So starts Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home, a novel written as though it were a text created within a new discipline: an archaeology of the future. It includes the record of the poetry, stories, lives, mythology, philosophy, religion...of a peoples who are not yet living. The 525 page novel also includes maps, over 100 pages of glossary and index materials, and, in a box set, even a cassette recording of the music and poetry of the Kesh.
A critique session or two ago, Claudia mentioned that she couldn't figure out the correct verb tense to use for a particular spot in her novel, because her main characters are time travelers. (They are also interesting, stubborn, hilarious, and sexy; you will want to get to know them, trust me.) Anyway, when I picked up Always Coming Home from the library shelves and, on reading the first line, put it immediately in my pile to check out.
They might be going to have lived a long, long time from now.
Oh yeah. It sounds a bit off. It stops your brain from continuing on the paths that it wants to go along. It catches you up. And suddenly you are thinking. About time and reality and how you fit in, and then you're just loving Ursula for what she's done to you.
Soon after I started reading the novel, a student in one of the philosophy classes I teach said, and I quote, "If I have to think about time travel right now, I think my head is going to explode."
Which I loved, because that's my job: getting students' heads to explode. Getting my own head to explode. I speak figuratively, of course.
At core, philosophy should be getting our brains to wake up from the ruts they so easily get stuck in and start seeing ourselves, other folk, and world (aka: Life, The Universe, and Everything) in new and startling ways.
And thinking about the mechanics and paradoxes of time travel is a lovely way to make your brain swivel inside your skull.
In my novel, which also includes some time travel, I'm attempting to uncover non-human understandings of time. How would Beryl (a bear disguised in human skin) understand time? How would a tree?
Thinking back on my years in philosophy, I can see the history that has led me to become the writer I am:
In an African philosophy course I took as an undergraduate, I learned that not everyone thinks of time linearly: my instructor, Ifeanye Menkiti, talked about how time in some African understandings includes a distant past, a present, and a near future, but no far future, instead the line of time bends backward from the present/near future toward the past, rather than continuing on indefinitely into the future.
In my dissertation I examined the work of James Hamill, who studied Navajo logic and some of the ways their system of reasoning differs from Western/European systems, precisely because they have a circular sense of time, while ours is linear. Which again, in my very limited understanding, might imply that there is no far future, the present always circling back to the past, the past circling back toward the future/present.
I'm currently teaching Simone de Beauvoir in my ethics class. Beauvoir is very suspicious of too tightly holding onto a project. We act unethically if we hold on so tightly that we are looking only at the far future of the project's realization, concentrating so hard on that end, an end so distant from ourselves, that the present means nothing, that the means we use to get to that end are completely subordinated to that end, that we do whatever it takes, sacrifice whomever it takes to get to the end. Instead she suggests that we concentrate on the near future.
How cool is all that? Pretty cool if you're a sci-fi loving, philosophy geek.
In my novel, I've taken what I've encountered in philosophy about time, and used it to figure out how time might be understood by the more-than-human world. Especially the spiders. They've just got to have a super-freaky understanding of time. My bet is that of all of us they're the ones who see time most clearly of all, what with all the eyes and the spinning.
But like Claudia, I have to think hard about how to communicate other species' understandings of time in a human language. In a critique session that is coming soon to a cafe near you, I'll find out how well The Sclibblerati think I've done with capturing the spiders... But as a preview it goes something like this:
I'll end as I started. I end as I start. I will end as I will start. I will have ended as I did once start. I would have started as I will be going to end.
No seriously, I really mean it. I'll end as I started: with a little Le Guin Wisdom:
"What was and what may be lie, like children whose faces we cannot see, in the arms of silence. All we ever have is here, now."