Sunday, May 27, 2007

Time: An Agent of Change in Fictional Reality

This was a paper I wrote for a class called "It's About Time." The class was pretty bad, but the paper assignment was write about something that involves time, so I got to do this piece. Enjoy...

In works of fiction, the passage of time can change a character’s life, and travel through time can alter the world the characters live in. However, few works examine the nature of time itself. The Invisibles by Grant Morrison and Watchmen by Alan Moore, use their fictional universes to explore the implications of the idea that time is not a uni-directional arrow, rather all times, past and present, exist simultaneously.

All works of fiction allow the viewer to experience time from a 4-D perspective, free of the linear flow of time that binds us in our real lives. The first read or viewing of a work is analogous to three-dimensional time perception. We are not aware of what will happen to the characters, and experience the work in a linear fashion, moving from beginning to end, much like we live our lives.

However, after this first viewing/reading, the reader can return to the work and view it with foreknowledge of what will happen to the characters. You can open a book to whatever page you want, or fast-forward a film to a specific moment, traveling freely though the time continuum. In doing so, you are able to experience time from a 4-D perspective, viewing all of time as one pre-existing continuum, with no past or future, just the present one chooses to experience.

There are works that deliberately alter the linear passage of time, such as the film Irreversible. In this film, events unfold backward, starting with what is chronologically the last event and eventually ending up at the earliest. Irreversible is the story of a woman who is raped, prompting her boyfriend to seek revenge. Revenge drama such as this has been the subject of countless films, however in reversing the sequence of events, director Gaspar Noe is able to alter the audience’s perception of the events that occur. The film opens with two men beating someone to death with a fire extinguisher, the brutality of the violence instantly disturbing. As we move back in time, we see the catalyst for their actions, the rape of Alex, and are able to understand why they murdered that man. But because we viewed the event out of the emotional context, we can understand that seeking revenge has only succeeded in destroying even more lives, the violence begetting more violence.

The film ends and begins with a title reading ‘Time Destroys All,’ and in the case of this film that’s certainly true. By the end (the events at the beginning) the lives of three main characters are completely shattered, a disturbing contrast from their happy, hopeful existences before these things occurred. The structure of the film encourages us to view these events outside of a traditional linear time continuum, the knowledge of what will happen in the future coloring our view of the past. Notably, though the narrative progresses backwards, there is no indication that the events occur in flashback, rather every moment is the present, we’re just shown things outside of the linear continuum.

If time destroys all, and certainly we are all headed for death eventually, the only way to overcome this destruction is to exist outside of time. Transcending the idea of time as an inevitable projection forward, we get to the idea that there is no past or future, instead all moments exist simultaneously, so that the past and future all already exist, and every moment that ever happened is happening now. This conception of time is explored in the works of two graphic novelists, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

It is appropriate that they have chosen the comic book as the medium in which to explore this view of time. Assuming all time exists simultaneously, the physical comic book serves a perfect representation of this. We can flip through the book and see each moment, frozen in time as a single panel, existing independently of the time progression that one experiences when reading the book. It is easy to go from the end of the book to the beginning, and travel back through time in the process. This means that even if a character dies at the end of the book, they still exist, we just flip to an earlier page and they are alive again. The reality is dependent on which moment one chooses to experience.

With The Invisibles, Morrison set out to make a series that would reveal the secrets of the universe, taking on material with a very broad scope. While working on the first volume, he had an “abduction experience,” in which he claims to have been taken outside of time and shown the nature of the universe. Morrison claimed “it was like Shakespeare’s just over there, and the dinosaurs are around the corner from him, but you can see them.” (Neighly, 241) This conception of time became central to the series’ cosmology, and Morrison used the book as a way to process the abduction experience.

Obviously, it’s impossible to verify whether this experience is a legitimate peak behind the curtain at the workings of time, a hallucination, or a story designed to build his image and sell more books. However, for the purposes of this analysis, it is useful in the context of how it influences the fictional universe he creates.

The abduction experience is the model for a sequence from the book’s second to last chapter, in which one of the characters, Jack, is taken outside of the linear time continuum. Removed from the limits of three-dimensional perception, Jack sees himself as a ‘timeworm,’ his motion represented by a trail of himselfs existing simultaneously at all moments in the past. This image is designed to simulate 4-D perception for the reader. If every moment is simultaneous, that would mean that a version of every person exists at all those moments in time, so one’s entire life could be seen on this line, a progression from childhood to adulthood to death.

