Writing: A time travel story that is not a time-travel story

This weekend I finished version 4 of the draft to my short story I will call “Scars” for now.

Main elements

It takes four main elements.

  • “Time to leave” — And more specifically: the first draft of a time-travel / time crime story by Jurgen.
  • “The Story of your life” — Where the main character, via a alien language “remembers” her whole life.
  • Concepts of time and parallel worlds I used in a 1995 story — Where time is “like a sea, moving and changing in all directions at the same time”
  • Dutchification — “Time to leave” was mainly situated in New York. Eventually and reluctantly I did the same for “Scars” but after feedback from Rochita Loenen Ruiz I changed that.

Dutchification

After the Dutchification, the “Time travel” agency is situated in Haarlem. It is hinted in the story that the technology itself is a Dutch invention as well, developed in the city of Delft.  The main character lives in an apartment in Sloten. His girlfriend in Amsterdam, close to the Sarphati park. He grew up in Petten and with the sea. The Dutch colonial history and the history in slave-trade is used when — mirroring Jurgens story — the main character goes back to the 1800’s on the traces of a killer to find a murdered girl. (This is still draft)

1825, The Hague, still referred to as Des Graven Haage, the lands of the Duke. We almost have you. We find the dead body of a young black servant, sixteen years of age, called Catharina. A servant. A slave. She belonged to a rich family. Riches from stocks in boats of the Dutch United East Indian Company. Riches from the colonies. Indonesia: Java, Bali. Coffee, spices. I count several stab wounds on her body, her throat slit, belly cut open, legs bound together by copper wire as a way to express the blockage of that one place that will someday originate you. The body is already a day dead. Disposed of in a morgue for the poor, not relevant enough for anything, waiting to be buried in a nameless grave. The smell of decay all around us.

The use of Dutch locations makes it harder for an international audience. It breaks the flow a bit as “Petten”, “Breukelen” or “Haarlem” are less well known as “New York”, “Harlem” or “Brooklyn”. And I deliberately had to add “The city of” and “the town of”.

What it does and did was to add more depth to the story as Dutch history has enough nasty things to build interesting stories around.

Time travel

The concept of “time travel” as used in many stories is a bit suspect to me. “You go back in time and change the present”. Like it time is one single line. Like you push a coin on a table full of coins and somewhere another coin will fall off as a consequence.

“If time-travel is possible” — my assumption was somewhere in that 1990’s — “then time itself is one single point where all time is available at the same moment. If you can ‘change events’ in the past than time itself is fluid.”

The short story was about four kids in a tiny bubble-universe with special powers. “Mutants” as they would have been called in the 1960’s.

One of those powers was to “stand outside of time” if it was only conceptual and perceive time itself.

Time as fluid and multidimensional

What better than to show you the beginning of the first chapter:

Once you move past the limitations of human perception you will find that time is fluid. Reality is fluid. You will find time and reality are an ever-present now. History, future, present. Are all there at the same moment, all there in the same place: now. And they change. Each next now is not what it was before. Things change. Things move and history as was a moment before has changed, branched. Time passes. And at the same time, still no time has passed at all.

Others, who are like me, have said: “time is like an ocean floating in space”. And in a way it is true. It is not just one single line. It is not a flat space. It has multiple dimensions. It moves in all directions and all directions are there at the same moment. Time is like the water in a wobbling, growing, endless expanding, multi-dimensional bubble in a space without gravity.

Time itself moves through time.

It makes more sense to me than anything else.

And linear time?

You see: linearity is like looking at time and reality through a tiny hole that you move in one direction. It represents nothing. Nothing of the real thing, but it keeps things simple for the human mind. It keeps you grounded in reality.

Here on the other dimensions of time, dealing with a past and present which are there at the same time.

They taught me to look at cause and effect in terms of: “forward”, “backward” and “sideways”. “Branching time”. “Branching moments”. It was all so simplified that it almost became bullshit. “Forward”. “Backward”. “Up”. “Down”. “Branches”. But you need to start somewhere. You need to anchor somehow. You need some language to convey the concepts. It is the best we have for now.

Cause and effect and “time moving through time”, learning and evolving as it goes

They taught me two other ways to look at “cause” and “effect”. That of evolution and as a process. A compulsive, excessive endlessly expanding process of trial and error. “What if?” What if – the big bang? What if – elementary particles? What if – clustering? What if – space, dark matter, stronger forces, weaker forces, gas nebula’s, attraction, suns, planets, complex molecules, life?  It was a nice way to look at it.

And freedom to choose/free will:

And God? Free will? It was all there if you wanted it to. Nothing was fixed. Anything was possible. And all of it probably had some sort of purpose, even though I had no fucking clue what it was exactly.

Time Travel and scars

“Time travel” becomes like moving through all these variations. As “time” is happening all at the same moment and at the same place, moving to the past and the future is no longer impossible. You simply visit a “possible variation” that might be your past and future, but actually is not.

