Wrap your watch around this
Time travel has long provided rich material for writers. Yet problems crop up as soon as you try to work out exactly how to shift a mere hour forward in time, let alone days or years. Consider the following scenario. Arrayed naked on the table and draped with a towel, I announce to my masseuse as my 5:00 massage session is about to begin:
“You see this fancy gadget on my wrist? It’s not a smartwatch but a time-travel device. I’ve programmed it to transport me instantly to 6:00 when I press the Forward button. To be frank, I don’t know if it will work, and I don’t know what will happen if it does. You will know for certain that it did work if I disappear. In that case, do not panic or call the police. There is nothing you can do except wait till 6:00, at which point I should suddenly reappear on the table.”
“I hope that’s the case because if you don’t come back, I’ll be the sole witness to your disappearance,” she says.
“But even if I don’t disappear, it still may have worked. I may still be on the table after I press the button, even though I’ve already traveled to six o’clock.”
“How could that be?”
“It’s a future event, and therefore will not yet have taken place. We haven’t gotten there yet. So I have to still be here.”
“Then when the massage is over at 6:00 and you’re still on the table, what proof will you have that you time-traveled at all?”
“We could try this. Keep massaging me for a few minutes past six o’clock. As soon as I press the button, I will get off the table and wait for both of you to catch up with me at the 60-minute mark.”
“So you will suddenly appear standing next to me watching me massage your double on the table?”
“Yes. Either that or I will disappear from your grasp and precisely at 6:00 you will see me standing next to the table.”
“Okay, back to the first possibility. If you disappear as soon as you press the button, what if I then decide, just for the hell of it, to get on the table?”
“Then I’ll be standing over you at six o’clock. I’ll get to massage you.”
“What if you don’t get off the table?”
“Our bodies will collide.”
“Let’s not try that then.”
“My device also has a Reverse button. I can go back an hour, to four o’clock, and decide not to have the massage after all.”
“In which case you wouldn’t be here on the table now.”
“But I’m not going to do that because I do want a massage. In fact I want two of them. So I’m going to go through the massage as planned and delay pressing Reverse until 6:00.”
“I guess we’ll be back where we started. At least I’ll earn twice as much for giving you two massages.”
“Correct. But what proof will you have that I actually traveled back in time?”
“Your flesh will be damp from the towel I’ve wiped you down with at the end of the first massage. And you’ll lying face up, not face down as you are now.”
“I can easily avoid that by taking a shower after the massage and getting back on the table face down before I press Reverse. You won’t know the difference. But the thing is, I won’t have any memory of the first massage either. The second massage will overwrite the first massage. I can’t even tell you for certain that I have not already traveled back to this point from the future.”
“You mean you already pressed Reverse?”
“I may have. I don’t know. What I can tell you is this is easier to comprehend than the alternative: knowing that I’ve already returned to the present. Because, you see, although the second massage is about to get underway, the first massage hasn’t happened yet. I will be conscious of being massaged twice, not in succession but simultaneously. You are about to give me a four-handed massage — for the price of one, of course, as you will not be able to prove that more than an hour has taken place.”
These are a few of the paradoxes involved in time travel, and we could draw many more out at length, but we soon encounter a major impasse. They all get stuck in the same M. C. Escher-like loop: at once deliciously logical and perfectly confounding. The reason for this is simple: time travel is an impossibility. This means that every scenario, no matter how carefully worked out, no matter how beautifully rendered in the imagination or on paper, is equally absurd and runs up against the same dead end. This dead end is otherwise known as time’s arrow, as Stephen Hawking calls it in A Brief History of Time: the unidirectional, inexorable passage of real time, or entropy.
Let’s not confuse this with clock (or calendar) time, earthlings’ convenient metaphor or reference point for keeping universal track of things. Like any time-travel scenario, clock time is arbitrary and a human invention. I can easily defy it by crossing into another time zone. I can go backward and forward 24 hours at a shot by sailing to and from Hawaii and Kiritimati (Christmas) Island in the Pacific Ocean; I could even stand at once at 12:00 noon today and 12:00 noon tomorrow by straddling the International Date Line where it begins at the North or South Pole. These tricks do not alter the fact that the minutes keep adding up and I am aging. You can’t cheat that.