The next panel depicts what Morrison claims to have seen, people from different eras of time pass each other in the same space. Essentially what these images show is one space at all times. So, we see someone from the present as well as someone from World War I and others, all represented as ‘timeworms,’ their past actions receding off into the background.

These panels also contain the crucial philosophical idea of the series, the notion that time exists to allow humanity to grow and better itself. Time is change and without the passage of time we would have no opportunity to improve ourselves. Time may destroy all things, but at the same time, it is only through the passage of time and destruction of the old that we can grow. This idea is conveyed in skewed 4-D speech, “Time is soil and for nourish larvae and grown in,” essentially humanity is in a larval state and it is only through the passage of time that we can evolve into something greater. (Morrison, 254) According to the series, the entirety of human existence is one time continuum designed to bring us to the point where we can make an evolutionary jump.

As a result, much of the series became concerned with issues surrounding time and perception, most notably the segments of volume two concerning the building of a time suit. At this point, we learn that one of the series’ main characters, Robin, has actually traveled back in time from 2012, using a timesuit constructed by Takashi, a scientist whose younger self she meets in the present. We see her in 2012, speaking to older versions of characters we know from the present, before she is sent back on her mission. They assure Robin that she will do well. Her mission is guaranteed to be a success because it has already happened.

So, in this conception of time travel, events can never be changed. Robin’s actions in our present will not alter the future because in the future they have already happened. This is different than something like The Terminator films or Back to the Future, where the use of time travel devices rewrites the present, essentially wiping out the world that the characters traveled from. In the cosmology Morrison constructed, this is not possible. Robin’s actions cannot alter the future because she is living in a future built through her actions. Since all time exists simultaneously, her actions in the past have already occurred.

This presents a question inherent in 4-D time theory. It has been a conundrum since the dawn of thought: do we have free will or our actions already decided? This is addressed in the final page of the series when Jack speaks directly to the reader refuting the entire question of free will. He says “there’s no difference between fate and free will. Here I am; put here, come here. No difference, same thing.” (Morrison, 285) Even if all of time is written, at some point, we make every choice and that means that when we pass through time, we are not following a plan, we are inventing reality with every decision. If all time is simultaneous, every action we take has already created a new world.

For Jack, the issue of free will is resolved there, but for Jon a.k.a Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the power of 4-D perception alienates him from a linear world. Jon was an ordinary person transformed into a god-like being through a lab accident. Jack claims that fate and free will are the same thing, yet this would not be true if one was able to vie the future events. This is what John can do, he perceives all time simultaneously, so whatever moment he’s in the time continuum, he’s aware of the actions that he and others will take in the future. This locks him into a fatalistic worldview, summed up when he says “We’re all puppets, I’m just a puppet who sees the strings,” implying that no one has choice, we’re all just playing out a predetermined sequence of events.

Forced to live life with this perspective, he grows increasingly distanced from humanity. After Kennedy’s assassination, people ask him why he didn’t stop it. They cannot understand his perception. He does not see future events in the sense of something that has not yet occurred, he sees events that have occurred already and he has no choice but to enact the role that has been laid out for him. So, the very fact that Jon knows Kennedy will be assassinated means he is powerless to stop it
The most striking representation of Jon’s perception occurs in the fourth chapter. The chapter begins after Jon flees Earth for sanctuary on Mars. He sits staring at a photograph of himself before the transformation and though the chapter takes place over only a few minutes, Jon’s perception in these moments encompasses his entire life. Staring at the photo, he returns to the moment when it was taken, not the memory of the moment, but the moment itself. At the same time he is sitting on Mars, he is a child dreaming of being a watchmaker, he’s a physicist doing an experiment and he’s in Vietnam, fighting for the army. All the moments are the same for him, an infinity of simultaneous presents. Holding the photograph he counts down in his head to the moment when the photograph will fall and he will move on. He knows it will happen because it has already happened; his life is devoted to acting out predetermined events.

