I have always been interested in time travel. My earliest memories include not just watching men in bulky white suits bouncing around on the Moon, but also Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who, battling Cybermen. I understood, even as a very little kid, that he could travel in time as well as through space. How I could understand, I do not know. It seems like an advanced concept to me now. Though I have written about fictional time travel many times (most successfully in my books about beleaguered time machine repair man Spider Webb, starting with TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT), I have no real grasp of how it might in fact happen, what it might look like, how it might feel, or anything. I’ve read lots of popular science books, and I can just about wrap my brain around the ideas of “closed timelike curves”, and the distinction between “timelike” and “spacelike”, but as I am lacking a grasp of the fundamentals of physics, I’m stuck. I tend to think of my time travel books as fantasy books more than science fiction because, for all that they go on about quantum this and nano-that, it’s plainly obvious that the stories run on magic. I need time travel to work to make the stories go, so here it is, working. And, oh look, here it is not working, hence the need for a repair guy.
I think about time and time travel a lot. I stand in places and imagine time passing. I imagine what it would be like to spend twenty-four hours in just one spot, watching time pass. I visit the same spot every day for several days, just to see how it’s different each time, how the passage of time has changed it. I think about car accidents, where but for a matter of seconds, or even split-seconds, everything would be different. If person A had done something just a moment earlier or later, how everything would turn out differently. Single moments when gigantic consequences pivot about like bank vault doors.
I have often thought about time travelling into my own past, generally with the intent of giving my gormless younger selves a kick in the arse. For one thing I would attempt to persuade my teenage, writing-mad self that he should allow for the possibility that there might be more opportunities in mainstream or literary writing than in science fiction, that he could do both, and perhaps introduce him to the work of Scottish writer Iain Banks, who wrote excellent mainstream novels, but who, writing as Iain M. Banks, wrote dazzling works of science fiction.
I have often thought, too, about my life, about my memories, the residue of what I’ve experienced, and it has often been dismaying how little remains, or seems to remain, from what I was pretty sure were rich and complex experiences. Why is there not more to show for all of that? Why am I left with these lousy snapshots? What do I do with these? When I think about these fragmentary bits and pieces, they often resemble, to me at least, fragments of film, or maybe very old snapshots (like the photos I remember from the 1940s-1960s, tiny things, smaller than a playing card, often black and white), random detritus of the sort you might find in a drawer belonging to someone who’s died.
What would it be like to time travel back across my life? To inspect the whole thing, from my earliest days, to now, my nervous present? What would the middle-aged grown adult novelist time traveller see when visiting the past that the poor bastard trying to make it through that day doesn’t or didn’t see?
And just how reliable is memory? Is it reliable at all? Is it more like what we have left of dreams after we wake in the mornings? How many times have I had (sometimes under the influence of amazing psychoactive medications) extraordinary, cinematic dreams that seemed, at the time, coherent and vivid, only to wake and find myself clutching at dissolving threads from a rich but inaccessible tapestry? Memories seem like this to me, the veil between now and the past like the one between waking experience and sleep.
But I’m trying to write about my life here. I’m trying to tell you the truth about it. I’m digging down into my emotional grease-trap to find you things I’ve told either nobody or only my psychologist. There are things I’ve been dying to tell, and here I am telling them–but are they true? Did they happen? Am I making it up?
I don’t think so. I hope not. I remember something like these stories, but often even as I’m writing I’m aware of selection and omission for the sake of storytelling. There are details I’m highlighting for dramatic purposes, and others that I’ve left out. The people I’ve mentioned, whether by their real names, false names, or no names at all, all did and do exist. The events did occur. But I worry. After I write one of these pieces, I stew and brood over it. Some of them I’ve rewritten, and some I’ve rewritten almost completely, and I expect to rewrite at least some of them again in the course of making all this into a proper book.
I’ve been reading a lot of books about writing memoir. They all talk about this problem, about dealing with truth, about trying to wrestle it to the ground, that it’s elusive because the actual truth is none of us remember everything in precise, encyclopaedic detail (such as, for example, the poor bastard in Borge’s story, “Funes the Memorious” who was cursed with complete, detailed memory of everything, all the time, ever). We all have gaps, sometimes big gaps.
How did it feel to be you in that moment when it happened? What was it like? How does it feel now, looking back on that draft of yourself? What do you do with that urge to warn your former self, to yell, “watch out!” Or “duck!”?
Time is a funny bastard. Some scientists would tell you there’s no such thing, that it’s imaginary, that it’s not a fundamental part of the universe, the way space is fundamental. Time is an illusion. Time is some kind of illusion brought about at least in part by the way we humans perceive the universe. That we create time in the course of creating the consensus reality we see around us.
