In the first half of the sixth chapter of Darwin’s Watch, we discuss the nature of time travel and its fictional counterparts! Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld III.
And now we’re back to discussing time travel!!! This is something that has come up numerous times not just while reading Discworld, but more specifically in the Science of Discworld books. We’ve talked about paradoxes and the possibilities inherent in time travel, and while this chapter treads some of that same ground, the lens through which it is discussed still felt different to me. The authors consider the implications of time travel through fictional means, both with references to the Discworld series (namely, Pyramids and Thief of Time) and many popular and seminal science fiction works that helped influence the tropes and archetypes that we now see in science fiction stories about time travel.
Though I don’t want to ignore that this is also about the strangeness of how our minds perceive time. It’s one of those thought conundrums that makes my brain hurt when I consider it because… how long does the present last? The “present” is such a fleeting concept, and so it makes sense that humanity has struggled with it in various ways over the course of our history. (This feels related to the first time I ever thought about thinking and it was way, way too much to consider as a kid. It still fucks me up. How do we think? Why do we hear a voice when we’re doing it, but it’s not hearing a voice? And does each of us think in our own voice or a different once from our own? OH NO, I CAN’T DO THIS RIGHT NOW.)
Anyway: literary time travel! Speculative fiction writers are largely responsible for our mass consciousness regarding what is capable in time travel, though I still love that physicists are like, “Actually, time travel is technically possible based on what we know about physics, soooooo…” And then I think about how we would have already seen time machines had they existed? But then I think about a Tweet I saw once that explained how the world unraveled in the last few years specifically because we’re watching a time travel war unfold in real time. SEE, FICTION CAN EXPLAIN SO MUCH. (I mean, we can actually track why the world is descending into chaos, but sometimes, a neat story feels better. Narrativium at work!)
There is a trope here that I’ve never heard of, though:
Another celebrated time paradox is the cumulative audience paradox. Certain events, the standard one being the Crucifixion, are so endowed with narrativum that any self-respecting time tourist will insist on seeing them. The inevitable consequence is that anyone who visits the Crucifixion will find Christ surrounded by thousands, if not millions of time travellers.
I genuinely had never even considered this??? But holy shit, this is something that would happen, right? And now I’m creeped out by this thought, THANKS EVERYONE.
Anyway: I was surprised that Doctor Who was not referenced during all of this! I think the authors were only sticking to the written word. (Except for that passing reference to all the trash adaptations of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Seriously, why are those movies always so bad?) Still, I wonder if there are other popular tropes we see often that aren’t mentioned here. There’s the trope of meeting one’s self in the past undoing your own timeline, which is something the Doctor themself has to deal with. Or the way that time travel creates doubles in Primer, which is still one of my favorite time travel stories.
I’m interested to see where the authors will take the talk of the fourth dimension, though. Wells talked about it in the opening of The Time Machine, and I’m curious how much of that notion affected our understanding of time. It certainly stuck around as part of pop culture. (Now I’m thinking of The Twilight Zone, which is an entirely different thing.) But is it all that accurate, or just a stepping stone to a greater theory?
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