Random Thoughts – The Problem with Time in Sci-Fi

Time brings an interesting problem to sci-fi. In any other genre, time can almost be ignored. Either it matters to the story or it doesn’t. This can be its own issue, but that is mainly a logical or consistency thing. In sci-fi, though, time becomes integral to the discussion. This has to do with the fact that so much of sci-fi has to do with space.

I recently read two books that highlighted the problem of time and the two solutions to it. The first book was Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein, and the second was Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The solutions were a generational ship and hibernation/stasis respectively. That’s right, this is a double book review and random thoughts. And warning, there will be spoilers for both.

In Orphans of the Sky, Hugh is part of the crew of a ship headed to a far off galaxy. It’s been an unknown number of generations since the ship took off, but it has been long enough that everyone has forgotten what their mission is. They know they are on a ship, though they don’t understand that it is a space ship or that anything exists outside of the ship. The ship is all of reality and all that there is.

The external conflict is a fight between the humans that Hugh is a part of and mutants who hide in higher levels of the vessel. Hugh is captured by a group of these mutants where he is taken to Joe-Jim, a two-headed mutant who leads one of the strongest gangs. Hugh manages to befriend Joe-Jim and is exposed to the true nature of reality, the ship, and its mission.

He attempts to convince the humans to ally with the mutants in order to accomplish their original mission. Everything seems to work towards this plan, but a sudden betrayal by the Captain reveals that the humans want to maintain the status quo and their new society. The mutants are all killed while Hugh, his friend, and their wives are barely able to escape to settle on the planetary goal of their ancestors.

Children of Time starts with a group of scientists over a terraformed planet. Their goal is to introduce a group of apes to the planet along with a virus. This virus is designed to improve evolution among the apes. As they are about to launch the apes and virus, a terrorist plot is revealed that destroys the ship.

The virus is just barely launched where it crashes to the planet and finds a suitable host in several of the insect and arachnid species. The virus works in the spiders, causing them to grow larger and smarter over hundreds of generations. They form a complex society, battle and domestic ant colonies to serve as biological computer systems, and become the dominant species on the planet.

In addition to this plotline, there is another that follows a group of humans from Earth. Earth has been used up and has become uninhabitable. Scraping together the technology of a lost past, they are able to create a ship to carry the remains of the human race to a new planet. The crew is placed in stasis for the trip, though several members of the key crew are woken up periodically to address various problems such as attempted mutinies, god complexes, and finding a suitable planet to settle on.

Ultimately, the solution to the humans’ settlement problem rests with the world the spiders have claimed. Pushed by the existential dread of extinction, the humans and spiders clash for control of the planet.

Both books are great. Orphans of the Sky does have some very problematic issues with how it views women, and I completely understand any who can’t get past that. The only good thing is that it is only brought up maybe twice in the story, so it does not act as a huge distractor. It is fun and thought provoking despite this, and I give it the Silver Stash.

Children of Time is amazing. Really, if you are a fan of sci-fi, read this book. It tackles interesting questions, sets up it plots well, and the spiders aren’t that bad. Trust me, I’m an arachnophobe and I’m saying read this. My only issue is the actual resolution to the conflict. Ultimately, this book gets the Steel Stash. It’s amazing.

Now that the books are out of the way, let’s look at how they handle time. Like I said, time is one of the most important aspects of space sci-fi. To paraphrase Hitchhikers’ Guide, space is big, like really, really big. Space is stupid big. Distances in space are so great, they are practically meaningless. They become measured in how long it takes light to travel to them.

Think about that. Distance is measured by how long it takes one of the fastest phenomenons we know of to travel. We don’t do that on a planet. We can see and imagine distance on a planet. You can conceivably walk from one end of a continent to the other. You can travel around the Earth. To travel to another solar system, you have to find some way of accelerating to the speed of light and then it will still take you decades.

This means that the only solution to space travel, well without a handwave of faster than light travel, is to either have a generational ship or to use stasis. Find some way for your grandchildren to reach the planet or freeze yourself.

Orphans of the Sky uses the first approach. With generational ships, you end up with some interesting problems and questions. What happens if the crew forgets? What happens to society? What about concepts like free will and democracy?

Of course, the last question is probably one of the most important. Unfortunately, it is one of the easiest to answer as well. A generational ship can’t be a democracy. People have a habit of not always choosing the best solution for the whole. With a ship, you only have what you have. You are severely limited on resources. Democratic and capitalistic models are not likely to work unless you massively over-design everything. Of course, that has its drawbacks as well in terms of cost of construction. So everything needs to be rationed.

Even if you have the ability to provide abundance for everyone, there is still the issue of maintenance. It is a ship after all. It needs to be repaired. It needs certain actions. Over a short timeframe, that may not be an issue, but what happens when you need more engineers, technicians, and specialists? Do you let society decide? Do you beg? Or do you put the mission and survival of everyone onboard above individual wants and tell people what they need to do?

Of course, another solution to the people issue is to alter the society to place a higher value on these jobs. This can be accomplished through extra perks and incentives, or it can come on the form of veneration and deification of the command. This is the direction that Orphans end up going in. The original captain, Jordan, became a god to the people of Hugh’s time while the mutineer Huff became the devil. The Captain wasn’t just a job, but a position of honor and power, not for the common man.

One of the values of Orphans is that not only does it ask these questions, but it also explores the issues that they can bring up. Jordan’s writings, ship manuals and technical logs, become holy documents. One must be initiated into the grand mysteries of a scientist to even read them, and even then, these things aren’t for question. They are merely to be followed.

This, of course, leads to the problem of the power-hungry. Hugh wants to complete the sacred mission that Jordan set out on. In attempting to do so, he works with several key members of the scientists to overthrow the Captian and install a new man who will finish the mission. The new Captian, however, just wanted power. He found an opportunity and seized it, using Hugh and the mutants to gain his position before disposing of them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Children of Time. The crew was all put in stasis. For many members of humanity, they fled a dying Earth, went to sleep, and woke up on a foreign planet. For some, however, they kept waking up throughout the trip. The eyes of humanity during the trip is a scholar named Mason. He was a student of the past and knew the old languages and programming. Any time the ship encountered some piece of old tech, he was woken up to help translate and provide advice.

This led to some interesting questions from him. Objectively, he was hundreds of years old. Subjectively, he was only a few decades. This was a thought process that his mind continued to struggle to comprehend. How do you reconcile those two thoughts? How do you realistically rationalize the idea that you aren’t eternal? Or insignificant? How do you face the endless march of time when you constantly blip in and out of it. How do you reconcile time itself when even time becomes meaningless do to your constant jumps forward?

For the humans of Children, distance is a meaningless concept. No matter how far anything is, it is only a single night’s sleep away. For those who kept waking up, time loses its value as well.

Of course, these questions are the reason why sci-fi is such an influential genre. It is one of the only genres that can ask questions like these, that can explore the human psyche and experience through them.

But what do you think? Do you feel there are different ways to approach these problems? Different questions you want to explore? What answers do you have? Let me know your thoughts. And as always, I mustache you to stay fantastical.

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