Timey-wimey stuff: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Last year, as part of WORD Christchurch’s Autumn Season, James Gleick spoke on his wide-ranging cultural history of Time Travel. If you have any interest in, as Doctor Who puts it, “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” it’s a great read.

This WORD Christchurch Festival session brought together American author, Ted Chiang (whose novella, The Story of Your Life, became the acclaimed film, Arrival) and kiwis Whiti Hereaka (author of YA novel Legacy), and Michael Bennett (author, with Ant Sang of graphic novel, Helen and the Go-go ninjas). What, I wondered, would the writers of such temporally transformative works have to say on the topic?

As it was, I was feeling a little like I’d slipped forward in time myself – I woke up that morning to discover that it was September already. How had that happened?

Ted Chiang, Whiti Hereaka and Michael Bennett. Image supplied.

In fact, the first question made reference to James Gleick’s aforementioned book – Ted Chiang disagreeing with Gleick’s assertion that The Time Machine by H. G. Wells represents the first example of a story featuring time travel, and that Wells is the originator of time travel in that sense. Rather, he feels that time travel tales are more a modern take on a prophecy story, a common tale since ancient times. The fact that story prophecies always came true was a reflection of the ancient world’s belief in fate. Your destiny lay ahead of you, and no matter what you might do to try and change it it would always find you. If there was a shift, Chiang believes, it was one away from believing in fate towards believing in free will.

This is something you can see in a story like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge, having travelled to a possible future, escapes his fate by changing his ways. He exerts free will and the course of his life is altered. By comparison, The Time Machine’s protagonist doesn’t engage with the possibilities of time travel at all, moving through time but not making any attempts to alter its course (which, now that I think about it, is kind of the point of time travel stories, by and large).

Michael Bennett and Whiti Hereaka both made comments as to the importance of prophecy in Māori culture. And Bennett pointed out that Māui himself fought time, slowing the sun to extend the length of our days.

When asked about the pervasiveness of the genre, Bennett reflected that we all understand “the unfairness of time” and deployed a rather splendid extended metaphor of the time as a river – we have not choice but to flow with the current, which at certain times in our lives seems too slow, though as we continue along we try to slow it down, looking for the eddies that might delay our arrival at our ultimate destination.

Chiang’s motivation for writing The story of your life was, through the character of Louise, exploring an aspect of human nature “the knowledge that in the future comes great joy and great sadness and coming to accept that both things lay ahead of her”.

Hereaka’s reason for writing a time travel story grew out of her desire to tell the stories of soldiers in the First World War’s Māori Contingent – she hadn’t previously been aware of this part of our history and wanted a way to share it, moreover she wanted to have those characters speak in their own voices, not via a modern one. Later on, in response to an audience question about creating voices from the past, she says that her theatre background helped but it also took some research, reading novels of the time, oral histories and where available listening to recordings.

She also had a really interesting perspective on the relationship between the writer and the reader saying:

I believe writing books is an act of manaakitanga – welcoming people into your world.

When asked about their favourite time travel stories Hereaka admitted that television was her go to – series like Life on Mars and Ashes to ashes as well as Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee was her Doctor but the imminent arrival of a female Doctor is something she’s really excited about). Bennett, somewhat unsettlingly, admitted to reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five at the tender age of ten, and it has remained a favourite. Chiang favoured the movie Back to the future which he says is “a Swiss clock of plotting” for which he has “immense affection”.

The craft of storytelling was highlighted by an audience question about the constraints that time travel places on the story. Bennett confirmed that not making it too hard for the reader to follow can be a concern. And Chiang pointed out that Time Travel as a device is “the universal acid that will dissolve any container you put it in” in terms of story. Suddenly your protagonist’s problems can be fixed by going back in time and doing it again. For that reason Time Travel stories usually have some “rules” or constraints applied to them to stop the easy fix from occurring. And no, these constraints may not hold up to close inspection – but you’re only looking to suspend disbelief for a time, to tell a story.

Hereaka was in agreement with Chiang on this saying:

That’s what stories are… It’s about solving problems and humans finding out what it is to be human.

When asked if they could time travel what they think they would do, Hereaka said that period dramas sometimes make her wish she could live in another era but she’d come to a realisation – “no, you wish you were rich”. So wherever she goes in time she wants to be well funded.