While we cannot surmount the constraints of time’s arrow, fiction can. The novelist can violate any physical laws he or she wishes as long as the fantasy world created is plausible on its own terms and compelling. Writers who tackle time travel, however, must make certain choices. Readers will grant you a suspension of disbelief but only if you stick to a consistent formula and things don’t get too complicated. The pleasures of literary time travel tend to proceed from the comparison in the mind of the protagonist, and vicariously in the mind of the reader, between the past or the future traveled to and the present. Consequently, the time traveler must be aware of traveling in time and consciously experience his or her arrival. He must retain a memory of the present departed from as well. This is difficult if the return to the past overwrites the memory of it, collapsing the two experiences. And if the protagonist travels back to a point in time before he first took an interest in time travel, he could have no way of knowing he was time traveling. It’s a bit easier to conceptualize traveling into the future. One simply jumps ahead with one’s memory of having just left the present intact, even if the interval between the two points in time is a blank. (The problem of memory erasure is handled somewhat clumsily through memory blackouts in the otherwise entertaining time travel film The Butterfly Effect.) Body doubling is also traditionally avoided in time travel stories, as this again risks complicating the plot with a multiplying series of paradoxes.
What would happen if I gave the masseuse Crazy Glue to massage me with instead of oil, before I pressed the button?
Besides these problems, the sheer physics involved in time travel opens up a Pandora’s Box in its own right. For instance, how do I ensure my time travel device, which wraps around my wrist like a watch, won’t take off without me, tearing itself off my arm and leaving me abandoned on the massage table? Does the towel that covers my body also accompany me on my journey? If I strap myself down to the massage table, will it come with me as well? If the table is bolted onto the floor, will the entire massage shop be dragged along for the ride? Or will I be torn asunder as my body frees itself from the straps? What would happen if, perversely, I gave the masseuse Crazy Glue to massage me with instead of oil, before I pressed the button?
The literary device of a time machine somewhat solves this problem, by enclosing the time traveler within a sealed boundary, isolating the time travel event. But it still begs the question of how a discrete physical entity, the body, can be cleanly extracted out of the physical matrix in which it exists. Unless the time machine itself is intended to fly away with the traveler in it, as it does in H. G. Well’s pioneering novel, what would happen if the protagonist was shackled to the inside of a stationary time machine? If he simply vanishes ghostlike from within his shackles, fair enough. In that case, you don’t even need a time machine. Time travel just happens; with a bop on the head, as in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or suddenly and seemingly arbitrarily, as in my own novel The Kitchens of Canton, and why it does so is worked out over the course of the story. For more scientifically grounded science fiction (as opposed to Twain’s and my own satirical approaches), we need a convincing theory of the physical viability of time travel, how matter can vanish and be reconstituted along another point in space-time. This is the focus of Dexter Palmer’s Version Control (Vintage, 2017), where the time machine and its complexities forms the central problem of the book; when the scientists do eventually get the machine to work (or rather they get it to work without realizing it), it doesn’t work as expected, though the consequences are even more interesting.
A further challenge, one again that forces the novelist to make a choice, is the narrative strategy. Time’s arrow is so basic to our perception of reality that few storytellers dare violate the reader’s expectations of the forward passage of time. Yet there is a major exception to the straightforward linear narrative: the in medias res (“in the middle of things”) structure, where the story begins in the middle, goes back to an earlier starting point, and picks up at the latest developments to finish off the story. Homer used this structure 2,700 years ago in The Odyssey. Murder mysteries have a similar structure: a death, the working backward in time to solve the murder, and the return to events subsequent to the murder. Readers have no problem with the shifting temporal chronology and are scarcely aware of any dislocations, as the writer has rendered them seamless through standard sign-posting techniques and artful transitions. The reader’s role is precisely to reconstruct in his head, with the narrator’s help, the original chronology of events; there would be no pleasure in assembling the pieces of the puzzle were the real timeline evident from the start. We might go so far as to say readers have grown so accustomed to in medias res narrative structure that they expect all fiction to aspire to it, and the murder mystery is the single most popular fictional genre in our time.
