Monday, June 05, 2017

Run another 4th dimension dream

Once upon a time, time travel science fiction was very much a minority taste. One reason for this is that time travel was only justifiable by arm-waving future science. Maybe also by the fact that the Newtonian universe formed the intellectual background for just about everyone, and so the simplest paradoxes ("I'm my own grandpa") had a lot of force.

In the last few years I have been reading more and more recent science fiction and it seems to me that the reading public is much more comfortable with the complex structure of the universe reflected in quantum theory, and is more ready to enjoy the potential for time travel. I mean, the potential for manipulating time revealed by quantum physics. We may not know how to do it, but we know that the universe familiar to physicists has room for all sorts of things that we generally don't see in our little corner of it. Perhaps time travel. Certainly room for quite weird variations on "I'm my own grandpa."

I have read two time-travel novels by prominent sf writers. Robert Charles Wilson's Last Year has a complex theory of time at the core of it. Time travel is being exploited for commercial purposes. A billionaire capitalist has created a link between the 21st century (their home time) and the 1870s. He builds a City of Futurity in an otherwise empty piece of prairie. The 21st century inhabitants can use the city as a jumping-off point to visit the past; the people of President Grant's time are given limited access to 21st century artifacts and knowledge. In theory, both sides benefit. In theory.

Wilson's main interest seems to be the ethical dimension of a world where time travel is a practical matter. He has written a number of alternate reality books, based on real scientific possibility. The books that result from his sincere interest in what we may find to be true are quite disquieting.

Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine is a simpler story in which a 21st century physics grad student creates a time machine that turns out to be impossible to duplicate and which can only operated by him. As the main character follows an inflexible track through time, his challenge is to find a tolerable and culturally safe place to settle down. This book, too, is informed by an intelligent amateur knowledge of science. It, too, is disquieting.

Maybe the most disquieting thing about this stuff is that further scientific discoveries are likely to be stranger than even the best sf writers can come up with!

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