Christmas and Time-Travel and Possible Worlds: Into the Scroogiverse

by John Holbo on November 25, 2022

Happy Thanksgiving!

Now, philosophy and science fiction. Also, it’s after Thanksgiving, so I can bring up Christmas.

Two weeks ago I attended a talk by Ted Chiang on “Time Travel in Fiction and Physics”. I teach ‘philosophy and science fiction’ and have my kids read more than a few Chiang stories. I was gratified two of my teaching ‘takes’ turned out to scoop Chiang’s lecture neatly. (I’m only slightly aggrieved he is plagiarizing me as to the meaning of his stories. I’ll let that slide.)

So here’s how I am so clever in my teaching.

First, I make the point that prophecy stories are time-travel stories. Information sent from the future to the past. The little graphic on my class page for our week on Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (Arrival if you only saw the movie) and fatalism is: Oedipus talking to the Sphinx.

Second, I start laying the ground for that, on day 1, by giving the kids a survey. They are told to sort a long list of works into SF/not-SF/maybe-SF. One of the ringers is “A Christmas Carol”, which is voted not-SF, overwhelmingly. Then, in discussing our sorting choices, I make the point that “Carol” is a time-travel tale. It has the same arc as “Back to the Future”, basically. Not that this makes it SF, but normally we think ‘time-travel’ makes a story SF. We don’t usually think to add ‘time-travel thanks to a machine, not thanks to a ghost.’ ‘Science’ means a special sort of knowledge. Why shouldn’t that include foreknowledge?

(You want my joke about Christopher Nolan’s “A Christmas Carol”? I cracked it on Twitter the morning before going to hear Chiang talk. “Tenant”, but with reverse figgy puddings!)

So anyway, in his lecture Chiang singled out the Oedipus tale, specifically, to make the point that prophecy is time-travel;  also he tagged “A Christmas Carol” as a time-travel story. So I was feeling prophetic.

But then he spun me around with the following. He said “A Christmas Carol” is the first ‘proper’ time-travel story, in that it’s the first story of a prophecy in which one can ‘fight fate’ – the future – and win. That is, it’s the first fiction in which there is a sort of implied metaphysics of branching futures, possible worlds.

Into the Scroogiverse! Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. Once a Year.

I couldn’t immediately think of any clear counter-examples – that is, earlier fictional instances of authentic (non-fraudulent) prophecy-visions of what ‘may’ happen. But it seems remarkable there shouldn’t be. The metaphors are so obvious and low tech: series of doors, branching paths. Mirrors showing different versions. No one thought to tell it like that?

It’s true such a story seems un-ancient Greek – un-Christian, too. (The plurality of worlds seems like an invitation to get burned as a heretic, like Bruno, no? Leibniz, too, prudently turns aside, in a Panglossian direction: best of all possible and all.)  So, at least in Western culture, lack of ‘multiversal’ storytelling is not SO notable.

(Minor irony, noted. I tell my students Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” is a great time-travel story precisely because it embraces the fate angle so fully – not that it’s the first prophecy story to do so. But Chiang himself suggested in his lecture that ‘proper’ time-travel tale-telling embraces freedom, possibility of changing the future – and/or the past. Well, YMMV as to what is ‘proper’ in such a narrative.)

One of the hallmarks of the multiverse tale is: counterparts and the possibility of crossing paths with your alt-self. Dickens doesn’t have Scrooge meet his future counterpart. It isn’t clear he could, within the metaphysics of the ‘vision’.

Where does it start, in fiction?

I quickly googled up ‘multiverse’ on the SFE and learned it was coined by William James, not in our sense. And Michael Moorcock uses it in our sense in 1963, that is in a ‘parallel world’ sense.

C.S. Lewis gets there before Moorcock, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in 1950, with Aslan being all ‘in your world I have a different name.’  And Lewis vividly figures the plurality of worlds with ‘the wood between the worlds’.

