Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Continuing The Time Patrol Series?

Poul Anderson's Time Patrol series has a futuristic hard sf premise:

time travel will be discovered in the galactic era of 19352 AD;
time travelers from then and later regularly visit earlier centuries.

Despite the futurity of the premise, the convention is quickly established that each story is set in a different period of our past. Even if every new author were to accept this convention, the setting for their stories would still be all of history and prehistory. But there are also over a million years of future history followed by the mystery of our evolutionary descendants, the Danellians. Also, new authors might find new slants on the time travel paradoxes.

What must be avoided is any blatant inconsistency in presenting the paradoxes. I think that Anderson does commit some inconsistencies but he conceals them skilfully. Logic is no different in time travel narratives than in linear narratives. However, disrupting chronological relationships confuses readers about logical relationships.

Logic, contra Mr Spock, is not absence of emotion but the kind of consistency between propositions without which we would not succeed in saying anything. Thus, everyone accepts logic without necessarily recognizing it as such. Everyone accepts that, if he contradicts himself in conversation, whether through a slip of the tongue, lapse of memory etc, then he should correct the contradiction. No one says, "Yes, I began my talk on Greek philosophy by stating that Socrates was executed in 399 BC and I ended this same talk by stating that Socrates was executed in 299 BC. I recognize that these statements are contradictory. However, I transcend logic. Therefore, I am not bound by the rules of logic." And, if anyone did say such a thing, then he would not succeed in telling us when Socrates was executed. In this sense of verbal consistency, it is perfectly logical to respond, e.g., with fear when threatened. The fact that fear is an emotion does not invalidate the logical connection between, e.g., seeing and avoiding a threat.

There is a perfect example in the works of another author. Ian Fleming tells us:

(i) in Casino Royale, that James Bond worked for British Intelligence before the War;
(ii) in You Only Live Twice, that Bond joined the Navy, and thus Intelligence, only during the War and then only by lying about his age.

(ii) contradicts (i). It is possible, and is the case, that both statements are made but it is impossible that both are true. There are at least three possibilities:

Fleming forgot what he had written earlier;
he remembered but did not care - "It's only fiction!";
he did explain the contradiction - You Only Live Twice also states that a former colleague and friend of Commander Bond had written several inaccurate popular accounts of his exploits. Thus, all previous volumes can be retroactively reclassified as fictions within the fiction.

But, whether the contradiction is unnoticed, downplayed or explained, it remains a contradiction: (i) and (ii) remain incompatible.

What does this have to do with time travel? Everything. A time travel narrative is more complicated but should be no less consistent. There are two scenarios: time travelers either can or cannot "change the past." When Anderson writes a "cannot" scenario, then his narratives are fully consistent. It is the "can" scenario that implies contradiction: an event occurred but a time traveler prevents it, therefore it did not occur. However, there is no contradiction between saying that the event occurred in timeline 1 and that it was prevented in timeline 2.

There is another possible explanation of the time traveler's experience: there is a single timeline in which the time traveler prevents the event so it does not occur and his memories of it are spurious. Anderson's Time Patrol series is ambiguous between many successive timelines and a single discontinuous timeline.

Anyone who writes additional Time Patrol stories must at least capture the subtlety of what Anderson does write about causality violations and also, hopefully, elucidate it further.  

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