2 November 2018
"arrow of time", 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Brief History of Time, A Brief History of Time: From The Big Bang to Black Holes, Abram Adams, Alan Moore, Back to the Future, Bender, Bender's Big Score, Book Review, clocks, Comics, Cube, Dave Gibbons, Divinity, Dr. Manhattan, evolution, Film, film review, Fourth Dimension, Futurama, geometry, graphic novel, H.G. Wells, Human evolution, Literature, Math, Novel, Perception of Time, Philosophy, Reality, Role of Science Fiction in society, Science, science fiction, Space, Stanley Kubrick, State of Being, Stephen Hawking, The Monolith, The Time Machine, The Time Traveler, Third Dimension, time, Time Travel, U.S.S.R., Watchmen
I’ve tried once to explore the fourth dimension, but only in writing. I was taking a creative writing course and riding the high of being one of the few top writers in the class. This wasn’t ego on my part, because if it hasn’t been made apparent at this point in my life my fatal flaw is my inability to sing my own praises. Whatever the case most of the students in the class would confide in me and tell me that they thought I was a great writer and the teacher seemed to support this sentiment, and riding that high I thought about Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick is a bit of an acquired taste, and sometimes I do honestly believe some critics sing the man’s praises because they want to make other people think that they understand his creative ethos, but being a teenager I suffered the delusion that I would be a film director and so I began watching interviews with film makers who would often drop the man’s name. On a small tangent my desire to be a director shifted after reading Slash’s autobiography and so for a number of years I suffered under the delusion that I could be a rock star. This faded when I remembered I had little to no musical talent. Kubrick was a film maker that I enjoyed because his narratives were so eclectic. Looking at just few years he made in respective order: Paths of Glory, Sparticus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, and to put this in perspective he moved from a World War I epic to a gladiator rebellion, to a Pedophile capturing a young girl, to the Nuclear apocalypse, to a science fiction philosophy opera, to a dystopian nightmare, and finally to a period piece about an Irish peasant ascending to the British Nobility.
2001: A Space Odyssey is probably one of his best known films, though often because many people in the 70s got stoned and watched it with their kids. What they missed in their induced state was that in his own way Kubrick was attempting to do what I tried in my own small essay about how we tell stories.
Human beings exist in the third dimension, and if I can remind you of your brief high school geometry class the third dimension’s quality is that it allows figures to move through space. In the first dimension objects and organisms could only move to the left or right, whereas in the second objects could then move up and down left and right. The Third dimension allows objects and organisms to move forward and back and they do this by moving through space. Human beings exist and interact with a three dimensional reality, and it needs to be made clear this is a simplistic breakdown of a complicated philosophical, mathematical, and psychological problem. Many scientists turned philosophers have mused about our three dimensional reality, and looking to inspiration from science fiction authors, the next frontier seems to be to understand if it possible to break into the reality of the fourth dimension who’s defining quality and nature is time.
Steven Hawking, the noted theoretical physicist and part-time Simpsons character, explores this in his book A Brief History of Time. When I first read the book I was fresh out of high school and it should be noted that at the time I understood little if any of the actual text, however over time this changed. That’s a bad joke so I’ll move on. In a chapter dealing with wormholes, pockets of space in which it is believed human beings might, and a big emphasis on might there, be able to move through large stretches of the galaxy relatively quickly Hawking writes:
Because there is no unique standard of time, but rather observers each have their own time as measured by clocks that they carry with them, it is possible for the journey to seem to be much shorter for the space travelers than for those who remain on earth. But there would not be much joy in returning from a spae voyage a few years older to find that everyone you had left behind was dead and gone thousands of years ago. So in order to have any human interest in their stories, science fiction writers had to suppose that we would one day discover how to travel faster than light. (161-2).
It’s important to note that, while Hawking is an unapologetic science fiction fan even once appearing on an episode of Star Trek, the passages immediately following this quote explains why these writers’ descriptions of travels through space and time were rather inaccurate or else impossible. The problem of human beings entering or attempting to move through the fourth dimension is either plagued by the actual science, or the fact that actually passing into that dimension requires individuals who are willing to do so without concern of what they’re leaving behind. As such I look back to Kubrick, but before I do I look to H.G. Wells.
