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Italy 1. Pisa.

November 19th, 2019

Sylvia and I were in Italy for two weeks.

We were guests at the Internet Festival 2019 which organized a bunch of talks, displays, and demos. Eating is one of the many good things about being in Italy. This was a place called Schiaccianoci which means “nutcracker,” don’t ask me why. It was a seafood restaurant, just amazing, full of local types. Fabio Gadducci took us there. He’s friends with the owner. He didn’t really order in detail; the owner just brought us a long series of good plates.

Who’s Fabio? Our contact a the con, a great guy. I think this cigarette were from Ukraine or something. Just tobacco! But people smoke odd brands in Europe. Fabio is a professor at the University of Pisa, involved with computer science, software engineering, and the history of computation. Also very much a boulevardier, a charming man about town, with friends everywhere.

Fabio pointed out that there was a show of Futurist art in town. Sylvia and I actually pushed our way in there for the opening night party…I told the guy at the door I was a famous American science fiction writer…and he said to come back in half an hour and he’d let us in.

Naturally we checked out the Tower of Pisa. They actually worked for centuries, off and on, at stabilizing it. Ut was very cool, of course but the crowd of tourists at this spot was kind of brutal. And everyone but everyone was posing with their hands up so the photo would look like they were propping up the tower.

Mostly we were walking more or less randomly around Pisa. A lot of walls in Italy are yellow, or peach, or apricot, or brick red, or pink. Mediterranean. I like the curve of the shadow here.

One of the churches we went into had this cool old bowsprit from a ship. I think maybe it was a model of the original, but an old model.

Plenty of art graffiti around, stenciled on. Tiny streets and alleys. I like this spot, the 3D jitter.

Lots of this one fat graffiti logo too, all over town. I never could figure out what it said.

Fabio arranged it so the organizers gave us free lodging in what I guess was a university dorm. At night a huge, I mean humongous flock of birds would swirl around and around, settling down into a few big pine trees. I asked one of the locals about it. They said a bird flock is called a stormo, and that this particular kind of bird here is also called a stormo. Once they were in their tree, settled down, they kept cheeping and squawking for a long time. A wonderful multifarious sound.

Design in everything; the Italians are masters of design. This think t looks like a conscious animal. Resting. “Tomorrow I work. Or maybe the day after that.” It’s amplified with the presence of sign that looks like a cursor symbol. Once we get our 3D augmented reality effectors in place you’ll be able to click on the steam roller and lift it up into the air.

Our dorm was by the River Arno, which runs from Florence, through Pisa, and into the Mediterranean west of Italy. Scullers here, in the sunset. The tower was a guard post for a gate into the city, back when. If the guys in the tower didn’t like the looks an new arrival, they’d throw rocks down onto them.

Here’s Leonardo of Pisa, more commonly known as Fibonacci. On the street, he’s best known for the Fibonacci series of numbers. Each Fibonacci number is the sum of the two before. You start with 1 and 1. You add them and get 2. And so on. So the Fibonacci series is, like, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610. 987, and wheenk on. They’re based on a story about raising pairs of rabbits and counting how many you have.

The silly story is in Fibonacci’s classic Liber Abaci of the year 1202. The most important math book of the Middle Ages. It taught Europeans how to use zeroes, Arabic numerals, and positional notation. Which gave arithmetic an exponential speed-up. Relative to those times, it was practically like getting computers.

Fibonacci’s statue is in this really beautiful arcade near the Leaning Tower, it’s called the Camposanto, like Holy Field, it’s sort of a graveyard. They mixed in some soil from the Holy Land.

They had a chamber with a bunch of saints’ relics, like piece chunks of bone. This chunk is from St. Costanza. So gnarly.

Dig the beautiful Art Noveau stenciling on this building. I think those might be Uni Pi students coming out.

Rooting for sights, Sylvia and I ended up in the Pisa Botanical garden, and within it was a little museum, and in the second floor of the museum, we assiduous seekers found some very cool stuffed animals. It was a small room, so they mounted a few of the on the ceiling to good effect.

And there was something even better in the next room: big models made of colored wax. A very cool sculpture medium. This one shows the sprouting of a leek in extensive detail. I looked at it for a really long time.

This here is the old time University of Pisa prof who made those models; and the little museum in the Bot Garden is named after him. He’s marble, not wax.