I honestly don’t know. I’ve been reading all these impressive popular science books for years. Some of them are very choppy seas indeed. I read Stephen Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME about twenty years ago and am still in the recovery ward. I did manage to get through the thing, and “got” most of it, enough to make me angry I didn’t do better in high school maths and physics. I wanted to understand the real thing, not this dumbed down, talking-to-children account. I’d like to see the Schrödinger Wave Equation in person, and understand it, to follow its mathematics, see how it works, and why it works. It bothers me that I had such crappy teachers in school, and a head full of illness and noise, that I couldn’t understand this profoundly interesting thing. It bothers me so much, even all these years later.
Is time travel possible? Time travel to the future is certainly possible. You just have to approach the speed of light. The closer you get, the more time passes for the people you left behind back home. For you, time passes normally. But for people back home, ages pass.
Travel into the past? Nobody knows for sure. There’s a lot of research going on. A lot of intense mathematics.
But if you could time travel into your own past, would you? Should you? One of the essays in this book (“The Best Use of a Time Machine”) explores a hypothetical, the idea of a man who had an unhappy, guilt-ridden childhood where his parents were always fighting, and he always felt it was his fault, going back to visit that wretched boy, to tell him, to relieve him, to let him know that the house’s unhappiness is not his fault. None of it is his fault. He is not to blame. His father has an illness. He himself has the same illness. It’s okay. Where the Time Traveller comes from, Mum and Dad are okay and happy and together
But I thought, having written this essay, about my own unhappy past and my own comparatively happy present and happy elderly parents, why not write this up as a story? Why not start with this initial premise, but have it go wrong somehow? How could it go wrong? How could a gesture carried out with the best intentions lead to catastrophic results? This book is two-thirds finished. It’s currently on hold while I think through some truly catastrophic time-travel-related developments.
The lesson I’m mainly learning from writing about this specific scenario, though, is that it’s too glib and easy. The complex and messy people in the story, the whole family around the boy in question, are all affected by the Time Traveller’s attempted intervention. It’s like God leaning down into their lives. It’s like aliens from an advanced civilisation, or the Spanish intruding on the ancient Aztecs. There’s no safe, easy, simple way to do it. People are too complicated. They have complicated reactions. They have complicated feelings about things. They are not necessarily happy to hear from the “Future Bastard”. He does, in so many words, ruin their lives.
What the family in the story need in order to help their very difficult troubles is family therapy, and possibly some medication. They need proper professional help. They are in a big, serious mess. A well-meaning civilian, even if he is the grown-up middle-aged version of the teenage son in the story, is not equipped to help these people.
Which lesson might be why I’m having trouble with the book’s third act!
I suspect, though, that this missionary zeal among time machine owners would be a widespread problem. It might even bring about an entire subclass of actual religious missionaries blipping into the past to try to assist people in certain parts of the world. It might well be, though, that the people most in need of time machine-related help would be the owners themselves. Someone would have to hide the keys.
Because I think even if you’re declared intention was something as benign-seeming was “documenting my life” (or paying a videographer to do it for you), even that is going to be a problem. Not at all, you object, you’d never do anything so intrusive. You’d fly in some tiny drones with 4K telephoto cameras. Your kid self would notice and remember something weird. You as an adult would remember a weird feeling about visiting the beach, but not quite be able to explain why.
This book is about exploring my life as if I were a Time Traveller, especially as it has been affected by mental illness, my bipolar disorder and anxiety. All my life I have done my best to present myself to the world as if I was fine. As if I had no illness. Which is to say, I have been a liar all my life. Always pretending to be something I’m not and was not. And always feeling the strain of the pretence. This book is about that feeling, how it felt, and still feels. How it used to feel, when it was shameful and a secret, and how it feels now, when you can write about it and speak about it.
I imagine myself, middle-aged, married, man in possession a time machine, visiting my teenage self the night I had my first huge terrifying breakdown, the night I feared I die of crying. What might I see, watching from the corner of the room that teenage me, at the white-hot fragmentary centre of the event failed to notice? The smallness, the intimacy. The nurse and my mum, each holding one of my hands as I howled and screamed into the night. Wanting to tell the kid it gets better, but really, remembering back, remembering my own experience, it does get better, but it takes geological ages first. It takes many years, and much, much more pain. No amount of glib, “it gets better” mottos will cut it here. There is only one path ahead for this boy and it’s the hard path.
This book is about what that path was and is like for me.