Chiang doesn’t think that “there’s any period in history that I would be better off in than right now” and that trying to change history at all is not a good idea as you can’t have any confidence that the changes you make would work out.

For fans of sci-fi and time travel fiction this session gave some interesting insights into what these kinds of stories can tell us about ourselves, and the challenges they pose to the storyteller. A session that I’m happy enough to have spent some forward travelling time in.

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He’ll be back: The Terminator returns… again

Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

This is how Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese describes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in the 1984 film The Terminator. He didn’t know how right he was. The Terminator just keeps coming back. The perfect pop culture metaphor for a franchise that can’t be killed.

In 1991 a sequel followed. At that time the $100 milion budget of Terminator 2: Judgment Day made it the most expensive film ever produced and it was a cinematic juggernaut (I did my bit by spending my pocket money to go and see it two weekends in a row).

And from there the Terminator just kept rising from the ashes (or still burning wreckage of crashed truck/plane/HK). A trilogy of novels set after the events of T2 follows Sarah and John Connor who have fled to South America.

A television series followed. Before Lena Headey was the ruthless Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones she was the equally determined Sarah Connor in the The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

There were a further three movie sequels (with varying degrees of coherence), the most recent being an alternate timeline Terminator: Genisys which brought back a lot of the attitude of the first film (but positively tied itself in time-travel knots).

Cover of Total recall: My unbelievably true life storyJames Cameron announced earlier this that he will produce the sixth installment of the Terminator franchise, with shooting due to start next year. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 90s action star who never really went away, will reprise his role.

Last year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of T2 a 3D version was released and this will hit New Zealand screens briefly next week. I’d say get your tickets booked lest you miss out but… he’ll be back.

James Gleick at WORD Christchurch: No spoilers for Time Travellers

James Gleick does not want to offend anyone.

The author of numerous books of a scientific bent is careful with his words and keen not to ruffle any feathers. It’s speculation on my part, but I wonder if his experience is that, on the topic of Time Travel, passions might sometimes become inflamed?

A curious full house gather at the Piano for this WORD Christchurch session featuring Gleick and fellow New Yorker Daniel Bernardi (erskine fellow, film and media studies scholar, science fiction expert and documentary filmmaker). They discuss the ins and outs, twists, turns and paradoxes of Time Travel. Before long there is, as is the new tradition when two educated Americans speak in the presence of non-Americans… a jocular swipe at the current US president.

James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi
James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi, Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0194

Fortunately this science-loving audience is not in the least offended by the joke.

Cover of Time Travel by James GleickGleick’s book Time Travel: A history is an exploration of the literature, science and zeitgeist of Time Travel. It’s far-ranging, smart and brain-expanding.

But what made him want to write on that topic in the first place?

I discovered this weird fact – that Time Travel is a new idea. That didn’t make any sense to me.

Why did it take until H. G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine for people to explore that as an idea? It seems a few things came together: photography and cinema were showing people a slice of the past in the present; instantaneous communication was suddenly possible making the lack of temporal alignment in different places more obvious; and time standards became a thing for the first time. As Gleick puts it, “the way people thought about Time was up for grabs”.

Then Einstein came along and things got really interesting.

Though Einstein’s theories allowed for the possibility of a sort of Time Travel, Gleick is quick to point out that it’s not the punching-a-date-on-a-machine or opening-a-portal-to-another-era kind. It’s really just the acknowledgement that there is no universal time. Everyone’s experience of time is personal and given the right set of circumstances (speedlight travel, for instance) your version of time can slow down relative to everyone else’s. This means that the Time Travel stories of the “Rip Van Winkle” (or Futurama) kind become technically possible. But Gleick doesn’t believe the imaginary, sci-fi type Time Travel that continues to excite our imaginations exists, or that it will. Though he seems apologetic about it, as if he’s mindful of deflating the aspirations of wannabe Time Travellers in the audience.

On the enduring appeal of Time Travel in literature and popular culture, Gleick feels that it lets people explore many things about families and relationships – it gives you the ability for “a do-over”. Like the movie Groundhog Day. He points out that a lot of Time Travel stories are about fathers and mothers, families and parents.