We had a large church near our dorm; it always seemed to be closed, though we should have checked on Sunday morning. Behind it was this very Hieronymus Bosch type building with a pointed roof. A lot of stormo birds came here in the evening. The building is, I think, what they call a baptistery…for some reason baptism rated a whole separate building.

This is Laura, a pleasant computer scientist working, I think, at the Uni Pi, she was at the con and I talked to her a few times. Don’t know what she’s doing with the cigarettes, but I grabbed her photo. (I’ll find her last name later.)

This was in the elevator at the botany museum. The opening shot for an SF adventure, right?

One day I was at loose ends, and wanted to find place to have lunch, and looked at Google maps, which led me to hell and gone, ending at a spot that seemed to unsavory, so I kept walking, in a more working-class neighborhood now, near a factory, flipped into the black-and-white world of Neorealist cinema.

It’s so nice to get off the beaten track. Everything is interesting, everything is different, sanctioned sights don’t matter. I liked this dangling thing up there—remnant of the Inquisition? Something to do with horses? And dig the prickly-pear hedge. Like in California.

Another gift from the muse of strolling. The red and white bar is nice addition, also the toothy fence. This is a chunk of the old city wall.

I know it’s cheap to photograph signage, but sometimes, well, you gotta. Especially when it’s night.

More on the genius of Italian design. These shapes are trash bins. The genius part is that each of those visible metal pimples is attached to a subterranean bin the size of the cargo hold on a truck, with the bin’s long side going down into the ground, and the pimple on top. In the morning an insanely ultra-designed huge garbage truck with a crane on top lifts each trash pimple high into the air—with its hidden trash bins now visible, dangling—and squeek a door on the bottom of bin hinges open, and the trash falls into the truck.

This is my very dear friend Daniele Brolli, who translates my SF books into Italian. He’s William Gibson’s translator as well. Brolli is a great translator because he’s an author himself. I try and see Brolli whenever I’m in Italy; he’s one of the kindest and most intelligent people I know.

With Sylvia at that restaurant with Brolli.

The Arno in the morning. I’ve love seeing buildings reflected in rivers!

And here’s Ran Zhang, a cool Chinese SF writer. He says he’s not a cyberpunk…he’s in a different category, but what that is I don’t exactly know.

It was fun hanging out with Ran. He gave me a Chinese cigarette to smoke. Our peace pipe.

These were the people at the talk I gave, it was about “Lifebox, Telepathy, and Immortality,” and was similar to a talk I gave at the IOHK conference in Florida. It went over pretty well. Daniele Brolli introduced me, and Ran Zhang talked too.

Bruce Sterling showed up, which was great. I love that guy. We’ve published a book’s worth of stories together, Transreal Cyberpunk. It was a pleasure to hear his talk…he was going on about various kinds of colorful cybercriminals, which was funny as the speaker just before him had been laying out an idealistic fantasy about how “everyone willl soon agree on basic rules of how to use the internet.” As if!

We took this photo in a bistro near the Pisa train station, we were waiting for a seafood restaurant to open. Kind of a Di Chirico feel to this setting here, and of course we’ve got a Keith Haring mural in the background. Bruce is an allegorical figure of some kind, but I’m not sure what the allegory is.

We might be working on a new story together…something peripherally involving Fibonacci.

My last day in Pisa, Roberto Malfagia and some of his cool VR guys from Florence made a 3D film of me. The group is called La Jetee, you can see an example of their work here. Being recorded by them I felt like the next stage of the Rudy lifebox bot. That’s not me standing there, that guy is for getting the focus right. The guy in silhouette is nice photographer Manuel.

I told about an SF scenario I’d been thinking about. For immorality, we’ll take advantage of natural computation, in particular we store a person’s lifebox-ghost as a pattern in the octillion interwingled atoms of a stone. Let’s say it’s a gravestone. Your soul is in there.

And whenever you aren’t embodied as a juicy ghost in a living organism, your soul in the stone is waiting for some person or, better, some animal to chance past. And you can do a surgical, cyberknife-type, tight-beam narrowcast of your code into the brain (and the muscles!) of an animal.

And then you live in the animal for awhile as a juicy ghost. A crow. He circles up into the air, a rising gyre. In explaining this, I made a theatrical, swirling, upward gesture with my hand, with a Tim-Leary-type pitchman’s smile on my face, faking ecstasy for the camera.

Arrivederci, Pisa! And grazie.

