30 December 2021

The Problem of Time

It's December 30.  2021 is almost over. If you expect an elegy - well, I'm not sure how this is going to turn out. It might get bumpy.  For one thing, 2021 whipped by like a cobra in the jaws of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, which raises the question, shouldn't everyone have a pet mongoose, even if imaginary?  But let's move on.

The good stuff is that I've been writing and working at the penitentiary and writing some more - and all have been going very well.  Murderous Ink Press and I have grown very close, also the Bould Awards, and Michael Bracken has accepted 3 of my stories for 3 different gigs.  I sold my 31st piece to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine!  Life is sweet.  And other stories are out searching diligently for a home...
The bad stuff is that Covid is still with us and in South Dakota it apparently isn't going anywhere.  We've all lost somebody we loved, and more whom we liked, and many, many more we simply knew,  talked to, waved at, and all will be missed...  

Time slips and turns and knots you, 
time slips and goes and leaves you 
living in a haunted world, 
full of ghosts that linger inside your lids 
when you close your eyes.
— Eve Fisher, last stanza of "The Terror of Time"

Time is a tricky subject. Back in 1999 a man named Julian Barbour wrote The End of Time "advancing timeless physics: the controversial view that time, as we perceive it, does not exist as anything other than an illusion, and that a number of problems in physical theory arise from assuming that it does exist. He argues that we have no evidence of the past other than our memory of it, and no evidence of the future other than our belief in it."  (Wikipedia)  

Well, I read it, and felt the way I feel about a lot of philosophical approaches to whether or not or how or why anything is real, from time to free will. It can all sound pretty logical and/or convincing, but then there's the simple fact that, for example, I'll bet that Mr. Barbour still asks when dinner's ready, or "Do I have time for a quick shave?" Just as people who say there is no free will or that it's all Fate will still ask you to pass the salt.

So no, I don't buy into "time is an illusion" any more than that this whole thing may be an Alice in Wonderland dream (which I find much more plausible), simply because there's a whole lot of things that simply can't be done, but have been done, are being done, and will be done, here and hereafter, that have a beginning, middle, and an end:

Pregnancy and childbirth.
Natural disasters.
Taking a walk.
Learning a language.
Learning anything.
Teaching anything.

Yes, there may be spooky action at a distance between particles, twins, lovers, etc. but something's moving, something's changing, something's interacting.  Maybe it is all in our minds - but what's wrong with that? The rules still hold. It's only in dreams that they don't. 

"It's astounding
Time is fleeting
Madness takes its toll
But listen closely
(Not for very much longer)
I've got to keep control" 
— Richard O'Brien, "Time Warp", Rocky Horror Picture Show

And time always fleets forward. No wonder time travel has always been popular in fiction, from H. G. Wells on. Most of writers adhere to the general theory that if you can go back in time, you either wouldn't be able to alter the past or if you do, you'll completely disrupt the present you came from (see Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder).  Some writers have used time like a thread to knot in on itself like Robert Heinlein's By His Bootstraps, which seems weird until you read his All You Zombies, which gives the knots an extra twist.  And I simply do not have the time to analyze all the timeless time shenanigans of Kurt Vonnegut, except to say that I can hardly wait to see Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.

COMPLETE SIDETRACK:  There's also some pretty bad time-travel writing, and my secret cringeworthy favorite is Michael Crichton's Timeline.  Let's face facts, it's basically, a male Disneyworld Joust fantasy, where all the male time travelers are in awe of how brimful of zest and zowie and kabang the Middle Ages are. At last, life lived to the full! It helps, of course, that they didn't arrive in a plague year, they didn't have to experience medieval dentistry or medieval childbirth, and they keep escaping everyone who wants to kill them by (mostly) running like hell. And they can all eat, drink, & use up precious resources - not to mention kill people who were real in the past - without changing the quantum future they came from. Which is impossible, because it's like a maximum of 20 generations and you'll find a common ancestor with every other individual alive on the planet - so sooner or later one of them had to have wiped out their great^20 grandmother and they'd go poof! But no one goes poof. Whenever I want a really good laughing rant against bad time writing, I read Timeline.

Yes, I know, some of the same arguments could be made about Claire Randall in the Outlander series, but they don't bother me because they're romantic fantasies and Gabaldon never pretends any of it's serious science. Crichton always did.  

But back to the problem of time:  Personally, I think we're never comfortable with time because is it's alien to us. Time is always too fast or too slow.  The nostalgia of the endless dreamy Saturday afternoons of childhood is counterpoised with the endless horrific waiting for medical test results. The measure of time is a steady beat, but our impressions of it are infinitely elastic. The time from Christmas to Christmas for children and for adults are entirely different. And then there's boredom:

"The English are not a very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity." — George Bernard Shaw

“Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” ― Susan Ertz

We never get used to time. We are not fish in water, or birds in air, or even humans in air. All our lives, we struggle with time, fight it, lose it, find it, watch it, use it, beat it, waste it, fear it, hate it, try to conquer it, and eventually lose it. Time, that continuum in which we live and move and have our being, is not our natural habitat. Alien to our dying day. It's a container, a prison, a fiendishly complex videogame, etc., that I believe is specific to this space/time continuum we live in for right now

What comes next - well, to each their own spin. Maybe we're all right.


"May we always be grateful for the past, find joy in the present, and remain excited for the future." 
— Anonymous

Goodbye, December!


  1. Congratulations on your stories and good wishes for the new year.

  2. Thank you Janice! Happy New Year!

  3. Other physicists more mundanely say time is real but we see it moving in one direction only. The best part of one of Hermann Hesse's novels (probably Steppenwolf or Siddhartha) described time as a river, a pretty good description of the geometries involved. Let me rephrase: It’s probably the most cogent thing Hesse has written. Whether or not time is a human construct, we know it’s not the 4th dimension, often used for shorthand convenience.

    Crichton! Eve, I’m crushed. I (sob) liked the novel and I (sob) liked the movie. Imperfect, yes, but at the heart is a kernel of genuine physics, the ability to transmit particles a few microseconds in time. The time-v-space mirror to Crichton’s novel is an Outer Limits episode called ‘Think Like a Dinosaur’. Here the model is tweaked to transport particles over a distance.

    I’d never heard that Shaw quote! I love it. I’ve written rants about cricket.

    Congratulations on your stories. Tell us more about Mysterious Press!

    Eve, this is one of my favorite pieces. Happy New Year!

  4. Leigh, I'm so sorry I crushed you! I do enjoy Crichton, but come on, sooner or later Marek would have killed his great^15th grandfather.
    I messed up (and changed it on my post) it's Murderous Ink Press - they publish the Crimeucopia anthologies, out of England, and they're very interesting. https://www.murderousinkpress.co.uk/index.html


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