An historian on the edge of time.

timelincolnfistsoffuhrercoverA review of Tomorrow World’s: An Unearthly History.  Part 4 – Time (first broadcast BBC2, 13th December 2014).

[Spoiler alert:  This article contains spoilers for Looper and Twelve Monkeys]

Of all the programmes in this series, this last instalment is probably the worst.  It suffers from two particular problems.  The first is that the programme’s theme, the history of time travel in science fiction, is hardly developed in the programme and is examined only in a superficial way.  Instead the programme widens its theme to include visions of the future and other time related stories, it fails to hang together in any coherent way.  The second problem is the selection of material.  There are some obvious SF film and television programmes highlighted including La Jettée (1962), Doctor Who (1963 onward) along with Twelve Monkeys (1995).  A reasonable range of literature is mentioned (often very briefly) including HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder (1952), much of the rest of the material is overtly popularist examples of recent mainstream cinema and TV.  Although there may be a case for including Back to the Future (1985) for its popular impact, it is poor SF.  Similarly, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) may be an amusing film, but it is hardly canonical SF, indeed its SF element is weak and flawed.  (The premise of the film is that people from a future society, based on the harmony brought by Bill and Ted’s music, travel back to ensure that they don’t flunk history and thus would be separated.  This does not make sense, their society could not exist if Bill and Ted had been separated, what’s the point of going back in time to undo something that is already undone?).  Some material is not SF at all, particularly Groundhog Day (1993).  The consideration given to the film Looper (2012) is quite out of proportion to what is, in SF terms at least, a very poor time-travel story (although it does at least create a time traveller’s sense of déjà vu with two films involving Bruce Willis being sent back in time being considered).

Another major problem, implicit through the series, and particularly in evidence here, is that SF has nowhere been defined, but it is important that the stories have some kind of scientific rationale to them.  In many, if not most, SF stories the details of how time travel is achieved are necessarily vague but the stories are grounded in SF narratives through their concentration on dystopian-utopian future, technological and social changes and logical paradox.  The idea that SF narratives themselves have a history, which is surely what a programme promising to be the history of SF should (at least implicitly) provide, is entirely absent.  What is offered instead is, ironically, a timeless vision of time travel stories.  What the programme presents is HG Wells’ The Time Machine as a foundational text, and then some mainstream film and TV treatments of time travel, largely dating from the 1980s onwards.

Time travel and the representation of the future in fiction have a history that predates (and is an important antecedent of) science fiction.  This is well explained in a work important for anyone wishing to understand the origins of science fiction, Paul Alkon’s The Origins of Futuristic Fiction.[1]  Alkon argues that stories about the future were uncommon before the nineteenth century.  This was not simply that the social conditions for people to imagine a  future that was different did not exist: it is commonly accepted that the rise of market capitalism and the technological and social changes that accompanied it laid that basis for such future oriented fiction existed long before the first time-travel stories.  What also needed to be developed were the literary forms of telling such stories.  One key work in the development of such futuristic fiction was Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1771 work, L’An 2440 (rêve s’il en fut jamais) [The Year 2440 (A Dream if ever there was one)], a utopian vision of the future clearly reflecting the political ferment in France in the years before the Revolution.  But what is notable is that while previous writers had framed their utopias as being in some contemporaneous other place, Mercier introduced the idea that it was in the future, and thus was not a timeless alternative but a development out of existing circumstances.  At this stage the weakness of this was that whereas a story of travel to another place could be told with existing literary conventions, stories in the future could not.  Thus, Mercier’s narrator is transported in a dream.  Other early writers have similar mystical framing devices, such as angels bringing letters from the future.

Dominic mentions one notable example of pre-SF time travel by mystical agency, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1843) but fails to understand how it is a fantasy that is different from a science fiction story.  This difference was outlined in a highly prescient work of Félix Bodin’s Le Roman de l’avenir [The Futuristic Novel] (1834) which argued for the development of a “realistic fiction of rational wonders that might be morally useful without giving up the appeal of fantasy.”[2]  It was HG Wells who first achieved this in The Time Machine (1895).

