“For months now, Rebecca had felt what she could only describe as a certain subtle wrongness – not within herself, but in the world. She found it impossible to place its source, for the fault in the nature of things seemed to reside both everywhere and nowhere. Countless things just felt a little off to her.”
In “Version Control” by Dexter Palmer
A lot of the debate around this book must be surely undermined by the lack of a clear definition of time.
The idea of time 'moving forwards or backwards' is just a metaphor that people adopt because it's easy to identify with physical objects that move and since time is a dimension- a dimension of space-time, the continuum in which everything has its being. Time itself doesn't 'move' or 'pass' any more than length can pass or move. However, everything moves, or occupies a series of different points, in space-time. I also suspect that our perception of time as a progression in one direction, with a remembered past and a future of multiple unrealized possibilities, is a 'fiction' or mental construction that allows us to make sense of cause and effect. If we could imagine a being outside of space-time, whether God, or Vonnegut's Tralfamadoreans, that being would see all those points simultaneously. As we do when we remember someone's life.
You think SF can't be literature? You think there is a procedural difference? This is going down the Delany 'paraliterary' route. I suspect most readers who expressed a preference would say that they are generally rather keen on ideas. In fact, the literary-fiction crowd often use 'the idea is the protagonist' as a stick with which to beat SF. The problem is that the notion of travel comes from movement through space. When we're standing still, and on no conveyance, we are not traveling relative to the world around us (of course, the planet is traveling through space). But in the case of time, when we stand still, we are indeed moving forward at the pace of life in time. So, in that context, time travel must mean more than that standing still movement - it must mean traveling faster than that to the future, or at any speed at all to the past, which does not happen at all in natural life time. One view of time is that is does not actually "pass”, as we experience it, and that there is nothing uniquely real about the present. There is a 21st century and there is a 15th Century, there are lions and there are trilobites. The past or future are not less real because we do not exist in the same plane with them, any more than distant universes, separated from us by the speed of light, are less real because we cannot perceive them. I think it was Einstein who put it that people who understand physics know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stupid illusion. The events, say, in a person's life, can be viewed, not as a cradle to grave time frame, but as continuous arrow that can be narrated in any order. Forwards, backwards, or hopping around like an ant on a chessboard. This view of time is explored in Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five", and a 'backwards' version in Dick's "Counter-Clock World". This kind of time-travel is, I'd argue, consistent with physics; Time cannot 'move' because it doesn't occupy a physical location from which it can move. As Palmer states:
“But in real life, connecting two naturally non-contiguous points in space-time such that a corporeal object can move from one to the other is extremely difficult! And it’s not really moving through time that’s the problem: moving through space is the problem.”
The idea of time travel was first set out by H G Wells but since then, like the internal combustion engine, very little of the idea has changed. We still generally think in terms of a machine or cabinet that propels the passenger backwards or forwards in time. Think for one moment however of the written word used by Mr. Wells to convey this idea. The book was written in 1895 following thoughts happening inside his head. Without the written word, those thoughts would have remained trapped in 1895 unless some form of aural tradition of storytelling had taken it forward. Hence thoughts inside Mr. Wells' head have traveled from 1895 to 2017 and beyond.
There's two basic ways of thinking about time, one is it’s like a film reel, the present is the frame that's currently being illuminated by the projector, the past is the film that's been through the projector and it might conceivably be possible to move back to it, there are two debatable models for the future - the film that hasn't been illuminated yet, one is that it's there on the not yet seen frames just waiting to be illuminated, so one could conceivably travel to them, the other is that those frames are blank and the image is created on them as they're illuminated.
The other time concept is that it's like a (cathode ray tube) TV, the present is the image you see now on the screen but neither the future nor the past has any meaningful existence, an image that was on the screen, the past, is simply gone, and an image that will appear on the screen, the future, doesn't exist yet. The reason you cannot travel back (or forward) in time is because all the matter you are made of will suddenly be the same as matter already existing in the universe.
If you travel to the past before you were born, all the matter you are made of now would have been around in different forms. If you travel to the future after you are dead your matter will be in your ashes, decomposing bones, cells that constantly renew and reform and absorbed into the great cycle. Once that matter is exposed to the same universe the quantum force known as spooky action at a distance comes into effect, it forms a massive feedback loop and annihilates itself. That is why we don't see time travelers in the real world. The reason you cannot travel back (or forward) in time is because all the matter you are made of will suddenly be the same as matter already existing in the universe.
There's more than one way to skin Schrodinger's cat. And Palmer found a way to do it. Who would have thought that tackling Big Data and quantum physics in addition to more mundane subjects like marriage and friendship would produce a novel of this magnitude?
“And yet Rebecca felt that it was hard to tell whether the secret algorithms of Big Data did not so much reveal you to yourself as they tried to dictate to you what you were to be. To accept that the machines knew you better than you knew yourself involved a kind of silent assent: you liked the things Big Data told you were likely to like, and you loved the people it said you were likely to love. To believe entirely in the data entailed a slight diminishment of the self, small but crucial and, perhaps, irreversible.”
Palmer does it also with Einstein-Rosen wormholes, in a way that feels not only thoughtful but new and unreservedly fun. And now when I thought modern SF was going down the drain…
NB: Anyone looking for an explanation as to why we don't see time travelers should seek out John Varley's novel "Millennium". I believe in time travel. It explains why Simon Cowell looks younger every year.
SF = Speculative Fiction.