Twisting My Brain Around Time Travel

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 17, 2016

There’s a book by Clifford D. Simak with a title I love, Time is the Simplest Thing. It’s not. Try to define “time” in words. You can’t. Everyone tries, but has anyone ever succeeded? In Time Travel: A History, James Gleick covers the science fictional subject of time travel, and the scientific subject of time. Thus, if you’re a science fiction fan, you’ll have a wonderful stroll down memory lane of many iconic time travel stories. But it’s the other half of the narrative, the one where Gleick explains the science of time – that tied my mind in knots.

Time-Travel_James-Gleick_coverI don’t believe in time travel. H. G. Wells didn’t believe in time travel. James Gleick does not believe in time travel. So why spend so much time speculating about an impossible subject? That’s what Gleick’s book is about. One big spoiler warning to anyone planning to write a time travel novel – after Gleick described so many time travel stories I wondered if there’s any need for more. Can anyone read this book and think of a new angle on time traveling? Time Travel: A History illustrates just how speculative one idea can be. For me Gleick’s book is a celebration of the concept of time travel, and an eulogy. Time travel stories are fun, especially when young, but other than escapist entertainment, speculation about real time travel feels as valuable as counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. This book is about speculating on time travel. When we are young we hope concepts like God and Time Travel are real, but when we’re old such thoughts fade, but it’s pleasurable to contemplate old thoughts of fancies. I know I won’t be traveling in time, or outer space, or even to heaven or hell. Now is all I’ve got. Being old makes me want to know the real nature of time. Gleick’s book combines the two.

What’s really rewarding about Time Travel: A History is the respect it gives to science fiction. Gleick uses famous SF stories to illustrate how we struggle to understand time. Of course, it’s also bait and switch. Science fiction fans will buy the book to read about time travel, but Gleick spends a good deal of “time” conveying the thoughts of Newton, Einstein, Feynman, Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Proust, Bergson, and other heavyweight thinkers about the nature of time.

Time-Machine-Norton-Critical-EditionOf course, Gleik covers The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, including some of the serious reactions to that story. I wish he could have gathered a sample of man-on-the-street reactions. How did the average person respond to the idea of time travel in 1895? How did the standup comics of the day, or whatever they were called, poke fun at the idea? Did the story generate 1890s pop culture buzz? In some ways I would have liked this book to have been The Time Machine: A History. Looking at the publication history of The Time Machine at ISFDB, I’m not sure it was an instant hit. I have a copy of the Norton Critical Edition that features early reviews and later scholarly essays, but it doesn’t offer what everyday readers thought. I wonder if such a history could be written? (Or has?)

One of the trickier aspects of reading this book is paying attention to when Gleick uses the phrase “time” or “time travel” because my mind often wanted to switch them. For example, when he quotes Lee Smolin, “I no longer believe that time is unreal” my eyes tried to read it as “I no longer believe that time travel is unreal.” I assume my unconscious mind wanted a scientist to claim time travel is possible. As a species, I believe we all wish to travel in time. Don’t we do this is so many ways: art, history, journalism, fiction, nostalgia, dreams, memories, and so on. Gleick covers all this too.

By_His_Bootstraps_ASF_Oct_1941It’s when Gleick tries to define time, especially in relation to Einstein’s discoveries, that my head explodes. I want to believe there is one now that exists everywhere, all across this universe, to other universes in the multiverse, down into the atomic world, the subatomic, the quantum, and if they exist, to all the dimensions of strings, and then to what makes up strings, and so forth. But my understanding of Einstein, which is very limited, tells me the observer has their own time. What does that mean? I can understand if that means clock time is different in different locations – depending on the speed of the observer. But is Einstein saying  the nature/substance/structure of time is different for each observer? Do they each have a personal now? Many scientists doubt the existence of time, and consider it an illusion.