The storytelling here is striking because the interweaving of different times makes the reader experience the same sense of time out of joint. The moments blend together, all of them carrying a stark inevitability. Seeing Jon walk into the reactor, we know that it will result in him being transformed, and yet are powerless to stop it. So, the reader observes these events of the past in the same way that Jon lives the present. It is this feeling of imprisonment in time that distances Jon from humanity. He is more interested in the grandeur of Mars’ landscapes, in the stunning construction that brought them to life than in the insignificant tribulations of humanity.

The frustration that one could feel interacting with Jon is apparent in chapter nine, when Laurie is taken to Mars. Jon goes to her and says that they have an appointment, essentially he has seen in the future that at this moment they will come together to talk, and as a result, he goes to Earth to find Laurie so the conversation can occur. Similarly, he already knows what they will talk about, and tells her, and she commits to not fulfilling his plan, proving him wrong. Yet, unintentionally she does end up saying exactly what he said she would, foreknowledge of what she will do does not prevent her from still doing it. Speaking with someone so distant is difficult for her, his coldness a stark contrast to her emotional vulnerability at that moment. She rails at Jon, but he coldly tells her that this is just what happens, what she was always going to do, and the implication that she has no choice in the matter is an affront to her humanity. Existing outside of the uncertainty of human existence, Jon finds it difficult to connect with ordinary people.

The end of their discussion causes a major change in Jon. Laurie breaks down upon realizing that the man who raped her mother years earlier is actually her father and in this moment, Jon realizes that though humans may be trapped in these linear patterns, the series of events that must occur to create any given person are extraordinary. He imagines all the generations of people who would have had to meet at a specific time to bring about Laurie’s conception. He concludes that each human being takes such an improbable confluence of forces to exist that they are all miracles, and it is only the fact that there are five billion miracles walking around that makes us forget this fact.

So, Manhattan takes a renewed interest in humanity, recognizing, much like Jack, that even though everything is already written, with each moment we live we still write it. That’s the essential paradox of 4-D time theory, if all time exists simultaneously, that would imply that all our decisions have already been made, yet at the same, because there is no past or future, that means that every moment is now and every decision is critical. With each moment we have the chance to choose a new future, and it is these decisions to break from the expected and do something novel that can allow someone to reinvent their own reality.

At the end of the book, a tachyon generator causes John’s perception of the future to become unclear. Tachyons are objects that travel faster than the speed of light. According to special relativity, objects moving faster than the speed of light experience time distortion, so it’s logical that a prevalence of these objects would alter Jon’s perception of the future. (Encyclopedia Britannica) As a result, for the first time in years he experiences uncertainty, and exults in the fact that he does not know what will happen to him next.

This joy gets to the core of one of the major issues concerning the idea that all time exists and we just view it in a linear fashion. If this is true, that means that were we able to view everything simultaneously, as Jon did, we would lose the mystery and uncertainty of life. Jack is taken outside of time and shown how time functions, but he is not shown his own future. When he returns to linear time, he is aware of the fallacy of temporal perception, but is not able to perceive outside of it. For Jon, the fact that he can perceive all time is a curse, he is unable to be emotionally present in any particular moment, because he is always existing simultaneously in the future and past.

Existing in this timeless state would result in an inability to grow. It is only through experience that we can change, to already possess all experience and be aware of it at once would mean being a constant being, set in a specific mode of thought, as Jon was. But is there a way to have this long form view of time and also be connected to the world, able to alter events through choices?

This question is addressed in the events surrounding John a Dreams from The Invisibles. John was a regular person living a life in the linear continuum until he encountered a timesuit and was turned into a 5-D being. What is a 5-D being? To consider this hypothetical, we must first look at Morrison’s conceptions of reality. The characters in the book are two dimensional, but we exist in a three dimensional reality, and have the power to manipulate their time, see their entire lives in one moment. So, imagining that we are in the book’s reality, which exists as a 3-D space, a 4-D being would be one who had full temporal perception and the ability to shift between moments on the continuum.

So, when Robin wears the time suit, she is able to shift from a version of herself in 2012 to a version of herself in 1988. From her perspective, time begins with her birth in 1988 and proceeds until 2012, at which point she is sent back in time to 1988 as an adult, and then lives until 1998, at which point she is thrown past the end of 3-D time in 2012 and her consciousness is raised to a new level of awareness. However, viewing things from a 4-D perspective, Robin never actually travels through time, it’s essentially that two versions of her exist from 1988 to 1998. The original, child version of her is still there, growing up, moving towards 2012, but there’s also the older version. In New Mexico in 1996, Robin sees the younger version of herself from a distance, while Robin at 8 sees the woman who she would one day become. So, it’s not like she moved to the future then came back to alter the present, it’s that she was always there.