The SFE entry links to this blog essay about the origins of the ‘multiverse’ concept. And that blog essay duly and rightly links to the SFE article on ‘parallel worlds’. Obviously once you’ve got the concept of a parallel world – world beside the ‘actual’ world – and the concept of time-travel, you would be most unoriginal NOT to consider branching timelines generate infinite parallel, ‘possible’ worlds between which one might imagine traveling (via magic or tech or what have you.)

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I’m curious if anyone has examples of prior-to-“A Christmas Carol” art. It seems like visions of what MAY happen is so obvious. When people go see a fortune-teller, or consult the oracle, they are looking for ‘actionable’ info they can use. Right? Even if that is rather a confused concept, even if it has always been obvious to people that prophecy implies fate, someone should have written a story about the ‘common’ notion that you can BOTH foresee the future AND the future is wide open. Right?

UPDATE: And of course “Story of Your Life” isn’t really about time-travel. It just seems like it must be. That’s what makes it so genius. (Just to be clear.) In his story notes he includes this quote from Vonnegut, to explain:

“Stephen Hawking…found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now … To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and loves you no matter what you are.’?”

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Larry Hamelin 11.25.22 at 10:50 am

Not prior to A Christmas Carol, but Greg Egan’s short story, “The Hundred Light Year Diary,” is a unique take on the idea of prophecy. Briefly, Egan posits that we can detect distant stars after the beginning of the collapse of the universe, with reverse thermodynamics. Through technobabble (Egan is a physicist and engineer, so his technobabble is of the finest quality), we can use these stars to send messages from the future to the past.

Egan also uses a similar idea in The Arrow of Time, the third book in the Orthogonal trilogy, but his treatment there is less philosophical. Briefly, because we get no interesting scientific information from the future, scientists in the present find themselves unable to innovate.

In general, I strongly recommend Egan to philosophers and philosophically inclined readers. Egan couples rigorous science and mathematics with considerable philosophical imagination.

2

notGoodenough 11.25.22 at 11:44 am

An interesting post! Here are a few of my uninteresting thoughts:

Trying to make hard and fast categories with fiction is, I suspect, something of a fools errand – so just to say this is purely a personal opinion on the way I would think about it (and is by no means intended as commentary on how it should be thought about). However, I find the suggestion that we think of time travel as making a story sci-fi rather an odd one – when Xanthar the Wise casts the ritual that sends his shadow back in time to warn his past self the Grobnal Horde is coming, I wouldn’t think to myself “ah yes, that’s clearly science fiction”. I’m also not sure I’d think about it in terms of fate vs autonomy. After all, arguably isn’t there a thematic similarity regarding predestination between Heinline’s “Life-line” and the fate of Elihoreph and Ahijah in the Babylonian Talmud? Yet I’d think of the former as sci-fi and the latter not (or, regarding prophecy, contrasting Hari Seldon and the cursed Cassandra). I think why I personally might make the distinction would be based on a fuzzy idea of “the means by which it occurs” – simplistically memeified: sci-fi is when time travel occurs via technology, fantasy is when time travel occurs via magic. I can see many reasonable objections to this, of course – not least invocation of Clarke (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) or, if you prefer, Girl Genius (“Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!”). Nevertheless, it is where I would tend to think such a distinction could be made, though certainly I’m not going to go around policing other people’s uses of the terms!

Regarding “actionable prophecy”, surely it depends on the nature of the prophecies themselves, and whether or not they have conditional clauses (“any son of Bob will one day kill him” implies that so long as Bob never has a son, he will avoid that particular strand of fate – though what is said regarding Bobsdottir remains unknown…). It also, I suppose, depends on what one considers actionable? If the angel of death informs me I am destined to die in 30 days that may well be a sealed fate – yet it says nothing about what else I might do; for example, taking out a life insurance policy to benefit others (or would that be a form of celestial insurance fraud?). Even if it is true that “a person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it”, surely that doesn’t mean you can’t choose what quality of inn you rest up at on the way…?