H. G. Wells confused things when he suggested that time was the 4th dimension, and we can travel through it, like we do through the 3rd. How does that explain Newton’s apple falling from the tree? How does that explain a light beam from a star 1,000 light years away? Is that a 1,000 year yardstick with ticks for all the nows that exist along its path – like counting tree rings? That light beam is a relic of the past, so it confuses us about the nature of time. Even though we think we see a star, what we’re seeing is 1,000 years old light. The star’s now is different. But does our sun and that star also share a same now regardless of the age of the light beams we see? Is there one eternal now everywhere? Is time merely a measure of how far points in the past and future are from the eternal now?

Think of it this way. We measure time on a timeline, and imagine the now moving down the timeline. What if we didn’t use the timeline, and used a constantly changing number for events in the past. For example, instead of saying I was born in 1951, I’d say I was born -65 years in the past, that Columbus discovered America –524 years ago. Of course, every year we’d have to memorize a new number for every event in history. It’s easier to give every event a year to remember, and let now always be an ever changing date. But isn’t that backwards? Isn’t now always the same, and the past an ever expanding number? And the future an ever shrinking number?

134-The-End-of-EternityWhat if we wanted to travel back 542 years to see Columbus. That requires moving our now back all those years. The essence of time travel is moving to another now. That’s why I personally don’t believe in time travel, I believe there is only one now for all of reality. What I want to know, and Gleick didn’t tell me in his book, is whether or not there are other nows, meaning multiple timelines, one for each universe. A great example of this problem is Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein. The premise of this book is some twins have telepathy, and that this telepathy is always instantaneous over any distance, so use them as radios for interstellar flights. The twin that stays home gets older much faster than the twin that travels to the stars. They always share a telepathic now, but they can tell there’s a difference. What the space traveling twin hears in his mind as he travels faster is his twin talking slower.

I can’t remember when I first grasped the idea of time travel. I saw the George Pal movie in the early 1960s, before I read the classic novel by H. G. Wells, but I’m not sure if I hadn’t seen cartoons, television shows or movies that also dealt with the topic. Before H. G. Wells few people thought of time travel, now, I doubt many people haven’t thought about it. Before Wells, writers wrote about people sleeping into the future. Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but had he invented time travel? Wasn’t Twain really inventing alternative history? Gleick does go into all the philosophical old variations on time travel, such as prophecy, fortune telling, eternal life, and so on. It’s amazing how many ways we play with the idea of time.

That’s the thing about this book – it demands rereading. Is that another form of time travel? Read Maria Popova review of the book. I wish I could think and write like her. And isn’t her essay an example of actual time travel? We constantly revisit the past, to annotate and evaluate. Reading my review, hers, and others, we’re all traveling to the same spot and time – the book Time Travel: A History.

JWH

[I wrote two versions of this essay. Microsoft decided to update Windows when I left the machine unattended, and I lost parts of the first version. Rewriting this essay feels like time traveling itself, and this version is the result of my mind going back and interfering with the timeline of the first version.]

If You Could Time Travel to 1950 Could You Tell People What 2014 Is Like?

Over the the Classic Science Fiction Book Club Dwight proposed the following fascinating question:

If, somehow, you were confronted with a resident of 1950. (USA, large city). He/she would be a college grad working in a mid level management job. He/she would have a layman’s understanding of the state of science in 1950.

You have been given the task of explaining the present to this person. What do you think the hardest thing (Technological, social, political, and or environmental) would be to explain?

Explain, if you would, your assumptions as to the state of knowledge and experience that an adult might have had in 1950. Would you difficult items be different with a man or woman? Would race or religion matter? Would where they lived be an issue? Would their political/religious background be an issue as to what they would find hardest to accept/understand?

I find this to be a very clever question to stir up the book club discussion.  1950 is a very good year to choose too.  It’s before science fiction kicked in big time, but after WWII and the atomic bombs.  It was also after the 1939 World’s Fair where futurism  made a big splash and got people thinking about the world of tomorrow.  Having someone show up from the future would be understandable to them, although I doubt they would believe any time traveler without some substantial proof.