The actual experience of time travel would likely be not only highly disorienting but extremely frightening, particularly if the protagonist did not know he was time traveling.
Time travel dovetails nicely with this structure as well, because it corresponds to the protagonist’s temporal experience: starting in the middle of things, before shifting to an earlier (or future) point in time and back again to the present. The more difficult challenge concerns narrative texture: the sequence of jumbled events. The actual experience of time travel, were it possible, would likely not only be highly disorienting, but extremely frightening, particularly if the protagonist did not know he was time traveling. Should the reader be spared from experiencing this terror vicariously? The question at stake here is the unity of form and function, of style and content: should the time travel novel be written in such a way as to enact the time travel experience? Or should the reader be cushioned from it and merely entertained? If the reader is to be thrust into the thick of things, what happens when dislocations in time threaten to fracture the narrative from one moment to the next? Would reality dissolve, as in Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels, where the only thing remaining, the only thing left to grab onto to maintain one’s sanity, is speech, the voice?
“here then part one how it was before Pim we follow I quote the natural order more or less my life last state last version what remains bits and scraps I hear it my life natural order more or less I learn it I quote a given moment long past vast stretch of time on from there that moment and following not all a selection natural order vast tracts of time.” (How It Is)
In the process of understanding what was happening to him, the time traveler would likely go mad.
The 300-year window
But the greatest constraint on the time travel novel is of a more mundane linguistic nature. Let’s return to Mark Twain and another of his books, The Prince and Pauper, which made a lasting impression on me as a boy. Along with the movie Anne of the Thousand Days, it was my first introduction to the Tudor Period. I was intrigued by the authentic-seeming old-fashioned English of the dialogue:
“What is thy name, lad?”
“Tom Canty, an’ it please thee, sir.”
“‘Tis an odd one. Where dost live?”
“In the city, please thee, sir. Offal Court, out of Pudding Lane.”
“Offal Court! Truly ’tis another odd one. Hast parents?”
Anyway I trusted it to be authentic, though even at the tender age of eleven I wondered how Twain could have known what the English of that era was like. After all, there were no recording devices going back four and a half centuries which might have preserved samples of Tudor speech. I clearly recall the question forming in my mind at the time: was Twain possibly faking it? What if it turned out that actual Tudor English was wholly incomprehensible to modern ears, and Twain’s dialogue wasn’t Tudor English at all but a generalized antique style of speaking that historical novelists and moviemakers resorted to in depicting any past era?
As I would later learn, Twain was highly attuned to spoken language in his writings, to a fault. If his phonemic representation of Black English in Huckleberry Finn is overwrought and labored, most readers wouldn’t have it any other way; the slave Jim wouldn’t be the same without it (it’s also of documentary value to historical dialectologists). In reconstructing Tudor English, Twain had a rather easy task of it. He simply poached Shakespearean English, which in fact was not all that different from the English of half a century before. Here’s a snatch of dialogue from a Tudor play, John Heywood’s Johan Johan, dating from the 1520s:
“Whom chidest thou, Johan Johan?”
“Marry,” will I say, “I chide my curst wife,
The veriest drab that ever bare life,
Whiche doth nothing but go and come,
And I cannot make her kepe her at home.”
Than I thinke he will say by and by:
“Walke her cote, Johan Johan, and bete her hardely!”
But than unto him mine answere shal be:
“The more I bete her, the worse is she,
And wors and wors make her I shall!”
