Time. It’s part of our lives, as inescapable as the three dimensions of the physical world, as seemingly natural and intuitive as the idea that up is up and down is down. Yet it may also be an illusion, albeit a necessary one if we’re to live in the kind of world we’ve created. Time separates us from a past we may yearn for, just as it divides us from an unknown future; the present is barely there before it’s gone again, each moment a potentially lost opportunity. Yet time also provides us with chances, gives us reason to hope. A difficult situation may be resolved if we play for time; we wish for time to bring an end to our troubles, to carry us to the elusive “someday” where our problems are finally resolved. Time is both our tragedy and our great opportunity.
Time is a mystery. Perhaps it’s a purely human construct, but it’s one that we find almost impossible to define. “If no one asks me,” said Saint Augustine, “I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Our perceptions of the passing of time are notoriously variable. Time flies when you’re having fun, as the old adage says. If you’re anxious, on the other hand, or bored, or in pain, it slows down to an agonising crawl. There is never quite enough of the stuff, but on occasion it seems to hang very heavy on our hands.
Time is also a rich source of inspiration for writers, as a glance here will confirm. (Warning: do not click that link if you ever want to get any work done ever again.) A character may be preoccupied with his history or cowed by an uncertain future. Perhaps the past – gone, apparently unchangeable – haunts him to such a degree that he tries to recover it, either by taking refuge in memories or, more proactively, by attempting to travel back in time. The time travel story may be irresistible simply because it touches on a very deep human desire. What if you had a second chance? What if you could find your lost love, undo your biggest mistake, save your dead friend?
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity introduced the idea of time dilation: that time does not pass at the same rate for everyone. For a fast-moving observer, time is measured as passing more slowly than for a stationary observer. That being so, we are all already chrononauts of sorts; it’s just that the amount of time involved is so tiny that it’s imperceptible.
Naturally, the idea of time travel comes complete with a whole set of problems and paradoxes. If you went back in time and killed your grandfather before your father was conceived, wouldn’t you by that very act make the same act impossible? If time travel is achievable, a future civilisation might well master it, or have mastered it already. But if so, why haven’t the time tourists come to visit us? Or have they, or will they? (Tellingly, perhaps, grammar tends to be one of the first casualties when we take up arms against time.)
Might we one day overcome the boundaries of time? I confess to a glimmer of hope that we might. Time lies at the heart of much of the angst associated with the human condition, but perhaps also fuels much of our art, culture and science. We often tend to think of ourselves as being the victims of time, even if we – in a sense – create it. What would happen if we were freed from that sense of victimhood? It’s both a heady and a frightening prospect, and one that will probably continue to inspire writers for some time to come.
I end with a plea. In the unlikely event that any chrononauts out there happen to read this, is there any chance that you could head over to 2016 and get in touch? I’d quite like to hitch a temporal ride, if that’s all right…