Podcast #110. Million Mile Road Trip. And Memories of Michael Blumlein.

October 28th, 2019

October 26, 2019. Discussing and reading from Million Mile Roadtrip. And reminiscing about the late, great, and wonderful Michael Blumlein. Press the arrow below to play “Million Mile Road Trip. And Memories of Michael Blumlein.”

Play

And, if you like, Subscribe to Rudy Rucker Podcasts.


Two Dimensional Time and Annalee Newitz’s 2nd Novel

October 23rd, 2019

This is a fairly long blog post. In my usual fashion, I’ll break up the text blocks with photos. Most of today’s images are from a recent trip to Italy. They have (at least superficially) no connection with the text. But never forget the Surrealist principle that everything illuminates everything!

“Nine Dragons” acrylic on canvas, October, 2019, 40” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

Like a Book Review

I recently read Annalee Newitz’s second novel, The Future of Another Timeline. It’s great. I was beguiled by the prose, fond of the characters, absorbed by the action, and intrigued by Newitz’s notions about time editing.

Men get harsh treatment in this book’s pages. Monstrous male villains from the future are trying to enslave women throughout all of history. The loss of voting rights and the denial of abortion rights aren’t enough for these goons. They’d like to see women who lack hands and who maybe don’t even have heads. Newitz’s heroines have max impact against these GOPpy creeps.

Meanwhile (if that word makes sense in a time travel novel) the younger versions of our characters are hanging out in the 1990s. I like their conversations. “We talked for a while about the stupidity of Disney World, and how it was like wanting to take a vacation inside a plastic replica of a vacation.” [Sorry, Cory!] And there’s a nice evocation of them at a rock concert, as seen by one of their future selves:

What really jolted me was the way people occupied themselves as they waited for the music to start. Nobody was texting or taking selfies. And without phones, people didn’t know what to do with their eyes. I didn’t either.

As well as going to rock shows, the younger characters are butchering sex-offenders in scenes of full-on horror gore. Not for the squeamish, but sick-funny in a Grand Guignol way. And, hey, they’re only killing men, so really it’s okay. No worse than squashing bugs.

To remove any lingering moral ambiguity, one of the women gives up serial killing—after a talking-to from her time-travelling future self. Newitz springs a fresh take on this normally mandatory time-travel-novel cliché.

I was wondering whether I’d ever see [my future self] Tess again. Would I grow up into her, and have to come back in time to visit myself? From what I’d learned in our unit on time travel, that was fake movie pseudoscience. It was more like her visit had reshuffled the timeline, generating a new history and future in its wake. Only Tess would remember the timeline that existed before her edit.

Regarding being a killer or not, at the very end of the novel this character realizes she was meant to be one all along.

Maybe that was why I belonged in the first century B.C.E. In Nabataean, there was a word for what I did best. There was actually a job that combined my skills as an academic and a murderer.
“I think I’d like to be an assassin.”
Hugayr smiled. “Great! We’ve really been needing one.”

The savage settling of scores is refreshing in these fraught times, and the book is a punk feminist anthem. We’ve seen enough bromantic sword-fighting, macho, jaw-jutting oink-fests, for sure. And the time travel scenes are enchanting.

Rain swarmed around us, full of fat hot drops and freezing bullets of hail, and we held each other in the void that meant history was still mutable. I concentrated on my friends, and how their breathing felt next to mine. We seemed to spin slowly, like a drifting asteroid or a diatom in the ocean’s water column.

The novel also features a thread of warm historical-fiction interplay involving women’s suffrage, family planning, belly dancing, and goddess worshipping. Things can be quite cozy when men aren’t around. And Newitz is wonderful at sketching scenes. Here’s old Chicago.

Wednesday night was humid. Sunset spread like a rash over the water, and the reek of rotting pig guts in the river mingled with smoke from roasting nuts.

Read The Future of Another Timeline! It’s cosmic, nasty, thoughtful fun.

Timeline Edits

My main goal today is to ponder the SF machinery in Newitz’s epic. The novel is about editing our timeline. That’s a geeky, techie concept I can wrap my monkey mind around. I realize that others have analyzed time travel, but rather than summarizing past efforts, I’ll wing this essay on my own.

This said, I’ll mention that a good recent survey is Damien Broderic, The Time Machine Hypothesis. And the Encyclopedia of Science Ficion, has many, many links.

