Twice upon a time

Yes, well, we’d all like a do-over, especially knowing what we know from the first time, the second time.  My life would be less fraught with disasters and bad decisions.

Of course, I’d be someone else. They say all this shit is character building and if that is true I now have a large enough character to launch low orbit satellites by dropping them off the top of it. Well, whatever. It may be that there an infinity of alternate universes just a hairbreadth of a dimension away (part of the foundation for the Karres books, which may be supposed to be pure space opera, but bits of science kept sneaking in), and given enough iterations, one where my chaos-prone nature didn’t result in character building. I’m not sure if it is nature or nurture, but it does seem to be me.

So: time and again. Time travel has been a staple of sf since… well, Mark Twain, I guess.  I mean traveling to the future is in a couple of myths and of course the like of Rip Van Winkel – but traveling into the past (and changing it) seems to be later idea. I can’t offhand think of any earlier ones, but I may well just not know it or have thought of it. Some books have been fairly successful, but it is a cow for paradox (the old you went back in time and killed your own grandfather, so you didn’t live go back in time, so your grandfather lived, so you went back in time… I have this mental images of versions of the universe winking on and off in an endless loop.

There tend to be two versions of ways to get around this: either the past reflects the effect of the time travelers (Spoiler: See Harry Harrison’s ‘Technicolor Time-Machine – and that’s the punchline to the whole book) or, more popularly the time traveler changes the future…  but it is not his future (the multiverse concept, with breakpoints engineered in this scenario, by the activity of time traveler. Of course the latter has the fascinating dichotomy – can one person change future history, or is history ‘self-healing’ (you travel back in time to stop Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, to stop World War 1… and because that was merely a trigger to an unstoppable chain of events, something else promptly triggers the same chain, and, looked at from 500 years hence, ye Time Police arresting the time-traveling perp, discover that actually there is almost no difference as consequences.)   It’s the sort of stunt you can pull once as short story, but really most time-travel sf tends towards the former. I have a feeling that the best scenario (for the writer, because it allows you to ‘borrow’ the plot from history) is that one person can make changes – but that history would trend slowly back to what we know. YMMV.

Of course the idea that we can see the past but not change it has been used too – as has the fact the past is a microsecond ago. (I am trying to remember the name of that story. Anybody help?)

Of course, there is travel into future (and sometimes back again, a la DOOR INTO SUMMER).

Or stopping time for everyone but the character (A favorite of mine: THE GIRL, THE GOLD WATCH AND EVERYTHING, and as part of various DISKWORLD novels.)

And then there is the idea in James White’s TOMORROW IS TOO FAR with travel in time being also, obligatorily travel in space (a fascinating idea I toyed with, once again in one of the Karres books, but I haven’t seen elsewhere).

Time travel does however seem to have largely been displaced by Alternate History.

But, because sf trends are rather like fashion, recurrent if not absolutely circular, maybe its time is coming again.

Image by annca from Pixabay


  1. I’m not sure if it counts as time-travel or horror, but John Varley’s short story “Air Raid,” [excellent] which became the novel _Millennium_ [OK – I thought it strained a bit] and a movie by the same title. Time travel was permitted, so long it had no noticeable effect in the past (no one knows it happened). The novel posits that something goes wrong for the travelers, and the results are the plot of the novel.

    In some ways the novel is dated, because modern readers won’t recall the wave of airline hijackings and crashes in the 1970s-early 1980s, so it loses some of the tension and emotional effects. That doesn’t tamper with the central time-travel laws, however.

  2. I don’t think Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates (IMO, the best time travel story there is) fits either model.
    I propose a third model: Fate Takes a Hand. In which there is only one timeline, and at the end of the story, you don’t really know if it *can* be changed.
    Actually, I guess I should aknowledge the existence of Dr. Who with a forth model: None of this Makes Any Fricking Sense!
    Just to round things out, and try to be comprehensive, you understand.

    1. Star Gate SG1 fits the many worlds interpretation, and the change your own past interpretation.

      There are definitely different timelines, where different things happened. But the main time line, where all the right lucky events lined up, has several rounds of traveling back in time and adjusting the past baked into the time line. The first are most often seen with the quantum mirror. The latter are often a ‘freak chance’ of gate travel.

