Time: The Final Frontier

Time is one element that exists in every story we read, watch, or hear. It is so ubiquitous that we fail to notice its existence, unless the narrative forces us to focus on it. But what about assumptions we make about the nature of Time itself? Assumptions like:

  • Time is linear. We even have a compound word in common usage to reflect this assumption: timeline. The past is irretrievable, the future is unknowable, and once the present has passed, we will never revisit that moment again.
  • Time is uni-directional. Queen Elizabeth I was born a century before Sir Isaac Newton, and there is no way that the opposite will ever be true.
  • Time is a constant. Much the same way a kilogram is a kilogram (or 2.205 pounds), and much the same way a mile is a mile (or 5,280 feet), an hour is an hour, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity aside. If an event happens at 10:01pm and lasts for 60 seconds, then its very measurability makes it a fact.
  • Effects have causes. The widespread famine in Iceland in the 18th century was caused by the 1783 Laki eruption. Plants died from sulphuric acid rains and animals died from skeletal fluorosis after the eruption released these chemicals, not before. (See also: Time is uni-directional).

These are things we simply assume to be true of Time, until a story tells us otherwise. Doctor Who famously describes Time as not linear, but rather ‘a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.’ Interstellar forces its audience to acknowledge that Time is not a constant, and that how quickly it passes can vary between two different points in space. The book series Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, argues that cause and effect are immutable forces of nature, which not even a Time Traveller can affect. The Hugo Award-winning novel Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, has an entire plotline surrounding a little girl who suffers Merlin’s Disease – that is, every day, she grows younger, moving closer to the day she no longer exists because she has not yet been born.
Of course, every work of fiction has a different take on and different rules for how Time works. Both Doctor Who and Outlander star Time Travellers, but the Doctor can bounce around Time at will while Claire can only go between two points: her past-present and her future-present, both of which march forward at the same rate. Both Doctor Strange and Phil Connors (Groundhog Day) get caught in Time loops, but the former can control his loop while the latter has to find a way to escape his. The Terminator’s sole purpose is to go back and eliminate a threat – changing the past to affect the future – while the hapless Sandy and Dennys Murry from Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters essentially float on the surface of events in antediluvian Israel, lacking any real power to change them.
Still other works consider aspects of Time and Time Travel not normally analysed. In Connie Willis’s award-winning Doomsday Book, a PhD candidate from 21st century Oxford spends several years learning Anglo-Saxon, Old French, and Middle English, as she prepares to jump back to the year 1320, only to arrive, incapable of understanding the spoken language at all. James SA Corey’s recent space opera series, The Expanse, considers the difficulties of having space battles when communication between the warships and the Command Headquarters can only travel at the speed of light – the difficulties, in other words, of reality happening at different speeds for the soldiers in the heat of battle and their commanders fifteen light-minutes away.
So what is the purpose of this column? To look at works of science fiction and determine how Time plays a role in them. What assumptions does the audience make? What assumptions do the writers manipulate? What difficulties arise from looking at Time in this universe in this way? How do Time Travellers, like the Doctor and his companions, determine what is Past or Future? What is their go-to starting point? How does memory function for them, if Time is neither constant, nor linear? What language barriers would they run up against in trying to verbalise those memories?
What about disease vectors? Travelling backwards in Time would be arguably safer, since humans today are the by-product of thousands of years of surviving plagues and developing immunities to fairly toxic elements. But what about travelling into the Future, where bacteria and viruses may have evolved a hundred times beyond what the Traveller’s immune system has experienced?
How can one define ‘simultaneity’ in deep space? What are the deeper implications of some films focusing on a preferential experience of Time (such as Groundhog Day, where everyone has to relive the same day repeatedly until Phil Connors figures out how to escape)? How does the recording of a past event (in text or video form, for example) affect the memory of that event and the language surrounding it going forward? What happens if that text or video becomes corrupted, or mistranslated? How does that change the memory, understanding, and discussion of the original event?
Each article in this column will look at some work of science fiction – whether a television show, a book, a graphic novel, or a film – and analyse it for its use (and possible abuse) of Time. We will look at how Time is described, how it is experienced (by both the audience and the protagonist), what rules have been put in place, and how it compares to what we normally assume when we think of ‘Time’ as an entity.
Hopefully, this column will encourage conversations and (friendly) debates, and I am always happy to discuss different interpretations of various works. Most of my philosophical enquiry will be informed by JME McTaggart’s 1908 essay ‘The Unreality of Time’, but this will likely evolve as time goes on.
Or doesn’t.
That’s part of the debate, isn’t it?


  1. Hey, excellent question! I only know the barest bits about quantum entanglement and I cannot for the life of me think of any fiction that deals with such a difficult topic. THAT BEING SAID, the BBC has an article that touches on your question, titled “The strange fate of a person falling into a black hole.” The article links to the academic paper upon which it (the article) is based, if you’re interested, but the Reader’s Digest version is that anyone unlucky enough to fall into a black hole would immediately begin to occupy two realities: one in which an outside observer watches them burn to ash in the black hole’s Hawking radiation, and another in which they live to death, travelling the long, endless road to the black hole’s singularity. Quantum entanglement comes in in that you can’t occupy two spaces at once, so if the outside observer were to want to know which fate of yours is REAL, they might try to set up a way to measure the you THEY see (the you that’s mid-immolation) and the you that they can’t see (the one that’s living to death in the middle of a black hole), and….that’s about where my scientific comprehension hits a wall. The article is very user friendly, though, and can definitely explain things a lot more cogently than I can. You can find it here: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150525-a-black-hole-would-clone-you
    Thank you for reading!!

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