When you change that “past” or that “future” what you actually are doing is changing that specific branch of time. When you do that drastically, you create the so-called “scars” in time. You break a logical line of developments by interference from the outside (another time line as it were).

The “soul”, pre-cog and “changing reality by the power of the mind”

At the time Jurgen was writing “Time to leave” I was working on a story that would give a more sensible view on concepts used in “The Secret” and comparable models of reality and the influence of your mind.

The idea was simple: “Imagine that any time you ‘change’ something by the power of your mind, you are not ‘changing’ anything but moving into another variation of your reality where that ‘dream’ is real.”

So: instead of you changing all this complex heavy shit that is reality, your “essence” simply moves to another parallel world.

I was not satisfied with just that. “But what happens with the essence of you in that world?” And I figured something vague like: “that one moves on as well”. Having this basis for a story: what if some parts of “you” — the bad seeds so to say — do not want to improve stuff, but wreak havoc instead? Move to other realities, pillage, plunder, break things and move on to even deeper regions of hell.

Seeing the future

Regarding to pre-cog, the ability to see the future: what if — when time happens all at the same moment — pre-cognition is simply information bleeding from one “self” to another? Especially when these moments are emotionally charged, creating a “hook” between You-“Present” and You-“future”. Allowing you to remember “future” events happening at that exact same moment in another place “up” or “down” in time.

Which is not your future.

Memories and experience of time

What if some memories are just pieces of information bleeding through “time”?

What if the “soul” or essence itself is able to freely move through “time”? (The concept I was working on moves even further, assuming we are all one and the same soul and that “soul” itself is moving through “time” and living all these lives anywhere and everywhere to experience all and everything that is possible. Bringing us back to once concept of: “God” and reality as a complex dream.)

What if our experience of time is not the “normal” but simply a limitation we put upon ourselves? To keep things sane?

What if anyone and everyone is capable of releasing this bond and move through his/her own time-line freely? Past, future, present, all part of the same thing. For “Scars” I decided to use the old concept/shortcut of “mutants” again. Mostly to keep the story within the 10.000 word limit.

As understanding […] grew, so did the understanding of some very specific mental diseases. That is how they found my mother. That is how they found me. And many others like us.

[…]

My mother was half-sane when I was born, sliding off more and more as her condition progressed. Dreaming, confusing the now with any other time and place. When you would address her, she might still confuse the “now” with the “10 years from now” where her soul had been just moments before.

I come back on this later in the story, where one of the many selves of the main character was not that lucky:

We drop out in 2095. I am still alive in this reality, but things have happened in the years shortly after my birth that have torn the country through three civil wars. I am alive, but live inside an asylum, like my mother.

I am still a woman here. Double bound, double trapped.

I look at myself from the rooftop, my coat hiding me from my sight. Hiding myself from all the eyes down there. Hiding me from my own eyes. My own eyes which look like those of someone who is drugged. I am hidden but not from me. I am hidden until that very moment where I suddenly lift my shaven head and look around, searching, talking something that looks, sounds like random words, where I return to the now, then point my eyes at me at the rooftop and squint and raise my hand in greetings, tears rolling down my cheeks in that moment of clarity, before rage and sadness take over. I feel her as she felt me, but it is distorted.

The “double bound, double trapped” refers to the asylum and the fact that this version was not able to do a sex-change: trapping a male spirit in a female body, trapped in an asylum.

Combining the stories and ideas

“The story of you” triggered me to re-visit my own concepts and combine it with that of: “Time to leave” by Jurgen. Put them in a blender and remix the two.

From my concepts:

  1. Time travel that is not time travel — Instead moving through possible realities in all directions of time and reality
  2. Branching time — Each event leading to many branches of time and reality
  3. Multiplicity — You do not exist once, but infinite times
  4. Feedback — Things you feel and experience can feed “back” in time, but also feed back from parallel branches of reality
  5. Proximity and zones — As time branches, there will be branches “further away” where certain events did and did not happen. If these events move far enough “back” in time, this can include the non-existence of you and a completely different line of developments leading to the “now”. Proximity is “closest” and “farther away” from your specific line. “Zones” are where things start to be clearly different
  6. You and other you’s — You can meet others of yourself in any moment of time. They are not “you”, but close enough.
  7. Multiplicity of actions and events — When time branches, your actions branch as well. When you perform a specific action, it is not just ‘you’ but ALL of ‘you’ in that and similar moments.

Time crime in this type of universe is incredibly messy. It is not just one perpetrator, but MANY. Millions. Infinite numbers.

Here is how I tackled that:

He was bleeding through worlds, through history. Each moment he was there, he would commit another murder. And not just one of him. Thousands of him. Branches and branches of branches. Increasing as time expanded and shivered and gave birth to even more possibilities. Millions in infinite variations of the now. Increasing our pain, increasing the number of scars on time itself.

