Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Time Travel in Wells' Universe

The Time Traveller reconfigures time as “only a kind of Space” (5), and attempts to remove the constraints we assume of linearity and present-ness. In his assessment of time as the fourth dimension (4), the Time Traveller shows an amazing prescience; in his attempts to move through time as easily as one moves through space, he is ultimately thwarted. By this, I am not referring to the motion of the machine, which, if his story is to be believed, works just as intended and reveals the dying sun at the end of the world. Instead, I refer to the form of the book, and of the many books and movies in which time travel is represented.

The Time Traveller notes that “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it” (4). This is not as trivial a problem as he attempts to make it into. Sure, if we accept the Traveller’s claim that “our mental existences…are immaterial and have no dimensions” (6), then moving through time is easy. But we are still limited by our consciousnesses, even as we are not limited by the time on the clock. The way we understand the movement of our consciousnesses from birth to death relies on our understanding of time: otherwise, we might pull a Benjamin Button, or simply live forever. Though he “hope[s] that ultimately he may be able to stop or accelerate his drift along the Time-Dimension, or even turn about and travel the other way” (6), this only refers to the material, dimensional body. The Traveller’s idea of consciousness as the thing which passes through life “with a uniform velocity” (6) ends up dominating, simply because of the form of the novel.

The Time Traveller recounts a story to his guests, a story of his experiences. This story spans four hours (4 o’clock until after 7:30 p.m.), “eight days” (16), or over thirty million years (84), depending on how the reader interprets time. For the audience of his tale, the story materializes in the few hours before dinner. For the Traveller, the story lasts eight turns of the earth. From the point of view of a distant, long-lived observer (since Einstein did show us that there is no such thing as absolute time after all), the story spans millions of years. The only way to reconcile these is from the point of view of the narrator, as the narrator becomes the referential consciousness by which the reader sets their watch. Here, the fact that the frame narrator is not the Time Traveller keeps the passage of time conventional, where an hour is an hour and the events in the future have not/will not happen(ed). The experience of time travel is just a story, told with a beginning, a middle, and an end, as well as a clear progression of events. The Time Traveller uses regular temporal language in his story, speaking of the events in the future as though they were in the past. The experience of reading this book proceeds linearly, tracing a single conscious path through time.

A rough diagram of the Time Traveller's travels. The bottom blue line represents the time of the frame narrative, while the middle green line represents the time of the Eloi and the Morlocks, and the top red line represents the time of the bleeding sun. The purple path represents the Traveller's path through time as one continuous conscious experience (interrupted by sleep). By convention (whose convention?), time moves from left to right. These distinct worldlines make very little sense except as a useful figure.

This is a problem faced by many works that seek to depict time travel. What exactly is time travel, if you are the same person you were a second ago, if the “you” you meet in the future is not actually you but seems to be another distinct person entirely? How can we read time travel if we read linearly? (Or watch, or play, or hear.) We must return to the Traveller’s idea of an immaterial, dimensionless mental construct of identity, one that, regardless of surroundings, continues on its merry way.

The title of this post is an homage to Gott's book, Time Travel in Einstein's Universe.
Also, euurgh formatting issues this time.


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