      My own WIP is incomprehensible mess of a plot that I’ve been attempting to sort out. It is supposed to have minor time travel elements that are not part of the main plot progression. I have just realized that I /could/ get much weirder, and have time travel play a role in the main progression of plot. I’m not at all sure I want to.

    2. O Plot Bunnies! Are you serious? I had enough problems with the precognition and the divination.

      Please, tell me you are not serious. Please, tell me I do not need to find or invent a patron saint of time travelers. And now I need to look more closely at the Coptic calender, and how the Coptic saints fit into my timeline.

      1. St. John the Divine.

        You will notice that time-travel stories where it all works out are in effect prophecy is fulfilled stories.

    3. A lot of the time travel paradox stuff was first written in shorter form. I think of Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” as the best example of playing with the paradoxes (his “By His Bootstraps” does the same, but it longer, but still short, form).
      And, in shorter form, Fredric Brown played with interesting variants. “The End” isn’t strictly time travel, but certainly is time based. “First Time Machine” hits the paradox perfectly, in only a page. And “Experiment” has another view, in an equally short story.

    4. Actually, that tends to be, “Your actions were part of the original history that caused the very thing you were trying to prevent.”

      I’m working on a story that works like that. It’s fun.

  3. And bloody hard to write, keeping track of who you’ve killed and what did or didn’t change.

    Of course, I took the attitude that the Universe doesn’t care if the thin biological scum on a single planet got its knickers in a twist because something didn’t make sense.

    And having gotten that out of my system, I refuse to try to write another.

    1. If you’ve published that one, I need to make a note to go get ahold of it.

  4. Kingdom Hearts has time travel, and a fairly bizarre plot. The main villain for games I, II, and III brought his younger past self to the future, and when he went back, forgot the information, but I guess his character was changed by his experience onto the path of evil.

    Baen has a time travel series that requires going back to when the historical record was more fragmentary, and last I checked only said that attempts to change what you know for a fact fails. But the past can be changed.

    GURPS is a game, a collection of sometimes conflicting rules from which the referee makes a selection. One set of rules is that you can change the past, or the past can change on its own, and this propagates in various ways, and some characters can resist the change, or retain both sets of memories. GURPS Infinite Worlds is pretty firmly in the ‘many worlds’ school.

  5. One of my favorite time travel series was Kage Baker’s Company novels and stories. Recorded history couldn’t be changed; only what wasn’t recorded could be affected. You had a group of immortal time traveling cyborgs who stayed in what they called the “shadows of history”, where some or all of the details about an event weren’t known, and plundered rare and “missing” artifacts. Lots of scheming, intrigue, and skullduggery (in more ways than one).

  6. It’s funny, I’ve been having a couple of time travel things floating around in the back of the cranium for a while.

    I have some characters that are made of nanotech, so they’re functionally immortal. Not absolutely so, because they can be destroyed. But only in the way that planets can be destroyed, by stellar level events or judicious applications of antimatter. [We are lucky, they find us entertaining. No accounting for taste, I suppose.]

    Also, if “spooky action at a distance” entanglement can defy three dimensions, why not four? I do have a couple of Grey Eminence characters who experience time differently, they exist mostly as an example of keeping your hands off things that are going along just fine on their own.

    But that gives some leeway for time travel, if only by traveling to the future the hard way, by living that long. So I have a scene that consists of the immense nanotech dragon waking up in a remote cave after a long snooze of 100 years or so (he was bored by the politics of the time). Awakened by a small boy, who was sent in there by his chickenshit village elders because the dragon has a reputation for eating kids.

    Its a fun scene, but as it gets longer it brings with it some sad things as all the humans he knew back in the day are gone now, and life has moved on. So I haven’t written it. There’s enough sad shite in the world without me making up more and adding it to the pile.

    If I can find a way to make it a bright future and get the dragon back home again, then I’ll write it. Otherwise I’ll leave it at this:

    It might be a little long for the comments section. I’ll be pleased to post it here if you guys want it.

