Changing the Past – Or Avenging It

Introduction

Avengers Endgame posterI set out to do an analytical essay on Three Theories of Time Travel—until I realized that Larry Niven’s astute and entertaining brief article “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (1971) had already covered those theories pretty well.  (You can find that article in Niven’s All the Myriad Ways, and a couple other locations.)  So I decided instead to comment on how they’re used in Avengers:  Endgame, which seems to invoke at least two and possibly three different theories.

Maybe I’d have been better off sticking with the original plan; this post has turned out to be considerably longer than I’d planned.

Endgame came out on April 26, 2019, and was released on disc August 13, so it’s still new enough at this writing that I should issue a

Spoiler Alert!

I’m not going to address the mechanics of how one might travel into the past—whether via Tipler machines, or wormholes, or simply thinking oneself into the past à la Jack Finney.  (Endgame manages it via what the movies refer to as the “Quantum Realm,” which is completely incoherent in one way but rather fascinating in another—a side issue I won’t go into here.)  I’m interested in what happens if you let causality turn back on itself.  I can think of three main ways of handling the question of changing the past.  Each has its pros and cons, from a storytelling point of view.

“Make It Didn’t Happen”

First, let’s suppose we can change the past (and, by extension, the present and future).  The idea arises because we often wish we could go back and undo something—either our own actions, or the broader course of history.  Niven observes, “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence.”  He goes on to note, “The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”  These twin aspects of the idea generate plot tensions and conflicts immediately, on both a personal and a historical scale, so it’s not surprising they’re so popular.

Back to the Future posterThe most familiar example, of course, is Back to the Future (1985-1990).  In the three movies, Zemeckis played several variations on the idea of making history come out differently.  The cultural reference is so well-known that Marvel was able to riff off it for a comic moment in Endgame.  Scott Lang, the young and relatively naïve Ant-Man, says they’ll be okay if they obey the ‘rules of time travel’ (at about 0:35).  Tony Stark, the all-round genius of the Marvel movies, derides Scott for having gotten his “rules” from BTTF, and proceeds to shoot the notion down as hopelessly unscientific.

And Tony’s right, in the sense that building a theory of time travel purely on the assumptions made in fictional stories is silly.  We don’t know what would happen if it were possible to change the past; we haven’t done it.  That would make time travel really dangerous if it could be attempted in real life.  On the other hand, that same lack of knowledge leaves a wide field open for the fiction writer.  We can make whatever assumptions we like, as long as they’re consistent.  We can imagine that you can only go back in time a certain distance, at a certain geographical location, as in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (1981-84).  We can imagine that the transition requires vast energies, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Technical Error” (1950).  Or we can invoke the imaginary “Pym particles” of Ant-Man lore and time-travel at will.

This first theory of time travel generates the paradoxes we know and love.  We have the “grandfather paradox,” in which an effect removes its own cause.  (I go back in time and kill my grandfather.)  We have what Wikipedia calls the “ontological paradox,” in which an effect becomes its own cause.  (I go back but my grandfather fails to show up, so I marry my grandmother instead and name my son after my dad…)  I talked about these a bit in a 2016 post on the TV series Timeless.

One thing that’s not always obvious is that the idea of changing the past requires a second time dimension.  There’s the familiar one that’s typically represented by a “timeline,” a one-dimensional line ordering events from past to future.  But if someone changes the past, then the old line has to be replaced by a new one:  imagine a second timeline lying next to the first.  Every time a change is made, another timeline gets added.  The set of lines forms a plane, extending through a second dimension, in which each new timeline happens after (in some Pickwickian sense) the last.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense to say that we’d changed history.  Marty can’t rejoice in having “fixed” his family unless the new timeline succeeds the first, just as events along the timeline succeed each other.  Hence, a second time dimension, to accommodate the sequence of timelines.  (This may, or may not, be related to what TV Tropes calls “San Dimas Time,” a reference from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

As a narrative device, the chance to change the past creates suspense.  But it only works if you don’t look too closely.  The author has to stage-manage things carefully so that changes of all sorts don’t start happening in all directions, and this means that time travel must be rare.  If we imagine a period of hundreds or thousands of years, during which people invent time machines every so often and start changing the past, it would become impossible to make sense of what was happening.  Different changes, each with their rippling “butterfly effects,” would take place, one after another—or even at the same, er, time.  (I tried playing around with that idea in an as-yet-unpublished story called Getting to Gettysburg.)  So I’m skeptical about stories based on letting time travel become routine, as in “Time Patrol” scenarios or Asimov’s The End of Eternity.