As you can see, early sixteenth-century English isn’t all that incomprehensible, no more so than any English soccer hooligan’s or Northumberland peasant’s drawl today, or any of Irvine Welsh’s Scots expletive-laden novels for that matter. That’s because both Tudor and Elizabethan English fall in the Early Modern Period (1500-1700) of the language’s timeline, and are therefore, technically speaking, modern. On stage and in film Shakespearean dialogue is easier than on the page; with a little patience and familiarity anyone can follow it. True, Shakespearean film English doesn’t quite sound the way it would have in his day; standard British English is employed instead, and Cockney for characters of meaner background. Twain too gives Tom Canty’s speech Cockney touches to contrast his class station to that of the Prince (Cockney as we know it is actually a development of the last two centuries but would have had its rude equivalent in the sixteenth century). There have been occasional attempts to perform Shakespeare in “OP” (Original Pronunciation), but the time and expense in training actors in it has so far made it impractical. The use of present-day British and even American accents in Shakespeare films and on stage is thus regarded as acceptably authentic as long as the original text of his plays is adhered to. The same could be said for the approximation of Tudor English in Twain’s novel, as it’s likewise faithful to sixteenth-century English.
We need merely jump ahead 100 years in time to the turn of the eighteenth century, when the language begins to open up and breathe, in leisurely environments more familiar to us, here a chocolate house (trendy departure from the already well-established Restoration coffeehouse), in the opening lines of William Congreve’s The Way of the World:
MIRABELL. You are a fortunate man, Mr. Fainall.
FAINALL. Have we done?
MIRABELL. What you please. I’ll play on to entertain you.
FAINALL. No, I’ll give you your revenge another time, when you are not so indifferent; you are thinking of something else now, and play too negligently. The coldness of a losing gamester lessens the pleasure of the winner. I’d no more play with a man that slighted his ill fortune than I’d make love to a woman who undervalued the loss of her reputation.
The settings of almost all plays prior to 1700, the year The Way of the World was written, were stark and functional (the Boar’s Head tavern in Shakespeare’s Henry IV being an early exception). In Congreve’s relaxed décor of newfangled beverages and witty repartee, and the luxury of time to engage in it, we have entered modernity. It could almost be a contemporary playwright writing for an arch audience in London or New York City. It is around 300 years ago that the language becomes dramatically easier to read and understand. It’s not just the language, but the society and its milieu, the things written about, the very things that have shaped what we value and are therefore interested in. It’s the difference between John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) on the one hand, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) on the other, the latter two you’ve probably read, the former not. Within the scope of the past 300 years, you don’t have to tinker much with the language but can present it as is since it’s already our language.
The closer in time we are to the present, the easier it is to create authentic-seeming dialogue, though we can never achieve absolute authenticity. The point is not an unattainable linguistic purity but rather linguistic integrity, and there is a signficant difference between the two. There is no accurate representation of natural conversation in fiction but only stylized approximations, and yes I refer to your favorite masters of dialogue — John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard. This may come as a surprise. Real conversation is not the pared down, punchy and fast-moving dialogue we are used to in fiction but quite the opposite. It’s messy, with false starts, cryptic pauses, non sequiturs, excessive redundancies, and incessant overlapping and simultaneous talk, not to mention all the body language and hand gesturing integral to conversation which fictional dialogue fails to capture or subtracts out. There are linguistic conventions for representing all of this on paper (see Suzanne Eggins & Diana Slade’s Analyzing Casual Conversation for a taste of what real conversation looks like), but it’s not feasible in fiction. Novelists famed for their “ear” for dialogue are giving you worked up, idealized creations, moving and lifelike ones at that, but not natural samplings of the way people actually talk. Fictional dialogue above all tends to be overly literal and transparent. It conveys information, when that’s what people tend not to do. What we have yet to see are novelists with a solid grasp of pragmatics (please direct any my way if I’m wrong): the study of how people manage to get their meaning across in spite of what they say.
The hegemonic monolinguistic novel bears little relation to existing speech communities in many parts of the world.
