Science Fiction Repair Shop: Now Is All You Got

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-10-25 12:00:00 No comments

A funny exchange from the other day. I mentioned to someone that I wasn't sure if I would ever write a time-travel story. I cited two reasons: 1) the played-out quality of the concept (you have to come up with something really interesting to do more than just restate "I'm My Own Grampaw!") -- and 2), more problematic for me personally, my philosophy about time. See, I don't think time actually exists -- at least not in the sense of it being some medium that can be traversed.

My point of view on time has been largely shaped, as of late, by a couple of things. The first is the Buddhist notion of time, which is that the only time that ever actually exists is the present moment. The past and the future only exist as artifacts of memory and cognition, not as real things, and dealing with this directly can lead you to pay more attention to what's actually happening in front of you instead of taking refuge in nostalgia or wish-fulfillment. Dean Sluyter once put it this way: instead of saying "Today is the first day of the rest of your life", you say "Now is the only moment of the rest of your life." (Side note: I kind hate how none other than Charles Manson filched this line of thought and made it into a catchphrase: "Now is the only thing that's real." It's a great idea; it's just hard to reclaim it away from the consciousless monster who coined it.)

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The other way my view on this stuff has been shaped was by way of Carlo Rovelli's wonderful book The Order Of Time, which attempts to formulate a quantum-mechanical overview of how time operates. The short version is that time is nothing more than our attempts to measure time. Go far enough down on the scale of things, and everything that could be said to indicate a direction for time vanishes. Time is, again, not a dimension unto itself that can be traversed; it's a necessary artifact of the way we construct our perception of reality, and not really an objective phenomenon. Sure, clocks measure time, but who reads the clocks?

Some stories have had fun with the idea that time travel isn't all it's cracked up to be, or that it's really just something else in diguise. Alfred Bester's "The Man Who Murdered Mohammed" comes to mind. Or there's the idea that we are all time travelers, all traveling forward through time at the rate of one second per second, a poetic image that maybe could work as the emotional-turnabout climax for a story. But time travel in any conventional sense just doesn't seem like viable material for fiction to me now. Especially what with here-and-now seeming so, well, intractable.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop science fiction time travel