“Jason, can you hear me?”, I said to the empty bedroom. “Are you there?”
Apparently I was not. I got up from my seat, plodded to the doorway. “Jason, I am giving you a sign. This is what the sign looks like.” I shook my arms around like I was trying to flag down an ice cream van, but the corridor remained stubbornly empty. “You’re remaining stubbornly empty”, I told it.
I’ve never had much of an aptitude for materialising on cue. Venturing to a new place inevitably results in me getting lost, so why did I think this occasion would be any different? If I struggle to find bus stops and unfamiliar pubs then what chance did I have locating a hallway years in the past? I’d probably overshot the landing. Right now I was somewhere in the late 90s, trying to warn people not to buy polyphonic ringtones.
I checked my bedroom again, just to be sure, and my subsequent sigh was heard by no-one. It all made sense. Of course I’d be an unpunctual time traveller.
When I was young I didn’t dream of becoming a teacher, veterinarian or engine driver. The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a time traveller. Having now traversed a few decades in slow motion, it’s clear that what I really wanted to be was Dr Sam Beckett, the compassionate, funny, unerringly decent protagonist of Quantum Leap. For a spell, however, my zeal masked my decidedly average scientific abilities. With the misplaced confidence of an enthusiastically encouraged child, I assumed that I’d eventually figure out some way to accomplish my goal.
In time, of course, my priorities shifted, as priorities tend to do, and I left behind my ambitions of moving at will through the fourth dimension. But I was still compelled, again and again, by stories about time travel. As a teenager I was truly haunted by The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; while the book’s sociological viewpoint is uncomfortably archaic, I will never fail to be devastated by Wells’ descriptions of the end of the Earth, millennia in the future. He evokes a world of abominable desolation where the only life remaining is a few monstrous crabs with gleaming eye stalks and ungainly claws, smeared with algal slime. If I could travel, this would be the place I’d go. Forget ancient Rome, the Renaissance or the Belle Époque. I want to see the very end of things.
Like the vogue for neon windbreakers, Quantum Leap stayed in 1992. Before I knew it I was 30, with no romantic partner but a respectable number of jumpers. And then I was cycling through torrential rain. As sodden corduroy clung to my legs and my glasses sundered responsibility for maintaining my eyesight, I cursed myself for not bringing waterproofs. If only I could go back, I thought, and then I did: back to the living room carpet of my youth, back to being splayed in front of the television on a Tuesday night, rapt and inspired. What was stopping me from returning to my dream and actually doing it?
I announced my plot to the rest of the oh comely team. When asked, quite reasonably, how I was intending to achieve the most consequential discovery in human history, I told my colleagues not to worry. I’d figure something out. How hard could time travel be, really? At this point it was a slight concern that my future self hadn’t returned to let me know that I’d sorted it all out, but perhaps he was biding his time. Surely he just needed a signal. I would head home and try to summon him there.
One of the great comforts in life is realising that the universe is essentially binary. Everything either is or it isn’t, and if the question can’t be answered in those terms then you just need to look closer until it can. Time travel, in the popular sense that we imagine it – as a journey from one place (now) to another (the future, the past) – either is or isn’t possible. The fact that I didn’t appear to myself, older, greyer, finally with a new duffle coat perhaps, did suggest that I was going to fail in my venture. It spoke to a broader problem: if time travel is possible, then why have we seen no time travellers? Occasionally a wag on the internet will dig out something that suggests time travel – a man wearing ostensibly anachronistic clothes in a 1930s crowd, another man in early film footage holding what appears to be a mobile phone – but this seems to provide evidence of wilful delusion rather than anything else.
There are competing rebuttals. If we’re able to develop time travel then it’s not a stretch to believe that we’d also develop ways of remaining undetected (hats?). Or maybe no-one has travelled to this specific time before. Or travel to our era isn’t permitted. Or we can only go forwards. The explanation I’ve always subscribed to, although it makes my head hurt, is that if time moves in one direction then we just haven’t looped back on ourselves: time travel in the present can only exist once there is time travel in the future, and we’re not there yet. Beyond the issue of time travellers in our own back garden (or hiding in the shed), the binary question leads to another concern: how long do humans have left? For this, it’s worth considering The Doomsday Argument, if you can look at its name without running away in terror.
The Doomsday Argument is a deliciously titled but contentious statistical theory that makes the case that if all humans are born in a random order then there’s a certain probability that any individual one will appear somewhere in the middle. The total number of future humans can therefore be estimated by how many have already been born. Disregarding the arguments around this argument, it suggests that there is only a finite period before there are no new people, either through extinction or some other event. This certainly pricks humankind’s fundamental belief in the exceptionalism of itself, but considering what we understand of life on Earth, the notion of eventual demise from natural or man-made events is plausible. If time travel technology is possible, then, can we invent it before our own extinction? 10,000 years ago we had only just figured out how to grow wheat. How far can we progress in another 10,000 years, or 10 million? Even if the pace of discovery eases from its current dizzying clip, it’s fair to assume that with a solid stretch of time our scientific understanding will increase substantially. But if we can develop time travel and have enough time to do so, would we even want to?