I’ve thought about time travel a lot over the years. And this month a time travel story by Marc Laidlaw and me is appearing in Asimov’s: “Surfers at the End of Time.”

The idea behind timeline-editing is to change your past so your present is more like you want it to be. That is, people hop to past times, do things there, and hop back to the era where they started. When competing groups are editing the timeline you get what’s known as a “change war” or a “time war.” The Future of Another Timeline is about an ongoing time war.

But let’s back up for a second. As is known to all SF readers, timeline editing leads to odd situations. Suppose I’m sick of the corrupt and evil Premier Treadle. I hop back seventy years and drown him as a lad. Then I hop back to our present day. No more Treadle. Hooray!

But wait. Assuming my memories remain intact, I’ll notice that the present which I return to is not the same as the present I started from. It used to have Treadle, and now it doesn’t. How can one and the same present have two different forms?

The paradox gets particularly intense if you go back in time and depressively kill your own self as a child. If you then hop back your starting time, you’re in a world where you yourself have been dead for decades. So how can you even exist?

A separate issue is the fact that when we’re doing timeline-editing, or doing any kind of time travel at all, we get into different dimensions or levels or directions of time. That is, if I talk about the former, unedited version of my present as being in my personal “past,” that means that my life’s individual timeline is distinct from the world’s overall timeline.

Getting all lit-crit on your ass, the actions of time travelers are narrated as a (harrumph) diegesis, that as in a POV stream of experience that includes its own arrow of time. The individual’s diegetic time can be distinct from the world’s time. This is a large and stinky elephant in the living room, and it’s not often discussed.

So I’ll get back to elephant in a minute, but let’s say a bit more about the paradox issue first.

Option 1: Paradoxes Don’t Happen

One option is just to insist that the paradoxes don’t happen. You go back in time planning to kill young Treadle but, for whatever reason, you somehow don’t manage to. Or you go back and kill your earlier self, and maybe it seems like you’re successful, but guess what, your earlier self does not in fact really die, they have a miraculous recovery, accompanied by complete amnesia about nearly being killed, so there’s not paradox.

This move appears in a number of Golden Age time-travel stories.

And it’s the route that Marc Laidlaw and I recently took in our story “Surfers at the End of Time”, as I describe it in my on it post on it. I once had a chance to discuss time travel with the god-like logician Kurt Gödel, and he said, “Why not suppose that the world always arranges itself so that these paradoxes do not occur. If something is logically impossible, then it doesn’t happen. A priori logic is very powerful.”

Option 2: Multiple Timelines

The standard boilerplate time-travel-novel move is to say that, when you hop back in time, you don’t enter the the past of your own original timeline, which we’ll call timeline A. You go to the past of a parallel timeline B. And the changes you make in the past of B will be in effect in the present-day era of B, but not in the present-day era of A. You will have made timeline B into a better world than timeline B by deleting the foul Treadle. Or maybe you’ve made B into a sadder, duller timeline be deleting your fabulous and scintillating self.

Fine.

A variation on the theme of parallel timelines is to talk about branching timelines. Recently Bill Gibson integrated this move very smoothly into his wonderful novel The Peripheral, which I discussed on my blog. If you go to this page, also check out San Jose physicist Ken Wharton’s incisive comment at the end of the post.

The branching timeline idea is that I hop to the past of my timeline A and make a change (or, in Gibson’s case, make a change by opening a transtemporal communication channel to the past). And then (in which timestream is the diegetic “then” situated? ) timeline A splits off a branch or pokes out a stub that we can call timeline B. Your intervention occurs in the forked-off timeline B, but not in timeline A.

In either case, a new question arises.

When you hop forward from the past of B to the present day, what happens? Do you end up in crappy old A or in the nice new B? If you return to the present of timeline A, then you’re back in a world still addled with the vile Treadle, so your excursion has accomplished nothing in terms of improving your own life. And nobody in A will even have noticed that you were gone. You maybe disappeared for maybe a split second while you were doing your time excursion. Unsatisfying. What do you really care if some invisible timeline (or timeline-branch) B is okay, if your still in crappy timeline A?

It’s more customary to suppose that you hop from the past of B to the present of B. This feels right if you suppose that your intervention in fact produced the branch timeline B. If you hatched B, then maybe you ought to be staying in it.

On the other hand, if we’re using the Peripheral set-up, in which you don’t physically travel to the past, but you only send some signals to the past, then you yourself never really leave timeline A, so you will still be in timeline A, and the changes will be off in timeline B, which you can’t see.