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What if Klaatu had landed in Washington in his flying saucer, but it wasn’t from space, but a time machine.  The Day the Earth Stood Still came out 9/28/51, so it’s around Dwight’s target date.  Dwight imagined you or I magically talking to a person from 1950, but I’m not sure he figured out how that might happen.  If you were just dropped into the past, and could only verbally describe the future, I’m not sure anyone would believe you.

Let’s imagine on 1/1/1950 a big flying saucer lands in Washington DC and out pops a 2014 person.  They announce that they’ve come in peace to warn Earth about the future.  That inside the saucer  are twelve theaters, each showing a TV network in sync with one in 2014—CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, HBO, CNN, FOX News, Discovery Science, MTV, HGTV, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera.  To make this equal to other cultures and languages, other flying saucers show up in their capitals with cable channels from their part of the world.  The time travelers tells each host site that the machine will be there for one year and the government can allow whoever they want to view the screens.  I think this is a sufficient scenario to assure that 1950 people will believe what they see.  Remember Klaatu’s ultimatum?  Our time travelers could give a similar warning.  They could say humans are consuming the Earth, destroying the environment, killing off all the other life forms, and dooming life on Earth.  They can brag that personal freedoms have never been more widespread and many have found material wealth, but we don’t know how live disciplined lives, and we’re breaking down into more and more polarized factions.

Now the big question is:  How will they react?  Will the white people of the United States believe there is a black President in 2014?  What will they think of women’s behavior, gay marriage and legalized drugs?  Could they even comprehend personal computers, the Internet and smart phones?  If they caught episodes of Breaking Bad, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, Shameless, etc. could they even understand the shows without freaking out?  What would they think of the nudity, bad language and ultra-violence in entertainment?  What about the music, visual art, computer animation, etc.?  What would they think of the rise of Geek culture?  Or the sexual revolution and The Pill?

Would they hate the future?  Or would they be dazzled.  Would they see the future as an extrapolation of the present, or a total surprise?

And what would they think about global warming?  Or the war on terrorism?  Or the rise of religious right.  The motto “In God We Trust” wasn’t adopted until 1956, and didn’t show up on paper money until 1957, or coins until 1964.  Would they even understand ecology and environmentalism?  Jim Crow and sodomy laws were the norm back then, as were all kinds of censorship.  If they watched Two Broke Girls or The View, or read an issue of Cosmopolitan would they be baffled by the change in women?  Would the women of 1950 cheer?  What would they think of food ads, and news stories about obesity?  Would they admire the science and technology, or fear it?  Would they get excited about all the new kinds of sports?  Would they be outraged by women’s fashions and surprised that men’s suits don’t look that much different?  Would they be amazed by our houses and how big they are compared to 1950’s houses.

Would they take notes about the destruction of the environment and enact laws to avert global warming?  Would they stop the invention of junk food?  Would they reign in the misuse of antibiotics?  2014 TV shows should show them how we evolved, but also show all the mistakes and suffering we went through to gain whatever wisdom we do have.  Could people from 1950 absorb the wisdom without paying the price of suffering?

This is a fascinating idea.  But it’s a fantasy.  What if we could see 64 years into the future, what would we do?  How many science fiction stories written before 1950 prepared the world of 1950 for our times?  Is there a chance that modern science fiction writers can prepare us for the year 2078?  Is that expecting too much?

JWH – 5/22/14

The Eternal Now and Time Travel

This morning while taking a shower I began thinking about now.  Here I was, a naked 62 year old male, in a 1950s pink tile room, wondering what was going on concurrently in the rest of reality as I soaped up.  My wife would be just getting to work in her office in Birmingham.   1.3 light seconds away, events are happening on the Moon, several light minutes away Mars and the Sun are doing their thing, stuff is also happening around Alpha Centauri, four and half light years away, then 2,538,000 light years away the Andromeda galaxy is speeding towards our galaxy, and who knows how many billions of light years is the edge or the universe, or what’s beyond and how far it extends. 

