Thursday, March 22, 2012

Time travel in fiction: structure and function

Time travel in fiction is often used as a plot device for discovering what would happen if a particular issue in society, technology or otherwise went unaddressed. If not used for this purpose then time travel is used to take the reader to another time and space where more opportunities are afforded the writer to weave the tale they want.

Suspension of disbelief is needed in any writing of time travel simple because it isn't (as yet - hopefully) possible to travel in time. First you have to suspend your disbelief while read of the time machine's structure. As we can't travel through time and have no real technology for it, any technology portrayed in fiction will be fantastical.




Then, as a reader, you need to suspend your disbelief concerning the makeup of the world you are taken to in order to focus on the issue at hand; what the protagonist, the world and the antagonist will reveal as issues to address in our current society or our own hearts.

But what you need to develop the most in reading or writing time travel literature is not your imagination or your ability to suspend your disbelief. What is needed is the ability to think logically about the structure of time. Without this, the story unravels for writer and reader alike. 

And by that I don't mean the way scientists analyse time, using relativity, quantum fluctuations, the expanding universe, the deconstruction of what is 'now', the hypothesis that there is no past or future but rather just now, the uncertainty principle or any other theory related to time and space's structure (which is all related to gravity and energy and takes far more time and mathematical ability to explain than I have).

I mean that a writer must choose whether the past can or can't be changed and what overall structure time has.

Time structures:
  • Time runs in a single stream and no matter what you do nothing will change. Time travel to the past is impossible but travelling to the future is possible. This is a little problematic if you consider that the future's past can't be changed either so all actions taken will be tied down as the final act. Using this structure would allow a writer to move in leaps forward in time but otherwise all other actions are as grounded as in normal fiction. Travelling back from the future is impossible. Perfect for Robinson Crusoe type books, where the protagonist is stranded in a new land.
  • Time runs in a single stream but you can travel to the past and future and change events but the past will remain as it is currently structured as any actions taken were always going to be taken. (Futurama is a perfect example.) The writer is tied down a little with regards to the story's own internal structure but there is plenty of room for the imagination to fly. The time stream remains a single stream but loops form in it as time is travelled. What always bugs me about this structure is that when time loops it has to re-join in the past and split when reaching the present (one stream looping back and the other moving forward). The loop is both separate and connected at once and although the stories created using this structure are often pleasing, I just can't stand that last little quandary.
  • Time runs in a single stream up until the point of time travel. The past and future can be changed and any changes made can be changed back by travelling further back and preventing the initial change. Even with these travels time remains a single stream so there is no way of moving from one time to another without altering events. This is where the 'don't step on anything' comes in as the changes can be unpredictable. In fact, making changes is unavoidable so limiting them is the perfect plan for the survival of the present and future.
  • Time runs in a single stream up until the point of time travel. The past and future can be changed but by changing the past you create a new time line separate from the previous. This will allow the protagonist to travel across times as one would parallel universes but by either travelling back to a particular event and then forward again or by leaping across the 'gap' or 'void' between times. To construct worlds using this requires more suspension of disbelief than any other as the structure of time itself is moving away from the understandable. While everyone is becoming quite used to the idea of parallel universes, parallel times is still a little hard to understand as they aren't that different to parallel universes but they can be changed by time travel where the universes usually aren't (unless the writer is using both parallel universes and time travel in the structure of their book, thereby melting the brain of all their readers).
  • All times appear together as a result of time breaking down. The structure is a flat time-space inclusive of remnants of all times and spaces. The structure is simple in that there is one time yet complex in that all times are now included and must be represented. This is where equal amounts of creative play and science blend.
So before you start out writing a book including time travel, make sure to pick the structure that suits your story the most. If you choose a very complex structure of time you will have to plot out all the ramifications of each action and stick by them closely as a reader will become incredibly lost if you step outside the structure of time in your book to write whatever you want to happen, disregarding what should happen.

Just a note: Editing time travel books is taxing on the brain. Good luck if you are. I mean it.

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