Standard warning – this is not a book review! I’m going to analyze how a science fiction author twists a story idea around like a diamond to craft a fascinating mind-bender of a book. Though I’ll likely spoil the crap out of it, we’ll hopefully pick up on best practices for anybody looking to squeeze novelty and freshness out of a concept they might have for a book or story.
“With a hollow booming sound the Third Time Fleet materialized on the windswept plain. Fifty ships of the line, the pride of the empire and every one built in the huge yards of Chronopolis, were suddenly arrayed on the dank savanna as if a small city had sprung abruptly into being in the wilderness”
Because I’ve read it a jillion times and because you should too, I picked for this exercise a 1974 time travel novel by a guy capable of turning your brain into salt water taffy but still leave a smile on your face. Seriously, why are you not reading Barrington Bayley? Go get Knights Of The Limits if you want a sampler pack. The book we’re going to look at is The Fall Of Chronopolis.
The core idea:
There’s an empire that stretches across time instead of space
Time travel has been done to death; and it’s usually stupid and full of holes. Look, you’re probably nowhere near the Doctor Who fan I am – I adore that show in all its forms; but mostly they contradict themselves at will and skim over uncomfortable goofs. Admit that, so we can move on. Here, Bayley has an interesting twist on the galactic empire idea that’s been around since the 1930s. Already a good start. People go back to those 1930s pulps even now. They did a lot of things right; and so did he with this one.
But how to make that work?
Bayley built a theory of how time is structured to try and solve how his core idea could function, how the citizens would travel across the empire and how they’d be ruled. It’s a natural progression once you have an idea, right? Just answer the obvious questions about your idea. He tells us time is like a frothy ocean with our reality and perception of it like stable skim on the surface. Yet under special circumstances, you can go deeper into the potential realities lying below, a horrid and ghostly place where souls can be dissolved into nothingness. Nice – loads of chance for drama and action there.Giant freaking time barriers were set up at the rearward past and forward future like walls around the empire. Specially protected ‘achronal archives’ exist inside buffers which are compared to duplicate archives outside the buffers enabling them to become aware of any disruptions to the timestream…like people or cities disappearing from history. There’s your empire.
Which raises more questions…
There are obvious problems that are going to come up with all of this…you can imagine the debate that went on in his head at this point. Like a courtroom, putting his idea on trial, my guess is he knew right away he needed a way to smooth contradictions, and a way for them to have a conflict of some kind. So his theory of the ocean of time needed to expand a bit. If you can imagine standing ripples on the water, no different from you and I holding a rope at the two ends with me popping up and down quickly so my end goes up when yours goes down…that point between us where the direction switches is called a node. Bayley imagined us existing at a node in time – stable points that move forward one second per second. There are just several of these; and the empire stretches across seven of them. Since they’re all that’s stable though, wrecks in the hinterlands between nodes dissolves all souls onboard into the terrible sea of potentiality. Come on! Once you stretch out an idea like that, of course it’s going to happen in the story! It’s writing itself at this point!
I can also imagine in Bayley’s spitballing session on this idea just trolling over everyday things to bounce his time empire idea across them and see what comes out. Relationships, for example. He imagines a young narcissistic prince who seduces his future self into a romance at node 1. He constructed a religion around how his empire would view the sea of potential, and the special reverence attached to the sacred moment when a Physics lab assistant first discovered the principle which would enable time travel.
Add the conflict and stir…
Once the initial idea is set up, it just needs tension. I imagine Bayley still working his central idea, twisting and turning it to see what war would look inside this framework. Giggling maliciously, I’m sure, he gave us an enemy empire existing in the future beyond a long period of unpopulated nuclear wasteland, begun by dissident time travelers from the empire itself. Cool beans. Conflict was automatic with this one, wasn’t it? Suddenly, the archivists start reporting entire sprawling cities have vanished from history, which no one remembers. The automatic rule of science fiction is to keep pushing the idea – how far can this go? Bayley describes the ultimate goal of a time war as disrupting the founding of your enemy – basically, get behind them and muck it up. It’s really fascinating to read all this…just incredibly innovative.
I’ll wrap it up to leave at least a little mystery to it all. The overall point this time around is the ideas will come from mishearing something around you, from hammering differences into something you see in a movie or book or something somebody tells you, whatever. The job then is to twist it around in the light for:
- Your first-pass explanation of how things will work with this idea
- Answers to the obvious questions resulting from step 1
- Teasing out implications of all that on everyday things
- Finding conflict that leverages the idea, not something boring that didn’t need it
That’s my take on it, anyway. You can go read Bayley now.