The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Time Enough For…Anything

Posted on | October 12, 2013 | 78 Comments


Time travel science fiction tends to come in two flavors: conventional time travel, in which the heroes journey into the future or the past, and the parallel worlds type of story where there are multiple alternate time lines which can be travelled to. Keith Laumer did both; in Dinosaur Beach, his hero is a member of the Timesweepers, a group trying to clean up the messes left by previous time travelers, while in Imperium, Brion Bayard fights an alternate version of himself who threatens the destruction of the Imperium. Larry Niven, on the other hand, treats time travel as an impossibility in Flight of the Horse to comic effect, while its sequel Rainbow Mars is considerably darker.

Authors don’t always explain the details of how their heroes wind up in the past or the future. We never do find out how Asimov’s retired tailor from Pebble in the Sky winds up in a post-nuclear Earth, or how the feckless protagonist of Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee fumbles his way back to the Battle of Gettysburg to cost the South the Battle of Gettysburg – and the war. In contrast, Dan Davis in Hainlein’s The Door into Summer uses cold-sleep twice and an experimental time machine to make his life turn out the way it should have after his unfaithful fiance shanghais him into the future. Elsewhen, Lazarus Long travels back to pre-WWI America to meet his family in Time Enough for Love with nearly fatal results, but as the filk song concludes, “Nothing wrecks this Oedipus!”

On the other hand, some authors rejected the very notion that you could change the past. Alfred Bester’s nearly-forgotten classic “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” (collected in Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester) introduces what has come to be known as the concept of “quantum time” and its consequences for would-be meddlers. Fortunately, Poul Anderson and H. Beam Piper paid no attention to this and created separate law enforcement agencies to guard the time stream: Time Patrol and the previously mentioned Paracops of The Complete Paratime.

More recently, Harry Harrison and Harry Turtledove address the notion of present-time people going back to aid the Confederacy in A Rebel In Time and The Guns of the South, while Connie Willis’ considerably more depressing Doomsday Book sends a graduate student back to medieval England just in time for the Black Death. On a lighter note, there’s Leo Frankowski’s The Cross-Time Engineer, in which Conrad Schwartz winds up in 13th century Poland and resolves to save it from the Mongols. Its spiritual ancestor, of course, is L. Sprague DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall, in which Martin Padway takes it on himself to save the Western Roman Empire and its Gothic rulers from Justinian and Belisarius – and itself. Connie Willis can also do humorous time travel, as can be seen in To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Feel free to suggest your own favorites in the comments!


78 Responses to “Time Enough For…Anything”

  1. K-Bob
    October 13th, 2013 @ 1:36 am

    Finite in number?

    Scope, maybe. Number? Doubtful.

  2. Proof
    October 13th, 2013 @ 1:59 am

    I am open to any empirical data you can present to disprove my theory.

  3. darleenclick
    October 13th, 2013 @ 2:07 am

    Funny no one has mentioned yet Stephen King’s 11/22/63. There really is no scientific explanation for the door into the past, but the whole exercise has some very interesting twists. I lost interest in King long ago but decided to take a chance. Pretty darned good book.

    Time Enough for Love still one of my favorites of Heinlein’s books.

    Haldeman’s Forever War isn’t so much time travel as skipping through time as the main character experiences time dilation due to all the time he spends at near light speed. He periodically experiences the changes on Earth in multiples of hundreds of years.

  4. K-Bob
    October 13th, 2013 @ 3:56 am

    Your claim is too atomic to be a “theory.” However, considering for example:

    * All the mathematics of
    * The vast number of
    atoms in our universe;
    * The fact that temperature
    and probability (to pick only
    two common examples of
    necessary numbers) are
    * The special nature of
    an instant;
    * Special relativity (i.e.,
    “multiple” as compared to
    what, exactly?)
    * The fractal nature of
    matter and therefore the
    analogue of it expressed
    as energy

    (I’d expect the list is probably unlimited.)

    All of these aspects of reality are indicators that if you can have more than one of something, an upper bound on the number of them is unlikely.

  5. LLC
    October 13th, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    Fair enough. Your posts, you get to do it how you want.

  6. Joe Dokes
    October 13th, 2013 @ 9:20 am

    I don’t understand this fascination with time machines. We all own them, or can easily use one. Vehicles, ships, planes, blimps…you get aboard and, whether or not the machine actually moves anywhere, when you get out you are in the future. Granted, they only go one way but you have traveled into the future. Heck, your chair is a time machine.

    I do this to my kids all the time. They’re starting to dislike it.

  7. M. Thompson
    October 13th, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    Who wouldn’t want a nubile savage in a fur bikini?

  8. richard mcenroe
    October 13th, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

    NicholasYermakov writing as Simon Hawke had a fun time-travel series back in the 80’s called “The Time Wars” wherein the Great Powers had ended war in our time by agreeing to fight their battles under great conflicts of the past .

    So you would have Roman legionaries facing Hannibal’s elephants and one would be thinking “Dulce et decorum pro Patria mori” and another would be thinking, “Ave Caesar, nos mortiuri te salutorum” and the third would be thinking “Man, I am too short for this shit…”

    Lavish use of classic literature and historical figures. You can still get most or all of them used through Amazon and I’m sure elsewhere.