3

Peter Erwin 11.25.22 at 11:51 am

It seems like visions of what MAY happen is so obvious. When people go see a fortune-teller, or consult the oracle, they are looking for ‘actionable’ info they can use. Right?

Well, sure. It seems to me this is (sort of) implicit in the context of traditional divination. E.g., a king consults an astrologer or an expert in haruspication to learn what would be the best day to start a war, or marry his son off to some other ruler, or whatever. The expected result is something like “Well, if you do it on this day, bad things will happen, but if you do it on that day, you will have success.”

4

John Holbo 11.25.22 at 12:44 pm

Exactly: “a king consults an astrologer or an expert in haruspication to learn what would be the best day to start a war, or marry his son off to some other ruler, or whatever”.

I think the thing to say is that this sort of view implies a multiversal metaphysics but that view hasn’t really been taken very seriously, fictionally. No one was inclined to think through the ‘plurality of worlds’ implications of the proposition that these possibilities are real and we can have technological contact with these worlds via ‘experts’.

Another complication is that there is a notion of fate that may be mythic – resonant, story-wise. But doesn’t seem likely, metaphysically: namely, some people have fates they are doomed to, but they might arrive at them by alternate routes. So, for this individual, call him ‘O’, all roads lead to X = kill dad and marry mom. But various lives might be lived consistent with that sorry end. So when you hear of your fate you can change the future, but you can’t escape your fate.

5

notGoodenough 11.25.22 at 1:28 pm

”So, for this individual, call him ‘O’, all roads lead to X = kill dad and marry mom. But various lives might be lived consistent with that sorry end.”

Which raises the question regarding ripples. In one universe O joins the army, kills dad, and marries mum; in another O runs away to become a travelling accountant, kills dad, and marries mum. But what about Agnostos, who in universe A was an “enemy” soldier O ended up killing? In the universe B is there a freak tortoise-related accident on that same day because he’s fated to die regardless, but never got to meet O? Or is determinism only for the “important people”, and the rest of us are background characters? When the fates get weaving, just exactly how much detail are they putting in the “jumper of destiny”?

6

James 11.25.22 at 2:55 pm

Interesting idea, but perhaps the Neo-Assyrian oracles predate that (7th century BCE or so)? Or the Hittite substitute king ritual (before 1200 BCE)? In both, the future is known: the king will die/be incapacitated in some way. In order to avoid that, they either adjust the calendar (Neo-Assyrian) or anoint a substitute king (Hittite, sort of a scape goat-type thing) who takes the fall.
Or, what about the Hebrew prophets? Jonah specifically gets ticked off at YHWH because he allowed the future to be changed for the hated Neo-Assyrians. And he’s not the only one.
Granted, they aren’t stories as the stuff you are talking about, but the concept is there, just waiting to be picked up. And as you note, it’s definitely not a Greek idea where fate can at best be delayed (see Herodotus, book 1).

Musingly,
James

7

oldster 11.25.22 at 2:57 pm

“First, I make the point that prophecy stories are time-travel stories. Information sent from the future to the past.”
But what kind of information? If it is information about what is happening in the future, then Dickens is ruled out. If it’s merely probabilistic information about the various non-zero odds of various different things happening, then the weather report winds up time-travel, which strikes me as a reductio.
The Spirit allows that these are shadows of things that may be, not of things that will be. So does the Met Office.
I think the case for calling ACC time travel is very weak. He is never in the future. He experiences some visions which correspond to no future that ever occurs. The Spirit generates some scenarios that represent forecasts. That’s all.

8

Scott P. 11.25.22 at 3:44 pm

What about the “Apocalypse of Peter”? In it, Jesus’ disciples are given a vision of both heaven and hell, with the implied idea bearing that it is up to the individual to select one of these fates by their future actions.

