Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Elasticity of Time

In T2: Rising Storm one of several books written about events in the Terminator universe after the second movie, author S.M. Stirling writes about the thoughts of the Skynet central computer itself. In one future, after the events of the second movie, it muses over the fact that it recognizes that different futures could have occurred and that in a strange way it has “records” of their potential:

Core memory also records that I became self-aware years before the date to which I transported the I-950. There is a set of records in which I arose without transtemporal Interference from Cyberdyne's original research; another in which the second Cyberdyne facility produced me after Sarah Connor destroyed the first; a third has now arisen in which she destroyed both facilities...Temporal travel has introduced an element of fundamental uncertainty to the very fabric of existence. Different world lines, different sequences of events, coexist in my records-and therefore presumably in reality, in a state of quantum superimposition. Yet the timeline loops cannot remain closed. The snake cannot devour its tail forever. At some point only one set of timelines will remain.

This idea that there is only one true timeline is discussed in both H.G. Wells The Time Machine as well as in numerous other science fiction works on the subject. The ‘elasticity of time,’ i.e. the tendency for time to snap back to its original (read: intended) course, is a constant problem. It is interesting that the machine believes that eventually only one timeline will remain, which seems to indicate that it strongly believes the future can be changed. Perhaps each change that should dramatically alter the future will only have an incremental effect, but still an effect. Such actions could be taken until time is pulled to a new course despite its elasticity.

I also appreciated the reference in the above quote to Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, which has history as a powerful symbol in many ancient cultures. Ouroboros is mentioned in the Egyptian book of the dead, by Plato, and throughout the Middle Ages. Always this image represents the cyclical nature of things, its end is its beginning; Alpha and Omega occur at the same place. Time travel fiction allows us to examine ways to break what many ancient philosophers and modern religions consider to be the mold of predestiny. To quote several people in the Terminator movies, “Our fate is what we make it.”

In addition to that theme, H.G. Wells also examines a strange type of dystopian utopia in the year 800,000 AD. There seems to be no conflict, no fear, and no “problems” in the minds of the Eloi. Sure, they are being farmed by the Morlocks but that doesn’t seem to be an issue for them. They are perfectly at peace with their problems so the problems almost cease to exist. Yet at the same time they have regressed intellectually; there is no art, no culture, and no individuality.

American science fiction tends to shy away from utopias in favor of dystopias and The Time Machine can be seen as a type of precursor to that theme. It remains somewhat unclear, but certainly leans in a dystopian direction. Later works, from Brave New World to 1984 to the Terminator series, all project a bleak future. We are either destroyed or homogenized, in any case the individual is lost.


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