Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Writing About Time Travel

Time travel is possible, but not probable. While you may think paradox is a problem, it occurs all of the time at the quantum level. Quantum tunneling has been shown to occur in time as well as space. When a paradox occurs, quantum effects induce the collapse of the wave function thus rendering the event differently. In the many worlds theory, traveling backwards in time would create a branch of time-space in which a new future is propagated on the strength of the new observations. If you can't bring yourself to believe in many-worlds, imagine instead a means which prohibits backwards travel to any part of the observable light cone. The evidence for temporal back propagation is seen in duel particle experiments where two identical particles travel in opposite directions and change state simultaneously when only one of them is observed. The mathematics for time-space intervals work both ways, backwards and forwards in time, without any distinction.

Science has yet to plumb the depths of temporal theory, so saying it isn't possible is uninformed. Now some people will immediately say, "Where are the time travelers to our century? Why haven't we been visited by any?" To that I would say, human civilization may never get to the point of developing time travel, due to unforeseen things like extinction and inferior intelligence. That does not mean it is impossible, just improbable. If you told me forty years ago that you would be able to fit a device as powerful as an iPhone in your pocket, I would have called you a dreamer. All the same, people hypothesizing about the year 2000 back then had us all in flying cars. In the future, time travel may be possible, but extraordinarily expensive, or be so destructive to the user that only idiots would try it. Opening a wormhole into the past would require tremendous amounts of exotic matter and energy, and it would probably be a one-way trip. While I don’t believe space-time can be torn, I do believe it can be tied into all sorts of nasty little knots. One little mistake could mean the instant conversion of your nice little wormhole into a planet gobbling blackhole. Ouch!

Then there is motivation. Why would somebody want to travel back in time? If it was regulated then measures would have to be undertaken to prevent contamination of the past. If it was done in secret or unregulated like the banks in the W era, opportunists could jump backwards and change important events or exploit foreknowledge to corner markets. Who is to say it hasn’t already happened? If an organized crime syndicate or worse, a government were to exploit time travel, there would be no way to detect them if they could just go back and clean up after themselves. Then there are the goody-two-shoes who might try to go back and assassinate Hitler or Stalin, only to produce somebody who brings about global extinction. While going back and doing some proactive tampering may seem like a pleasant thing to do, it is based mostly on vengeance. Personally, I would like to have sent Lenin to Antarctica instead of Moscow, or at least inform the Russian army where he was hiding out. That would have easily saved sixty million lives. Finally, there are the tourists. Those people who would go back just to see people and places from the past. Tourists generally look out of place anyways, thus I doubt we would even notice them, unless they came from a century where nudity was the norm.

When you write about time travel, remember that the sky is the limit. Nobody has ever done it, thus we have zero experience. If you merely describe the events and avoid the how, you should end up with something great. Just make sure you go back through the book and resolve any paradoxes. Readers hate them! It is helpful to write out a timeline showing where events and/or characters overlap. Try not to jump from one observer to another during the overlapping period, since that is bound to confuse the reader more than you already should. Focus on the story, the motivations, and the drama. Leave out the mechanics unless it is important to the protagonist, antagonist, or both. When you are done, if two versions of a time traveler do interact, try to remain on a single point of observation. First person voice is good for time travel stories, while third person omniscient tends to create too much distance. I remember writing a screen play, years ago, where all of the characters, and I mean all of them, were the same person in disguise who was trying to fix a mistake made the first time around with a borrowed time machine.

Write what you want and remember -- have fun!

1 comment:

Pan Historia said...

You are so right about readers hating paradoxes. I remember really enjoying the first Terminator movie but then it got into deeper and deeper time travel paradoxes which, of course, they never explained.

Thanks for the interesting tidbit of physics too!