    One joke, your tax dollars at work: Enlistment time is only counted as present-day time. So you could be sent back to the 30 Years War, get recalled to one minute after you were sent back, and get credited with… one minute.

    The first one is available in Kindle.

  9. Proof
    October 13th, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

    I think, rather, that you prove my point. There are a “vast number of atoms in our universe”, not infinite.

    To say the number is finite is not to say, ipso facto, that it is small.

    Self replicating universes, ex nihilo, may make for interesting literature, but lousy physics.

  10. Quartermaster
    October 13th, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

    Who cares about Physics! This is SF we’re talking about.

  11. Proof
    October 13th, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

    SF should keep at least a nodding acquaintance with physics, IMHO, lest it devolve into fantasy, which is a separate genre.

  12. Wombat_socho
    October 13th, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    Chandler’s Mannschenn Drive was a time machine masquerading as an FTL drive. I remember it (and its malfunctions) well.

  13. Wombat_socho
    October 13th, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

    I’m guessing most of us have an aversion to mainstream authors playing in our ghetto, especially when they’re snotty liberals.

  14. Wombat_socho
    October 13th, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

    A friend of mine who works as an A/V archivist refers to his job on occasion as “caretaker of the time machines”.

  15. John Farrier
    October 13th, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

    I enthusiastically recommend David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself. The book bills itself as “the last word in time machine novels” and it is certainly that. It’s short, too. More of a novella than a novel.

    David Gerrold also wrote the sreenplay for the famous Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

  16. Quartermaster
    October 13th, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    “Nodding acquaintance” is the operative term. Most speculative fiction has little more than a nodding acquaintance, which is the reason for my semi-silly retort.

  17. Proof
    October 13th, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

    While it is true that advanced technology may appear to be magic to primitives, the writer should remember that it isn’t magic, and stick to fantasy if he can’t tell the difference. But, I recognized the levity in your earlier comment. No worries!

  18. K-Bob
    October 13th, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

    These words you use: “Prove”… “Theory”
    You rely overmuch on terms that rarely apply (although are sadly overused) in cosmology discussions.

    Besides, you have to work very hard to ignore all the other examples in that list, especially Reals, to focus on countable finites.

    And according to some physics, particles do come into existence and then vanish again. Add that to the fact that stellar processes clearly change the number of atoms on a continual basis, and you cannot end up with a fixed number, except in the special case of an instant, and countability inside of those would require a time component that doesn’t exist.

    Why add the notion of “self-replicating”?

  19. Proof
    October 13th, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

    Self replicating because, according to their advocates, they are virtually identical to the one that came before save for one small detail, brought about by some (one’s) random choice. The idea that a virtually identical universe, comprised of both matter and energy, would spring into place spontaneously, ex nihilo, over something so small as a synapse firing in someone’s mind is mindless, as it would be happening by the billions. (And bad physics)

    And why restrict it just to human minds? How about every beast of the field, every fish in the sea, every insect that has a power to choose, do they have the ability to create alternate universes by their choices, too?

    Is there a universe where Fido only spins twice when he lays down, which creates another where he spins three times and yet another where he turns around and barks or trips? Kitty decides to play with or not play with the yarn, and these identical universes (not single particles) are created in all their complexity out of nothing?

    You admit that there are a “vast number of atoms” in our universe. Would not each of these need to be replicated in another universe in order to “branch off” into an alternate one, according to the fiction?

    As far as creating something out of nothing, coincidentally, you are doing a big bang up job of that with your arguments.

    BTW, the alternate universe theory falls into place much more quickly after a liberal application of cannabis…with social science majors.

    I am open to the remote possibility of a finite number of alternate universes, self contained, each subject to causality, but alternate universes branching out from every decision we make, or don’t make, is fantasy, not science fiction.

    Clap if you believe in fairies.

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  21. Will_Brown
    October 13th, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

    S. M. Stirlings novel Conquistador is an alternate universe/time travel story that I’m surprised hasn’t been mentioned yet. His usual “well told tale” with an unusual twist and consequence(s). Highly recommended.

    Also, his Islands In The Sea Of Time series is the consequences of a time travel event being inflicted on an unsuspecting population. His current series Dies The Fire is about the events experienced by all the rest of the world after the same time travel event in Islands – the other side of the coin, if you will.

    All are excellent reads that focus on different aspects of the same general time travel/alternate universe meme.

  22. K-Bob
    October 13th, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

    That all just seems too comic-book-ish for me.

    Just go with two then. It’ll make your math easier.

  23. Wombat_socho
    October 13th, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

    I kept all the alternate history books in reserve for a future post.

  24. Good Stuff
    October 13th, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

    L0L – As far as creating something out of nothing, coincidentally, you are doing a big bang up job of that with your arguments.

  25. Proof
    October 14th, 2013 @ 1:58 am

    Not just a bang up job, mind you, but a ‘big bang’ up job!

  26. Quartermaster
    October 14th, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

    The machine or the rememberer?

  27. Wombat_socho
    October 15th, 2013 @ 6:13 pm


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