Take Back to the Future – isn’t this really just a movie about looking at your parents and realising they were once young like me, and wondering “what was that like?”

This is far from the only reference to Time Travel in popular culture, and many in the audience probably come away from this talk with a reading/watching list that includes:

  • A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – indicative of pessimism about the future of “our benighted country”.
  • Doomsday book – H. G. Wells never wrote about going into the past but Connie Willis does.
  • “All you zombies” by Robert Heinlein – An early short story that became the movie Predestination and is an interesting example of The Grandfather Paradox.
  • Looper – Movie that nicely skirts over the paradoxical plot difficulties by having Bruce Willis tell his younger self “If we’re going to talk about Time Travel sh*t we’re gonna be sitting here making diagrams with straws all day”.
  • Interstellar – Bernardi’s pick as the film that best visualises the science of Time Travel.
  • The Planet of the Apes series – Bernardi’s favourite for its use of Time Travel to address issues of gender and race.
  • Arrival – A film that Gleick feels works very well in performing a “subtle trick” on the audience. All Time Travel stories have to do this but in this film you barely notice it happening.
  • Twelve Monkeys – Another Bruce Willis film that deals with a Time Travel loop and deals with a death.
  • “Blink” – Gleick’s favourite episode of Doctor Who, in particular a scene set in a spooky old house, “old houses are great time travel machines”. It’s also the first episode in which the phrase “timey-wimey” is used.
James Gleick
James Gleick: a man in want of some straws. Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0198

Gleick is at great pains to try and describe these stories in a way that does not reveal any important plot twists. In the case of Planet of the Apes this is… is adorable the right word? The movie came out in 1968. But no spoilers!

Another appealing aspect to Time Travel is that it’s a way of escaping death. After all, (spoiler alert!) Time will kill us all in the end.

When we hear Time’s winged chariot it’s not delivering good news.

But what is Time (other than universally deadly)? Scientists may tell you that Time is the 4th dimension and that it’s similar to the other physical dimensions in that we inhabit one spot and the rest stretches out away from us, both backward and forward. This rather flies in the face of what Gleick says we know “in our guts” about Time i.e. that the past has happened and the future hasn’t.

It seems an oddly obvious statement to have to make, and Gleick says it’s not a scientific one but a religious one.

Some of the audience questions delve into this idea of religious thought versus Time Travel and at this point I get lost, draw a spiral in my notebook and label it “loop of confusion”. Questions like “is God in Time with us?” and “doesn’t an interventionist God imply that the future isn’t set?” do somewhat “screw my noodle”. Given the heady topic, it seems inevitable that I lose the thread of the discussion at some point in proceedings. Perhaps it always has, and always did happen?

Other questions posed include one from my colleague Fee (who wrote her own post about James Gleick) and wonders if the future is set, then what about premonition? Which Gleick says (gently) that he does not believe in, though it’s a powerful idea.

Another question asks how it is that Gleick can explain such scientifically complex stuff in ways that non-scientist folk can understand. He says simply that he’s a journalist so he asks lots of questions and that a big part of it is just getting scientists to talk you as they sometimes “live in their own abstruse world”.

I am lucky enough to get the last mic grab of the night and ask my own question (which if I could have a Time Travel do-over for, I would make slightly less waffley). It’s with reference to the way we think about Time in terms of spatial metaphor. In the Western world we conceive of the past as being behind us and the future in front of us but in Māori culture this is flipped around – the past is known and therefore visible before you and it’s the future that approaches you from behind. In the course of researching had he found any other cultures that view Time this way? Gleick replies that the language we use, the words that we use to describe Time really shape how we think about it and that in some Asian languages Time travels on an “up and down” axis or “right to left”.

And if I thought my noodle was screwed before it definitely is now. As I exit the theatre along with the rest of the audience I concentrate on travelling forward through space and backwards/forwards/vertically through time.

More information

The WORD on Time Travel with James Gleick

“Quid est ergo tempus?” “What then is time?” (Augustine)

When did Time begin? Was it the Creation, or Big Bang? Is it just an Illusion, a construct of man? Who coined the phrase “Time Travel?”