9

LFC 11.25.22 at 3:56 pm

Arguably, the idea of an inescapable fate is emotionally powerful because it mirrors, for lack of a better word, one of the most obvious and significant aspects of the human condition: namely, that humans live finite lives. In that sense, everyone eventually faces the same inescapable fate.

Because multiple-possible-futures stories often can be read, without too much of a stretch, as implicitly evading or circumventing or denying this reality, their emotional impact is lessened. On this view, it’s no surprise or accident that A Christmas Carol is a minor work of Dickens whereas Little Dorrit, for example, is a masterpiece. In the latter, the idea of mortality hovers in the background and sometimes does more than that, whereas in A Christmas Carol, although Scrooge is of course aware that he will die, it doesn’t play the same role. (Or if it does, the numerous dramatizations of A Christmas Carol, through which most people, including me, know the story now, don’t highlight it.)

10

Peter Erwin 11.25.22 at 5:48 pm

He said “A Christmas Carol” is the first ‘proper’ time-travel story, in that it’s the first story of a prophecy in which one can ‘fight fate’ – the future – and win. That is, it’s the first fiction in which there is a sort of implied metaphysics of branching futures, possible worlds.

It’s interesting to directly compare this with the story of the individual ‘O’, where O’s father clearly thinks (or at least hopes) that he can avoid the prophecy he is given (“if you have a son, he will kill you”) by having his newborn son killed. So Scrooge isn’t that unusual in terms of his reaction to “prophecy” — hey, maybe I can escape my fate if I try this one weird trick! — it’s that the metaphysics of his world (or multiverse) allows him to succeed. Very un-ancient-Greek, as you point out. (At least potentially; I don’t think Dickens ever explicitly states that the Christmas Future vision is actually ruled out, does he?)

11

Peter Erwin 11.25.22 at 6:01 pm

oldster @ 7
The Spirit allows that these are shadows of things that may be, not of things that will be. So does the Met Office.

I think there’s some kind of difference between vague, descriptive near-term forecasts and vivid-in-every-detail presentations of the world decades in the future as the Spirit presents. Perhaps moreso in that Scrooge has been shown what he knows to be true presentations of the past.

Also, weather forecasts are not generally seen as things you could alter or prevent from happening — not even by drawing on the map with Sharpie. (Admittedly, we like to joke about how the universe is perverse enough to react to our actions in the case of weather forecasts: “I know that if I treat this seriously and bring an umbrella, I probably won’t need it; but if I ignore it and don’t bring an umbrella, then it definitely will rain!”)

12

marcel proust 11.25.22 at 8:12 pm

My father had an SF paperback collection of somewhere between 500-600 volumes when I was growing up; I’m in my mid 60s now, so this would have been in the 1960s and 1970s. /1/ /2/ One story that I recall, but not the title or author, was a parallel worlds story about a civilization where every individual lived on the same planet but separated in time by a fraction of a second. There was a technology that enabled people to leave their planet and visit another’s, I think, but w/o it, there is/was no interaction between them. Thinking about it now, it was much like (my understanding of) the LDS notion of paradise where each (white male?) individual ascends to their own separate heaven where they are God (or the equal, much like their view of Enoch on his throne in heaven opposite God). This book would have been from perhaps the 1950s, certainly no later than the mid 1960s.

1/ He gave it me about 25 years ago, and I sold it all to a used book store a couple of years later, before my last move. I would have kept it for my teenage son, but he had no interest, and I’d read all the ones I found interesting when I was a teenager.

2/ Of course all of Asimov and Heinlein, but a lot of Simak, Sturgeon, Pohl, van Vogt, Niven, Anderson, Bradbury, Clarke, Blish, del Rey, Sprague de Camp, Silverberg, Delany, some Herbert (which I never read), Hoyle, Le Guin, Zelazny (or maybe Delaney? or both — can’t recall at this date), and others that I can no longer remember.