Anyway, this 4-D perspective would afford us the luxury to view things from outside of time. What would a 5-D perspective do? According to the book, it would allow someone to alter both time and space. When Robin goes into the timesuit in 1998, she is thrown into the future, beyond time, and the suit is refracted back to the Philadelphia church, in the form of a 5-D being, which John and King Mob come across in 1993. John is taken into the suit and is missing for most of the book.

Touching the suit, he became a 5-D being, someone who exists outside the context of individual identity.
One of the critical tenets of Morrison’s philosophy is the idea that humanity is in actuality one large organism, with each human being like a cell. However, because the cells have separate identities we are unable to function at their higher level, held down by the human weakness that keeps us separate. The entire purpose of our existence on Earth, of the existence of every person who has ever lived, is to move us closer to unification into this one larger organism, moving to a mass higher consciousness. Much like our body is composed of individual cells, which work together to create the person, each human would be part of a larger global entity.

Regardless of the validity of this idea, this goal is crucial to understanding Morrison’s construction of John as a being outside of time and space. When he goes into the timesuit, his identity as an individual is destroyed and he becomes essentially an agent of progress that exists as pure consciousness. John takes on a number of guises to interact with the characters and move them to the point where they will make the decision that will lead to humanity forward. The idea is that existence is a game with an ultimate objective, and John exists as someone who can manipulate the pieces to ensure that the objective is achieved. So, John shows Jack the structure of time in the guise of the blind chessmen, and this is what allows Jack to make the leap in consciousness that ultimately contributes to the 2012 event, and at the same time, John is wearing the guise of George Harper fighting alongside Jack a year later for the same goal.

So, unlike Manhattan, John a Dreams is not a prisoner in time, instead he is an agent taking on various personalities at different points in the continuum to bring about a desired end. He can see and experience all, but it does not contain him. He shapes how events will proceed through his actions. John actually has the ability to alter the future by moving freely through 4-D space, influencing the characters to bring about a desired goal. The best metaphor is to use is that of a writer. If a gun is needed in the third act of a play, it’s easy to revise the start and place a gun on the wall in the first act. John has the ability to move through time and ensure that the gun is present beforehand so it can fire when needed.

This leads us to the question of intelligent design, something that Jon also ponders. If all time already exists, was it shaped by some higher hand to bring about the world we live in now? Is time really soil for humanity to grow and flourish in, or does it just exist, our actions essentially meaningless. For Morrison, our actions do have a higher meaning; the suffering of humanity is a necessary step to make us stronger on our journey towards the jump forward. Moore’s view, at least in Watchmen, is that humanity is subject to time and as a result, we must simply enjoy the moments that we do have, the uncertain future proving our humanity

These works of fiction both explore the scientific and philosophical questions that arise from the idea that all time is simultaneous. Through the characters, the authors are able to convey their own philosophical musings on the nature of time and humanity’s place within it. While both work within contemporary scientific paradigms, they are each more concerned with the effect of theoretical physics concepts on individual characters. By choosing to present their philosophy within the medium of serial graphic fiction, each of the writers has chosen a medium that is uniquely capable of illustrating the points they seek to illustrate, and gives the audience an idea of what it would be like to exist outside of the linear time continuum.


David Golding said...

This is interesting and perceptive.

But does John-A-Dreams change anything? Surely he can no more change things than Robin. After all, it has all already happened.

Also, I can't pass up: comic panels rarely show a single moment in time. In fact, what I think makes comics ideal to investigating time, is that time is readily visible when taking in a page or even a single panel. As a reader you often have to discover how time flows in a comic. Compare this with text which is constrained by word following word.

Patrick said...

I guess John a Dreams doesn't so much change things as become aware of the role he has to play in formulating the reality that will lead them into the supercontext.

But, at the same time, even though it's already happened, every moment is still happening right now, so he's always making those choices. You could say the same about every character, whether they're aware of it or not.