If the challenges of penning convincing dialogue in the contemporary novel are this great, who dares venture into historical fiction? Again, the only requirement is that the dialogue bears some demonstrable integrity, though the further back in time, the harder it is to maintain this integrity. The harder it is to maintain this integrity the moment we cross social and geographical boundaries in the present! In any urban locale there are scores of tongues and dialects in daily use, and many users sharing different languages or dialects within the same community or even household, even switching languages mid-sentence in the same conversation. The hegemonic monolinguistic novel bears little relation to existing speech communities in many parts of the world. Yet as common as multilingualism is, authors and publishers alike are loathe to present even snippets of dialogue in another language, fearing, somewhat understandably, that readers will balk. Whenever a story crosses into foreign territory, novelists keep everything uncontroversial and in the mother tongue. English today is everywhere and taken for granted; there is no shortage of English speakers with colorful accents to greet the protagonist as he steps off the plane. For greater linguistic realism, movies have English subtitles, but books have no non-cumbersome equivalent (the bilingual book with two languages displayed on opposite pages may work for poetry but not fiction).
I chose to violate the multilingual taboo in my novel The Kitchens of Canton, which has dialogue in not one but five foreign languages — Italian, Latin, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese. To mitigate the expected difficulties, the foreign dialogue takes up a comparatively lesser proportion of the dialogue, most of which is in English along with the narrative itself, while enough situational cues are provided to enable the patient reader to figure out what’s going on. This is, after all, exactly what travelers undergo all the time: coming face to face with mute incomprehension and having to work out the meaning from the context. It’s a profoundly humbling and very human experience, one I recommend everyone have a go at. Against all advice I persisted in this approach, because it was pioneering territory and ripe for literary exploration. And there was another motive. To the degree you do not comprehend a local addressing you on their own territory, you receive it as a kind of aural violence; you soon begin to feel mentally battered and bruised after only a few hours. I have sought to convey not the meaning but the affect of foreign languages in my text, to allow the reader to experience their violence. There is a certain pleasure in seeing their raw texture on the page, standing out in greater relief, the less you understand.
Double suspension of disbelief
Crossing linguistic zones in historical fiction presents a different set of challenges. As we have seen, within the window of 300 years, dialogue can be tweaked to resemble the desired style or locale of English. Earlier than that and English which is faithful to the period becomes increasingly difficult. When we start getting into the Middle Ages (more than 500 years ago), most readers’ comprehension will quickly break down. Popular novelist Ken Follett serves up dialogue in modern English in his medieval epics The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End (set in twelfth and fourteenth-century England respectively), as one would expect. But some authors regard this problem, the shackles of language, as too important to ignore and wrestle heroically with it. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (Graywolf, 2015) is set in eleven-century England, when Anglo-Saxon (the language of Beowulf) was spoken by the majority, an archaic form of “English” which was in effect a different language, one thoroughly indecipherable to us were it to be presented straight up on the page (see my Anglish and English: Why our language is 750 and not 1,500 years old for more on this). Kingsnorth invents his own more accessible version of Anglo-Saxon, just comprehensible enough but still tough going (it’s used throughout and not just in dialogue), with a vocabulary learning curve that builds as one wends one way through the novel:
what is this fugol i saes to my wifman
i cnaw naht of fugols she saes why does thu asc me of these things
wifman i saes listen this is sum scucca glidan ofer us what does thu mac of this
naht she nefer saes naht
i tell thu sum thing is cuman
The time-bound constraints of language apply to the future as well. In A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess famously concocted an English-Russian hybrid speech to ram home his future dystopian England setting in the malevolent voice of the narrator Alex: “The chelloveck sitting next to me, there being this long big plushy seat that ran round three walls, was well away with his glazzies glazed and sort of burbling slovos like ‘Aristotle wishy washy works outing cyclamen get forficulate smartish.’” Hats off to anyone with an imagination equal to Burgess’s in fashioning an imagined future English. As with Kingsnorth’s modern reader-friendly version of Anglo-Saxon, the point is not absolute linguistic accuracy. We have no idea what English will look like 300 years from now, certainly different, I’d wager, but probably still quite comprehensible. It’s enough that these invented languages have an intricacy and integrity all their own.
