Saturday, October 19, 2013

Charles Williams’s Twist on Time Travel

Like a lot of readers who grew up in the last century and a half, I love time-travel stories. But ever since I was a kid, I’ve laughed at the literary and (for obvious reasons) cinematic cliché that time travelers take their clothes with them. If I remember correctly, Wells’s time traveler took along everything within the volume if the machine, air included. But his invisible man didn’t take anything else with him into invisibility: an observer could see even the food he ate, sitting in his stomach but apparently floating in air, until his body assimilated it and it became him. So why couldn’t his time traveler show up in the past naked and gasping for air?

In Many Dimensions, Charles Williams explores the idea that a time traveler doesn’t even take his body, let alone his clothes. The time travel situation, though, involves a complication that might make more sense if I explain a different kind of travel first. The plot of Many Dimensions centers on a stone that embodies the power of God and contains all of space, time, and personality within it. People who hold the stone can will themselves into different locations, times, and minds. Those who use the stone to read other people’s minds travel mentally to their target’s location; the traveler’s body conveniently remains behind, preferably seated comfortably while its captain leaves the ship momentarily. The mind free from material underpinnings, then, is able to observe what the target personality observes. But the mind traveler in the book doesn’t become the other person; he retains his own train of thought and knows it as his own, while simultaneously observing the other’s train of thought with some kind of objective distance.

Observing the train of thought reminded me of the Principles of Psychology of William James, in which I read last year that the train of thought is the thinking thing. There is no higher observer, James says, that constitutes the “I” that has the thoughts. “I” is the thought. But Williams remains consistent with his psychological model involving an ego-mind dichotomy, and the dichotomy causes some interesting problems when people try time traveling with the stone. One character who travels to the future finds first that the clock appears to have moved rather quickly, but then realizes he has memories of the intervening minutes, although the memories seem detached and hazy. It seems that Williams has both the body and the train of thought live without interruption and moves only the higher “I” ahead, causing a disturbing conflict in the character of remembering both living through and skipping over the intervening time.

Williams isn’t entirely consistent, though. One poor fellow tries to go back in time, only to live the same few minutes over and over, since each time he gets to T-Time, he again relives the choice to go back in time. His body doesn’t travel back, and he doesn’t meet himself: the usual, McFlyesque scenario. But in this case, the body disappears. No captain, no ship this time. What’s more, when the heroes of the book recover the fellow through some clever manipulations of will and thought, he doesn’t seem to have any higher self that has observed the looping train of thought, the way the person moving forward in time observes the memories of the time he skipped.

Now I can call this inconsistency, and blame Williams for not thinking it through carefully enough. Or (and since I love the book, I’m more inclined to choose door no. 2), I can say that it’s Williams’s imaginative world, and that he can have it as mysterious and unexplained as he wants. But I am disappointed that when characters use the stone for mystical, instantaneous travel through space, they take their clothes with them.

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