Avengers Disassemble

Does Endgame, after all Tony’s disclaimers, involve changing the past?  Maybe not; but it’s hard to see how the story can avoid it.

Thanos with Infinity GauntletThe screenwriters chose to set themselves an interesting dilemma that makes the simple time-travel solution (go back and kill Thanos) unusable.  When the time-travel possibility arises, five years have passed since the Snap, in which Thanos killed off half the people in the universe.  Life has gone on.  Tony and Pepper, for example, have an adorable little girl.  But eliminating the Snap would also eliminate Tony’s little daughter Morgan, along with everything else that’s happened since.  That’s unacceptable (at least to Tony).  So the Avengers are not trying to avert the Snap; instead, they want to bring back, in the present time, all those who disintegrated.

The reason they have to go into the past is to retrieve the six Infinity Stones, which Thanos destroyed after the Snap.  The Avengers will need to use the Stones for a Snap of their own to bring back all the people Thanos destroyed.  But in order to avoid changing the past, they will have to put the Stones back in their earlier times after they’ve been used.  This is a clever idea, but it’s going to be really tricky to execute in practice, as we’ll discuss below.

It’s Already Happened

Meanwhile, the business of a second time dimension may make us start to wonder about the whole idea of changing the past.  Maybe we’ve forgotten to take into account the integrity of the original time dimension.  After all, if something happened in the past, it has already happened.  The effects of past events should be baked into the present that follows from them.  If I go back to 1800 and leave a hidden time capsule, let’s say, I should be able to dig it up in 2019.  You might say that the change I wish to make has already taken place.

Kate and Leopold posterBut it follows that if I can find the evidence in the present, then I know the event occurred in the past.  (That’s what “evidence” means.)  If I find the time capsule, I know that it was buried.  This may allow me to predict or “retrodict” my future changes to the past on the basis of what’s known now. If I find the time capsule, I know I’m going to bury it—or someone else will.  A key scene in Kate and Leopold (2001) relies on just such a discovery about a future event that changes the past.  (Have we mixed up the tenses enough yet?)  Bill and Ted makes even more comically inventive use of this aspect.

But on this theory, the event in the past isn’t really a change.  It was always that way.  The time capsule persisted through all the intervening time.  You can’t change the past, because your change is already included in the past we know and thus embedded in the present.  As Niven puts it, “any attempt on the part of a time traveler to change the past has already been made, and is a part of the past.”

This approach deprives us of the fun of changing history, but I rather like it.  It ensures the timeline remains consistent with itself.  In fact, one version of this postulate is referred to as the “Novikov self-consistency principle,” named for Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov.  We avoid grandfather paradoxes:  we already know I didn’t succeed in traveling into the past and killing my grandfather, because here I am.  If I try, something will go wrong.  On the other hand, ontological paradoxes are still allowed, as in Heinlein’s classic novella By His Bootstraps (1941).  In fact, I tend to think of this as ‘Heinlein’s theory of time travel,’ because he used it extensively—not only in Bootstraps and the even more baffling  “—All You Zombies—” (1959), but also in the delightful The Door Into Summer (1957).  Of course, Heinlein’s by no means the only writer using a Novikov-type theory.

One reason I like this type of time travel story is that everything fits neatly together, like a puzzle.  The fun of the story is in seeing how they’ll fit.  In that sense, the enjoyment of you-already-changed-the-past stories resembles that of the Greek tragedies, in which an oracular pronouncement tells what’s going to happen, and the story shows how it happens.  No matter how Oedipus tries to avoid the awful future foretold, he can’t.  The efforts to avoid the predicted outcome may themselves produce it.

In such a tragedy, where time travel isn’t involved (except to the extent the oracle itself is future information acting on the past), the Greek tragedy tends to suggest that the outcome is determined by some kind of Fate, whether we like it or not.  (Niven puts this view under the heading of “determinism.”)  But the Novikov-type theory can also be seen as compatible with free will.  Even actions freely taken, once they are complete, become part of the fabric of history, not subject to further change afterwards—except to the extent that backward causation via time travel is possible, which alters the whole meaning of “afterwards.”