Cover of Time Travel by James GleickFor the answers to these and many other questions on Time Travel, James Gleick is your man. Come along to his WORD Christchurch session at the Piano on Tuesday 16 May, 6pm to hear him talk about his book, Time Travel: A history.

I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to find out how to Time Travel. I could get so much more done.

My first memory of a Time Travel story would have to be the Time Tunnel. Yet as I look back it’s an element in so many stories – the Pevensies always came back to the same moment they left (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), The guys in Land of the Lost travelled, and then I read The Time Machine.

H.G. Wells is arguably the master, although he was no Newton. Yet he raises a theory (mirrored by Ben Elton in Time and Time Again) that Time exists only in the memory: “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.” (p.8).

Susan’s student, Penelope, in Terry Pratchett’s The Thief of Time, asserts that “Its always now everywhere, Miss.”

Cover of Isaac NewtonGleick, a Harvard graduate, explores not just story in his book, but scientific theory also, from the concept of Time to the idea of travelling at will through it. He has also written a book on Isaac Newton.

Time Travel: A history, has a formidable index, and an indispensable book list of stories, anthologies and scientific works on the nature of time and travel.

After a small survey of colleagues and friends I’ve come up with some questions for Mr Gleick. Feel free to ask one at the event. (They won’t let me ask them all!)

  1. Can you meet yourself in Time and not cause a temporal reaction?
  2. Can you move through Space as well as Time?
  3. Did the Time Tunnel guys EVER make it home?
  4. What was the outcome of Predestination?
  5. If you kill yourself in time will you cease to exist in other dimensions?
  6. Can you kill your mother/father yourself and not cause 1.
  7. Why can’t Dr Who fall in love?
  8. If the future hasn’t happened yet, can you only travel backwards?
  9. Can you travel back/forward to wipe someone out and change the future?
  10. If light can split into particles and waves, can a person be at two places in Time?

Time travel fans will want to check out my lists of –

Every Doctor must have his day

doctorwhoposterCalling all time lords, cybermen, daleks, and time/space travelling companions!

Central Library Peterborough is hosting a Doctor Who themed event on Saturday the 15th of August, free for all humans and other species to attend.

Cosplay as your favourite character and be in to win prizes for best dressed! There’ll also be colouring in, puzzles, Doctor Who books and DVDs to borrow, and from 2.30 – 3.00 we’ll be holding a quiz to test you on your Doctor Who trivia. If you get the answers correct then you’ll win a prize, and if you’re unlucky there might be the possibility of trying some fish fingers and custard à la the Eleventh Doctor! Who could turn that down?

Doctor Who display

If you aren’t able to attend Doctor Who Day, don’t despair — we’re holding a Create Your Own Sonic Screwdriver Competition which finishes on the 20th of September.

And there’s always the plethora of Doctor Who fiction, fan guides, DVDs, e-books and comics available at your local library all year round.

Cover of Doctor Who The Eleventh Doctor. Vol. 1, After Life Cover of Doctor Who A History of the Universe in 100 Objects Cover of Doctor Who 11 doctors 11 stories Cover of Doctor Who Prisoner of the Daleks

Do chicks dig time lords?

I have no idea how I found this book. I was just sitting at the computer looking for a book. Now the book I was looking for didn’t have anything to do with chicks, digging or time lords, but there it was.

And I wanted it.

I have been often told, that one should never judge a book by its cover. I did. The psychic paper, the scarf and the key to the Tardis all said ‘read me’. And maybe the title Chicks dig time lords: A celebration of Doctor Who by the women who love it.

I quite like time lords, so I was curious. I knew Verity Lambert liked time lords, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Carole Barrowman did too. But a whole book written by chicks who dig time lords was a surprise. They all had different reasons for liking them and they all quite possibly had favourites.

While Doctor Who is off air, the Doctor is hopefully repairing his Tardis and maybe even getting its chameleon circuit to work. I think I could help him out. Not because I can run in high heels and mini-skirt. I can’t. I could get his Tardis fixed.

Cover of An unofficial guide companions fifty years of doctor who assistantsHe probably can’t travel back through time and space to arrive outside the Tardis repair shop on Gallifrey, but he could go to the planet-sized library which contains every book ever written and get a book on how to repair a Tardis. That’s where I come in. I have a library card which isn’t valid for all libraries in time and space, but since when do small details like that stop the Doctor and his companions?