Unless you happen to be a six-year-old with a fondness for Scott Bakula, time travel probably isn’t high on your list of scientific priorities, and with good reason. Any benefits we might hope for are outweighed by the possibility of accidentally erasing giraffes from history, or worse. The potential for abuse is considerable, while even its most benign applications carry significant risk of unintended catastrophe. It is perilous enough that an entire subgenre of fiction is devoted to cataloguing all of the ways in which time travel is a Very Bad Idea.
The attraction of time travel for a writer is obvious, allowing characters to visit colourful historical periods with our present-day sensibility, winking at the audience while navigating head-scratching paradoxes. It is entirely possible, maybe even probable, that time travel is like a zombie apocalypse – an impossible idea that has struck something inside of writers and audiences because it’s so rich with narrative possibility. A science fiction concept like a colony on another planet is feasible, but perhaps a central facet of our perception of reality is that we’re unable to move through time at anything other than at our own regular, lumbering speed. We are on foot, and it’s not possible to invent a car. In a larger cosmic sense, maybe everything that has ever happened and ever will happen is happening at the same time, it’s just a question of perspective, and as humans who exist in our short, mortal, temporal lives, we are unable to deal with anything except what’s directly in front of us. The implausibility of time travel, and its deleterious effect even if we could wrangle it, may very well be the case, but my overly optimistic argument is that not everything that is possible has been thought of yet.
Time travel fiction is a warning to ourselves, but its enduring popularity also illuminates why we might just end up inventing it (if we can, which we probably can’t.) Scientific developments are often inconceivable until we start conceiving them. It wasn’t until we started writing about satellite dishes, palm-sized communicators and remotely-controlled mechanical hands that we started trying to figure out how to make them real. The modern world boasts thousands of small innovations that first appeared in a movie or a dog-eared paperback: even the way we count down to zero when launching rockets was taken from Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Woman in the Moon – he thought it would be more dramatic if the count went down instead of up. There aren’t always direct causal links, but the effect of fiction on our technological advancement is undeniable.
The debt that science owes to the imaginations of writers and artists isn’t sufficiently acknowledged, but art’s primary influence is more abstract. The first exposure most of us have to science is through science fiction, and the outlandish ideas that become reality are created by people who were once children captivated by those same outlandish ideas. A chance viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey inspires tomorrow’s spacecraft engineer, or a youthful love of Jules Verne leads to a life as an oceanographer. If someone does invent time travel this century, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that they might have once been a child obsessed with Back to the Future, or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or, indeed, Quantum Leap.
The inspiration I personally took from Quantum Leap wasn’t the one I’d anticipated. The programme didn’t drive me towards a career in theoretical physics; I couldn’t even make it through A Brief History of Time. I was more interested in the storytelling possibilities of someone putting right what once went wrong than I was with the science of the endeavour. The following year, I would decide that I wanted to be a chaos theorist because Jeff Goldblum was one in Jurassic Park. It would be years before I understood that it was the stories themselves I was affected by.
A few days after my declaration to invent time travel I sat in a pub with my friend James, telling him of my plan. “How hard can it be?” I said, my joke ossifying. He asked me what I had in mind, and I realised that I’d been picturing a shoebox covered in tin foil, decorated with a few knobs and wires sticking out. It was a device a child might make, playing pretend. Even the gentleman inventor of The Time Machine had a chair. I’ve got chairs at home, maybe I could use one of those? James asked me if I was just being silly. The thought festered because I was. How far had I come from the six-year-old version of myself?
The sobering, retrospectively obvious reality is that if time travel can be invented then it will not be invented by me. This is okay. Towards the end of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the English teacher Hector describes how the finest moments in reading are when you come across an idea that you thought was special and particular to you, and it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours. The best that a writer can hope for, perhaps, is that some of their words might make a journey through the years that they themselves cannot. There are different kinds of time travel. Maybe someone will be inspired by something I write one day, and will make incredible advances that I don’t have the intellectual temperament for. I’m going to tell myself that this is similar to how I’m really good at coming up with band names while having no musical ability.
This is a lovely, comforting idea to reflect upon, but perhaps it also has direct relevance for the problem at hand. We think of everything as being saved and permanent now, but all is ultimately lost to the indifference of time. Shakespeare and Austen and Joyce will vanish as surely as an article in a printed magazine. H.G. Wells himself wrote 12 million words of journalism and fiction and we only truly care about a couple of his science fiction novels. Everything will fall until all that’s left are the monstrous crabs. I’m undo no delusions that my work will be looked on by gleaming eye stalks one day, but perhaps this piece of writing might find a place to weather the storm for a while. It’s binary, after all. Either time travel by humans is possible or it isn’t. If it is possible, then we will either manage to invent it during our brief spell in the sun, or we won’t. If that moment comes, then either these words will have survived until then or they won’t.
My mistake before, yawping out to my bedroom, was the assumption that I would be able to hear my own call, that the theoretical time traveller would be me. Of course it won’t. I was speaking in the wrong place, to the wrong person. So here I try again:
Distant future, can you hear me? It’s Jason Ward. Good afternoon. I’m writing to you from West Norwood Library in London, England (turn left at France, if you find yourself in Wales you’ve gone too far) at 16:10 on 14th November, 2016. I’m in the computer room; you will be able to recognise me as the one who isn’t using a computer, but is instead busying himself in a notebook while wearing an excellent jumper. If you’d like to say hello I am here, waiting for you.