The Door Into Summer, coverA subclass of these stories assumes that the time continuum somehow defends itself against change.  It may automatically “self-heal” to swallow up minor changes, or all changes:  Edison doesn’t invent the light bulb, but someone else does.  Or the time stream may simply be designed so that with “fail-safes” that prevent catastrophic causality failures.  At the end of The Door Into Summer, the engineer hero seems to be speculating in this direction:  if time travel could be used commercially, he thinks,

it will be because the Builder designed the universe that way.  He gave us eyes, two hands, a brain; anything we do with them can’t be a paradox.  He doesn’t need busybodies to “enforce” His laws; they enforce themselves.  (p. 158)

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverIn a modern context, God seems to take over the role of Fate—not by predetermining everything, but by designing the system (i.e., the universe) so nothing can go fatally wrong with causality.  Something similar, I think, lies behind the way the time travel “net” portal functions in Connie Willis’s time travel stories.  If allowing something through the net would create a paradox, the net simply won’t open—which leads to some tortuous reasoning by the characters as to what is keeping the net from openingaat  a particular moment.  Something like Providence seems to be at work.  The only causal loops allowed are what we might call ‘virtuous loops’—those that work out right.

What makes this confusing is that we’re used to analyzing causality by looking at the conditions preceding the effect.  Here, we don’t see the ‘virtuous loop’ conditions being set at any particular point in time.  The conditions have to apply to the continuum as a whole—from outside it, in effect.

You Can’t Avenge the Future

When Tony initially declares Scott’s proposed “time heist” impossible, the remaining Avengers bring in Bruce Banner as a substitute scientific resource.  Banner (who now combines his own brain with the Hulk’s body) does make a nod to the fact that his scientific expertise is primarily in biology, not physics, but the story remains basically true to the comic-book idea that a scientific genius is a genius in every science.  At about 0:59, Banner says something that sounds rather like the Novikov principle we’ve been discussing:  if you kill someone in the past, that doesn’t erase their later selves.  Apparently causality doesn’t propagate down the world lines of already-existing characters to wipe them out when their original causes go away.  On this theory, Marty wouldn’t have had to worry about disappearing even if he couldn’t get his parents back together.

On the other hand, Bruce doesn’t seem to be saying you can’t kill the person in the past; he seems to be saying that if you did kill them, it wouldn’t make any difference.  This may have more to do with what TV Tropes calls “ontological inertia” (see here, but also here).  Bruce’s approach seems to allow for wild inconsistency in the timeline, because I can be alive in 2019 even after being killed in 1971.

The simplest answer may be to conclude that Bruce wasn’t a very good physicist; maybe Tony silently corrected Bruce’s theory when Tony finally did agree to join the party.

Branching Timelines

At some point in SF history, people realized that the whole paradox thing could be avoided by introducing a third theory, the notion of multiple branching timelines.  Niven’s phrase is “multiple time tracks.”  If you change the past, the original future going forward from that point remains unchanged, but a new future comes into existence, branching off to take into account the change.  (The character making the change always seem to end up in the new branch, not the old.)  We can have our cake and eat it too:  one version of me devours the cake, but another, equally real, version of me prudently saves the cake for later.

The multiple-timeline approach gains some headway from the general popularity of alternate-history stories, and some plausibility from the fact that physicists take seriously the suggested “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  It appears to solve the problem of time paradoxes.  However, it runs very close to an assumption that would make it impossible to tell a good story at all.

Stories are about action and choice.  A mere recounting of a series of experiences that happen to someone wouldn’t be much of a story (which is one reason the ending of 2001:  A Space Odyssey is so weak).  James Michener’s introduction to the novel Hawaii (1959), which describes the geological formation of the islands, is only part of a story because it lays the groundwork for what the characters later say and do.

All the Myriad Ways coverIf every possible alternative branched off a new timeline whenever there were options, there would be no point in making a choice, because whichever choice I made, another version of me would make the opposite choice.  Niven captures the problem exactly:

. . . did you ever sweat over a decision?  Think about one that really gave you trouble, because you knew that what you did would affect you for the rest of your life.  Now imagine that for every way you could have jumped, one of you in one universe did jump that way.