Hawking actually bothers to mention Wells at the beginning of the chapter from which I received the previous quote, and the reason for this is Wells’s small novel The Time Machine. The book is a slim narrative but contained within its pages is in fact some of the earliest inclinations of the science that men like Steven Hawking would write into reality. Wells, it should be noted, is often considered one of the “founding fathers” of science fiction, and while it should be noted that there were other writers writing into similar territories and ideas, Wells work boosted the aesthetic of science fiction into something concrete and often inspired future engineers and scientists. Looking at just the opening pages of The Time Traveler it’s incredible to see the man’s foresight:
“Can a cube that does not last for any time at all have a real existence?”
Filby became pensive. “Clearly,” the Time Traveler proceeded,” any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have length, breadth, Thickness, and—Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives. (4).
The” arrow of time” is a concept that is explored even outside the studies of physicists and mathematicians for poets and writers have been relying on that damned symbol almost since the first arrow was painted on a wall. It should be noted that part of the reason for this is that the shape is incredibly phallic, but I don’t have the time to explain that all of history is just men measuring dicks.
The Time Machine made its first appearance in 1895 and, according to some, effectively established the genre of science fiction though this last point is debatable. What’s still incredible about the book is how well Wells managed to explain out the idea of dimensions in just one paragraph. Employing the “arrow of time” in order to convince his companions about his ideas concerning the fourth dimension, The Time Traveler, who is never named by the narrator thus launching him into the territory of archetype, manages to begin the first question: can man step out of his comfort in the third dimension in order to see his potential.
That last word has been chosen carefully as I get closer to my later conclusions.
But along with his observations of the abstract concept of time the Time Traveler also makes a fascinating observation about human beings:
“Well, I do not mind telling you I have been at work upon this geometry of Four Dimensions for some time. Some of my results are curious. For instance, here is a portrait of a man at eight years old, another at fifteen, another at seventeen, another at twenty-three, and so on. All these are evidently sections, as it were, Three Dimensional representations of his Four-Dimensional being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing. (6).
From here the Time Traveler makes his argument that it would be possible for man to break free from the “arrow of time” from which he is forever caught by his perceptions, and, given the supposed hypothetical conditions, almost anything could be possible, specifically time travel. Because this is the late Victorian period and science had only proceeded so far The Time Traveler produces the Time Machine, and it’s important to note how that dates the book, but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s through an external device or machine that man is going to be able to achieve his destiny and this idea of man riding a kind of time traveling vessel is not outdated for the Back to the Future movies proved that this concept is still alive and well. What changed over time is revealed in this second quote.
The Time Traveler notes that human beings are three-dimensional beings but that is only because they haven’t unlocked the ability to see and observe their true potential. This is actually a brilliant idea being expressed that, while it has enormous philosophical implications, seems to counter act the very necessity of a time machine. Simply put, human beings are Fourth-Dimensional creatures they just haven’t realized how to actually tap into that reality. Human beings typically perceive their existence like a three dimensional cube. They recognize the length, width, and girth of the physical space they occupy, but because they can only perceive time as an arrow moving through time they don’t recognize that they are actually able to be a four-dimensional cube, a shape that, in its true form is malleable and constantly regenerating itself. I don’t want to suggest that this is immortality, but the direction two science fiction narratives have taken seems to be just that.
I had no real intention of reading Divinity because before I saw the advertisement in the back of Faith Vol.1 I had no idea that it actually existed. The image of an astronaut, later revealed to be a cosmonaut, caught me because despite my trepidation I do actually enjoy science fiction stories they just have to be grounded in or around planet Earth or its history. I asked my friend Michael (one of the three Michael’s I know and talk to regularly) what the book was about seeing as how he is the go-to Valiant expert. His exact description was: “I mean, I liked it. If you ever watched 2001 and were like “man, this sure would be better as a superhero comic”, well, that’s Divinity in a nutshell.” Given the fact that I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey (though let’s be fair I really like the idea of it far more than the actual film) I was intrigued and so I bought the book a week later and devoured it in four days. The only reason it took four was because I tend to read books one chapter at a time per day; it helps me get through a lot of books.
Divinity is about a cosmonaut named Abram Adams who assigned a top secret task of being launched into space. The U.S.S.R., desperate to defeat the Americans launches Adams to the very edge of the galaxy and when he arrives at his destination after years of isolation and Cryogenic stasis he encounters an energy force, a plane of white light that some would call god and other might refer to as the ground of being, that enters his body and alters his consciousness. Abrams effectively becomes a god but what’s most important is the fact that the story is told is a splintered fashion. Rather than follow Adams and then show MI-6 sending in The Eternal Warrior and X-O Manowar to take him down, Matt Kindt writes the book so that events are taking place in the past, in the present, in the future, in individual’s imaginations, and in people’s memories all at the same time.