This brings us to a further questionable point made by Dominic in this instalment.  While in the previous three instalments of Tomorrow’s Words he has asserted his view that SF reflects the “hopes and anxieties” of existing society, time travel is presented as “fantasy”, a form of wish-fulfilment to see the past and future.  Although both could be true at the same time, this switch is jarring.  I would take issue with the use of “fantasy” both by Dominic and in the Alkon/Bodin formulation above since the word implies something of the earlier form of futuristic literature, that it is a vision or illusion.  Certainly, Wells did not see himself as a prophet or visionary.  Nor is The Time Machine (as Dominic suggests) a “biting satire” on the Victorian class system.  Wells viewed himself as a scientifically grounded futurologist and used future-based fiction as a popular tool for disseminating those ideas.  He wrote non-fictional futurology, popular science and political commentary too.  In this he was similar to Isaac Asimov who was a trained scientist like Wells, although in Asimov’s case to a much higher level.  Asimov saw his SF writing as informed by hard science and sociology.  Indeed, between 1958 and 1973 Asimov wrote no fiction at all, instead concentrating on the popular understanding of science.

The key section of The Time Machine is set in 802,701 AD where the Time Traveller encounters the infantile Eloi and the troglodytic Morlocks.  Wells had studied under TH Huxley and was immersed in the post-Darwinian eugenics movement, and the Eloi and Morlocks were not simply a metaphor for, or satire of, class.  Rather this was Wells’ view of the outcome of continued class society expressed through evolutionary biology.  This is didactically explained in the Time Traveller’s narration of events in the book.[3]  (Wells’ views on evolutionary biology seem quite odd now, but were very popular, even in some parts of the left, at the time).[4]

In many ways Wells’ book was not foundational, but a development in futuristic fiction.  The time machine is merely a framing device.  Time travel is not the main subject of the story, the future is.  As SF and other forms of future fiction became accepted as a fiction genre, stories about the future could be told without any need to explain how the author knew the future, the reader accepting that SF authors will write about the future since this had become established literary convention.  Time travel in science fiction ceased therefore to be a gateway to the future or past, rather it became the subject itself.  Like so much else in SF, this was developed in the golden age of the pulps.  One of the earliest examples of this was the Charles Cloukey short story “Paradox” published in 1929 in Amazing Stories Quarterly.  A scientist finds the plans for a time machine in the hand-writing of a friend who knows nothing of it.  A machine that will travel to the future is built which the friend uses to travel to the year 2930 where he meets a scientist who has built a machine which can travel to the past.  A copy of the original plans are made and the friend travels back to place the plans in the scientist’s draw so he can find them.  The friend also believes that with knowledge of his death he can avoid it, but he cannot.

This is typical of time travel stories.  They centrally concern the paradoxes of time travel, the consequences of interfering with the past or knowing the future.  The line taken in Tomorrow’s Worlds is not to worry about the paradoxes too much, just enjoy the ride.  But it is the paradoxical nature of time travel that has interested SF writers the most.  So quite contrary to Dominic’s assertion that a major theme of time-travel SF (and it is the only one he identifies) is that “through the power of science, we can make time do our bidding,” I would suggest that one of the major themes of time travel fiction is that we can’t have power over time.  In some cases the past is found to be unalterable and attempts to change an event are inevitably part of the cause of that event; in other stories travel to the past is fraught with danger and intended consequences.

To explore this more fully, it is necessary to understand the different models of time travel that SF has used.  Each creates paradoxes, but of different kinds.  I would suggest that there are three basic paradigms used in time travel fiction (there are some further types that are less common time travel narratives, and I will append a section on these at the end).  In brief, these three are:

  1. There is one immutable time line. Attempts to alter the past (or a known future) are doomed to fail, it has happened and if you try to alter it you will discover that this is already part of the past.  I will call this the fatalistic model of time travel.
  2. The time line is mutable, and the actions of someone who has time travelled to the past (or has precognition of the future) can change the future but this will not change the time traveller themselves. They will continue to be the person from the future that will no longer happen.  I will call this the insulated time-traveller model of time travel.  (This can also be conceptualised a product of the multiverse)
  3. The time line is mutable, but the direct and indirect consequences of the time traveller’s actions will affect the time traveller themselves, they will become the person from the new future. I will call this the feedback loop model of time travel.

Most science fiction that is serious exploring time travel sticks to one of these models and deals with the paradoxes.  Ultimately, science fiction about time travel are thought experiments that suggest that time travel because of its paradoxical nature (meaning something has to be true and false at the same time) is impossible (although it is certainly not the case that all physicists accepts this).[5]  To put a little hard science into this, this is an application of the Novikov Self-consistency Principle.  Developed by the Russian physicist Igor Novikov in the 1980s in response to some hypothetical solutions to general relativity equations that allow the possibility of particles travelling backwards in time, this principle disallows these solutions where a paradox would occur (and in practice that is any change to the past at all).  Technically this allows time travel that affects no change, if the time traveller is a conscious agent aware of the past, this is inconceivable.

