Time travel is a problem in storytelling

The First Gods series is Science Fantasy. Here’s Wikipedia’s description:

Science fantasy is a hybrid genre within speculative fiction that simultaneously draws upon or combines tropes and elements from both science fiction and fantasy. In a conventional science fiction story, the world is presented as being scientifically logical, while a conventional fantasy story contains mostly supernatural and artistic elements that disregard the scientific laws of the real world. The world of science fantasy, however, is laid out to be scientifically logical and often supplied with hard science-like explanations of any supernatural elements.

Daxx’s infinite spacetimes solution to unify the field equations explains the physics of the First Gods world. This solution is fantasy, but the events that occur in the world adhere to that solution and the physics that would follow from it. It may appear magic-like, but it is consistent.

This is the thing that I love about Science Fantasy; there are logical, science-based explanations of weird events. You take a single leap of faith and from then everything should make sense. For example, let’s assume a man can fly and arrived on Earth from a distant planet as a baby. What would follow that makes logical sense?

Perhaps Superman isn’t a great example. Ursula Le Guin’s books are better examples.

Daxx’s infinite spacetimes solution is not the multiverse. There is a single 4D spacetime with an infinite number of other spacetimes with more space dimensions. The First Gods series of five books plays with a single interaction between our 4D spacetime and the one higher (with 5 space dimensions and one time dimension).

The space dimensions are all orthogonal, meaning that they are separate from each other. Orthogonal means “right angled” so left/right is orthogonal to up/down and both are orthogonal to back/forward. The higher spacetimes’ space dimensions are “right-angled” with each other and with our three space dimensions. It’s a hard concept, perhaps impossible, to visualise. Some mathematicians play with multi-dimensions, so it’s not unusual.

Later series in the First Gods world will explore more detailed interactions between people in the 4D spacetime and sentient beings who inhabit higher spacetimes. It can only end in disaster, right?

However, the time dimensions in Daxx’s solution can interact. This is a problem. Not for the physics, it’s a logical consequence of Daxx’s solution—time is non-linear and altered by interactions between spacetimes—but it’s a story telling problem.

Time travel is an over-used trope, often used to resolve plot problems in fantasy fiction, much like using deus ex machina to wriggle out of difficult plot positions.

I find this solution unsatisfying in stories. I’d prefer the characters resolved their own problems, or didn’t. On a side note, it’s why I found the conclusion of the TV series Good Omens 2 so uninteresting. Although it was literally a god that solved the characters’ problems, so it may be consistent. But it was an easy way out of a difficult plot point. It’s the same reason I don’t like time travel solutions.

The other major use of time travel in stories is when something changes in the past and then, entertainingly, they have to resolve the consequences by repeated travel back in time to fix what they caused by their first incursion. This is a better use that can be satisfying. The movie series Back To The Future is a good example.

This second use still has its problems. A time travelling character is free to travel back and change anything at all, not just things that are part of the plot. We have the problem of killing Hitler, or even (as Star Trek did) returning to early Earth and interring with life’s beginnings.

It’s unsatisfying because the reader/viewer/entertainee can ask tough questions. Why didn’t the character make different choices? Or, if the character made one change, the story goes away.

I’ve tried to include time travel in my stories as a logical consequence or world building. I assume that the First Gods universe is a Block Universe. This is an actual idea that can come out of Einstein’s solutions, but it isn’t likely (perhaps).

A Block Universe is where all four dimensions (including time) have equal “weight”. Just as the three space dimensions describe a point in space, we can add time to specify a point in spacetime. The consequence is (as far as my understanding, but it doesn’t matter, it’s Science Fantasy remember) that a point in spacetime is unique. Past, present, and future exist “already” and have equal weight. Points in time have a unique and unchangeable value.

I find this as difficult to visualise as orthogonal spacetimes. But it’s useful for time travel storytelling. This means the past and future are not alterable. But let me explain the subtle difference of a Block Universe with time travel.

The Block Universe description means there is only one timeline. The “present” cannot be different. I explain this in the first books by a sentence that, at first reading, is contradictory. But it isn’t.

“What has happened has always happened.” This is simple enough. Events in our 4D spacetime (past, present, and future) are unique.

I add, “Even if it hasn’t happened yet”. This means that a past event may result from a future time travel event, but that future time travel event will have always happened (will happen?). It must happen (will happen?), because it is an integral part of an event in the past. Also, it’s a Block Universe, remember? Cause, followed by Effect is always true, even if in our 4D spacetime, the Cause is “later” and the Effect is “earlier”. From the perspective of the person involved in the time travel event, Cause and Effect follow in that order.

Interacting with the higher dimensioned spacetime causes this possibility of navigating time and being an intimate part of a Block Universe spacetime point (past and future).

This is just Science Fantasy pretend, but consistent (sort of, if you squint and don’t look too hard). It allows stories with time travel as a component but gets away from the usual problems. For example, a character can’t decide to undo the past by travelling back to it. The past cannot be changed, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

Why not? I hear you ask. The higher spacetime access to other, earlier times does not exist. It’s not possible to travel to, perhaps like you can’t drive your car across the ocean no matter how much easier some might think that is than paying for an expensive flight.

I know, it’s stretching the analogy, but story telling stretches many analogies. It’s made up, so it doesn’t matter much. I mean, what is the thing about magic wands? But they are pretty cool.

Having said all the above, I won’t be using time travel in later stories. Its use is complex (as you’ve just seen) and storylines can be unreadable if not created with care.

Time travel is a minor component of the first four books in the series, but the fifth book relies heavily upon it. Many events in books three (Habitat) and four (Alien Cities) are initiated “later” in book five, Time’s Resolution.

Time’s Resolution is an exciting story, as long as you assume the events are logical and make sense across spacetimes. They make sense; I spent months working out the time interactions, while still making it a story that doesn’t require an accompanying explanatory manual.

Stories based on time travel are too complex to write and to integrate across multiple series. Kell is going to ban it. Any time travel in future stories will be singular, but the consequences will be huge. But, mostly, time travel won’t be a part of the story.

Of course, instantaneous space travel over enormous distances—between galaxies—is perfectly fine!