[I can’t resist a joke here. Gibson says the trans-temporal communication links are made via a certain “server”—but nobody knows where it is. Might it be in…the Ukraine? Might this server have been operative in the emergence of that hideous election-gone-wrong stub that we’ve been suffering in since November, 2016?]

There are a few issues with hopping from the present of timeline A to the past of timeline B.

First of all, when you hop from the present of timeline A to the past of B, and then stay in in B, you disappear permanently from the present of A, never to be seen again in timeline A.

Second of all, if you hop from the present of A to the past of B and then to the present of B, it seems likely there will be a version of you already in the present era of timeline B there. A You-B. Do you move in with You-B? Have sex with them? Kill them? For nearly all possible versions, see the unforgettable and sexually louche time-travel extravaganza, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold.

If you want to avoid dealing with You-B, you might suppose there is in fact no You-B at all in timeline B. Maybe whenever you enter a new timeline B, it’s automatically lacking a You-B version of you. Would be handy. Like the omniscient transtemporal mulitiversal Great Spirit of the timelines has removed any copy of you from any timeline you are going to jump to. Somehow this makes me think of cleaning shrimp, and getting that dark shit-filled veins out of the shrimps’ backs. Your copies’ timelines being the shit veins, you understand.

Against Multiple Timelines

I’ve harped on this before, but basically I don’t like parallel worlds solutions to time travel. I think they’re wasteful, and I think they undermine one’s interest in the timelines involved. If all kinds of timelines are possible, then why should I care about any particular one of them? If everything happens, then nothing matters.

Even worse than multiple timelines is full multiverse worlds in which every possible world is just as real as ours. This is complete bullshit. An utter abandonment of common sense. Our world is rich and beautifully crafted, and not some random piece of crap.

I feel there really is some kind of underlying Logos. A secret of life. A white light. A cosmic aha. A glow. A magic mantra. Maybe there are a few alternate worlds, I’m okay with that. But not a buzzing gnat swarm of them.

The Newitz Option: Two Dimensional Time

Newitz takes an approach to the time paradoxes that’s kind of strange. She allows time travel and timeline editing. But she insists that there’s only one timeline. No parallel timelines, no branching timelines. Just our one timeline: “Our only timeline, whose natural stability emerged from perpetual revision.”

So, somehow, when you travel back in time, you alter the timeline..for everyone. But you yourself remember how it was before the change. This might be viewed as hopping to a different timestream, but Newitz doesn’t want that. She wants to have just one timestream. But the timestream is changing.

Geologists [Newitz’s word for students of time travel] agreed that the timeline was constantly in flux. Travelers exposed to edits returned with memories of lost histories, previous versions of the timeline they had witnessed.

Change means passage of time. So if the timestream is changing, that means there’s a second dimension of time which is, as it were, perpendicular to our normal direction of time. Let’s use the word meta-time for the second direction of time. As meta-time elapses, our entire universe of space time evolves. Like a twitching mollusc. At least this is how I see it, although Newitz has a slightly different image of what’s going on.

In a way, there are many timelines. But only one exists in our universe. The others are possibilities. Every time we change history, it’s as if we pull a segment from one of those other timelines into our own. The more we edit, the more our timeline becomes a patchwork. That’s why travelers remember so many different timelines. Each of us recalls the timeline before we made our changes. Every traveler has a slightly different patchwork in our memories.

When one philosopher want to harsh on another one, they’ll say the the other one’s views are “incoherent.” Is the idea of pulling in segments from other possible timelines incoherent? I wouldn’t go that far.

But if you don’t want the alternate timelines to be real, I think it’s better to stress that you’re editing our one timeline over the passage of meta-time. And that those other possible future timelines are imaginary.

Restating this, some of the other timelines are versions of our timeline that date back to early moments of meta-time. One of the timelines is our timeline as of this moment in meta-time. And the many, many other timelines are imaginary possible timelines that we might reach with the passage of meta-time. But we will in fact evolve into only a limited number of those options.

The time machines in the book are geological sites called Machines. Nobody knows where they came from. Newitz says, “the Machines are like … threads. They sew swatches together into a single quilt.”

This image is, again, close to being incoherent. I’d prefer to say that the Machines are like timestream-editing tools. The other timelines are not “out there.” As I understand it, in the context of The Future of Another Timeline, , the women characters and the evil men from the future are using the Machines to alter the timeline.