Using the categorisation I have developed above, it is possible to say more about time travel than (as Dominic does) “it happens (in SF)”.  Fatalism is common in SF, it underpins Cloukey’s story “Paradox” (see above).  This story contains a “bootstrap paradox”, a closed time loop paradox with where the knowledge about how to build the time machine has no origin.  But more importantly, it contains the most common fatalistic time-travel paradox, the predetermination paradox.  In this paradox travelling to the past to change events leads the time-traveller to become a cause of the events they are trying to affect.  A poetic and rather beautiful version of it can be found in Robert Young’s SF short story “The Girl with the Dandelion Hair” (1961).  Here, a young woman from the future tells the man that she is falling in love with, that, “the book of time has already been written.  From a macrocosmic viewpoint, my father says, everything that is going to happen has already happened.  Therefore, if a person from the future participates in a past event, he becomes a part of that event—for the simple reason that he was a part of it in the first place—and a paradox cannot possibly arise.”  She then travels further back in time and marries a younger version of the man.[6]

The idea of the time traveller becoming part of the cause of the events they seek to stop has long been a theme of SF.  This is central the film 12 Monkeys.  (There is a problem in the relationship posed in Tomorrow’s Worlds between 12 Monkeys and Chris Marker’s short film/photo-roman La Jetée.  The programme suggests that 12 Monkeys is an adaptation of La Jetée, but adaption is perhaps too strong a word, and (as the film credits say) “inspired” is more apposite, 12 Monkeys is essentially different from its inspiration.  In La Jetée the prisoner/time traveller, having been to the past, solves the problems of the post-apocalyptic society by being given a power source on his travels to the future.  It is the future people who aid his escape back to the past and a woman he has fallen in love with there, but he is then killed by his captors from his present who have pursued him to the past.  As in 12 Monkeys the killing of the adult is seen by his childhood self, but in La Jetée there is no element of his attempting to avert the apocalypse.  Rather it is his memory of seeing the shooting that gives him a strong image of a point in time that allows him to travel to it without going mad, an example of the predestination paradox).

12 Monkeys, while taking much from La Jetée, is a different film.  La Jetée is atypical  of time travel SF in that it is fundamentally about memory and transience, although it is by no means alone in this, there are elements of this in Cloukey’s “Paradox” and much of Philip K. Dick’s work.  It is also notable in its elegiac and rueful tone that it is similar to The Time Traveller’s Wife (see below).  Rather, like much of time travel SF, 12 Monkeys is more interested in the paradoxes of time travel itself and in building a compelling story around these.  Those sending James Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time take it as read that the past is unalterable, they are seeking information that will help them combat the virus that has devastated humanity.  Even when Cole, at the last, attempts to change events it only makes his witnessing of his own death as a child come about.  (For anyone interested, there is one glaring inconsistency in the film, whereas the phone call made to the carpet cleaning ansaphone by the psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe) has always been in the time line, the corrected information left at the same number at the airport a few hours later by Cole not only appears in the future (in terms of the meta-time of the film) “at the same time”, but those time travelling back from the future can only act on that information “after” the call has been made.  This is completely inconsistent with the way that time travel is treated in the rest of the film, but necessary to set up the dénouement, and an all-too-common example of consistency of time travel being dropped when it conflicts with the need for dramatic impact).

The idea that events cannot be altered is a constant in much time travel SF.  The skill is to weave this into a story.  Some of these fatalistic views were given their strongest early development in the pulp period by Robert H. Heinlein (with both bootstrap and predestination paradoxes in the mix) in his stories “By His Bootstraps” (1941)[7] and “-All of you Zombies -” (1959)[8].   It underpinned the US TV series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), where the characters unable to return to their present hopped between various (mainly past) time periods, but in the past were unable to change the outcome of events.  This concept is central to The Terminator (1984) with Skynet’s attempt to stop its defeat at the hands of John Connor by sending a cyborg back in time to kill his mother leading to his conception (predestination paradox), although this principle fatalism is not carried forward consistently into the sequels.