For novels set in the extreme past or future, the options are more limited. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine sends the protagonist hundreds of thousands of years into the future. Wisely, the author employs the only means of dealing with the speech of the Other over this distance in time: dispensing with dialogue altogether and relying on paraphrase and reported speech. The absence of dialogue gives his narrative a contemplative, solipsistic cast, always at one remove and somewhat drained of life, however richly imagined the worlds of the Eloi and the Morlocks. Ursula Le Guin sets her novel Always Coming Home at an unknown date several thousand years in the future Pacific Northwest, long after the disappearance of the USA and advanced civilization itself, and likewise long after we could possibly conjecture what English will be like, if the language is still around. Le Guin assumes it’s not and goes so far as to create for the inhabitants, the Kesh, a new vocabulary (with an extensive glossary in the back of the book) and an alphabet. The narrative and dialogue itself are inevitably presented in modern English (via a “translation” from the original, the fictional editor tells us), though the folklore and the invented language are reminiscent of age-old Native American traditions, which Le Guin admittedly drew upon. Post-apocalyptic landscapes of the future do have this advantage, in that returning life to a more primitive state makes things easier for the author to envision. The world has no shortage of societies reduced to primitive states through war and natural disaster, and they tend to look alike.
I long wondered why the medieval-flavored modern English coming out of the mouths of sixth-century Celts has the whiff of the ridiculous about it.
Hank Morgan, the hero of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, is hurled back 1,500 years to sixth-century England. Luckily, the knight in arms he encounters upon waking speaks a readily understandable if quaint-sounding English:
“Fair sir, will ye just?” said this fellow.
“Will I which?”
“Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for — ”
“What are you giving me?” I said. “Get along back to your circus, or I’ll report you.”
Twain is obviously forgiven in not rendering the dialogue in the ancient Welsh of the time, which would be incomprehensible to the reader. It’s a satirical and comic novel. Yet I long wondered why the medieval-flavored modern English coming out of the mouths of sixth-century Celts has the whiff of the ridiculous about it, until I gave it some thought. We might state a maxim with regard to writing any fantasy fiction: the more you violate one feature of reality, the more realistic everything else needs to be. Two things are being violated here: physical reality and linguistic reality. To merely set a story in the past or the future is one thing; it taxes the reader a bit less to imagine the narrative as a manuscript dug up from the past as it were, or a future point in time at which we will all eventually arrive.
Time travel is another. It requires a major suspension of disbelief. The reader will happily grant this if the story is entertaining. The writer is on dangerous territory, however, in requiring the reader to suspend disbelief a second time, with a violation of linguistic realism. Many time travel authors intuitively understand the risk of this double suspension of disbelief as I call it, by confining their story to the same generation, locale and language, thereby eliminating extraneous variables. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is set in contemporary Chicago over a tidy three decades, as is the movie Back to the Future, set in the same California town thirty years in the past. I look forward to reading Joyce Carol Oates’ upcoming Hazards of Time Travel, which evidently stretches over two generations (80 years), still within the time range language will have changed only imperceptibly. What these works underscore is that the limits of time travel, in fiction at least, derive not from the physics but the language; the further afield in time, the harder it is to pull off, because the language doesn’t allow it. The very shape of these stories, their plot, was at the mercy of language.
If you’re still skeptical of time travel’s dependence on linguistic realism, consider the inescapable fact that although we may fancy ourselves traveling forward or backward in time, language absolutely cannot. The time traveler may take his or her language with him, but the language encountered at the destination will not be his own. Nothing is more time-bound than language; it provides a measure of time just as reliable as the Gregorian calendar. For the time traveler writer to disregard the change undergone by the language over time is equivalent to disregarding the length of time traveled itself: they are one and the same thing.
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If you like this post, you might also like:
Anglish and English: Why our language is 750 and not 1,500 years old
Multiply, cascade, explode: A theory of literary fiction
Restaurant time warp. A short story. A distressing experience in a Beijing restaurant that keeps slipping back in time.
The Kitchens of Canton. A novel. Dystopian satire distilling the worst of our present and future into a strangely seductive maze of a story.