the creator of Time and made Time a part of the Universe when He created the Universe. Time wasn’t something that was already there, as it were, all along. As Augustine says, “What Time could there be that You had not created? Or how could ages pass, if they never were? Thus, you are The Maker of all Times.” To say anything other would be heresy. So where does that leave the Time Traveller in a Time Machine that she or he has created herself or himself? Isn’t she or he and her or his invention going against The Rules of Time and ultimately God Himself?
Until the nineteenth century, it was only God who could move in Time, but then along came H.G. Wells who in GOD THE INVISIBLE KING rejected the very idea of God the Creator. And it was H.G. Wells of course who wrote THE TIME MACHINE that broke those strictures of Saint Augustine. Then there was the American writer Mark Twain, a well-known religious sceptic, who wrote about a human being who travelled into the past. Perhaps one of the reasons why there never had been a Time Travel story before the nineteenth century was because such a story would by definition be heresy and sacrilegious. To travel in Time, and potentially change Time, what God Himself had decreed, would be tantamount to challenging, or worse, altering, God’s Will. For Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, Time was God’s domain and God’s creation, not Man’s. It is not possible to prove that fear of prosecution for blasphemy was the reason that no Time Tales were ever printed before the nineteenth century, but it is offered as a possibility. All this may seem very archaic, but blasphemy was indeed for centuries in English law punishable by death and even in 1921 someone was sent to prison for it. In fact, there are countries on our planet where blasphemy is still a capital crime.
So, what in Heaven and Earth would Aquinas and Augustine have made of DARK? DARK is a Time Tale that uses the iconography of religion and the traditions of the Bible, but then inverts them in order to create a very secular fable. In DARK, The Watchmaker, one H.G. Tannhaus – those initials look very familiar – builds a Time Machine he intends to use to go back in time and save his family from a car accident. By creating this machine, Tannhaus causes a stoppage in time that halts the cause-effect relationship of Time and thus two timelines – or two worlds – are created and each with unforeseen and tragic consequences, including a nuclear apocalypse. The Watchmaker – often a by-word for God – creates two seemingly eternal and infernal Time Loops of near hellish damnation for the people of Winden. A painful and never ending déjà vu.
Jonas and Martha, who later become Adam and Eva – familiar names if you’ve read Genesis – learn that they are at the centre of the ‘Origin’ of this damnation, a ‘First Cause’ of sorts, and the only way out of the ‘Endless Loops’ that have been created is to bring an end to their own existence. When this happens the Loops will be broken and a free world will be born. In effect, our new Adam and Eva create this new world, this new Paradise, by this self-sacrifice. It’s a truly ‘Wow!’ moment.
What John Milton, or even God Himself, would have made of all this, well, perhaps we’ll never know. Unless they both have a Netflix subscription up there in the clouds. What can be said is that DARK, a secular parable in its own way, has taken the potential of what a Time Tale is capable of beyond pretty much all that has gone before it. DARK is essentially a Genesis Creation Story in its own right, and as the music of Soap&Skin singing What a Wonderful World brought it to an end, it was a reminder that our Wonderful World is The Now.
“Now is Now. There is nothing but now… This, right here, is all there is.”
“If we are to be biblical, then, the issue is not whether we should have a doctrine of predestination or not, but what kind we should embrace”
In DEVS, written and directed by Alex Garland, a team of computer scientists create a Time Window to rival the eyes of God Himself. The title DEVS gives you the clue to the theological and moral philosophy underpinning the series because, in the classical alphabet, the sound or phoneme for what we write as ‘U’ looks like a ‘V’. In fact, for a long time there was no ‘U’ and so the ‘V’ was an allograph, that is, a letter or grapheme that has a variation of pronunciation where it is used in another context or situation. In this particular case, the shape ‘V’ can stand for both the vowel we now know as U and the consonant V. What all this linguistic jiggery-pokery means in practice is that DEVS is really pronounced DEUS, the Latin word for God. But before concerning ourselves too much with the Almighty just yet, let’s first look at the science of DEVS.