This is also developed in its literary form in The Time Traveller’s Wife (both its author, Audrey Niffenegger, and the book are featured in this instalment of Tomorrow’s Worlds).  This is a book that was published in 2004 and was not pigeon-holed as SF.  Dominic is right to point out that it combines classic SF time-travelling tropes with a more naturalistic emotional and character-driven literary form (and it might be interesting to speculate that this is not only a product of SF having become hugely popular both on screen and print in the last forty years, but one that has moved from its early almost exclusively male fan base to an audience which, according to some reports, contains a majority of women).[9]  But this misses an important point, about the history of SF.  Nifenegger’s treatment of time travel has something in common with Phillip K. Dick in that time travel results in genetic-neurological disorder, as well as being a descendent of 1960s new wave SF in that it is not centrally about the science.  Most importantly, it shows how science fiction has escaped its ghetto.  The Time Traveller’s Wife is not seen as SF, but is sold and consumed as general fiction.  This is an important development in science fiction.  Many SF authors who wished their writing to be considered beyond the SF ghetto in the 1950s and 1960s struggled (Kurt Vonnegut is one who pushed against this boundary for many years).  What is notable is that many novels that contain elements of what might be considered SF are increasingly seen as general fiction.  Arguably, this goes back to HG Wells, and had its English literary high points in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).  But it is very notable that many books that have elements of SF in them are not seen as SF, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas (2004) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) are examples of this.  These books assume that people can read through the SF context, and use this to build more humanistic stories.  Thus, the time-travel in Niffenegger’s book is used as an extended metaphor for loss and memory.  The time traveller, Henry, witnessed the death of his mother and is forced to revisit it repeatedly, just as his non-time-travelling father is forced to confront his dead wife in his son’s face.

In this context it is easy to accept Niffenegger’s conceptualisation of time-travel as being circular, the past cannot be changed even if the time traveller has knowledge of the events in which they play a part.  They are past events that have happened and cannot be changed (I would argue that this is bad metaphor for memory, where events are replayed in the mind and conversation exactly to change them).  The physics-philosopher Tim Maudlin has argued that this model of time travel is the one that can be internally consistent.[10]  I am not so sure since it creates a predestination paradox.  This means that even with additional information that can only be known after an event, that event cannot be changed.  It reduces human agency to the bearer of some abstract will of history.  If I go back in time, knowing the event I wish to change then it is by no means clear that I will fail.  To use a clichéd example, if I go back to Hitler’s youth to kill him before he can do any harm, I should stand a good chance of succeeding (although this probably would forestall the rise of the Nazis, or something similar, they would not be led by Hitler).  How likely is it that I will simply traumatise the child, leading to latter aggressive paranoid behaviour which has its roots in my botched assassination attempt which the historical record has failed to fully explain.  And if I fail, what if I or my associates continue going back to young Hitler’s time with increasingly heavy armament until they do succeed?  Or more prosaically, what if I go back 30 seconds in my time machine to stop the toast burning?  In short, going back in time would introduce new information into history, and unless one holds an entirely mechanical view of history where the ideas that people have make no impact whatsoever, the fatalistic model must create unsolvable problems.  (It is interesting to note that a fatalistic view of time travel has implications for the historian.  The main thing that the time traveller takes back in time with them is knowledge and ideas, and to believe that these can have no impact is to suggest that ideas have no impact on the course of history.  That is an entirely mechanical view of history being driven by structural forces with the thoughts in people’s heads existing as pure epiphenomenon).

SF has no plausible answer to the problems that the fatalistic view of time travel meets in the face of the time-traveller determined to change events.  It does have plenty of implausible solutions.   For example, one episode of Doctor Who (“Father’s Day” (2005)) has Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) attempting to alter history by saving the life of her father who was killed eight years previously.  Whatever the emotional and dramatic impact of the story from an SF point of view, it was nonsense.  “Time” becomes takes on a conscious personality in the form of pterodactyl-like creatures, “reapers”, which materialise to restore the previous status quo.  This is hardly consistent with the mathematics of space and time, rather it turns time into a mystical consciousness.  This instalment of Tomorrow’s Worlds has a lot on Doctor Who but, oddly, none of it related to time travel.  The focus on recent Doctors’ assertion that they cannot grow old with their (female) assistants is nothing to do with the Doctor being a time traveller (their assistants are too), but because he has great longevity.  On the whole time-travel paradoxical situations are shrugged off, or confined to single episodes (“Blink” (2007), an early example of Steven Moffat’s writing for the show is, I think, as fine an example of the bootstrap paradox as you will find).  Notably, although the novel The Time Traveller’s Wife is seen in the programme, Steven Moffat lifted a story arc starting with “Silence in the Library” (2008) where the Doctor first meets his wife, River Song, but she last meets him, and then used this story through the 2011 and 2012 series.

The non-fatalistic paradigms, where events in the present and thus the future can be changed, are also common in SF.  The most famous example of the insulated time-traveller paradigm, mentioned in this instalment of Tomorrow’s Worlds, is Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” (1952).  (Even here, Dominic makes a complete mess of the issue.  The story concerns time travelling big game hunters who shoot prehistoric big game under carefully controlled conditions so that no part of the past is changed.  One (Eckles) steps off the allotted path and crushes a butterfly.  Dominic describes this as one of the earliest of stories of its kind. But this genre was already well established.  The most personalised form of such a change in the past is the grandfather paradox (a time traveller goes back in time and kills one of their ancestors, thus they could never have been born) which was used in a story at least at early as Nathaniel Schachner in his short story “Ancestral Voices” (1933).  In 1939 L. Sprague de Camp published his short story (and in 1941 a novelised form) “Lest the Darkness Fall” in which a man is transported back to 6th century Rome and through his endeavours creates a more enlightened a peaceful Europe, one that will experience no Dark Ages (thus the title).

Lastly, the feedback loop model is less commonly seen in SF.  An example of this is the prevalent model used in the film Looper.  The premise of the film is that in the film’s present, young assassins kill victims sent back from the future.  Their last job is always to kill a 30 years older version of themselves, to “close the loop”.  A secondary character in the film, Seth, fails to kill his older self who then goes on the run in young Seth’s time zone.  The mobsters who control the process proceed to dismember young Seth, and these injuries (with thirty years of healing) are immediately manifest in old Seth.  This is bizarre, it gives “time” knowledge of events that have not happened and a process of communicating with that hunk of matter that is now old Seth that is mystical rather than physical, and begs the question of how old Seth, who has now been a multiple amputee for thirty years, ever ran anywhere.  An attenuated version of this is also used in Back to the Future where Marty McFly begins to fade after he disrupts his putative parents meeting in the past.

These models have their paradoxes and I would argue that the difference between good and poor science fiction is, first, how consistently the logic of the time travel is applied, and second, how the paradoxes that it leads to are addressed, and third, how these are incorporated into a compelling narrative.  I would suggest that good SF time travel fiction has a consistent logic to its time travel, and addresses the ensuing paradoxes through its narrative.  Thus I would suggest that (for the most part) Twelve Monkeys is good SF since it uses its (fatalistic) notion of the potential of time travel as an integral part of the story it tells, while Back to the Future is poor SF since the narrative selects different and incompatible understandings of time travel to meet its needs at different times.

Looper is a prime example of this inconsistent application of time travel.  While the film is an effective thriller, as far as being a time-travel SF story, it is a disaster.  The central character in the film, Joe, is another looper who fails to close his loop.  The film’s main model of time travel is one that privileges the moment that is being viewed, if something happens in that moment that was not previously the time line, then it is immediately inscribed in that time line (one assumes, at all future and past points on the time line), thus young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is able to send a message to old Joe (Bruce Willis) by scarring it onto his arm.  One has to assume, although the film fudges the point, that old Joe gains new memories of the conversations he has with young Joe that were not previously in his timeline (and at this point has always had those memories).  Ultimately, young Joe stops old Joe killing someone by killing himself, old Joe immediately vanishes although events up to this point do not “unhappen” (which would create a paradox that young Joe would not kill himself in the newly altered time line).

The point here is not that Looper’s feedback model of time-travel is an intrinsically unsatisfactory one, but that the film cannot deal with the paradoxes it causes and instead resorts to papering over the cracks in the narrative using other models of time travel.  One key point is young Joe failing to close his loop by killing old Joe.  The problem is that old Joe has already experienced this moment thirty years previously, and closed the loop.  How can it not be closed (there is not “this time”, it is the same moment).  The same moment has happened twice, with different things happening.  It simply makes no sense.  What has changed?  Nothing, no-one has time travelled back to change things prior to the incident.  It is the same incident in the same time line.

Worse, old Joe has a reason for not accepting his fate.  In the future a new time crime boss, the Rainmaker, is reported to be closing all the loops, killing off the loopers (although surely, this is always the fate of loopers, it is part of the deal?).  In the process of Old Joe being sent back to die, his wife is killed.  Thus, old Joe seeks to kill the child who will grow up to become the Rainmaker.  The problem is that young Joe realises in the dénouement of the film that it is only in old Joe’s failed attempt to kill the child-Rainmaker (an attempt that will leave his mother dead) that he is set on the road to becoming the Rainmaker.  The problem is that this is the single line fatalism view of time-travel (to be precise, a predestination paradox), with the time traveller creating the event that he seeks to avoid.  Thus young Joe kills himself and thus old Joes vanishes (switching back to a feedback loop model of time travel).  It is an inconsistent and unsatisfactory mess.

Back to the Future suffers from similar problems of picking and choosing the form of time travel that it wishes to use.  On the whole, the film uses an attenuated version of the feedback loop (as in Looper).  When Marty McFly travels back to the era when his parents were in high school, and disrupts the events that led to them marrying, he begins to fade (although slowly, conveniently giving him time to address the situation).  But paradoxes of the single-line fatalistic type are also introduced (Marty, it turns out, is named after himself, and by playing Chuck Berry song on guitar, he invents the style which is appropriated by Chuck Berry), while other events change in a non-fatalistic way.  He returns to find his parents and siblings more happy and contented people, although he himself is not changed in any way.  Again, a mess.

There are ways of avoiding any kind of paradox in time travel.  Particularly, it is only time travel to the past that is paradoxical.  Time travel to the future is not problematic (we are doing it now) and it is physically possible to do (by travelling fast).  The science in Planet of the Apes (1968) is quite plausible, astronauts do return to earth having not aged as fast as those that remained behind (although not to the extent of the film).  There are no paradoxes or inconsistencies.  Of course, then travelling back in time (as some of the chimps in Escape from Planet of the Apes (1973) still has all of the problems of travelling back in time.

Stories that involve viewing the past as a passive observer also create no problems.  Isaac Asimov, an SF writer with a zealous regard for ensuring that the science worked, did write one time-travel paradox story (“The Red Queen’s Race” (1949)) which only avoided paradox by human intervention.  His other stories involving time travel avoid any form of paradox.  Thus the short story “The Dead Past” (1956) involves a chronoscope able to look at anything in the past, but since it cannot change the past or see the future it creates no paradoxes.  Similarly, time travel into the past can be paradox free if it is entirely passive, look but don’t touch time travel.

Asimov has another form of non-paradoxical time travel fiction by creating a place outside of time.  In his novel The End of Eternity (1955) “the Eternals” are outside of time and thus see time spread out before as a completed thing (although there are areas that they cannot see).  They can intervene and change time at will, but since they are no longer in time there are no paradoxes (except, perhaps, that since they originated in time, they can change time so that they never existed there while they continue to exist outside of time).

The commonest answer is “lighten up”.  This is the answer often cited in Doctor Who, where time is variously like a river that will keep flowing or a plate of spaghetti and will sort itself out in some way.  I am not convinced that his is the way that the physical world works, and if we are to have science fiction that is based on science rather than fantasy dressed in pseudo-scientific rags it will not do.

Probably the most interesting take on time travel is that of Philip K. Dick.  Philip K. Dick is very poorly dealt with by Dominic in this instalment.  In his usual way, Dominic suggests that Dick’s writing is part of the late 1960s San Francisco drugs scene, as Dominic puts it was “rooted in the political realities of his sixties heyday”.  There is a degree to which this could be considered to be just imprecise, Dick lived in the Bay Area, but never in San Francisco itself.  Certainly, he lived in his teens in Berkeley and hung out in bohemian circles.  But for his most productive period he lived in Point Reyes Point where he moved in 1958,[11] a sedate town thirty miles north of San Francisco.  Only in 1968 did Dick descend into a full on drugs binge surrounding himself with the rougher end of what the late 60s Bay Area had to offer.  By then he was living in Santa Venetia district of San Rafael in County Marin,[12] like Point Reyes Station, considerably to the north of San Francisco.  This period was a result of his writing running into the buffers, he wrote nothing for the four years from 1968.

Nor should Dick he confused with the drug-fuelled writing of William Burroughs.  Not that Dick’s writing was not drug fuelled, but this was largely amphetamines and tranquillisers, not major psychedelics such as LSD (Dick apparently took this only a small number of times in 1964) or even cannabis.  He reportedly took mescaline once in 1970.[13]  After his1968 breakdown he left the San Francisco area, moving briefly to Vancouver and then returned to California but ended up living in the conservative area Orange County near Los Angeles.  This was the least productive period of his writing life, with only five completed novels and virtually no short stories completed before his death in 1982.  I would argue that this late work is amongst his least successful (although many of his fans would disagree).  With the exception of his A Scanner Darkly (1977), a semi-SF and semi-autobiographical account of Dick’s late 1960s descent into the drug subculture, these late writings are dominated by his belief that he had been visited by aliens and that through them he was linked to a meta-religious Vast Active Living Intelligence System, stepping beyond the bounds of classic SF into something informed by theology.  I have always assumed that all the speed that Dick had taken combined with his always fragile mental state had broken his mind by the early 1970s and he never fully recovered.

Thus, Dominic’s comments on Dick’s writing are careless with the facts.  Dick wrote much of his huge body of short stories in the period 1953-1959, and the bulk of his nearly fifty novels from 1952 to 1968.  This was not a product of San Francisco counter culture, not only did Dick not live there was he was agoraphobic and did not get out much.  His writing was influenced by the politics of the time (particularly his negative view of Nixon) but the political paranoia was informed more by the anti-communism of the McCarthy period during which Dick was both investigated and (reportedly) offered the chance to become a double agent.[14]  He became increasingly paranoid that he was under surveillance (he appears to have had propensity for this but it was probably also a side-effect of his amphetamine use).  If Dick’s politics are rooted anywhere, it is rooted in his early 20s liberal response to McCarthyism, a time of life when many of us form our political outlooks.

Dick’s attitude to time travel has something to do with paranoid views, and elements of the meta-religious which was fully expressed in this later writing had long underpinned some of his work.  These combined to create fiction based on the idea that the world of appearance may not be real, and that there may be an underlying reality.  Thus time travel is possible since the world of experience (including the flow of time) is an illusion under which there is a deeper reality.  This is best seen in Dick’s novel Ubik (written 1966, published 1969) where the apparent backwards running of time is (possibly) explained by the people experiencing it being in a virtual reality and the Ubik of the title is a spray that is applied to fix areas where this fabric of unreality is falling apart.  The uncertainty of what is real and what is not is typical of much of Dick’s output.  It is not simply a product of the 1960s, rather Dick is one of the writers who was part of the emergence of such attitudes.

Tomorrow’s Worlds wilfully refuses to address such issues.  Rather the nostalgia for forty-somethings tone continues.  So the main question is not “how has time travel developed within and beyond SF” but “how can we fit in a clip from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Having come to a shaky and unsatisfactory halt in the story that it is telling about time travel, after 27 minutes the programme switches to discuss the idea of visions of the future.  To discuss this Dominic return again to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) although (as with the comments in the “Robots” instalment) nearly every factual statement about the film and its making is wrong.  It was not the case that after visiting New York in 1924 Lang was “inspired”.  Although Lang claimed this himself, plans for the film preceded his visit in October 1924 and some of the designs for the look of the city in Metropolis were already in hand.  Nor is Dominic’s claim that Metropolis was the first feature length SF film true, that accolade probably belongs to the Soviet film Alieta: Queen of Mars (1924).  Nor is the city ruled by rich industrialists, it is ruled by one man Joh Frederson, a father/god/owner of the city.  Nor are the workers’ factories underground, their homes are underground, not the factories.  To point out these errors is not nitpicking, that nearly every factual statement made about the film is wrong suggests that Dominic and the makers of the programme have not bothered to watch the film or carry out the most basic research into how it was made.

Dominic them jumps from this to JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise to suggest that SF has a theme of seeing future dystopian cityscapes as arenas for the collapse of society into class war.  This is certainly not the case in Metropolis where the working class are a geometric mass called into action only by the robotic provocateur acting on the orders of the city’s patriarch, Joh Fredersen, and then pacified by his son and the saintly Maria.  It can be argued that there came a point in SF films in the 1970s where this became dominant, and Bruce Franklin’s study suggests that all films presenting the future after 1970s were dystopian.[15]  There is clearly a case that this became the way that Hollywood used SF, but I would question the degree to which this is more generally true.  There are strong utopian elements in written SF (think, for example, of the Anarcho-socialist society that Marge Piercy describes in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)).  It is questionable whether the Los Angeles of Bladerunner is a dystopia, rather it is a version of now.