Now don’t you feel silly?  Sweating over something so trivial, when you were going to take all the choices anyway.  And if you think that’s silly, consider that one of you still can’t decide . . .  (p. 117)

The title story in All the Myriad Ways explores exactly that issue—what would happen if people really started to believe that all alternatives were equally real.

But suppose we assume that every choice doesn’t spawn alternate universes—just the changes caused by time travel, by backward causality.  That doesn’t destroy all narrative in the way just described.  It just ruins the story you’re trying to tell.  The main characters move heaven and earth to get into the past and make the necessary change.  They succeed!  Whew.  Victory.  —Except that in another universe, the original one, they didn’t succeed.  Somewhere, the sad failures who are Marty McFly’s parents still languish by the TV.  That’s not a really satisfying conclusion.

Alternating Avengers

The multiple-timeline approach certainly comes up in Endgame.  What I can’t make out is whether it prevails in the end, or is averted.

Ancient One and Banner with timeline simulationAt about 1:24 in the movie, Bruce Banner is having a tense conversation with the Ancient One (Dr. Strange’s mentor) about the plan to return the stones to their original places in time.  The idea is that if he takes the Time Stone from the Ancient One at (let’s say) 1:03:12 p.m. on January 31, 2010, and eventually Steve Rogers returns it to her at 1:03:13 p.m. on January 31, 2010, there won’t be a need for a branch to form.  History continues on as it had always been.  (Steve describes his mission concisely at 2:43 in the movie:  “I know.  Clip all the branches.”)  Thus, the timeline of the movie, in which Thanos Snapped half the universe away, and five years later the assembled Avengers brought them back and did away with Thanos, remains the one-and-only timeline.  There’s a helpful description of this procedure in an article from July 2019 (which is also full of spoilers, by the way).

If we leave aside how hard it would have been to put things back exactly as they were, given the butterfly effect—not all the Stone retrievals were as simple as Bruce’s—does this work?  Did the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) come up with a way to manage the dizzying time loops and still save the story?

I’m still not quite sure.  One glaring plot hole, as various people have pointed out, is that we have to account for Thanos himself.  In order to give us a great battle at the end (and what a battle it is!), the movie has Thanos in pre-Snap 2014 discover what’s going to happen and time-travel forward to 2019, where he’s ultimately disintegrated by the Avengers.  He never returns to 2014.  That seems to mean that the disappearance of Thanos did create a branch, since if he vanished from 2014 and never came back, the Snap would never have occurred.

At least that reduces us to two timelines, the one we see in the movie and another where Thanos does not continue to exist after 2014.  And, interestingly enough, the Avengers’ actions saved both of those timelines from the Snap.  The people who lived through the movie timeline experienced the Snap, but the lost people were eventually returned.  Meanwhile, in the new alternate timeline, Thanos never came back, he never got the Infinity Stones, and the Snap never occurred.  That’s not such a bad (dual) ending.

I don’t know.  All these causal loops produce a kind of shell game in which I’m not quite sure how things came out.  Nonetheless, it’s a great movie, if you like the Marvel characters at all.  If you haven’t seen it, you shouldn’t have been reading this (but maybe the circuitous account above will be helpful).  If you have—see it again!  Just don’t try to go back to April to catch the premiere a second time; who knows what that would do to the space-time continuum.

Moon Bases

Widespread Lunacy

There’s a lot happening on the Moon, it seems.  In the last several months I’ve read three different novels about the first lunar colony.  And they really are recent:  all three were published in 2017.  “The world is too much with us,” perhaps—but in any case the Moon seems to be very much with us at the moment.

The stories come from very different points of view.  We talked last time about Andy Weir’s Artemis, which gave us a cynical young woman’s view of a thriving lunar city built on tourism, complete with smugglers, mobsters, and mayhem.  As we saw, Artemis illustrates anything but the clean-cut NASA world of its predecessor The Martian.

Walking on the Sea of Clouds, coverGray Rinehart’s Walking on the Sea of Clouds follows two married couples, Stormie and Frank Pastorelli and Van and Barbara Richards, as they train for places at the first Moon base.  The base is bankrolled by the Asteroid Consortium, multinational venture capitalists whose primary interest is in asteroid mining.  The story revolves around the four main characters—how the lunar venture motivates them and affects their relationships.  So much of the book involves training and preparation that it might be called a “science procedural,” on the model of the “police procedural” that focuses on the methodical work of a police investigation rather than the high-profile antics of private detectives.

