NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ask Me For Anything But Time

In the previous blogs I talked about dreams and memory, and only briefly discussed the concept of time in dreams. However, as a memory scientist and a writer, I feel that a proper sense of time is important to enjoyable reading. The following discussion about the sense of time in fiction (with reference to specific SF works) is actually quite central to some of the discussions of memory that we will explore in the days (weeks) to come.

A popular phrase in psychology from about 10 or more years ago is "time-binding." The label refers to that ability of humans to place memories of events in sequence and judge the amount of time that passes. Time-binding is less known by its *presence*, but by its *absence*. One of the tests given to children suspected of depression or attention deficit disorder is to have them place pieces of a story into sequential order and tell how much time they think elapses during the story. Failure to do so is a pretty good indicator that the child has a deficit in time-binding, and such deficits indicate an abnormal interaction with the outside world.

However, problems with time-binding are neither unusual, nor crippling. So why is time-binding an issue? Do we (humans) really need to know that only 2 minutes has elapsed while we wait at a traffic light? Or that James Garfield was president before Chester Arthur and after Rutherford B. Hayes?

Well, yes, we do. Temporal sequence is *important*! In the real world, everything is a sequence of events, and the consequences of those events only have a finite duration. Event A: A burner is lit on the stove; Event B: a hand is placed over the burner. If B precedes A, no problem – unless the hand remains after the burner is lit. If A precedes B, well, that could be a problem – it depends on how much time has elapsed. Time-binding is difficult for persons on mind-altering drugs, in clinical depression, schizophrenia, and many other disorders.

So what does this have to do with writing (and reading) fiction? Quite a bit, actually. Aside from the obvious usage of time-binding as a plot point, I suggest examining the *story* for its time-binding. For examples I'm going to pull out two novels I read in college: "Titan" by John Varley, and "Lord Valentine's Castle" by Robert Silverberg. In Titan, the protagonist Captain Cirocco Jones, and her companion Gaby spend months climbing the support cables trying to reach the hub and speak to the controlling intelligence Gaia. In Lord Valentine's Castle, Valentine, the juggler travels to the Coronal's festival on Castle Mount, recovering from amnesia and learning about himself and his place in the world. Again, the story action takes place over many months as the travelers cross the continent of climb the Mount to reach the festival.

I chose these two examples because even 30 years after a single reading, both novels left me with a profound unease. It took a while to realize what bothered me, and it was many years later that I realized all of the implications. The problem was time-binding. Essentially both authors set their protagonists off on a strenuous physical journey that would take months to years to complete, and only gave us bare glimpses of the events in between, yet both authors treated that interval as if we were watching the action the whole time. Varley's time-binding in Titan was the greater problem, considering that the action for the first third of the story was roughly continuous, then the reader was expected to suspend this sense of continuous time while Cirocco and Gaby climb the support cable. Silverberg's novel did the better job of time-binding because the story takes place in vignettes spaced over the whole duration of the journey and we do get more of a sensation of time passing. Perhaps it was the fact that the reader is expected to accept that these events are happening to same persons over extended time, or perhaps it is the uneven time flow where the author realizes that they are running out of time/space and need to fast-forward through the next time interval.

So, how to deal with the passage of time? There are many ways, none of them necessarily the *right* way, but when a long period of time passes without much story action, put a break in the story. The human brain does this all the time when we sleep.

Now for two examples of successful time-binding, and again I shall call up stories that have remained with me for 20-30 years: In Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War" we follow William Mandela through 4 years of subjective time, and several centuries of Earth time. The discontinuities are well-written and believable because Mandela reacts to each interval and discontinuity in time via culture shock and adjustment to each new society (via the new recruits). In Walter Miller, Jr's "A Canticle for Leibowitz" we follow different protagonists across several thousand years of post-apocalyptic landscape thereby learning an important lesson in the cyclical nature of history with respect to man and society. The novel was originally three separate stories that Miller realized was a complete novel only when writing the third. To complete the novel he extensively rewrote the novelettes to provide continuity while preserving the unique essence of each section. Despite the span of 1800 years, there is no doubt that Canticle tells a continuous story – particularly with the "bookending" of Brother Francis' story with events in the closing scenes of the book. Successful time-binding.

What other kinds of issues are there with of time-binding? Sequence. I don't necessarily dislike novels that jump back and forth in time, or between POV characters, but they can be quite jarring. It is important to provide the little clues that allow time-binding by the reader. Ever have that dream where you're taking an exam but never went to class, left your book in your locker and can't remember the combination, and now you can't find the classroom, but vaguely remember that you shouldn't be doing this because you *graduated* 20 years ago? It's a perfect example of problems with POV shifts and time-binding. The subconscious creates dreams by pulling events at random from memory, but those events don't stand alone, they are part of a sequence that includes other memories not incorporated in the dream. The mind tries to fill in the gaps in time-binding – sometimes failing, as in the case of the Exam Dream. In other cases it succeeds too well. Dreams can take on a reality, complete with false history, that is hard to distinguish from reality.

So one important technique for allowing the reader to visualize the passage of time in your story is successful time-binding. Cause precedes effect, birth before death, and a character's past precedes its future. Dwight Swain suggests that successful writers create "scenes" that unfold in real-time (or even slow-motion), separated by "sequels" with which you can fast-forward through intervening time. It's why Star Trek had warp speed and transporters. Still, don't abuse the sense of time and sequence created for the reader. Reserve jarring violation of sequence and distorted sense of time for use when specifically appropriate to the mental state of the protagonist!

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