13

Daniel Lindquist 11.26.22 at 12:18 am

“I think the thing to say is that this sort of view implies a multiversal metaphysics…. these possibilities are real and we can have technological contact with these worlds via ‘experts’.”
I think this misunderstands how divination works. It’s much closer to weather forecasting: You can read the newspaper and then judge that if you go to the park on Saturday, you’ll get rained on; but if you go on Sunday, it will be sunny. No metaphysics needed to make sense of that: it’s just saying what will happen given what the present signs indicate (wind, air pressure, clouds, seasonal patterns etc.). Divination also just articulates what the present signs indicate: given that the entrails look like THIS, Mars is going to be having a strong influence at the time in question and so there will be a battle, etc. Divination handbooks are largely compilations of these sorts of sign correspondences. In metaphysicalizing them I think you’re back-importing a Christian view of providence, so that sign correspondences in nature must “really” be telling us about the divine will which governs the cosmos, but I think divination practicioners generally don’t believe in that sort of thing (or needn’t, at any rate). They’re not inquiring into possible/future world-wholes, just trying to infer from what’s in front of them to what isn’t in front of them.

14

KT2 11.26.22 at 2:02 am

Excellent post. My year 9 child has been studying scifi in English this term. English teacher has been emailed a link to this post.

At home we watched (haha) Watchmen this week. Neither if us could agree a single genre. It fits your scifi broad brush though. Certainly messaging us. And especially the ending re time travelling messageing and information. No spoilers

I have also emailed https://www.psytoolkit.org/#_faq to ask for a questionnaire re Vonnegut saying “But remembering the future is child’s play for me now”.

I thought it may be valuable for a pre and post test to guage your students ability re “remembering the future is child’s play”, and to identify others who may have such a talent / gift. We need them.

15

John Q 11.26.22 at 4:15 am

Herod’s slaughter of the innocents not long after Oedipus, and much the same story.

Do stories like Oedipus insist too much? If everyone really believed in immutable fate, maybe there wouldn’t be much interest in stories showing its immutability. It seems as if there must be a belief in a branching, and potentially controllable future, to create the dramatic tension.

16

John Holbo 11.26.22 at 4:41 am

“It’s much closer to weather forecasting”
That’s very interesting! You are totally right. But, then again, it all depends. How is divination supposed to work? If you have a crystal clear vision of your future self doing something – seen as-if through a window – that’s a bit different from ‘by a pricking of my thumbs it’s going to rain tomorrow’.

17

Alan White 11.26.22 at 6:37 am

JH: “Do stories like Oedipus insist too much? If everyone really believed in immutable fate, maybe there wouldn’t be much interest in stories showing its immutability. It seems as if there must be a belief in a branching, and potentially controllable future, to create the dramatic tension.”

I have said elsewhere that there seem to be two basic time-travel stories: ones that loop to times that then from the time looped to may play out from that point differently in multiverse fashion (e.g., Back to the Future), or ones where there are loops that only play out as inevitably but requiring the loops to play a role in that inevitability (The Terminator series until the last version that went kinda BTTF). Each version of time travel is interesting, allowing BTTF to involve free will (libertarian?) to be a deciding factor in how loops are resolved in multiverse fashion, but Terminators insisting that the time-loops themselves are necessary causal factors in how things inevitably turn out in eternalist fashion (though I’d note that each is equally interesting as a time-travel tale, and in some ways I favor Terminator scenarios as more satisfying in terms of explanation; c’mon–Scrooge is scared into choosing a different path as opposed to Kyle becoming John Connors’ father?). In terms of theories of time, multiverse stuff is more Everett-Wheeler/presentist/growing block, and inevitability is more Einsteinian/Bohmian eternalist. ACC is a tough one, because the first two ghosts relate settled truth about the past and present as given, but present the truth of the future as something only as a warning that is not Terminator inevitable. So maybe growing block is the time theory most congenial with ACC, and thus more agreeable with a multiverse view. Wow–there’s 15 minutes I’ll never get back–depending on whether BTTF or The Terminator plays out for me. . .