Human beings are contingent by nature, that is, we are subject to change and that change is brought about by cause and effect. DEVS puts forward the theory that to access a person’s past you need, first, the right software and code; second, a huge computer with impossibly large processing power, and third, collected data of every previous historical cause-effect. Then, working cause-effect backwards from effect to cause, you would be able to have access to all the events of the past. And that includes anyone’s past.
Add a GPS system and a computer screen to this knowledge and you might even be able to generate images of that past. Pixelated, yes, and mere simulations, but visualisations nevertheless. Not, though, that these images strictly speaking would be from the past, this Time Window would not be the actuality of an event, but rather computer generated projections of high probability. Yet knowing every change and or action that brought an event about would still essentially allow scientists to see, as it were, into the past. If not always literally.
The broader scientific theory behind this theoretical process goes like this: If the universe is based on physical laws that are consistent and immutable then at the very moment of the Big Bang a chain of events was set in motion – that chain of events being the physical interaction of atoms and particles and their resulting consequences – and as complicated as that chain may be, with billion upon billion of interactions over billions of years, the resulting events that follow that initial explosion are now nevertheless fixed. Think of this: that you are reading this at this precise moment in your life was actually predetermined nearly fourteen billion years ago. Yes, your brain is said to have more potential neurological pathways than there are atoms in the universe, but since those electronic pulses are the result of physical world interactions, they are still ultimately just another link in that much bigger chain of cause-effect events. Sounds crazy, but that is the logical follow-on from those immutable physical laws that have existed since the moment of the Big Bang itself. We are ultimately hostages to fortune where fortune itself is trapped in a net woven from a yarn from which there is no escape.
To put all this in the context of the thesis explored in DEVS: if at the beginning of creation you had handy a big enough computer with the right software and enough processing power – in fact, one very similar to the computer in DEVS – then you would have been able to compute – (or should that be predict or predetermine?) – that at this precise moment in time you would be reading this very sentence. Wow. That’s well weird. So weird, it’s worth saying again. Wow. But of course if you had have had that computer not such a big a Wow because you would have known it would happen.
The long and short of it is that we live in a predetermined universe. And that you reading ‘We live in a predetermined universe’ was itself predetermined. This is how Forest puts in the series:
“The universe is deterministic. It’s godless and neutral and defined only by physical laws. The man eats because he’s hungry – the marble rolls because it was pushed. An effect is always the result of a prior cause. The life we lead, with all its apparent chaos, is actually on tramlines. Prescribed. Undeviating. Deterministic. Deterministic because everything than can happen will happen. And that’s as deterministic as you can get.”
The key point DEVS makes is that immutable physical laws offer no room for flukes, or quirks, or whims, or accidents, or arbitrary events. There are no spokes in the wheel of cause and effect. Put simply, there is no such thing as chance. Everything that happens or will happen is potentially knowable because all events are the result of those unchanging universal laws. Those tramlines Forest talks about are set and there are no crossroads, no forks or junctions. The open road is an illusion. Or put all this another way: there is no such thing as free will. We may believe we have choices and options, but ultimately, since thinking and consciousness is itself the result of predetermined movement and interactions of atoms and electrical impulses in our brains, we don’t and we never had.
But maybe all this is just a silly load of nonsense. Perhaps it’s simply that science does not yet fully understand the potential randomness of its own laws. Besides, doesn’t quantum physics depend on the uncertainty principle (also known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle)? Not only that, since the subatomic particle has no past or future, how can there be a way of predicting which way it will move? Surely randomness is built into subatomic science. And anyway, didn’t Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking say something about all those so-called immutable laws of the universe becoming meaningless and breakable when lots of gravity comes into play? Oh yes, very mischievous are those weird singularities. And on top of that, aren’t we forgetting Dark Matter? That stuff that scientists assume must be out there because their equations don’t quite add up otherwise. What’s that doing that we don’t know about? Is Dark Matter, which we can’t see and yet may be everywhere, subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the universe? And what about Hugh Everett and his multitude of multiverses and the principle that if it could, it does? And if there are billions of universes out there, don’t they make a single predetermined little universe standing all by itself look very silly indeed? Many questions, oh but few answers.
And we haven’t even mentioned cats yet.