  7. I’ve thought about time travel, but I can’t swallow the paradoxes. I thought about doing straight historical fiction, but then a character spoke up out of the depths of my brain and said “The Hell you are!”. So I’m doing what I call a historical fantasy.. “It-didn’t-really-happen-this-way-but-might-have-if-magic-were-real.”

    1. That’s what I did with WWI – OK, if the Austrians had been a little less incompetent, and a good Habsburg got on the throne, and his ancestors had not botched two events in the past, what would happen? And magic and dragons, just because why not.

      1. I’m going for a feeling of “magic is real” but it tends to disappear if you look at it too hard and sneaks back in when you aren’t looking. It’s not alternate history. The events are the same (or at least the events are recorded the same way) but backstage behind the curtain…

        1. “Secret history” sub-sub-genre, then. (Yes, there is a difference between tagging secret history and alternate history on the ‘Zon.)

  8. “Somewhere in Time,” a 1980 movie with Christopher Reeves & Jane Seymour as the tragic lovers, uses self-hypnosis to permit a single person to travel back to a prior time; the send-off has to be done from a location that is perfect to the time sought. And don’t carry back any anachronisms!
    This sort of thing actually CAN be done, sort of. It only works for a short time, and only to prior personal experiences, and you really don’t GO, etc. It’s just an enhanced replay/role play.
    Caution: you are going to be taking back ALL of yourself, including your wisdom.
    So, if you are thinking about that time when you were younger, and you met that person, and it had a chance to turn into a bedroom romp, but it didn’t; it still won’t. That’s because it’s not the choice you would make NOW, even if it was the choice you would have made THEN.
    This is not to say that role-playing with a co-operative and enthusiastic partner should be disregarded; just that those are NOT mental time travel.

    1. Similar method of time travel, but with a different ending, is Jack Finney “Time and Again”.

  9. If you want a great alternate history seed for stories-

    Give the US Navy enough money for a proper live fire testing of the Mark 14 torpedo that catches most of the mistakes (running deep and issues with the contact detonator are the two big ones), and watch how the military history of the Pacific War changes. Not the least of which is that the TBD attack at Midway would have done more damage, which would have severely reduced the number of ships the Japanese Navy had-especially if the 1st Carrier Striking Force was completely or mostly eliminated.

    Would this change the “Europe First” policy, especially as MacArthur was rattling every bush and cage to get more resources to take back the Philippines?

  10. “Thrce upon a time” was the title of a novel by James Hogan. Instead of sending matter into the past, it was possible to send information. This had the same effect as sending a person into the past.

  11. I was listening to some of the “does omniscience preclude free will” discussions of the past (e.g. Calvinism) and I realized that we have a very different mental model of time and reality than people had then.

    Let’s assume that quantum effects are truly random – that even omniscience will not grant one the ability to know if the cat is alive or dead. That does not preclude the ability to know what happens in both cases. One “knows all”, but a great lot of it is contingent and drops away as events unfold.

    In this case, there is no tension. Free will is the equivalent of a quantum event. One can still “know” the outcomes before they occur, but occurrence “collapses the wave function” and vast swaths of future knowledge become irrelevant.

    Time travel is much the same.

    Now to write that up in 800 pages of dense academic jargon so that it will get published.

      1. Not exactly. Human knowledge is still limited in terms of the quantity of past knowledge it can retain and use; divine knowledge presumably doesn’t have to have that limit.

    1. “One can still “know” the outcomes before they occur, but occurrence “collapses the wave function” and vast swaths of future knowledge become irrelevant.”

      Which is how David Weber explained divine knowledge in his Bahzell books.

  12. No one actually believes in many worlds. It is incredibly easy to prove: Make yourself the cat. It’s called quantum suicide.

    If many worlds is true, you can put yourself in the box and you will live every time. From the outside, you will die 50% of the time, but being dead you will not know that. “You” will always be in the “cat is alive” world and no harm comes to you, no matter how often you perform the experiment.

    The fact that no one is willing to do that means that no one actually believes that the world splits into “live cat” and “dead cat” versions.

    This is just begging to become a short story, but I haven’t thought of the hook to hang it on, yet. The grieving spouse is an option, but I think the story needs to follow our intrepid suicider, not the people he leaves behind. Following all the world-lines involved would get very confusing, very quickly – even with color and font changes.

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