Monday, April 12, 2010

Hello, I am you

kw: book reviews, science fiction, time travel

Of the half-dozen or so broad genres of time travel novel, each has a characteristic way to deal with the "grandfather paradox": If a time traveler goes back and kills his grandfather as a young man, what happens? Does the time traveler vanish, die, or somehow get diverted and fail? Does time split? In Time Travelers Never Die author Jack McDevitt exercises a temporal censorship principle that causes various levels of misfortune; one intended paradoxer dies, another gets dropped into the ocean far from his intended goal.

This romp through space and time has two friends, Shel and Dave, long on education but perhaps short of common sense, bouncing about history, almost as a coming-of-age pursuit. When time travel devices are I-pod-like Q-pods (the anchor year is 2018), and they are in effect four-dimensional transporters (though they are called "converters" by their creator, Shel's father Michael), gadding about history is a matter of setting coordinates and pushing the GO button. Pushing GO again returns you.

Then again, most places and times you might GO, you'll be in for a series of surprises. A stranger is not very safe in most places, most of the time. You don't want to show up in 15th Century Italy wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, nor dungarees and a polo shirt. And even if you stay in your own country, you'll have an accent. I suspect most modern English speakers would have a rough go of it holding a conversation with Chaucer or Shakespeare. So you need to be a linguist. And if you're Chinese and want to visit the Ming period, good luck! "Mandarin" Chinese is a rather modern compromise of several Beijing-area dialects. And who knows what will happen to modern languages a few hundred years in the future?

Those Q-pods must be very competent devices, considering that there are four motions to account for: Rotation of the earth, earth's 30 km/s motion about the sun, the sun's 240 km/s motion in the Galaxy, and the Galaxy's "cluster streaming" motion of 600 km/s toward the "great attractor" in the Virgo cluster (Oh, is there a fifth? Rotation of the Local Cluster of galaxies, with a velocity I don't know offhand).

Anyway, those quibbles aside, consider your life as Shel. You have a friend, Dave, who is a linguistics professor; you and he are both history buffs; your father has vanished into Time with little notice, but has bequeathed you several Q-pods with instructions to destroy them; and you have plenty of time on your hands…even more so, as you learn to use the devices! By my estimation, during the calendar year that transpires in the book, Shel and Dave live about three or four years.

There can be funny moments, such as when Dave rescues himself from a predicament, which mightily confuses his friend Karen. There are scary moments, though probably fewer than one might expect, particularly when Dave and Shel face down one of the Borgias in about 1490. It is a good thing for them that people were more superstitious in that era.

Having a device at your disposal that gives you almost godlike perspective is bound to change a fellow's attitude. To an extent, the book reminded me of the movie Groundhog Day, in which a reporter is caught in a time loop. He tries various kinds of fun until that palls; he tries killing himself a number of ways; he learns piano; he learns of all the small tragedies in the town and intervenes in most of them; and he eventually accepts his rĂ´le, which leads to his exit from the time loop. Shel and Dave grow up and find peace, each in his own way.

But I do have to say, paraphrasing Enrico Fermi, if time travelers exist, where are they? Maybe they are in those "flying saucers" we keep hearing about, though I've never heard this theory on Late Night AM. I suspect, if travel through time is ever found to be possible, that it is too expensive and consumes too much energy; a personal time travel device is most likely no more probable than a personal starship. A staple rule of Science Fiction for at least the past 90 years is "Whatever technology can create, technology can duplicate". Once Moore's Law produces a personal music player or phone that can calculate a weather forecast (rather than just download it from NOAA), who knows? Maybe you can then download an app for time travel to your phone. My question "where are they?" really means, "I don't think that'll ever happen." But a book like this makes it fun to "what if" about it.

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