Yes, cats. Those of us who have cats as pets are laughing extraordinarily loudly at those scientists who believe the universe is governed by actions that are fixed and determined. Have these idiots never opened a door for a meowing feline? Try it. You open the door only to watch said creature just stand there. Then it makes a move to exit. No it doesn’t. It stops mid-movement, meows again, and then turns round and looks at you as if to say, “Why did open the door, you’re letting a draft in? Stupid human.” The point is our everyday day experience tells us the uncertainty principle is ever present in our lives. And most definitely in the lives of our feline friends.
Well, if cats are no help, how about God? Can theology aid us in any way in this question of determinism?
Not really, for every Calvinist would immediately be at loggerheads with every Catholic. The Calvinists, who, since God is all knowing, would be arguing very loudly for a predestined universe. The Catholics, on the other hand, who agree God is all knowing but believe that is more about the possibilities of outcome than its singular actuality, would (perhaps here citing Aquinas’s Just War Principle) get together with the Anglicans and fight to the death on the hill of Free Will. And it wouldn’t be the first time, of course, they all got in an actual fight.
If not God can’t help, how about secular morality? Well, this soon comes a cropper if you believe in determinism. This is because the very idea of choosing between right and wrongs can be thrown out straight away because doesn’t predeterminism, or whatever you choose to call it, get us all off the hook for all our life choices, be they good or bad? As the scorpion famously said as it killed the well meaning helpful frog that offered to take it across the river, “I can’t help it, mate, it’s my nature.”
That sense, however, of being let off the hook is central to DEVS. Forest, played by Nick Offerman, devastated by the loss of his young daughter, built the computer system with the issue and question of predeterminism in mind. “I think Devs,” says Lily Chan (played by Sonoya Mizuno), who herself has experienced a significant loss, “is how you’ve put yourself on trial. It’s judge and jury. If it works, determinism precludes free will, and you’re absolved as you did no wrong. But if it doesn’t work, you had choices. And you’re guilty.” And that’s the thing with determinism, morally it gives us all a free pass.
But there’s a twist in DEVS and that is the choice taken by Lily. She was the person the imperious Delphic-like computer could not predict. And in that free choice, there is hope. Well, a hope of a kind, for Lily and Forest in our real world fall to their physical deaths inside the computer, but, as a result, become part of the computer programme itself. Exactly how this comes about is never quite explained, but we go with it because by now the philosophical ideas have taken precedence over both the science and the fiction. And that free will act of Lily leads Lily and Forest into the ‘reality’ of the computer generated world itself. And here they can choose what they wish do with their new lives. Or at least they believe that to be the case. Which is, I suppose, the best they can hope for… until that moment when someone comes along and pulls the plug.
“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”
“The question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us.”
Predestination and Predeterminism
In OEDIPUS REX, it was running away from his Destiny that ironically led Oedipus to it. Had Sophocles rewritten his classic play as a Time Travel Tale – a fanciful notion maybe – but perhaps he would have done so with multiple timelines, where each, though slightly different, would ultimately end in the same outcome. The point for the ancient Greeks was that the greatest power, greater even than Zeus himself, was Ananke, or what we would now call Necessity and Fate. And you can’t escape that no matter how many timepaths you create. Yes, can try to change history, but history and Father Time often have other ideas. In TIMELESS, JFK was warned by the Time Team not to go to Dallas, Texas, but that didn’t stop him being assassinated in Austin, Texas, instead. Sophocles and all those Greeks would have approved of that, for Destiny will find you, one way or the other.
The Calvinists like the Greeks also believe in predestination. Time Travel in the Calvinist philosophy is therefore heresy on stilts, for to go back in Time and alter what God has already put into place – essentially change God’s mind for Him – would be a complete anathema. This sense of Fate and The Almighty raises the idea of the Grand Design or Cosmic Plan. And while on that subject, this famous scene from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION is worth quoting in full:
PICARD: It is no longer a matter of how wrong Data was, or why he did it. The dilemma exists. We have to discuss the options. And please talk freely.
WORF: There are no options. The Prime Directive is not a matter of degrees. It is an absolute.
PULASKI: I have a problem with that kind of rigidity. It seems callous and even a little cowardly.