Everywhere there is something happening, as I take my shower.  We’re all in an eternal now.

I try to imagine Einstein’s space-time concept and how it might affect things.  But to me, it seems logical to think there is a universal now that happens everywhere, even into adjacent universes in the multiverse, or even adjacent multiverses.  Could there ever be two nows?  Or multiple nows?  Isn’t death just losing touch with the now?  And didn’t the eternal now exist even before I existed?  Isn’t consciousness tuning into the now?

As as science fiction fan I love the concept of time travel, but isn’t time travel the attempt to go to another now?  If there is only one eternal now, then that will be impossible.  We see artifacts of the past, and anticipate the future, so we assume both places exist – but do they?  When we see the Andromeda galaxy in the sky, we’re seeing what it looked like 2,538,000 years ago.  It’s actually much closer.

Recently scientists created a computer simulation of the universe.  I wonder if it’s how it looks in the eternal now, or how we see through timed artifacts?  Everything we perceive about reality is time delayed.  We aren’t looking out our eyes, but at reprocessed information, so there’s a slight delay.  If I talk to my friend Connell in Miami, a thousand miles away, there’s a slight delay in the phone signals.  The eternal now is everywhere, but we experience it inside our heads, and all that input about reality is delayed.  The visual field I see in front of me as I type is a tiny fraction of a second late from the eternal now.

The theory of an all powerful, all knowing God is quite interesting to think about regarding the eternal now.  If God is not limited by the speed of light, God would see everything at once in the eternal now.  But would this deity also see the past and future all at once too?  Or does God inhabit the moment like everyone and everything else?  It’s hard for me to believe in God knowing how big reality is, especially if the eternal now has always existed, and will always continue to exist.  Infinity is such a mind-bashing number.

We often ask when did time start, and when does it end.  And we often imagine the beginning of space and matter.  But do we ever wonder about the origin of the eternal now?  If there was only one Big Bang moment, then that was the beginning of time, space and now, but it’s starting to look like there wasn’t just one Big Bang.  No matter how many universes there might be, won’t there only be just one eternal now?  Isn’t it the same now here as it is fifty-five universes over from ours?

I think we’re hung up on birth and death, beginnings and endings, because we have one of each, but maybe reality and the eternal now doesn’t.  As a kid I wondered who made God like other kids, and why wasn’t there nothing.  How could existence start at all.  My conclusion?  That non-existence nothing can’t exist.  That it’s impossible.  If it could, it would have, but since it didn’t, it can’t.  It hurts our heads to comprehend why non-existence isn’t so.  Logic tells us there should have been an origin.  Our minds can’t get beyond cause and effect.  We know nothing lasts forever, but maybe one thing does, the eternal now.

We spend our lives pursuing religion, philosophy and science trying to understand the origins of existence, but in the end the answer is always beyond our small brains to comprehend.  And even if we built an AI Mind the size of Jupiter, would it be large enough to know?  Even if God existed, would God know?  Would not a being that could comprehend all of reality have to ask:  Where did I come from?  How did I get here?  Doesn’t any being asking the ultimate ontological question end up with “It’s turtles all the way down!”

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The Hindu tell us to “Be Here Now” – but where else could we go?

JWH – 5/9/14

What 12 Lessons About Life Would You Teach Your Younger Self If You Had A Time Machine?

Nobody likes taking advice from other people. 

What if you could get advice from an older, wiser version of yourself?  Would you take it?  What if you had a time machine and could travel back to visit your younger self and spend one day to help him or her prepare for the future?  Would your younger self listen and learn?

What advice would you give you?  How would you be convincing.  What proof could you bring?