Moon Beam, coverOur third sample is Moon Beam, by Travis Taylor & Jody Lynn Nye.  This is a middle-grade (MG) novel whose hero, sixteen-year-old farm girl Barbara Winton, is selected to join a group of brilliant young students under the wing of Dr. Keegan Bright, a Carl Sagan-like science communicator with a popular Webcast and a world-wide following.  Bright and his students happen to be based at Armstrong City, the first moon colony.  Barbara ends up taking the lead in a pathbreaking expedition by the “Bright Sparks” to set up a huge telescope on the far side of the Moon.  The young people must cope with unexpected dangers on the way.  (Unexpected by the characters, that is; readers will of course be primed to anticipate something more than mere routine.)

Common Ground

2001 - A Space Odyssey, monolith on the moonDespite their difference in tone, the three books have a lot in common.  There’s a good deal of serious science in each one, though it properly stays in the background and doesn’t slow down the plot.  The science is solid, too:  none of the stories extrapolates far beyond technologies that we can practice, or reasonably predict, today.  Nobody discovers a monolith left behind by mysterious aliens or discovers any exotic principles of physics (unless one counts the hypothetical “E-M” drive mentioned glancingly in Moon Beam).

The stories also share the assumption that private enterprise will play a leading role in creating these moon colonies.  We saw that Weir’s Artemis is founded by the nation of Kenya, but as a venue for private businesses.  Rinehart’s lunar base is funded by private corporations.  Moon Beam doesn’t pay a lot of attention to how Armstrong City as a whole is operated; we spend almost all our time with Dr. Bright and his teenagers, who essentially constitute a private STEM demonstration project.

Enterprising Venturers

What’s with this rash of lunar narratives?  Why is a permanent home on the Moon on our minds at this particular moment?  Three examples is barely enough for a trend, of course.  But half the fun of these observations is the chance to try out a wild extrapolation and see where it leads.

There was a surprising amount of popular interest in last year’s lunar eclipse—but that doesn’t explain why these books were already in the publishing pipeline for 2017.  That astronomical attentiveness probably shares whatever is the cause of the booming market for moon stories.

Nor is the reason likely to be found in the sporadic statements from NASA or the federal government on the subject.  The last several Administrations have been promising us the Moon, or Mars, on a regular basis, and we’re nowhere nearer either planet(oid) as a result.

Dog howls at moonBut one thing has changed over the last five or ten years.  We have a number of private ventures aiming at space travel, spearheaded by wealthy visionaries like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.  Bezos’ Blue Origin (whose name “refers to the blue planet, Earth, as the point of origin,” according to Wikipedia) and Musk’s SpaceX (whose full name is “Space Exploration Technologies Corporation”) have made significant strides toward actual human spaceflight.  They suggest a new kind of outward path, driven by private enterprise rather than government projects.  That shift dovetails with the United States’ own policy of relying on private companies (or other countries) for launch services in the post-Space Shuttle era:  space as a business venture looks considerably more promising with the government as an anchor tenant.

There’s plenty of science fiction precedent for private trips to the Moon.  The first moon flights are made by private parties in Heinlein’s novella “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (1951) and its juvenile counterpart, Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).  But it was NASA that carried out the real moon flights.

I grew up thinking of NASA as the natural venue for space exploration.  But that was never supposed to be a permanent role.  NASA’s job is to carry out the experimental work that provides the foundation for commercial aeronautics—and astronautics.  Maybe we have arrived at the moment where the venture of expansion into space can be handed off to ordinary business enterprises.  And maybe that’s turning our thoughts toward seeing the Moon as a place to live and work—not just to reach once upon a time.

Strangeness

One of the specialties of science fiction—and to some extent fantasy—is to evoke a sense of strangeness.  In dealing with the alien, the cosmic, that which is far away in space or time, SF can make us feel we are encountering something that passes the limits of our knowledge or understanding.

This isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Used and the Unusual

Since at least the original Star Wars (1977), it’s been good practice to portray a “Used Future.”  Star Wars gave us a world full of beaten-up, grimy equipment that looked as if it had been duct-taped together.  This is generally a good technique.  It adds realism.  We feel at home in a world where everything is not perfectly cleaned and aligned; it’s like where we actually live.  There’s a sense of familiarity.