Abram Adams hasn’t just become just a superhero, his has accessed his fourth dimensional being.
Reading Divinity I was struck by how much I thought of the graphic novel Watchman and my favorite character from that book Dr. Manhattan.
Watchmen was published through the years of 1986 through 1987 in twelve installments, which is rather fitting given the clock imagery deliberately inserted throughout the book. If the reader has never read it before that’s a terrible shame because there really are few great books in existence and Watchmen most certainly fits that category. The graphic novel follows a group of superheroes in the year 1985 right after one of them, the sociopath ex-government agent The Comedian, is thrown from his apartment window and killed. From there the characters Rorschach, Silk Specter, Night Owl, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan each in their own way try to discover who is trying to kill former superheroes and why, while in the background a nuclear war is looming against the U.S.S.R. and President Richard Nixon seems only to be baiting and encouraging it. There’s also a pirate comic book that’s being read throughout the text but that’s for another essay. While each hero has at least one issue dedicated to them, it was the Dr. Manhattan chapter that always intrigued me (Rorschach’s is really fun too, though I use the word “fun” loosely) because it’s written from his perspective after he retreats from planet earth to live on Mars. Dr. Manhattan is more or less a god and became so after he was working on a particle physics experiment that went horribly wrong and ripped every atom of his body apart. He eventually pulled himself back together and became Dr. Manhattan, but what’s most important about his character’s chapter is its narrative structure.
Like Divinity, Dr. Manhattan is experiencing the past, present, and future seemingly all at the same time and looking at just a few passages from the book it becomes clear that his perception of time far exceeds human understanding.
I should finally address my contester however, for they remind me that most people cannot or will not perceive anything outside their own dimension. What the point, or why should I care about books that are written about people outside of my own perception? It’s impossible for human beings to break free from the “arrow of time” and spending your life trying clearly will only leave you isolated or destroyed or alienated from society, so why not try and enjoy your life?
These are all excellent points, and to be fair I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to them. Carpe Diem, or seize the day, may be a platitude but it’s one that leaves average people generally satisfied and happy with their lives. Human beings have yet to reach a point in their evolution so that they would be able to access the Fourth-Dimensional being that they are, and it’s likely that such a stage is hundreds, if not thousands, of years away anyway, but books and films like Divinity, The Time Machine, Watchmen, and even 2001: A Space Odyssey try to offer up ideas of how human beings might access that next level. For the most part it seems that humans will have to wait until a supernatural entity, whether it’s the black monolith or the white plane, arrives and bestows knowledge of being to them, but at least in the case of Watchmen and The Time Machine there’s an idea that, through their own devices, humans might make the next step themselves. Even if it is through technology, humans might be able to expand their awareness and being and that’s an important idea, because in many ways we’re already trying to do just that.
Steven Hawking ends A Brief History of Time with a thought concerning the future of physics, philosophy, and possibly that of mankind:
Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people who business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advancements of scientific theories.
He concludes then:
However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question why it is we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God. (191).
The purpose of science fiction is largely to ask questions either about the nature of human beings, or their future. While many have taken the opportunity to explore thought experiments and the more morbid conclusions concerning the future of humanity a few select have decided to question what if human beings could become more and explore a new dimension of being? A while the general conclusion is that the result of this experiment would result in alienation or some kind of self-destruction I would argue that that reaction is rooted more in those left behind than those moving forward.
The closest success human beings have made in understanding this new state of being is fiction, and that’s perhaps the most telling but also the most encouraging. Scientific enterprise depends upon imagination, and as more and more writers explore the notions of time travel and accessing new states of being, so too will scientists who will change our world in ways we can’t possibly even imagine.
Though if we ever get to the point where we start sending Bender back in time to steal precious masterpieces, we may have taken it a step too far.
While I was working on this review I found this essay on The New Yorker Website. Enjoy:
I’ve included links to three videos below. The first is the “star gate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey
The second link is the final three minutes of the film in which the astronaut Dave ascends to a new state of being:
I’ve also found a small documentary a YouTuber produced in which he explains the Monolith. This interpretation, as he notes, created a bit of a controversy because many fans loved the idea but certain film scholars didn’t. I’ve posted Part 1 here: