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[GUEST POST] Paul Levinson on the The Tricky Business of Time Travel

Paul Levinson, PhD, is Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in NYC. His nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), Cellphone (2004), and New New Media (2009; 2nd edition, 2012), have been translated into ten languages. His science fiction novels include The Silk Code (winner of Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel of 1999, author’s cut ebook 2012), Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002), The Pixel Eye (2003), The Plot To Save Socrates (2006, 2012), and Unburning Alexandria (2013). He appears on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and numerous TV and radio programs. His 1972 LP, Twice Upon a Rhyme, was re-issued in 2010. He reviews television in his blog, and was listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Top 10 Academic Twitterers” in 2009.

The Tricky Time Travel Business

by Paul Levinson

Time travel is a tricky business. I don’t mean actual time travel, which is worse than tricky, and is probably impossible, since the only way grandparent paradoxes can be surmounted is by invoking a Multiple Worlds Interpretation, in which a new universe is created every nanosecond anyone travels to the past. For example, if in my journey to the past I prevent my grandparents from meeting, how did I come to exist and travel to the past in the first place? The MWI would allow it: in World 1, I travel to the past and prevent my grandparents from meeting, which triggers World 2, in which I was never born. This doesn’t solve every problem – what would happen to me, would I just snap out of existence, or continue as some kind of special being (PL #1) who would continue living in World 2, even though you and everyone else in that world would be #2?

Questions like that are what make me think that time travel is likely impossible. And they also make writing about time travel a tricky business – but lots of fun, if you enjoy giving your synapses a wrapped-into-pretzels workout. The key is taking the paradoxes that lurk around every time traveling corner seriously. Even if we don’t adhere to the MWI, in which a new universe comes into being with every drop of the time traveler’s hat, we need to trace the consequences of every act of the time traveler in the past – and the future, too, in which time travel runs smack dab into free will. If you travel to the future and see me wearing a light blue shirt tomorrow, does that mean I have no choice but to put on that blue shirt tomorrow morning?

Keeping track of every possible consequence is impossible, but the author needs to keep track of enough of them to make the time travel story plausible. Life-and-death consequences are especially important, and even more so when real historical figures and events are the subject of the time travel, which makes writing about time travel even more tricky and more fun. If an historical figure dies before his or her time due to the time traveler, how will that change history? Similar questions arise when the time traveler tries to rescue a real person from an historically recorded appointment with death.

As the title of The Plot to Save Socrates (Tor, print; Listen and Live, audiobook; JoSara MeDia, ebook) suggests, cheating history of the death of Socrates is exactly what that novel is about. How difficult such a task will be, and its ultimate results, will be determined in large part by what kind of all-encompassing universe we’re living in. If it’s a universe that’s resistant to change, then happy endings will be hard to come by. But that’s in fact the kind of universe in which I think we live, and which, again, is for me the most fun to write about.

In “The Chronology Protection Case,” a novelette first published in Analog in 1995, reprinted lots of times, and made into a high-budget radio play and a low-budget movie, I posit a universe that will go all-out to stop even knowledge about how to time travel from getting loose. My “Loose Ends” series, published in Analog in the 1990s, deals with an attempt to prevent the Challenger space shuttle disaster – not the death of an historical individual but an event that took more than one heroic life. In my “Ian’s Ions and Eons” series, also published in Analog in the past few years, time travelers take a crack at changing major events in politics, music, and motion pictures.

Books themselves are the history to be changed in Unburning Alexandria, sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates, to be published by JoSara MeDia in just a few days. As many as 750,000 scrolls, many of them the only copies that existed, were lost in the three or more burnings of the Library of Alexandria in our reality. This destruction of the Library has been termed “one of the greatest intellectual catastrophes in history.” Sierra Waters, who against all odds strove to save Socrates from the hemlock, applies all of her intellect, passion, and ingenuity in Unburning Alexandria to stopping the burnings, against very powerful forces who want to keep our history exactly as it is. No paradox will be ignored, no loop untraced, no possible consequence not considered, as we explore her journeys, alliances, and struggles.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Paul Levinson on the The Tricky Business of Time Travel

  1. Jack McDevitt took an interesting stab at the Alexandria problem in “Time Travelers Never Die.” It was less about stopping the burning than about bringing the lost information forward to the present time. Worth a read.

    (Now adding Socrates and Alexandria to my wish list…)

  2. Paul Weimer // April 23, 2013 at 6:31 pm //

    I’m very glad to see that Plot… finally has a sequel to see the light of day.

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