Dec 5, 2009

Time Travel as a Skyhook

One of the exciting results of collaborative fiction writing is that you can find yourself getting dragged out of your comfort zone by a collaborator. For example, The Search for Kalid got me involved with writing about telepathy in the context of a Space Opera story, something that I would not have done on my own. I learned that Space Opera can be fun and discovered a plot device for telepathy that I could live with.

I've long been uncomfortable with plot elements such as faster than light space travel, "mental powers" and trips through time that are introduced into science fiction stories with little or no concern for constructing a hypothetical scientific foundation for them. I recently blogged the mysterious boundary between those plot elements we are each willing to accept in a story and those we object to. In creating The Start of Eternity I feel like I am collaborating with Asimov and being drawn into writing about time travel against my better judgment.

I think my greatest objection to time travel as a plot element is that there is no good way to end a conventional time travel story. If time travel is possible, then our timeline should be full of time travelers. No time travel story can really be complete because someone can just arrive from the future and change the entire course of events. In his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett wrote about the dangerous philosophical implications of ideas that have the power of "skyhooks", beliefs that seem to be able to explain everything. Similarly, time travel as a plot element provides an author with a means to endlessly adjust Reality until any desired outcome of the story is achieved. Yes, you can get involved with various technical limitations on time travel or "time travel police" as ways of imposing artificial limits on time travel as a plot device, but none of those tricks has ever given me comfort.

Asimov's first science fiction story was about time travel, but when Asimov got serious and wrote his time travel novel, I suspect that Asimov may have felt that it was best to create a story in which the technology required for time travel was used to select a Reality in which time travel would not be possible. Asimov then went on to construct his Fictional Universe as a place/time where time travelers never again played a major role in shaping the course of events.

However, I've always been uncomfortable with the way that Asimov "wrote time travel out of Reality". If you assume that there was only one time travel device, then maybe it could have been used to select a future in which time travel was never again possible, but The Start of Eternity explores the idea that the time travel device on Earth was not the only one and that another means is needed to completely prevent time travel.

One of the nice features of Asimov's time travel novel is that he made it a mystery in which the main character did not fully understand time travel technology and could not use time travel as a "skyhook". However, off stage, there were people who could! The Start of Eternity shows those mysterious "off stage" power brokers from Asimov's novel and risks falling into the trap of showing omnipotent beings from the future who can use time travel to accomplish anything that they want to accomplish. However, I feel the need to follow Asimov's lead and not turn the story over to those future beings. I think I'm stuck creating a story that is like a Matryoshka doll. I show the off stage robots who were manipulating the characters from The End of Eternity, but I introduce new meta-manipulators who were playing tricks on the robots. By keeping the "meta-manipulators" off stage, it should be possible to maintain a sense of adventure and not expose readers to the feeling that a skyhook is hovering above.

Image. The image at the top of this blog post is a time traveling robot from The Start of Eternity; see this page for credits. The second image is modified from "sky hook" by zen. Source of the nested dolls.

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