There are two ways to approach this problem.  First, you could teach yourself how to get more of what you wanted in this life with hindsight, or you could convince yourself that you should be a totally different person, a better person.  If you collected rare baseball cards you could tell yourself how to get the rarest ones for your future self.  Or, you could tell your younger self, don’t waste a lifetime on collecting baseball cards, just play a lot of baseball.

As much as I’ve enjoyed my life, as much as I love my wife and friends, I have never been the person I wanted to be because of introverted habits and laziness.  I would go back and try to convince my younger self to become a different person knowing full well it would erase me and my current life.

If you had a time machine and could spend a day with a younger self, what age would you target?  Why?  What would you say?

I’d go back to 1964 when I turned 13, when I understood science fiction.  I think Jim-13 could understand Jim-60 and time travel.

jim-001

Here’s what I’d try to teach Jim-13.

  1. Give up my addiction to science fiction.  I have a life-long addiction to fantasy that I overindulge with books, television and movies.  I’d work very hard to convince my younger self to never look at television again, and to promise to read no more than one novel a month.  I’d try to convince him to read more non-fiction and classics.  I’d tell him when he did read SF, to find and read the very best science fiction, but no more than four SF books a year.  I’d try to convince him to seek out SF books that taught him more about reality and not use science fiction to escape reality.
  2. Study science and mathematics.  I wouldn’t try to help my younger self get rich by telling him to buy key stocks, or which horses or football teams to bet on.   I’d try to teach him that the key to a good life is working hard at something you love and that being a scientist is probably the best way to spend a lifetime.
  3. Give up junk food, eat healthy, and exercise.   I was an active kid, and skinny until after I got married, but I have an addictive personality and I ate lots of junk food.  Seeing Jim-60 weighing 234 pounds would probably be pretty convincing evidence.
  4. Don’t get involved with drugs.  Hey, I grew up in the 1960s, so that will be a hard lesson to teach.  I might tell him to experiment under certain social conditions, but convince Jim-13 that drugs will waste a lot of time and money.
  5. Pay more attention to other people.  I’ve always been introverted, self-centered and egocentric.   I’d try to convince Jim-13 that getting out of his head and focusing on what’s going on in other people’s heads will lead to more social success and a richer life.
  6. Warn him about sex.  Hey, he’s 13.  I’d try to convince him that all those gazillion hours of sex fantasies won’t get him laid.  I’d try to teach him not to think about what he wanted but learn to observe women and study what they wanted.  I’d tell him, yes, all the girls have pussies, but the organ you really want to lust after is brains.  I’d tell him to learn to dance.
  7. Take good notes.  I’d try very hard to teach Jim-13 to keep a journal, studying the art of writing as deeply as possible, learn to draw and sketch, and take one photo a day.
  8. Find ways to make money and save it.  I’d teach him working provides social contacts and access to mentors, and that saving money will mean freedom to do more.  I tell him that easy money from time travel tips is wrong and a waste of time.
  9. Finish school as fast as possible and get into college as soon as you can.  I’d convince Jim-13 that it’s very important to become independent as soon as possible and college is one way to do that.   Try to get in by 16.
  10. Move in with your grandmother.  My parents were alcoholics and at age 13 I was about to go through some very bad years.  If I could have gotten away from them it really would have helped me tremendously.  And my grandmother managed an apartment building in her old age, and could have used the help.  If I could have grown up living in one place and had a stable life for junior high and high school I would have been a much different person.  I’d tell my younger self to not leave Miami until after college – to even get into the University of Miami for college.  Maybe even study marine biology.  I’d also advise him to leave for grad school and to study physics or astronomy then.
  11. Find mentors.  I think the key to success is to start work young and find mentors that can help you understand the game in any situation.
  12. Learn to focus and work hard.   I’d tell Jim-13 to push himself to work a little harder at his favorite projects each day.  To learned to focus his concentration a little harder on every task each day.   If you can spend 30 minutes focused on learning calculus one day, try for 31 the next.  If you can grind on a telescope mirror for 2 hours on one day, try for 2 hours and 5 minutes the next.  If you can run four miles one day, try for 4.1 the next.  Just keep pushing your body and mind to go further.