To me that’s not so much like quilting as it’s like having several people editing one and the same Photoshop image at once. Or, more to the point, like several people editing the same document at once. The document being the Great Book of Life, the Akahasic record of all time.

I used this image in my novel Mathematicians in Love, where I had a divine jellyfish fully re-editing our entire timestream once a week—where of course the week was elapsing in meta-time.

This said, the quilting image is also apt, if you think in terms of appliqué. The time travellers are editing spots of history as if inserting new fabric. And always remember that, as they do this, meta-time is passing, and the whole timestream is writing like a Santa Cruz banana slug.

Maybe the most confusing thing about the Newitz universe is that she insists that after you go back in time and make a timeline edit, you yourself will still remember how the world was before you changed it—even though nobody else in the world will remember the old world. You the timeline editor are unique. I’d like to see a nice coherent theory of how this works, and maybe, in the future of another timeline, I’ll work it out.

For now, let’s just say that, when you’re time-editing, you’re moving “sideways” in meta-time, and you’re in some way immune to the overall alteration of the timeline.

The main plot hook in the novel is kind of cool. If all the [time] Machines were destroyed, then the people in the timeline would be unable to make any further timeline edits. And the goal of those dastardly male turds from the future is in fact to edit the world into a really crappy anti-woman state—and simultaneously to destroy all the Machines so that everyone is stuck inside that one crappy world for the rest of time and for the rest of meta-time. Dead end.

We’re living in a timeline where the [time] Machines are being damaged. Soon, we could be in one where the Machines don’t work at all.

Eeek. And why does this feel so very much like the current political horror-show of our United States?

Thank you, Annalee for your call to arms! See you further down the winding road of meta-time.

“Surfers at the End of Time” with Marc Laidlaw

October 23rd, 2019

My latest story with Marc Laidlaw is in the Nov-Dec, 2019, Asimov’s SF magazine. Today’s blog post is a copy of a post I put on the Asimov’s blog. And thanks to Emily Hockaday for making that happen.

“Surfers at the End of Time” is the seventh story that Marc and I have collaborated on. All but one of the tales are SF surfing stories that feature two guys called Zep and Del.

Often when I collaborate, I’ll do what I call a transreal move, that is, I’ll have the story be about two people, and one of the characters is somewhat like me, and the other is like my co-author. To some extent Zep is like me, and Del is like Marc. This said, we often ventriloquize each other’s characters, in that Marc might write Zep scenes and I might write Del.

This time out, we wanted to do a time-travel story. We’d talked about this for a few years. At first we were focused on the notion of flooded cities, with the sea-level half-way up on the sky-scrapers. This theme was featured in the excellent 2001 Brian Aldiss inspired movie, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and there’s a touch of it in Tomorrowland too. Marc had imagined surf contests amid the buildings. But in 2017, just as we were ready to start, Kim Stanley Robinson pretty much used up the trope with his New York 2140. Marc and I did write some nice flooded-San-Francisco scenes, but we needed more.

Marc was enthused about the H. G. Wells novel The Time Machine—and about the 1960 movie version directed by George Pal. I watched the movie online, and I dug it. We wanted to use Wells’s classic scene where the Time Traveler goes so far into the future that the sun is bloated and the Earth is nearly lifeless. Thus our title: “Surfers at the End of Time.” I like to pronounce the last word like I’m in an echo chamber: “Tiyiyiyiyiiiiiimmmme.” You know.

Since Marc and I both know Ocean Beach in San Francisco pretty well, we decided to start our story there. A significant research element was William Finnegan’s memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. The book has a long section about Mark “Doc” Renneker surfing the intensely cold and gnarly waves at the SF beach—you can read it online in the New Yorker.

We felt the time machine should be in some sense a surfboard, and I spotted a cool-looking little “hand board” in the wee Santa Cruz Museum of Surfing which is inside a diminutive lighthouse by Steamers Lane.. Marc had the idea of having the boys activate the time machine by scribing an intricate mandala-like sigil upon the face of the sea.

We expanded on the notion of a time sigil by imagining an intricate, arabesque spacetime diagram of our boys’ worldlines. I redrew the figure ten times while we where working on the story. I’m a little surprised how complicated it turned out, but that’s where the logic leads. I kept sending the successive diagrams to Marc, but he wasn’t always that into trying to decipher them. The dude wasn’t a math major!

