Beyond Paradox: Daniel Price on Writing Time-Twisting Fiction


Photo © Shutterstock

“All this happened, more or less.”

That’s the opening sentence from Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, a shining testament to his offbeat brilliance. Half the book is a devastating account of World War II, drawn straight from Vonnegut’s own experience as a soldier and P.O.W. The other half involves four-dimensional aliens who kidnap the protagonist, hold him in a breeding zoo, and then untether him from the linear constraints of time. No one could blend the real and surreal like Vonnegut.

He was a master at bending time.

It’s been thirty-two years since I’d first read Slaughterhouse Five, and I can still remember the way it affected me. All the temporal fiction I’d consumed up until then revolved around physical time travel, everything from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to Back to the Future. But here was Vonnegut ripping open the fabric of the omniverse, forcing me to wonder if maybe everything happens all at once. Maybe we could escape our linear perceptions and live any moment of our lives in any order we choose.

That was some heady stuff for a teenager to process, and it stuck with me through the years. In 2010, I began writing The Flight of the Silvers, the first volume of a science fiction trilogy, my first real stab at the genre. The story’s set on a parallel Earth both familiar and strange, a place where advanced technology has made temporal manipulation a daily part of life. Kitchen rejuvenators reverse the chronology of food, turning rotten apples into fresh ones and making leftovers taste brand new. Restaurants have timeshifting “speed booths” that allow busy customers to enjoy a leisurely meal in seconds. Ghost drills replay the recent past as holograms, enabling police detectives to retroactively witness crimes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are genetically gifted humans on this world who can twist time in ways that even they can’t wrap their heads around.

In plotting my story, I challenged myself to use every kind of temporal manipulation I could possibly think of, all except the big one. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good time travel yarn as much as the next guy. My stalwart partner, Nancy Price, wrote a hell of a good one a few years back (http://dreamoftime.com). Still, I’d seen enough stories about paradoxes and butterfly effects that I wanted to go in a different direction.

And boy, did I have fun doing it.

Of course “fun” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.” I can’t even tell you the number of times I got tripped up, knocked down, and all-around befuddled in my brazen attempts to change the laws of the universe. My delete key got a strong workout while writing The Flight of the Silvers, but I learned a couple of good lessons along the way.

1. Be consistent. Every author is the god of his or her own story. They decide who lives and dies, whether robots exist, or if the sky turned green in 1959 and stayed that way. They can break all the rules of science they want. But once they do, they’re committed to their own continuity. Today’s audiences are more sophisticated than ever. They can smell inconsistency from a mile away. You remember that awful last season of Lost, when the writers painted themselves into a corner and then broke their own rules to get out? Yeah, don’t do that, especially with time-bending. Establish your tenets and then stick to them like glue.

2. Add complications for realism. Nothing pulls me out of a sci-fi story faster than excessive simplicity. A man throws on a time-travel vest, presses a button and pop! Hi, 1900!

No. Nothing in our world is that simple or easy. Why should it be in yours? In The Flight of the Silvers, I made sure that every single aspect of timebending had at least one complication, scientific or otherwise. Remember those ghost drills I mentioned earlier, the ones that allow law enforcers to view any crime in hindsight? Well, it turns out there’s a still a Fourth Amendment in my alternate America, and it applies just as strongly to temporal searches. Detectives need a hard-to-get warrant in order to scan a crime scene, and even then it’s not easy. The drills only produce silent images of the past. So every ghost team has a lipreader, and every lipreader is subject to questioning by a criminal defense attorney.

Unnecessarily complex? Maybe. But wrinkles add texture to any sci-fi story. They give your world that lived-in look.

3. Never forget that it’s all about the people. Though Vonnegut was friends with many sci-fi writers, he never really considered himself one. In his 1965 essay, “On Science Fiction,” he lamented the genre’s focus on gimmicky concepts over “dialogue and motivation and characterization and common sense.” Bear in mind that he was mostly talking about the pulp sci-fi novels at the time, which were numerous and almost uniformly awful.

It’s safe to say that Slaughterhouse Five wouldn’t be the classic that it is if Vonnegut hadn’t wrapped his story around a fascinatingly tragic main character, a man who’s entire life was decided for him the moment he was born. Indeed, your favorite time manipulation stories probably never strayed far from a strong human theme: the perils of regret, the power of second chances, the fickle nature of fate, what have you.

Though my Silvers books are nowhere near as lofty as Vonnegut’s, I did make sure to put my characters before my concepts. I can’t tell you how any of the science works in my story. I only know how it affects the people. More than that, I have a hell of a point to make about human nature, but that won’t evident until you read the whole story.

If I do my job right, then a reader can get to the end of my trilogy and think, despite all the multidimensional weirdness and time-bending shenangians, that it was actually kind of plausible. On another world, in another string of time, the whole story could have actually happened.