From “Time to leave”, first draft

  1. The main character is a member of the time police — Called Mike Andrea. He is a hard-boiled type of character. Following his instincts.
  2. The previous murderer was his son — Being put into prison already.
  3. The murders are committed in time — The son of the main character travels through time and leaves several bodies behind
  4. The murders have a signature — Including the use of copper-wire.
  5. His wife gets murdered too — Somewhere halfway in the story
  6. Names and events change throughout the story — “Eva” becoming “Ava” and things like that.
  7. Several elements and scenes — As the original is around 40.000 words, I cut a lot. But key elements of “Time to leave” are referred to in “Scars” and then twisted to follow my direction.

I am trying not to give away too much beyond this and for that reason stop here.

Findings

  1. All male cast — The original story had an all-male cast and focused on the main character and his slow decline. While there are female characters, they hardly have a voice. Who are they? What do they want? As the story itself is from a single point of view (that if Mike Andrea) any and all other characters have that same lack. But.
  2. Hidden sexism/disbalance — But: Females are under-represented in many, if not all stories written by men before 1970. The role of females is secondary and usually mostly because (the writer realizes) “Oh blast! This world cannot only consist of men!” And so women are put in as an afterthought and in general depicted in very limited ways. Mostly ‘pretty’ (why else mention them in your story?) or somehow ‘ugly’ (and ‘old’) (to explain why the main character is not trying to jump her right there and then and has something like a conversation instead)  or ‘sensual/seductive’, giving some excuse for fan-service and an opportunity for male-boners for the male readers. Women in these stories hardly ever they play an active role. Or solve a key problem. Or play the true lead role: where the male is the secondary character, even IF it is told from his point of view. I found my remix/story reflected this kind of hidden sexism. All the women I mentioned were either dead and murdered or the girlfriend of my lead character: ending up dead and murdered. Even the murderer is a man. Where was the balance? Where are the women in this world?
  3. My first, unsatisfying male/testosterone ending — A male-dominant story without balance can end with a manly end like: “I look at VinsonLevvy and JonJon and when they finally finish their checks, we jump […]. To give you what you want. Oblivion.” Yeah! God they are tough! Jumping and hunting down other variants of the killer. To me this felt wrong. A more balanced story in my writings does not end with that. Especially when it is your own (life)partner being killed.
  4. Honesty — As I wrote the story, I realized that if you can foresee (parts of) the future, to engage with someone who will be murdered because you engaged with her has several consequences and implications. One is that you drag that person into potential doom. And what do you do with that? Lie? Say nothing? Let the love of your life be unaware of anything and everything? And what do you choose? To not engage at all? (Some of his versions do. They avoid the pain.) What if you choose love over pain and risk? Knowing that death is likely to come from that?

Adding Chapter 13

I needed to solve some open ends and I did by adding chapter 13. I liked the fact that the final chapter is #13. In European Pageant beliefs 13 (as far as I remember) is the number of the moon and the associated goddess. It is a feminine number. So many things came together nicely here. (I might rewrite some minor things later.)

Ending of chapter 12.

[…] I look at VinsonLevvy and JonJon and when they finally finish their checks, we jump: to follow yet another trail of your hard, frozen tears. To give you what you want. Oblivion.

#

(Note: as written, the original version of this story ended here, which is usually seen as a “satisfactory” ending when you focus on a male reader. We have a conclusion and a wrap-up. But what about the partner of our main character? He hurts like hell, but why? Where is she in all of this except in chapter 5 where they first meet? Why is she so awesome? So I wrote chapter 13. Wrapping it all nicely up in short flashbacks, to cater the emotional gap still there.)

13.

Silver: your crow wings spread as you stand on the rooftop, the wind playing with your short hair. Is that not what life is about? you say. “To risk things? To do things that might end up badly because you believe it makes sense?”

I switch off the eight-legged horse. “And what if that end is death?”

“What if?” you say. “So what?”

You put your hand on my shoulder.

“You can consider yourself cursed by a possible future or blessed to live the moments that matter until that point. Which does not mean I will say ‘yes’ to you. I will take you just for a test-ride tonight, try you a bit before I buy you. From there we will see how this turns out.”

You have this ferocious/sweet smile on your face as you said this, the animal inside of you already awoken.

I take your hand, kiss your knuckles and laugh, knowing what will come. “I accept your invitation.”

#

Silver: you look at me from the edge of the bed. It is four months later. Your eyes are wide for a moment when you look at me. You smile and you look relaxed.

“I think it is time to admit that we have reached a point of no return,” you say.

I nod, dressing.

You move your legs over the edge of the bed. “How big are the chances?”

I shrug, open myself, flash out, come back. “He has not reached this branch of reality yet. It might never happen.”