I know this is a fantasy and time travel isn’t possible. But playing this little thought experiment is very educational. I can always pretend its advice for Jim-13 from Jim-60, but it could be advice for Jim-80 to me at this moment.

But if this little fantasy was possible it would have played out different than what I wanted.

Convincing my younger self of all of this would be hard.  If I could print out all my blog posts into a book, I give him that.  I might bring an iPad to show him how far out technology gets.  I might bring him the book Replay by Ken Grimwood.  I might bring him a photo album of my life. 

I was a bullheaded kid, so I’m not sure I could have convinced him of anything.

I’m pretty sure he would have demanded that Jim-60 stay in 1964 so he, Jim-13 could return in the time machine to 2012.

I would have agreed.

JWH – 8/4/12

Forgotten Science Fiction: The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

One thing I like to do is dig up long forgotten Hugo and Nebula award novel nominees that didn’t win, and read them to see if they should have.  Most Hugo and Nebula award winners in the novel category are remembered, often in print, or at least frequently reprinted.  In 1971, the winner for both awards was Ringworld by Larry Niven.  Everybody remembers that one, but what about the others?

Here are the other nominees:

I’ve linked each of these books to the ISFDB publication record so you can see how often they’ve been reprinted.  Three of the books, And Chaos Died, Fourth Mansions and The Steel Crocodile seemed to have been forgotten by the 1980s.  The Year of the Quiet Sun was last printed in America as an anthology of three time travel novels in 1997.  It was also nominated for the Locus Poll Award, coming in 2nd place, and actually won a retrospective John W. Campbell award in 1976 for a “… a truly outstanding original novel that was not adequately recognized in the year of its publication.”

I remember when The Year of the Quiet Sun came out, but I didn’t read it.  I got on the trail of it again last year when it was nominated for our science fiction book club, but it didn’t get enough votes to be read by the group.  I read some reviews and ordered a copy.  I finally got around to reading it a couple weeks ago.

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The Review

The Year of the Quiet Sun is one of the most realistic time travel stories I’ve ever read, and our chrononauts don’t travel in a time machine, but a TDV (time displacement vehicle).  I really liked that.  A secret American governmental agency builds a TDV back in the 1970s, but travel in it is limited to the location of the building where it’s housed and to a timeline that always includes a functioning nuclear power plant attached to the building.  Time travel takes a lot of power, but maybe not as much as the 1.21 gigawatts produced by the flux capacitor in the Back to the Future movies.

Another appealing aspect of this time travel novel is how timid the time travelers are with their itineraries.

The Year of the Quiet Sun is about Brian Chaney, an arrogant futurist and famous Biblical scholar, one of three men conscripted to be time travelers.  The other two are military men, Air Force Major William Moresby and Navy Lieutenant Commander Arthur Saltus.  The military men don’t think Chaney has the right stuff, and Chaney seems to have made a bad initial impression with them.  Eventually, they work out a truce.  All three fall for their beautiful young handler, Kathryn van Hise, competing for attention while they train.

The Year of the Quiet Sun has a simple beauty in its constrained ambitions.  Wilson, writing near future science fiction, uses the story to make social and political projections that didn’t pan out, but I’m not sure that ruins the story.  Science fiction that creeps past its projection date often is dated, so it’s the story that counts in the long run.

The Year of the Quiet Sun was one of the first books that were part of the legendary Ace Science Fiction Specials started in 1968 by editor Terry Carr.  Many of them were paperback originals.  And Chaos Died, Fourth Mansions and The Steel Crocodile were also Ace Science Fiction Specials.

The Analysis with Spoilers

Read no further if you plan to go out and read The Year of the Quiet Sun, because I’m going to tell everything that happens and ask why.