One opposite to the “used future,” of course, is the kind of earlier SF movie that was full of shiny, spotless spaceships and immaculate gizmos.  But the sense of familiarity also has its own opposite:  the thrill of unfamiliarity.

One way the challenge arises is with extraterrestrials.  Suppose a story has us meeting intelligent aliens.  If they seem just like us—“rubber-forehead aliens”—they won’t be convincing.  We expect something from another world to be different.  The writer or director has to show creatures, technologies, behaviors that are unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth.

Escher: Wallpaper CaveYet these things must also be believable.  Something that simply looks random or arbitrary, like an abstract swirl of colors, won’t convince us we’re seeing a real thing at all.  How do we thread the needle between the too-familiar and the unintelligible?

Just Alien Enough

Natural laws do enforce certain constraints on physical objects.  But other characteristics are a matter of custom, design choices, or aesthetics.  To show something convincingly alien, we need to know the difference.

Alien ship from movie ArrivalSometimes a single feature can be odd enough to alert us that we’re “not in Kansas any more.”  The alien ship that appears in the movie Arrival looks strange at once, because it’s smaller at the bottom than at the top.  It looks as if it’s upside-down or sideways. Not the way we’d build, yes.  But is it physically impossible?  Nope.  The ship isn’t on the ground, balanced implausibly on a narrow end.  It’s floating in the air.  This not only frees the ship from the usual need for wheels or other supports; it also introduces a second, subtler strangeness.  When we humans land somewhere, we expect to land, to set ourselves down securely on a surface.  These folks seem quite comfortable floating just above the ground.

A classic example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  A massive spacecraft—a spinning O’Neill cylinder—enters the solar system, apparently inert.  A human crew matches course to explore it before its hyperbolic orbit takes it out into interstellar space again.  The ship begins to “come alive” around them—but there’s no sign of intelligent life aboard.  The explorers find one strange and amazing feature after another.  The purpose of some becomes clear:  the long, shallow rectangular valleys turn out to be immense lights that illuminate the interior.  But they never find out the reasons for many other objects.  In the end they have to cut loose from the vessel, letting it go on its mysterious way.

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustrationClarke’s mastery of clear detail—how the airlock doors open, for instance—gives us the necessary sense of realism.  But leaving many things mysterious evokes the sense of mystery and wonder that is among the most distinctive experiences in science fiction.  The unfamiliar is clearly and concretely depicted, but the purpose remains obscure.

(Parenthetically, I advise paying no attention at all to the dreadful sequels Gentry Lee wrote to Rama under Clarke’s direction.  They make the classic mistake of erasing the mystery without replacing it with anything at all interesting.  As with certain other sequels, the only thing for a conscientious reader to do is declare them non-canonical and pretend they never happened.)

For another Clarke treatment, remember 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The mundane and even humdrum character of the long space voyage makes the psychedelic sequence at the end feel even weirder than it is in itself.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Extraterrestrials need not be involved.  Distance in time or space, and the concurrent advances in technology, can also provide a good foundation for the sense of strangeness.  (It was, after all, Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Among the numerous virtues of David Brin’s Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising is that sense of entering a new and unaccountable world.  His Earthly spaceship crew of “uplifted” dolphins, with their small group of human companions, use advanced techniques that are still recognizable to us.  But they’re dealing with galactic cultures that draw on hundreds of millions of years of accumulated science.  The results can be mind-boggling.  One species, for example, travels by using a captive creature that creates portals “by the adamant power of its ego—by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.”  This isn’t your grandmother’s hyperdrive.

Toy stack of ringsThe body of another species, the Jophur, consists of a stack of distinct rings, like a child’s toy.  The Brothers of the Ebony Shadows employ a probability weapon that sends out “waves of uncertainty.”  The fact that these species are nonhuman is incidental to the fact that their immense background of far-advanced science lets them use techniques that seem to surpass our understanding.

For a purely human example, let’s look at Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.  (Clarke really had the knack for this sort of thing.)  The main character, who bears the pedestrian name of Alvin, lives in Diaspar, the last city on Earth, billions of years in our future.  The city’s structure does not erode or decay; it’s maintained by “eternity circuits” according to the model held in its master computers.  The people do not die in a conventional sense.  After living for a thousand years, each individual walks back into the Hall of Creation and is dissolved—but is also retained in the memory circuits, to be rematerialized eons later.  Thus the population of the city is always changing, but the individuals continue.  And that’s only the beginning . . .