At least the diagram helped me a in terms of planning the complex plot of the story. Time travel is a bitch. Like, you need to be careful not to imagine that the characters can predict the abrupt and non-causal appearances of time travelers. And, as I’ll discuss below, there’s the matter of time paradoxes.

In the diagram, you’ll notice five names at the top, and these names correspond to the five worldlines below. Gother and Sally are women that Zep and Del meet, and Lars is kind of gnome called a murg. As I’ll discuss shortly, he has a closed-loop worldline.

In time travel stories you always have to deal with the issue of possible time paradoxes. There are two main types of problems.

(1) Closed Causal Loop. A creature like Lars the murg appears at time and place X with a handboard time machine. You hang out with him for awhile, making your way forward in time. And once you and Lars are in the future, he uses his time machine to hop back to the time and place X. Who produced the murg? Who invented the time machine? They produced themselves. Their worldlines are loops. Is this a problem? Not really. There’s no real contradiction in a Closed Causal Loop. It’s just odd. But we can live with odd. Especially in a Zep & Del surfin’ SF story!

(2) Yes and No. Your future self comes back in time and chops you and your friend in half with a broadsword. If you die, then your future self doesn’t exist, so he doesn’t kill you, so then your future self exists, so he does come back and kill you. A contradictory situation. A standard journeyman SF-writer solution is to say that, when you travel back in time, you don’t actually go back into your own timeline. You go into the past of a parallel world. I don’t like this solution; I think it’s facile and dull. My deeper problem is that, if there a zillion parallel worlds, then everything happens. An if everything happens, then nothing matters. And then cares what happens to your characters?

Once in awhile, sure, I’ll invoke an alternate world—like if I need a world who’s physics is wildly different from ours—like if I want a world with infinitely high mountains, or with an endlessly wide plain. But it seem cheap to invoke parallel worlds just to avoid a piddling little yes-and-no time travel paradox. Like using an H-bomb to light a joint. There’s always gonna be a tricky way out of any seeming paradox, if you think hard enough.

In “Surfers at the End of Time” our characters Zep and Del travel up and down the timeline, and they do, at times, encounter past or future versions of themselves. So how do we avoid Yes and No paradoxes without invoking alternate worlds? As the great logician Kurt Gödel once suggested to me, “Let’s suppose that the world always arranges itself so that these paradoxes do not occur. If something is logically impossible, then it doesn’t happen. A priori logic is very powerful.”

As I’ve already hinted, in the opening sections of our story, it appears as if a Viking-like Zep from the future comes back and slices both the original Zep and the original Del in half. Ye and No paradox? Well, it doesn’t have to be—if our boys don’t die. But how do they survive being chopped in half across their waists by a huge broadsword? Well, not to give too much away, let’s just suppose that the boys’ severed halves are treated with some special futuristic biomedicine… Like good old Kurt Gödel says: “The a priori is very powerful!”

By the way, I got the idea of future Zep being like a Viking when my wife and I went to our son Rudy’s family Halloween party in San Francisco. And in the kitchen I met a friend of Rudy’s named John Bowling. He was wearing a horned Viking helmet, and had his long hair partly in braids, and he had a long beard. He was wiry and lively, and he told me he’s a big wave surfer and that he lived in a condo on the Great Highway by San Francisco’s Ocean Beach—exactly where Marc and I wanted Zep and Del to live. I texted Marc a photo of the Viking surfer dude, and Marc texts back, “HE’S A TIME TRAVELLER, DUDE.” Synchronicity! Times like this I feel like I’m dancing with the Muse.

It was fun to work with Marc again, and not be writing on my own. Collaborating takes longer than writing alone, and at times it’s a little stressful to iron out the necessary shared decisions. But a collaborator like Marc puts in all kinds of beautiful, inspired stuff that I would never have thought of. And I end up thinking about the story more deeply. And the story ends up being funnier. I’m not necessarily trying to write funny stories—I’d hate to be called an SF humorist—but I like it if a story makes people smile or even laugh out loud. And it’s even better if it’s kind of sad and tragic and romantic as well. Like life itself.

By the way, about two months before our story appeared, I saw our real-world Zep inspiration again, and he explained to me that Dorito chips are excellent models of waves with tubes.  He said he’d had a collection of about twenty really good ones, but that his wife had thrown them out.

Party on, Zep. Party on, Del.


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