18

Adam Roberts 11.26.22 at 9:32 am

This “SF and Philosophy” course of yours sounds very interesting. Do you do merch?

Is “Tenant”, as the name of Nolan’s fillum, a slip, or a clever gag?

My take on “Christmas Carol” is slightly different to Chiang’s, and yours. True, Scrooge is haunted by the future (after being haunted by the past and the present) and it seems he is thereby able to change that future. But “Carol” still exists within a familiar context, in which the paraphernalia of the Gothic past are the context out of which haunting happens. Now, me, you see, I point, instead to “The Signal-Man” (1866: so a couple decades later) as the first properly future-oriented ghost story: not creepy old mansions and ghosts clanking chains, but the bright shining new technologies of the steam locomotive. I talk about it in this blog post, haunted as I am by the revenant idiom of blogging that, though dead, refuses to lie still. At least for me.

Also, in this blog post, I try to situate “Signal-Man” in the context of the new, for the 19thC, idiom of future-fiction as such.

19

John Holbo 11.26.22 at 12:31 pm

“Is “Tenant”, as the name of Nolan’s fillum, a slip, or a clever gag?”

Stupid slip is what.

“Signal-Man”! Yes, indeed!

20

Peter T 11.26.22 at 12:59 pm

The Babylonians were, in ancient times, the preeminent forecasters of human events. Marc van de Mieroop, in Philosophy Before the Greeks, explores their outlook. In brief, as cuneiform could be read so many ways (as Sumerian ideogram, or phonetic in several variants, or homophone, or Akkadian phonetic or homophone, or Babylonian), with the reading dependent on context, they saw it as encoding the universe. So signs (on livers, or clouds, or cast sticks) that resembled cuneiform conveyed divine intent – letters from the gods. Not far from many more modern pursuits, and the quest is neatly captured in Raymond St Elmo’s The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing.

21

alfredlordbleep 11.27.22 at 10:38 pm

Timely
now more than ever as introduced in fragments in recent years as CT comments. Act One’s opening lines follow below. Its closing lines show Our Hero escaping Fate. Or so it seems. Act One finally complete is at the subsequent link (fourteen plus pages typeset pdf).

<i>Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely artificial </i>
PHILOSOPHY AT PLAY
in the spirit of a trivial comedy for serious people

Scene: Hertfordshire July 1897. Mid-morning in the garden at Manor House Woolton. Under a large yew-tree are set basket chairs and a table arrayed with books and two muffins on a tray. Cecily, just turned twenty, awaits the imminent arrival of her Uncle John. Actually, she is his great-great Aunt—but nevermind. He is from the future and distant Singapore