There’s two real tests for a science fiction book, the impact it makes when it comes out, and the impact it makes once it becomes an old science fiction book.  Science fiction goes stale easily and spoils.  For a futuristic literature, science fiction is usually about the present, and seldom becomes timeless.  And it’s usually very hard for a time travel novel to become timeless.  My favorite example of a timeless time travel novel is Replay by Ken Grimwood.

The Year of the Quiet Sun is far from timeless.  It’s a quick read at 252 paperback pages.   It’s too quiet for lovers of loud adventure fiction, and it’s too active for literary quiet.  Wilson Tucker works up a very nice time travel machine, and some reasonable characters that are somewhat interesting, especially Chaney, but where Wilson blows it, is when our time travelers travel to – a library down the street a couple years in the future. Logical, but not exciting.  But I liked that kind of realism.

The first assignment is for the President to see if he’ll be reelected.  Cautiously they move further into the future where they find a second civil war, this time its blacks against whites.  The Year of the Quiet Sun was written just after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, during a decade of many battles for civil rights.  Wilson Tucker essentially imagines us failing, which shows little faith in the future.  If he had been right, this would have been a prophetic novel, as it is, it’s a big dud at prophecy.  Tucker just couldn’t imagine the positive changes we’ve made.

Tucker redeems himself by his trick ending.  It turns out Brian Chaney is black, which we learn slowly.  In the future of this book, but actually our past, the U.S. collapses under a new civil war, and a black time traveler showing up in territory held by whites is not welcomed.  But Chaney doesn’t know why until the very end of the story when he meets an old Kathryn van Hise.  This is an amazing coincidence that nicely ties up the novel, and it feels good for a storybook ending, but now, over forty years later, doesn’t feel right with all our hindsight.

This is why its very dangerous for a science fiction writer to explore the near future.  But this plot also doesn’t work because there is no integration with the book’s present and the future it discovers.  Wilson Tucker holds Chaney’s ethnic background for a surprise ending, but I think he would have had a much more successful novel if the reader was told immediately Chaney was black, so the theme of the story would have been constant.  Some reviewers claim its there for us to guess if we picked up the hints, but I didn’t.  The Year of the Quiet Sun was published in 1970, but set in 1978 at the beginning, with Tucker making several predictions about the future that was just eight years away.  He predicts things will be worse socially and economically, and that we elect a weak president, and about the most modern thing he predicts is some women going topless.  No MTV, PCs or Internet.

I believe if the time displacement device had been invented to solve the current problems of America before they happened, focusing on race relations by intentionally having a black time travel agent on the team, the story would have been more meaningful.  Brian Chaney constantly pines for Kathryn but always holds back while the two military men make their play.  We understand why at the end, because he’s black.  But wouldn’t knowing that fact make the story more interesting from the beginning?  Would it allow him to deal with race issues throughout the book?

Instead of using the time machine to ward off the collapse of the United States, the time travelers get stuck in the future they cannot change.  Now this is very realistic, and I admire it, and I think it makes the story much more likable.  I don’t think every science fiction story needs to save the world, but the failure here is so damn passive that it seems pitiful.  Now I both admire this restraint and feel disappointed by it too.

The Year of the Quiet Sun is about little people doing something very big in a little way, and failing in a little way.  In a way it reminds me of Timescape by Gregory Benford, another very realistic time travel story that’s not full of action.

I admire The Year of the Quiet Sun because it’s so realistic, but I’m conditioned by science fiction to want more, even knowing most action oriented time travel stories come off contrived and silly.  I guess I don’t believe people with a time machine would be so timid.  Most time travel novels are about going into the past to make a different present.  Here we have a story about traveling into the future that should have taught our characters to change the present.  Of course, what could they do?  Come back and have a press conference that’s shown on the CBS Evening News:  “Scientists report the United States will collapse in 20 years after visit to the future.”

Has anyone written a time travel story where present travelers go into the future, find out the bad stuff, return home, fix the problems and then go back to the future to check their work, and to find out what next needs to be fixed?