PICARD: Doctor, I’m sure that is not what the Lieutenant meant, but in a situation like this, we have to be cautious. What we do today may profoundly affect upon the future. If we could see every possible outcome –
RIKER: We’d be gods, which we’re not. If there is a Cosmic Plan, is it not the height of hubris to think that we can, or should, interfere?
LAFORGE: So what are you saying? That the Dremans are fated to die?
RIKER: I think that’s an option we should be considering.
LAFORGE: Consider it considered, and rejected.
TROI: If there is a Cosmic Plan, are we not a part of it? Our presence at this place at this moment in time could be a part of that fate.
LAFORGE: Right, and it could be part of that plan that we interfere.
RIKER: Well that eliminates the possibility of fate.
DATA: But Commander, the Dremans are not a subject for philosophical debate. They are a people.
Right there you’ve pretty much have all the philosophical arguments around Fate, and altering or interfering with Futures. And in this scene, essentially about breaking the Prime Directive, it is Data who ironically sounds the most human.
But what about those Time Travellers, human or otherwise, who don’t believe in the Prime Directive, God or a Cosmic Plan? In a Godless Universe is there ever a right choice or a morally right side of history?
There are modern atheistic philosophers who, though they have no religious faith in Predestination, do believe in its secular kinsman and that is Predeterminism. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously argued that a man can do what he wills, but cannot will what he wills. His point was that if our choices are determined by our desires, then our freedom of choice depends on whether our desires are free in the first place as opposed to simply existing as part of our nature. Arthur favoured the second. Nature rules all. For Schopenhauer, then, free will is the ultimate delusion, for in his philosophy it is our nature that ultimately controls our choices. Think of the well-known fable of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion wants to cross a river but cannot swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. But the frog is afraid that the scorpion might sting it, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. So they begin to cross the river, only the scorpion stings the frog anyway. The dying frog asks why do it, and the scorpion replies: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”
This philosophy of Schopenhauer underpins much of the German television series DARK. In the endless Times Loops throughout DARK, the actions taken by characters may differ slightly in each timeline due to circumstances, but the final result is always the same. Our nature is our ruler. And sometimes a very cruel ruler it is.
But DARK adds another element to the equation. Jonas tries to end his own life in the hope of bringing about an end to the Time Loop, but he is told by Magnus that “Time won’t let him.” Time itself seems to be making choices. It is as if Time is an entity in its own right. And this is a key concept too in the SWIDGERS Time Adventure book series. For, as Granny say, “Time will choose.” Time in SWIDGERS is not in any way a moral entity, it merely offers choices and options. These may involve deciding which timeline it will favour, but Time does this more as a logical thinker than an emotional one.
Eventually Martha and Jonas (or Eva and Adam), as they repeatedly witness the terrible consequences as a result of that well meaning choice made by The Watchmaker, decide the only option is the complete elimination of the Endless Loops and this can only be achieved by taking away the choice made by The Watchman. But to do this will end their own existence. But maybe that elimination isn’t as complete as it seems, for DARK ends at a dinner party where one guest has a strange sense of déjà vu, which, as suggested in RECURSION by Blake Crouch, maybe “the spectre of timelines that never happened but did, casting their shadows upon reality.” An echo, perhaps, of what might have been. It’s a neat metaphysical note on which to end a fascinating and thought provoking series.
So then, if you want to begin a philosophical debate about Fate, God, free will, predeterminism, morality and even the strange experience that is déjà vu, both DARK and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, and indeed many other Time Tales, are perfect starting points.
“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”
“Time is a storm in which we are all lost.”
‘Time is Out of Joint’
‘Time is out of joint’. So said Hamlet. And typical of that young prince, he thinks it’s all about himself – ‘Oh curs’d spite, / That ever I was born to set it right.’ Yet suppose Time really is out of joint. Suppose too at the beginning of Creation, Time and the Universe were deliberately put out of kilter by a life-hating Energy. That is the premise of the Swidger Universe. You see, as told in the SWIDGERS book series, the Cosmos fought back with Beings tasked with putting Life, Time and the Universe once again back into sync. And these beings of course are called Swidgers. And although Cosmic Beings, Swidgers are human in form, but unlike that self-absorbed Danish prince, Swidgers don’t curse their role, they relish it.
The metaphysical concept of Time being out of joint is there in DARK as well, where it is described as a ‘glitch in the Matrix’. And there are numerous DOCTOR WHO and STAR TREK episodes that deal with a similar idea that the very fabric of Time and Space has been damaged in some way. But uniquely SWIDGERS bases its concept of Time on an idea in speculative science and that is known as Group Field Theory (GFT), a branch of quantum gravity that aims to establish the fundamentals of what everything from light and matter to space and time is actually made of.
All theories around the creation of the Universe ask the question ‘Where did it come from?’ and ‘What was there before?’ SWIDGERS suggests that the Universe originated from an Energy that existed without Space or Time and therefore the questions of where or before are irrelevant as there was no where or when. And this idea is partly based on the field of science known as Condensate Cosmology, which is an area of physics that postulates the existence of mysterious algebraic entities named ‘Spin Networks’. These networks constitute what Space and Time is made of and the central idea is that somehow they condensed to produce the Universe. Don’t worry, SWIDGERS isn’t a PhD in Physics for none of this speculative science is even discussed. After all, Granny in the story can’t even read and William is a very young teenager. But these ideas around the formation of the Universe do underpin the philosophy of SWIDGERS. Only SWIDGERS adds another dimension too.
In the Swidger ‘back story’, the Universe came about when there was a divide of Power into Time, Space and Pure Energy. And that Pure Energy later transformed itself into Matter – stars, moons, custard – and ultimately of course Life. But in this mix there was a Dark Force Energy that didn’t approve of Life, and so, in a wicked act of spite, put Time and Life out of sync, thus giving us the imperfect world in which we live. And that’s when the Cosmos hit back with Swidgers.
But what of Time itself? In the Swidger Universe, Time is almost a conscious entity, but it’s not a moral or emotional one as such. As the story goes on, Time makes choices that are key to the lives of the Swidgers, especially around paradoxes, but its judgements are based more on logic than ethics. More importantly, SWIDGERS is a great yarn, full of fun and adventure. It’s just so happens that this story has fascinating ideas that come along with it.
“Lost, yesterday, somewhere between Sunrise and Sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered, for they are gone forever.”
“I am waiting for a time
Lost in the rubble of the past.
Only if time was cyclic, not linear.”
The Shape of Time, Time Slips and Across Time Tales
Christopher Nolan is known for making movies that mess with people’s heads. Or indeed are even set in people’s heads, as with INCEPTION. Nolan has also produced two movies that play with concepts of Time, namely TENET and INTERSTELLAR. Strictly speaking, TENET is more about entropy, but INTERSTELLAR is very much a movie about seeing Time as non-linear. Yet consider this speech:
‘Time is a condition, not an essential. Viewed from the Absolute, the sequence by which future follows present and present follows past is purely arbitrary. Yesterday, today, tomorrow; there is no reason in the nature of things why the order should not be tomorrow today yesterday.
From the 2014 movie INTERSTELLAR? No. These words are from the professor in THE CLOCK THAT WENT BACKWARDS written by Edward Page Mitchell as far back as 1881. And here’s some more:
‘If cause produces effect, does effect never induce cause? Does the law of hereditary, unlike all other laws of this universe of mind and matter, operate in one direction only? Does the descendant owe everything to the ancestor, and the ancestor nothing to the descendant? Does destiny, which may seize upon our existence, and for its own purpose bear us far into the future, never carry us back into the past?’
The ideas here come from the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that can be found in Hegel’s thoughts on Time are explored in various publications including The Phenomenology of Spirit published in 1807, The Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences published in 1830, notably in Philosophy of Nature (Part Two) and Philosophy of Mind [Geist] (Part Three) and also in Lectures on Philosophy of Religion, (Volume Three) published in 1832 a years after his death. Hegel’s philosophical writings on Time are notoriously difficult to comprehend, partly because he is dealing with speculative philosophy but also because his illustrations and metaphors are themselves limited to temporal human sensibilities, for Time, as he sees, is outside of lived experience. To put it simply, in Hegel’s thinking, the Past, Present and Future, are ‘moments of becoming’ which pass into the Oneness of The Eternal Now. And that is about as simple as it gets with Hegel. The point is don’t think of the shape or form of Time as linear. It isn’t a straight line, in fact it isn’t a shape at all. For Hegel, the Time Present is merely something that distinguishes itself from Time Past, and Time Present itself ‘is not’ because Time Future ‘is’ and exists too as an as yet unfilled form of sensibility. As Marty McFly might say, “That’s heavy, Doc!” But that now said, it is possible to see how Hegel influenced writers such as Edward Page Mitchell and indeed how Hegel’s thoughts continue to have an impact on modern writers and creative as such Christopher Nolan.
Across Time Tales are stories where people are in the same geographical space, but in a different time period, yet somehow they are able to communicate with each other. SOMEWHERE IN TIME and the Japanese anime movie YOUR NAME are both romantic dramas where the two pairs of lovers are not so much a world apart more a time apart. But Across Time Tales don’t have to be romantic, for example, TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN by Philippa Pearce. The story is set in the same London house but across time periods. Every night the clock strikes thirteen and the 1950s become the Victorian era. TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN is also an example of a Time Slip Tale, and what distinguishes these from other Time Tales is that the slippage is, as it were, either accidental of unintentional, yet it does come from an internal need. In the case of TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN it is a lonely boy who may be incubating measles who has been sent away from his family to stay with his aunt and uncle. There is also a brief Time Slip in FIELD OF DREAMS when Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) meets Dr Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham, the man he has journeyed across America to find.
“We are not just highly evolved animals with biological computers embedded inside our skulls; we are also fields of consciousness without limits, transcending time, space, matter and linear causality.”
“Boredom is like a pitiless zooming in on the epidermis of time. Ever instant is dilated like the pores of the face.”
Time Dilated Beings and Spaces, and Temporal Directions
Time Dilation is simply the difference in elapsed time as measured by two clocks. The difference is achieved by relative differences in either motion or gravity and the idea comes from Einstein’s theory of special relativity where a non-accelerating observer will experience the passing of time differently to that of the one who is accelerating. But in Time Tales that concept has been expanded to include Time Beings and Space Dilation, where people (or aliens) move in time at different time speeds to those around them or a specific geographical location that operates at a different time to those next to it.
An example of Time Beings that exist at a different speed can be found in Wink of an Eye, a STAR TREK episode from 1971, where time-accelerated aliens take over the Enterprise and attempt to use the crew as breeding stock. A similar idea can be found in Timelash, an episode in the 1970s UFO series, and the 2002 film CLOCKSTOPPERS.
In The Girl in the Fireplace, a DOCTOR WHO episode from 2006, the Doctor is on a spaceship and here he discovers an adjacent space through a time portal that leads through a fireplace to eighteenth century Versailles. Here, Doctor Who meets a young girl called Reinette. However, this eighteenth century space seems to exist at a different temporal speed to that of the space ship, and so when he returns to see the young girl again, she has aged. The Doctor later meets her once more, now she’s a woman. And they fall in love. Plus he saves her life from invading aliens. One more time the Doctor returns to meet her, only when he does she is leaving Versailles for the last – in a coffin in the carriage drawn by black horses. It is a popular DOCTOR WHO episode with fans for it is a rare romantic interlude among the usually fast moving action adventures.
OLD, the 2021 American thriller written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is based on the French-language Swiss graphic novel SANDCASTLE by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. In the story, Guy and Prisca Cappa are going thorough a messy divorce and so to avoid distressing their young children , the couple take thee whole family to a tropical resort for a fun packed holiday. The manager of the hotel takes an interest in the family, offers them cocktails and invites them to a secluded beach where three other parties are also gathered. As the children play on the sand they rapidly turn into teenagers, while other members of the group suddenly become ill and even die. The families conclude that the beach is somehow rapidly aging them, roughly at a rate of one year every thirty minutes. Worse, there’s no means of escape, for if they try to leave they black out and simply wake up where they left.