I do know how libraries are organised and I know how to ask the right questions. If the library has a copy of a Tardis repair manual, I could find it with the help of the Librarian. If the Tardis materializes within the library, we won’t need to borrow the repair manual, but if he does borrow it, the Doctor will be able to keep it for ages, then travel back in time and return it on time. How cool would that be?

Do you dig time lords?

Dare I ask, which one?

While you are waiting for the return of Doctor Who, why not borrow a DVD featuring your favourite Doctor.

Even in my former life I was working class

51IM6lHhFLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When I was younger I had the privilege of living in London for a couple of years. Like most people on their OE, I visited all the historic sites I could get my hands on including Warwick Castle. Warwick Castle is a medieval castle that has undergone massive restoration to give the visitor a real feel for a thousand years of English history. Entering into the medieval kitchen I can remember being hit with a very strong sense of déjà vu. This medieval kitchen felt very familiar to me with the strong smells of the herbs, rushes on the floor and seething cauldrons, open fires and hanging livestock. I didn’t have the same sensation when I went upstairs into the Lord and Lady’s living area! It would appear I have been scrambling for a living for longer than what I can even remember which is rather depressing. It may though explain my interest in history.

One of the best books that I have read in a long time has been Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. It reads like a Lonely Planet Travel Guide except the place you are visiting isn’t on any current map instead it is a time. It will tell you about who you will meet in Medieval England, what they will wear and where you can stay and expect to eat. For a start, green vegetables are considered poisonous and potatoes have yet to be discovered. If you are staying overnight anywhere it is also considered good manners to hand over your sword until you leave. I already have a hold on Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England.

Jamie and Claire again!

Diana Gabaldon created quite a stir in the 1990s with the publication of the first volumes of the Outlander series, which blended time travel, historical fiction and romance – so much so that what had been originally planned to be a trilogy has grown to a 7-volume series, with at least one more book to come.

The first 3 books (Outlander/Cross Stitch, Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager), which were mostly set in Scotland in the period prior to and after the Battle of Culloden, where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s dreams of capturing the British throne were thwarted, were undeniably the most popular.

Cover of An echo in the bone.
An Echo in the Bone

However, while some readers fell by the wayside with the shift of scene from Scotland to America, many New Zealanders remain faithful to the books’ hero and heroine, Jamie and Claire Fraser, if the number of holds on the latest book in the series, An Echo in the Bone, is anything to go by (I started out at number 147 and am now number 98). In fact the book is currently number 2 in the NZ Bestseller lists, just behind Dan Brown’s latest offering.

If you are one of the people who has already managed to get their hands on the book, I’d love to hear what you think about it – is it worth me waiting for my hold?

If you are still waiting, or have already read all of the books by Diana Gabaldon and want more reading material along similar lines, you might want to try the suggestions on our If you like Diana Gabaldon page or on the Author Read-alikes on Novelist Plus.

And if you are really keen, why not go see Diana Gabaldon herself at her talk here in Christchurch on 4th November?

Killing Hitler – Changing history and time travel

Making HistoryIf you were a time traveller, what would you do? Besides making a killing on Google shares, maybe go to Austria and kill a soon to be famous resident? The idea of killing Adolf Hitler is one of those things time travellers grapple with.

In the new graphic novel I Killed Adolf Hitler by Jason, a Norwegian cartoonist who mixes “outre fantasy with deadpan romanticism”, the protagonist is hired to go back in time to kill Adolf Hitler via a time machine that takes 50 years to fully charge. He only has one chance, but messes up, allowing Hitler to come to the present day.

Making history by the wonderfully funny Stephen Fry has a similar plotline … what if you could put some contraceptive in the water in an Austrian village and ensure Hitler is never even a glint in his mother’s eye.

I recently read Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine. It is a quick, compulsively readable story about Matt, a MIT student who is working on a calibrator that somehow becomes a time machine. But Matt can only plow forward through history … at an alarming exponential rate. Each time he uses the machine, he leaps ahead 12 times further into the future. It is a clever version of the old time machine malarkey.

See our books on time travel and an earlier posting on Alternate History for more permutations of the old “What if” formula.