The City and the Stars, illustration

Exotic Ways of Life

Technology is one thing; behavior is another.  The City and the Stars does a terrific job of imagining how the society of Diaspar is shaped by the extraordinary conditions under which its people live.

When I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, it was billed as ‘military science fiction’—but it’s nothing like the general run of military SF.  The six factions in the story make use of technologies that create real-world effects based on “formations” of people and their consensus beliefs.  Much of the plot revolves around a revolt based on “calendrical heresy”—which is just what it sounds like:  deviation from the standard calendars.  In Lee’s world, calendrical uniformity isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of crucial importance.  The resulting society is correspondingly peculiar.  Reading the story makes you feel as if you’re constantly being knocked sideways.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time combines present-day characters with those living in a city one hundred trillion years in the future.  The far-future people consist of “noötic” or virtual mass, are defended by “reality generators,” and are trying to fight a cosmic entity that’s trying to destroy the universe by disintegrating its history, acting backward through time.  The present-day people in mundane Seattle keep us grounded, but trying to understand the end-of-time characters and what they are doing requires a constant stretching of the imagination.

Strangeness and Wonder

The sense of strangeness or mystery is one form of the “sense of wonder” often used to characterize science fiction.  It takes us out of the mundane, makes us strain to conceive the inconceivable.  We’re often told that world travel expands our horizons by exposing us to different places and cultures.  Science fiction goes further:  it exposes us to ideas and places and people that don’t exist in the world at all.  At its limits, SF seeks to show us more than we can even comprehend.  The lack of reality is compensated by the greater impetus to go beyond our mental limitations.

To achieve that experience, we seem to need the right combination of the familiar and the exotic.  The weird stuff at the end of 2001 isn’t entirely successful, in my view:  it’s too strange.  Not only do we not understand what’s happening; we don’t quite feel there is anything to understand.  You have to read the book to figure out what’s going on.

But when we have enough groundedness to effect the “willing suspension of disbelief,” yet enough mystery to defeat (in part) our attempt to understand, the combination is uniquely fascinating.  As I noted at the beginning, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.  But the payoff makes it worth attempting.

How Large Is Your World?

Perceived distance

A story may tell you it covers vast distances—but the reader’s or viewer’s experience doesn’t always bear that out.

Star Wars, for example, opens with the announcement that we’re in “a galaxy far, far away,” leading us to expect events on an immense galactic scale.  And of course the story does involve travel among numerous star systems.

Yet to me, at least, the Star Wars galaxy feels so small as to be almost cozy.  It never seems to take more than a day or two to get from one planet to another.  (Often the trips are made in X-wing fighters or other ships that don’t even seem to be large enough for a bathroom.)  In The Force Awakens, we even have weapons on one planet targeting other planets, as if they were right next door.  We may be instructed that the beam is traversing vast distances via hyperspace—but there’s no visceral sense of great expanses.

This situation isn’t limited to visual media.  I recently read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, which has been billed as a space opera—a category that suggests vast scope.  Yet almost all the story’s action takes place within a couple of spacecraft or space stations, lending an almost claustrophobic feel to the tale.  On the other hand, the movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey devotes a good deal of time to communicating a sense of the vastness of space.

In contrast to these surprisingly pocket-size space adventures, consider a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings.  To my mind, Tolkien’s epic does suggest great distances and broad landscapes.  But the actual distances involved are infinitesimal on a Star Wars scale.  Middle-Earth is about the same size as western Europe.  The Millennium Falcon could traverse the whole expanse from the Shire to Mordor in seconds (even without hyperdrive).  But Tolkien’s world feels bigger.  By the time we get to the end of it, we feel as if we’ve been on a journey.

Map of Middle-Earth

The same is true of most high fantasies, which at most work on a continental scale, given their technologies.  Paradoxically, the low-tech locales seem to be better at giving us a sense of epic scope.  Why?

Getting there is half the challenge

The most important factor, I think, is travel time.  We experience distances not in terms of their metric size, but in terms of how long it takes for us to cross them.  This is the sense in which technology has “made the world smaller.”

