Tags: mythology



Monday, May 8th, 2023


There are two kinds of time-travel stories.

There are time-travel stories that explore the many-worlds hypothesis. Going back in time and making a change forks the universe. But the universe is constantly forking anyway. So effectively the time travel is a kind of universe-hopping (there’s a big crossover here with the alternative history subgenre).

The problem with multiverse stories is that there’s always a reset available. No matter how bad things get, there’s a parallel universe where everything is hunky dory.

The other kind of time travel story explores the idea of a block universe. There is one single timeline.

This is what you’ll find in Tenet, for example, or for a beautiful reduced test case, the Ted Chiang short story What’s Expected Of Us. That gets straight to the heart of the biggest implication of a block universe—the lack of free will.

There’s no changing what has happened or what will happen. In fact, the very act of trying to change the past often turns out to be the cause of what you’re trying to prevent in the present (like in Twelve Monkeys).

I’ve often referred to these single-timeline stories as being like Greek tragedies. But only recently—as I’ve been reading quite a bit of Greek mythology—have I realised that the reverse is also true:

Greek tragedies are time-travel stories.

Hear me out…

Time-travel stories aren’t actually about physically travelling in time. That’s just a convenience for the important part—information travelling in time. That’s at the heart of most time-travel stories; informaton from the future travelling back to the past.

William Gibson’s The Peripheral—very much a many-worlds story with its alternate universe “stubs”—takes this to its extreme. Nothing phyiscal ever travels in time. But in an age of telecommuting, nothing has to. Our time travellers are remote workers.

That book also highlights the power dynamics inherent in information wealth. Knowledge of the future gives you an advantage that you can exploit in the past. This is what Mark Twain’s Connecticut yankee does in King Arthur’s court.

This power dynamic is brilliantly inverted in Octavia Butler’s brilliant Kindred. No amount of information can help you if your place in society is determined by the colour of your skin.

Anyway, the point is that information flow is what matters in time-travel stories. Therefore any story where information travels backwards in time is a time-travel story.

That includes any story with a prophecy. A prophecy is information about the future, like:

Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother.

You can try to change your fate, but you’ll just end up triggering it instead.

Greek tragedies are time-travel stories.

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

Bound in Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift

If a human civilization beyond Earth ever comes into being, this will be unprecedented in any historical context we might care to invoke—unprecedented in recorded history, unprecedented in human history, unprecedented in terrestrial history, and so on. There have been many human civilizations, but all of these civilizations have arisen and developed on the surface of Earth, so that a civilization that arises or develops away from the surface of Earth would be unprecedented and in this sense absolutely novel even if the institutional structure of a spacefaring civilization were the same as the institutional structure of every civilization that has existed on Earth. For this civilizational novelty, some human novelty is a prerequisite, and this human novelty will be expressed in the mythology that motivates and sustains a spacefaring civilization.

A deep dive into deep time:

Record-keeping technologies introduce an asymmetry into history. First language, then written language, then printed books, and so and so forth. Should human history extend as far into the deep future as it now extends into the deep past, the documentary evidence of past beliefs will be a daunting archive, but in an archive so vast there would be a superfluity of resources to trace the development of human mythologies in a way that we cannot now trace them in our past. We are today creating that archive by inventing the technologies that allow us to preserve an ever-greater proportion of our activities in a way that can be transmitted to our posterity.

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

scott_lynch: Against Big Bird, The Gods Themselves Contend In Vain

It turns out that Big Bird is a god-defying instantiation of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion. Magnificent!

Big Bird and Snuffy go with him to stand in the Hall of Two Truths at the gate to the afterlife. The gigantic foam balls on these guys! Sure, Elmo loves you, but when’s the last time Elmo held anyone’s hand on the threshold of eternal night?