As the story goes on, it is revealed that the resort is a front for a research team conducting clinical trials of new medical drugs which are administered to guests with medical conditions by spiking their cocktails. Since the beach naturally accelerates the lives of the guests, the researchers have been able to complete the lifelong drug trials within a day. The director M. Night Shyamalan said of the film, “It’s definitely about our relationship to time and, in my opinion, our dysfunctional relationship to time that we all have. Until we’re forced to examine it, whether it’s a pandemic or the factors that are on this situation for these characters, that they’re trapped on this beach and they have to reflect on their relationship to time. You see some characters unable to navigate this and then some characters find peace. Why did they find peace and how did they find peace in the midst of all of this chaos? So there’s this conversation about that, the one that I’m having of myself with time.”
HERE AND NOW AND THEN, a time travel novel by Mike Chen, has a time traveller from the Year 2142 stranded in contemporary San Francisco after a botched mission. A rescue team from the future does eventually arrive but not until eighteen years later, the time rule being that although eighteen years have gone by in modern day San Francisco, only a few weeks have passed in 2142. There’s a similar scenario in the Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won. Alice Time Agent warns a woman who has broken the rules that “there’s something interesting about time travel. The fact that we can control travelling time as we want. What I mean is, ten years in 2020 can be just a day in 2050. In other words, I have the power contain you here for ten years or a hundred years if I want.” Oddly perhaps, this is concept is never fully developed in the series and is only mentioned in this one scene.
The film TIME TRAP is a ‘let’s-explore-this-cave’ scenario. In the story, the young explorers discover as they go deeper that there are areas of the cave where Time is moving at a much slower pace than in the outside world. Much, much slower. Years pass and centuries pass above while below it’s just minutes and hours. And the plot reveals that these layers and pockets of delineated time are running incrementally slower the further down they go (it is eventually revealed these time bubbles are ultimately there to protect The Fountain of Youth). The idea of Time moving at a different speed is also explored in the magical musical theatre show BRIGADOON. In THE KING: YOUNGWONUI GUNJOO (ETERNAL MONARCH), written by Kim Eun-sook, there is a character, Lee Lim, who travels across parallel worlds and ages at a different speed to those who don’t. Time dilation when it comes to the aging process is also feature of the Utopian novel LOST HORIZON, later adapted into a film which in turn became a movie musical, and the Stephen King story GREEN MILE that too became a successful movie..
The SWIDGERS Time Adventure book series also has an example a Time Dilation when in Book One William and Granny go to the Old Coach Inn. The scenario is a classic Scary-house-hiding-a- secret plot. To say what that secret is or how it is discovered would be to give too much away, but let’s say trees aren’t always what they seem to be.
There are characters in Time Tales that travel in linear timelines but in an opposite temporal trajectory. The movie IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON has a cop tracking a female serial killer, Rya, who appears every nine years, 1988, 1997, 2006 and 2015. It is revealed that she is travelling in one-way direction from the future, killing as she goes. The tale is presented from the perspective of the cop who shoots her dead on their first meeting, which is in 1988. This naturally enough creates some confusion when she repeatedly ‘reappears’ later (“She didn’t come back to life. She just wasn’t dead yet.”) Rya’s motive in travelling backwards in time it is said to be to save the world from the rise of a political group who will in the future cause an Armageddon. This she does by killing those linked to a supremacist movement with the intention of wiping out the idea of supremacy at its origin (“I came back to erase an idea. Because some thoughts are meant to be buried. Some before they even begin.”) It is then a ‘Would you kill Hitler when a baby?’ sort of question, except the morality of the choices made, essentially murdering lots and lots of people, is never fully explored or challenged.
Benjamin Button of course lives his life backwards, as does Merlin in T.H. White’s ONCE AND FUTURE KING. Everything is back to front in Lewis Carroll’s ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, so it should be no surprise that the White Queen lives her life backwards (“Living backward!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!” “—but there’s one great advantage in it: that one’s memory works both ways.”). And the idea of reverse time can also be found in Philip K. Dick’s THE WORLD JONES MADE, plus THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER, the unfinished novel by Mark Twain.
“Stressed spelled backwards is desserts.”