Dominic, however, attempts to make dystopia the template for all SF and attempts to force JG Ballard’s High-Rise into that mould.  He sees the book as Ballard’s criticism of 1960s and 1970s architects and planners, whose present-day utopias become “tomorrow’s nightmares”.  The block is “isolated”, a microcosm of class society that leads to class war.  Dominic even links it to his favourite bête-noire, the miseries caused by class struggle in mid-1970s Britain.  He cannot resist slipping in: “If you had been reading High-Rise in the mid seventies, perhaps by candle light during an unscheduled power-cut, you might well have wondered just how far away Ballard’s dystopian future was.”

There are elements of truth in this.  One penthouse at the top of Ballard’s high-rise is occupied by its architect, Anthony Royale.  But this is a post-class society, the lower floors are occupied by “the vanguard to the well-to-do and well-education proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape.”[16]  These are media professionals, doctors and academics.  Their isolation is not imposed by the architecture, but by their own psychology.  Ballard tells us they are, “content with their lives in the high-rise, [they] felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organisations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their purposes … They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with other, and the total self-sufficiency of their lives, needing nothing, were never disappointed.”[17]

It is telling that one of the lead characters in the book is Dr. Robert Laing, whose name echoes the radical psychiatrist Dr. RD (Ronnie) Laing, who from the 1960s argued that it is the world that was mad, the mental problems that people suffered often being the only sane response, RD Laing arguing that the self became divided and that psychiatric practice should seek to reunite these divided selves.[18]  Ballard’s irony is that these new urban landscapes allow a new psychology to emerge, both modern and primitive healing for these divided selves.  As one resident of the block explains to Richard Laing: “It’s a mistake to imagine that we’re all moving towards a state of happy primitivism.  The model here seems to be less of the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection …. Our neighbours had happy childhoods to a man and still feel angry.”[19] (129)  The residents are not imprisoned, they chose to stay, and even while facing violent death and starvation, feel more alive than they ever have (at least, the male characters do, Ballard’s female characters are notoriously underdeveloped).  This is Ballard’s version of the integrated self, integrating aspects of their mind and body in unitary whole that expressed their freedom and autonomy.  It is this concept of freedom not tower blocks, at which Ballard has turned his critical gaze.  It is the idea of small enclosed communities, be that on a piece of land cut off between motorways (Concrete Island (1974)) or an inward-looking suburb (The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)).

Again, in the name of history we are offered no history.  The task of time travel in science fiction is given the most superficial history and is only history in the sense that HG Wells wrote first, then Dr. Who started and then Back to the Future was made.  The idea that time travel in SF has a development, that it changes, is missed out.  A very basic sketch of such a history is what started as a framing device for stories of the future in HG Well’s Time Machine and then became the paradoxical subject matter itself in the time of the pulps, then with the new wave becoming a metaphor for understanding people’s relationship with their own past and future, something that has continued in post-genre SF writing.  But just as this is not developed here, nor is SF’s drive to be both utopian and dystopian.  The overall appraisal of this instalment is that the light that burns twice as glibly lights only half as much, and Dominic has burned so very glibly.

[1] Alkon, Paul K., The Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987)

[2] Alkon (1987), p245

[3] See, for example Section 5, HG Wells, The Time Machine (London: Penguin, 2005 [1895]), pp47-49.

[4] John Partington (2011)  “H. G. Wells and Population Control: From a Eugenic Public Policy to the Eugenics of Personal Choice” (accessed 21/01/2015)

[5] See, for example, Paul J. Nahin, Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics and Science Fiction (Second Edition, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1999).

[6]  The story can be read at : [accessed 28/12/2014]

[7] Can be read here:

[8] Can be read here: [accessed 28/12/2014]

[9] Adam Roberts, Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom (London: Routledge, 2000), p93.  Sadly, Roberts gives no reference for this significant piece of information.

[10] Julian Sancton, “Time Out Of Mind”, Movieline,  September 27, 2012, [accessed 28/12/2014].

[11] Lawrence Sutin,, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (n.p.: Citadel Twilght, c.1989), pp96ff

[12] Ibid., p158.

[13] Ibid.,  p165

[14] Ibid., pp83-84

[15] H. Bruce Franklin, “Visions of the Future in Science Fiction Films from 1970 to 1982″ in Annette Kuhn, Alien Zone (London: Verso, 1990).

[16] JG Ballard, High-Rise (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975).p97.

[17] Ibid. p42

[18] RD Laing, The Divided Self (London: Penguin, 1990 [1960])

[19] Ballard (1975), p129.


About Matthew Cooper

This blog is written by Matthew Cooper.
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