We are in France, the tiny cottage house that has been left by my grandparents, upgraded by my father. I am about to go out to buy breakfast.

You frown as your mind branches through all possible scenarios you can come up with. Then you shake your head and smile.

“I think I will take the risk, Roman. Let’s make this something more substantial.” You rise, towering over me, look down. “Be my man.”

“Gladly.”

You laugh. “Fucker.”

#

Silver: another moment. You are in my apartment. Glass panels moved to maximize the living room. The pin that keeps your long hair together is on the table. You have been growing it for two years now. You are brushing the auburn strands in front of one of the panels that reflects your image, then you put everything down, remembering something.

When you come back from the toilet you are smiling.

“I am pregnant.”

You see my face and your eyes becomes dark.

I am crying and smiling, stand, embrace you.

“You will stop him,” you say several minutes later, holding my face between your big hands.

I nod.

“Realities will branch from here,” you say. “In some I will be killed. In others I will not.”

Your eyes capture mine.

“You know what matters most, Roman? What matters most to me? You are the most beautiful man I have ever had, the most beautiful person in my life, the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me. All of these five years have been full of light, have been worth it. Including the fights.”

I take her arms, close my hands around her wrists.

“I love you Roman. Make it worth.”

“Stay,” I say.

You shake your head.

—I want to live, Roman. (You: two years before.) Not to become a prisoner of a future that might or might not be. So find a different kind of solution. Find a way to deal with this, to keep me safe from harm without making me a prisoner.

I nod and take the three sentinels: black globes the size of your fists. Special issue. They are supposed to protect you. In some branches they will fail.

You touch them, activate them. They fall in position.

I kiss you as if it is the last time and you accept me with open mouth. I kiss you like it is the last time. All of me in that one moment and we part our ways smiling.

It will be another three months before you reach this branch of reality and use your knife to cut her open, Roan.

#

Silver: this is our last day together. You have left your hairpin on the table as you usually do. Forgotten. It is dark brown with white flowers on the sides. This is the kind of carelessness you do not allow in your work. It has become harder and harder to get past the pain of the things that will come and it is influencing me, influencing us, getting between us. It is getting between us, regardless of the efforts we make to clear things out. Regardless of our love…

There is this place of stillness in my heart. (You: the day before.) And in that stillness is one beautiful flower. That flower is our love. My love for you. The love you feel for me. Whatever happens between us, whatever has happened to us, that place, that flower remains untouched, unspoiled. It has only become more beautiful as the years passed.

We had an argument at the end of this day. You have left without a word, sent me a text later. “I love you, Roman.”

The next day you are dead.

#

I rise from your grave. You were, you are. The most beautiful woman in my life. Goodbye Silver.

(The end)

In this ending it is not just men running around with pistols acting tough. It is a full acknowledgement (as much as is possible in such short space) of the other. Silver in this case. By being honest and involve her from the beginning (the scene with the horse is the first time they meet and he already informs her of on of the possible outcomes of their relationship). By letting her speak. By reserving the last words for her.

Reflecting the multiplicity

In several moments in the story Roman (the main character) has to fight the concept of murder, of killing his own partner/”wife”. This is one at the end of chapter 5. (He collapses in chapter 6.)

Flashes, flashing by like memories of things that happened and still were to happen.

I killed you. I killed you both.

The blood was on my hands as well.

The messy nature of “time travel”

Time travel in this story (and my story worlds if I ever take on more of this kind of stories) is a mess. It is a mess as time itself is not linear and not a singular line. Unveil the fabric of reality and probably things are overwhelmingly complex.

Within infinite variations of “your” reality there are equally infinite variations of what comes “after” and what happened “before”. Like this, for instance:

In this reality Europe had never made it into the Industrial Revolution. Several fragments from a huge comet of ice and dirt had hit the surface somewhere in 1745. Volcanoes had spit out clouds and clouds of ashes. The temperature was over 400 degrees centigrade. The sky hidden by black clouds. The pressure of the boiling atmosphere massive. Like standing under 40 meters of water.

We were standing on the remainders of a great desert with ruins of buildings that would have been New York if this line had had a different past. There were no others of me in this branch, no others of VinsonLevvy.

This reality was eerily quiet.

The random events that lead to the birth of Roman, the main character, have been erased in this reality. The world is basically a boiling pot where life as we know it is not possible anymore.

Attributes

I attributed two writers in the first version: Keith Laumer with his several series of stories in which parallel worlds and travelling over these worlds played a main role, and Roger Zelazny who wrote the Amber series — among others — taking similar concepts on parallel universes.

The Jet Li move “The One” can not remain unmentioned either. Even if it was not a starting point, the story has enough parallels to several elements mentioned (and makes enough wrong assumptions when you start taking it too seriously). I saw it in the cinema when it came out.

There might be other stories with similar themes, but I simply do not know them.

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