Our path through time…

I recently read The Time Ships, a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, by Stephen Baxter.

After visiting a different future and witnessing a Dyson Sphere, as blogged about here, we travel back into the past, then back some more, visit an alternative rendition of World War II, then back further into the distant past, I think before the dinosaurs, before travelling back to the future. Then at the end, in a physics textbook-like illustration we travel all the way back to the very beginnings of time and the universe itself, before being deposited back in the main traveller’s original time. Quite a trip.

Each time the time traveller journeys he affects his own time line, causing a kind of butterfly effect and leading him to experience those alternate timelines. This is in a similar fashion to when the Doc and Marty travel into the future, in Back to the Future II, and get their Delorian time machine stolen, along with the Sports Almanac, which are used for nefarious purposes by Biff.

In order to set things right Marty naively suggests he go back into the future, from the alternate 1985 he has found himself in, and stop Biff from doing his dastardly deed. Doc, by means of a chalkboard, explains how that approach would not work because he would be travelling into a different [and unknown] future from that point; instead they needed to travel back into the past to stop old Biff from handing to his younger self that Sports Almanac.

In The Time Ships, in addition to explaining that Dyson Sphere, Baxter employs the concept of (and titles a chapter with) the Many Worlds Interpretation:

“The fundamental idea of the MWI … is that there are myriads of worlds in the Universe in addition to the world we are aware of. In particular, every time a quantum experiment with different possible outcomes is performed, all outcomes are obtained, each in a different world, even if we are only aware of the world with the outcome we have seen. In fact, quantum experiments take place everywhere and very often, not just in physics laboratories: even the irregular blinking of an old fluorescent bulb is a quantum experiment.” – [link]

While Baxter uses his characters to explain and discuss this concept, I couldn’t help thinking back to when I used to watch Sliders, and have since sourced a copy of the DVD boxset.

In this popular TV series of the 1990s, travellers are able to travel to alternate earths and witness (for entertainment effect) realities where traffic lights show green for stop and red for go, the Russians win the cold war, and where Quinn (the genius student who invents the wormhole technology necessary for ‘sliding’) finds his mother has hooked up with the gardener, and his garden gate no longer squeaks. All that, and more, happens in the space of the pilot episode.

Somewhat confusingly, while the author of The Time Ships explains the Many Worlds Interpretation, he doesn’t actually allow his time travellers to skew off into alternate realities, instead they can only travel back and forth along their own timeline, causing changes there along the way.

Where the concept of Many World does play a part is in avoiding a so-called paradox, something that we do witness in Back to the Future in a scene I always thought never really worked, and this is likely for a couple of reasons.

Marty ends up in 1955 and is met by his young mother, Loraine, who becomes smitten with him instead of hooking up with his future father, George, thus causing a paradox. As Marty fails in his attempts to get Loraine and George together we see him begin to fade from existence, because he has prevented his own birth. This fading out only begins as we witness the situation develop to a point of no return, but then all of a sudden, George develops some scrote, and gives Biff a thump, causing Loraine to become necessarily smitten, and thus Marty is saved. The fading out visual effect was one that even the directors later admited in DVD commentary wasn’t employed all that well.

In The Time Ships, Baxter never allows his characters to kill themselves off, or rather, they can but it will only kill off that version of themselves. Indeed, the main character changes the whole course of humanity numerous times, even preventing the existence of the species of his travelling companion of the Morlock.

While I much prefer this many worlds concept, and the ability to avoid time travelling paradoxi, I was frustrated that Baxter and his Morlock refused to accept and employ the possibility of an ability to travel directly into alternate realities, such as done in Sliders. These worlds seemingly exist, but they aren’t part of the traveller’s own timeline, and are thus inaccessible.

What I did glean from the concept of these many worlds though, was a feeling of how we all create our own timelines and reality.

Not only are things happening on a quantum level where things are happening this way and that, and things are weaving all over, but we are also making decisions (assuming what we experience as free will does actually exist), that are directing our own path through life on an ongoing basis. One small decision in this minute could potentially change the course of our entire life, or impact the lives of countless others.

I could, heaven forbid, do something irrevocably harmful to myself. Alternatively I could do something positive, an act that could ripple its way through my entire life, leading me to better health, happiness and unimagined achievements; it could be as simple as eating something healthy, or going outside for some fresh air and exercise, rather than sitting on my backside whilst consuming endless amounts of biscuits and Netflix. Ultimately we all have the ability to direct the way of our life down a positive path, regardless of what things might impede us along the way.


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