I think The Year of the Quiet Sun is still a fun quick read, especially for SF fans who like to read old SF, but it fails as a timeless novel.   Read Earth Abides by George R. Stewart to see what I mean by a timeless classic.  The Year of the Quiet Sun had the potential to be that good.  And maybe that’s why it was up for all those awards – readers admired it’s potential.

JWH – 5/29/12

For Connoisseurs of 4th Dimensional Travel

The Little Book by Selden Edwards is a new classic time travel novel for those who love contemplating traveling in the 4th dimension.  It’s right up there with my all-time favorite time travel adventures:

Now don’t jump over to Google and start reading reviews of The Little Book – too many reviewers have given way too much away, and I’ll work hard not to do that here.  This is a first novel for Selden Edwards and it took him thirty years to write.  I highly recommend buying the audio book edition narrated by Jeff Woodman to get the full affect of this dazzling yarn.  Listening will keep you from reading too fast and rushing through the story, and Woodman gives excellent voice and feelings to the characters.

The Little Book is about travel to Vienna in 1897, and if you are up on your history you might guess what famous historical personages make guest appearances.  After reading this novel I hunger to to read about Vienna and many of its famous citizens, and even research some of the books and people that I assume are products of Edwards imagination, but feel so real in the story.  I want to believe that Arnauld Esterhazy, the prep school history teacher, was at least based on someone real.

Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Little Book is a love story, about a man, Wheeler from 1988 who falls for a 1897 lady, Weezie.  Unlike the Niffenegger book, Edwards style is less serious, if not zany, which leads to the major weakness of the novel.  The story is meant to be deadly serious and realistic, but sometimes the sparkling prose comes across too light, making it seem more like a fable or tall tale, giving the feeling that Edwards is highly amused as he manipulates us readers.

If I had written this book I would have had all the main characters narrate their stories in the first person, switching between each in a round robin style that conveyed the cyclic nature of time travel.

But I am nitpicking here.  Selden Edwards writes in a unique voice that is entertaining and full of fascinating details.  He constructs his characters so they go through numerous changes that surprised me the reader.  I especially loved the cross generational communications because Edwards really does make us feel that each generation has a different voice and mindset.  Jumping back to 1897 Vienna goes to explain how Freud changed our awareness of the inner landscape of our minds.  Characters before Freud need to be mentally different.

The Little Book is a little book and goes much too quickly.  I don’t like getting trapped in long books, but this one could have been two, three or even four times the length and I think I’d still hate for it to end.  Edwards stays close to the core plot and characters, whereas he could have meandered though 1897 more, and when you come to the end, you might be like me and wished the story was longer, giving all the details between 1897 and 1988.

I love geometric plots, and this one is supposed to be a Möbius strip, but in the end, Edwards cuts the loop leaving the plot linear.  I would have jumbled scenes so the narrator juggled the plot, like Niffenegger played with her storyline.  Edwards focuses on building literary characters rather than designing literary plots, but I think time travel seems to beg for twisty elements.

I don’t think The Little Book is a great novel, but it’s very entertaining, and adds to the evolution of time travel stories.  I’m pretty sure if you loved Time and Again or The Time Traveler’s Wife, you will probably love The Little Book.  Time travel novels tend to be short, so I’m wondering when someone will write the Lord of the Rings epic size time travel fantasy.  I know romantic novelists like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series are epic in size, but I haven’t read it.  It appears less about time travel and more historical romance to me.  Not my cup of tea, although most good time travel stories involve romances.

There are plenty of science fiction series built around time travel, but they are mostly adventures.  The books in my list above play with time philosophically.   Books that explore changing the paths of events are less interesting now than books that use time travel to change the development of characters.  Few stories about time travel reflects the true inner impact that I think time traveling would have on a person.  I think Heinlein and Niffenegger went the furthest with this, but I expect new writers to go further.

Jim