Tolkien’s world seems large because we cross it, with the characters, on foot.  All that walking!  (It’s not for nothing that the Fellowship is sometimes referred to as the “Nine Walkers.”)  This means that it takes weeks to get anywhere.  Frodo and Sam leave the Shire on September 23 and arrive at Mount Doom on March 24, a six-month journey—albeit with some stops along the way.

Strictly speaking, this factor may be time-relative-to-lifespan, rather than days or years directly.  A six-month trip would be brief for the star-traveling characters in Blish’s Cities in Flight stories; they live for centuries.  It bulks much larger in our own lives.

A related factor is difficulty.  A journey may take a long time, not just because our transportation is slow, but also because we have to grapple with trouble on the way.  Even an uneventful sea voyage from, say, England to America in the 1700s might take seven weeks on average.  But the dangers of storms, limited food and water, and being becalmed made the trip more daunting.  One didn’t do it casually.

Oregon Trail game, coverSimilarly, the wagon trains of the American West took the settlers through unknown countries full of dangers and delays.  (Recall that Star Trek was originally sold to studios as a “wagon train to the stars.”)  Even aside from the sheer travel time, these perils made the journey a more formidable challenge.  Anyone remember playing “The Oregon Trail”?  It wasn’t easy to survive the strenuous 2,170-mile trip.

The spice of travel

The wagon-train trek illustrates a third factor.  Variety in the places we pass through also makes a trip more consequential.  An Atlantic crossing might be relatively boring, aside from the weather, if you’re not on the Titanic.  But the different kinds of places we experience on the way—terrains, climates, habitations, cultures—also helps give us a sense of distance, of having come a long way.

To some extent this depends on the unfamiliarity of far places.  If another locale has the same chain stores, the same advertisements, the same customs and fashions, we’ll hardly feel as if we’ve gone anywhere.  Passing through a series of identical places will not give us the sense of transition that we gain from different environments.  But as Tolkien’s heroes traverse the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs, Bree, the Wilderlands, Rivendell, Moria, the Anduin . . .  we feel they’ve really traveled.

This unfamiliarity is itself a function of travel time and difficulty.  If it’s hard to get somewhere, not many people in my area will have been there, or know much about it.  Technology also plays a subtler role here.  If we don’t have the technology for recordings—photos, audio, video—then we are dependent on travelers’ tales, less vivid and less exact.  On the other hand, if we’ve immersed ourselves in the imagery and culture of, say, Japan before we visit, the culture shock will be less.  This is another way advanced technology makes the world smaller.

Star Wars universe mapIn a similar way, the different environments we meet on Star Wars planets do provide some sense of genuine travel—though the fact that each planet seems to have a single climate and terrain makes this variety less effective than it might be.

Taken together, the difficulty and variety factors suggest that the number of incidents on an expedition contribute a lot to our sense of size.  A very long trip may seem trivial if nothing happens.  But a quite brief excursion can seem extensive if it’s packed with important occurrences.

Generation ships, inside and out

The generation ship, of which we’ve spoken before, provides an interesting example of both types of journey.  Externally, such a vessel covers vast distances—and taking generations to make a voyage is certainly one way to make the reader feel the distance involved.  But the voyage typically proceeds with very little external change:  the ship bores on through space, for years on end.  If events within the ship are not described, the reader or viewer may not gain much sense of distance.  If the people on board are in suspended animation, there won’t be much sense of time or distance at all.  In the 2016 movie Passengers, for example, it’s only once something goes wrong that the story begins.  (Once it does, the passage of time for the characters who are awake is a major plot element.)

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustration

Interior of starship from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (staticflickr.com)

On the other hand, internally, the world-ship itself may seem a vast environment to the inhabitants.  This is especially true if events have deprived the inhabitants of any high-tech means of travel from place to place within the ship.  A long journey or quest inside the traveling world may thus be a major plot element, as we saw in The Star Seekers or Non-Stop.  Here, again, it’s essential that the characters encounter different cultures or locales within the ship if the reader is to have a sense of scale.

Epic scope

To create a story with epic scope, as in space opera or high fantasy, it’s useful to keep this size issue in mind.  If you want to write an epic, make sure you give it room to breathe.  If that sense of scale is lacking, our grand, sweeping conflict may come across looking like a mere tempest in a teapot.