MERRIMAN Your guest has just driven over from the station.
CECILY Ask him to come here.
MERRIMAN Yes, Ma’am.
Merriman goes off
CECILY I have never met a real philosopher. I feel rather frightened. Reality is so strange nowadays.
Enter JH, very plausibly
JH [raising his hat] You are little Cecily. So pleased to see you at long last.
CECILY You, I see from your card, are my pedantic American relation. I’m to call you Uncle John until we understand your place on the family tree.
JH I am not really pedantic, Cecily, and not at all stuffy. You mustn’t think so. I am on holiday.
He enjoyed being viewed as stylish yet non-conforming (never in women’s wear). A corseted professional life had even drawn out pure fancy when on his own. Now doubly innocent for the past is a foreign country as someone said
CECILY I’m the first Victorian girl to meet a man from two centuries beyond. Do you believe in life beyond the grave?
JH It’s much pleasanter being here with you. . . than b-be-ing—
CECILY—dead? Let me think. My family isn’t in favor of premature experience, especially mine. Your being here makes me queen of all premature experience! This is no way to enter the history books by forcing their rewrite.
JH I’m fond of paradox, the universe less so.
CECILY Or could we be meeting in the world of spirits beyond time? Oh! Let us not speak of such things, Uncle John. [Checks for her heartbeat. Relieved looks at him with familial concern] Let’s sit down while we wait for the others to return. A garden is so welcoming, beautiful and fragrant.
JH [drowning in scent] Why don’t we move closer? [Reflexively reaches for her hand. She frowns. There is a current of electricity in him as he covers it with his own. Her corporeality shocks his senses]
CECILY I have been married sometime, but I’m not quite old enough for adultery.
JH Oh! Let us not speak of such things!
CECILY On Sundays Dr Chasuble lays down the Higher Law. But I’ve found that passions depart before they can be arrested. Here in the garden as the seasons change, I reflect on that strange truth that it is the superficial things that last.
JH You try to ensnare me right off the bat. Wisemen almost to a man ponder the skull beneath the skin.
CECILY Oh! You are disenchanting.
JH Truth is beauty.
CECILY You touched on an obvious exception.
JH Heraclitus complained that the masses were blind to truth and didn’t know that one good man counts for more than thousands. Remember a good work may atone for a lie, or other sins.
CECILY I try to forget them as soon as possible. It is my only form of self-denial. I remember the past only as it gives pleasure.
JH Spoken like an amnesiac and a voluptuary.
CECILY It would be ideal to combine both, don’t you think?
JH To experience each repetition of a pleasure as a first impression?
CECILY Exactly.
JH [archly] For you that explodes the question of original sin by making all original.
CECILY Oh, nobody’s so vain.
JH Be careful or you will be found out. . . .

https://www.dropbox.com/s/m7v65c5jtyo0700/73022P%40P.pdf?dl=0
[Link to Complete Act One. Skip sign up or sign in steps to go directly to file.]

22

NickS 11.28.22 at 12:18 am

Thinking about paths, I am curious where you would put Gene Wolfe’s “Solar Labyrinth” on the scale of SF/ not SF?

23

Trader Joe 11.28.22 at 3:55 pm

If you buy the assertion that anything involving prophesy or future seeing is sufficient to pre-suppose a multi-verse and accordingly makes it SF than virtually all Shakespeare will qualify as SF. There are only a handful of plays in the entire oeuvre that don’t include witches, divination, faeries or some sort of deus ex machina that point to a possible fate which the characters may or may not avoid.

I myself am not really buying ACC as SF. I agree with those up-strand that note forecasting an individual’s death is actuarial not prophesy. Equally you pre-suppose that it was only the spirit of Christmas Future that changes Scrooge’s mind when the more immediate solution was that it was the entire body of past, present and future which provoked the change.

24

J-D 11.28.22 at 10:59 pm

If you buy the assertion that anything involving prophesy or future seeing is sufficient to pre-suppose a multi-verse and accordingly makes it SF than virtually all Shakespeare will qualify as SF. There are only a handful of plays in the entire oeuvre that don’t include witches, divination, faeries or some sort of deus ex machina that point to a possible fate which the characters may or may not avoid.

Hamlet has the ghost; 1 Henry VI has fiends appear to Joan; 2 Henry IV has the fulfilment of a prophecy of the location of the king’s death; A Midsummer Night’s Dream has magic and fairies; Julius Caesar has the soothsayer foretell the date of Caesar’s assassination; Macbeth has witches and prophecies fulfilled; The Tempest has sorcery and spirits. In addition, 1 Henry IV has Glendower claim uncanny powers, although Hotspur mocks, and 2 Henry VI has a necromantic ritual, although doubts are expressed about it. Even counting those two, though, and even if I’ve missed a couple more, that’s still less than a third of the plays.

25

Trader Joe 11.29.22 at 4:18 pm

@24
I don’t have time to chase up all the references, but I recall a list from University days that was quite a bit longer than you are suggesting. Perhaps I’ll retract slightly to suggest that substantially all of Shakespeare’s major works and his most widely read works included prophesy or future seeing.

Shakespeare aside prophesy, fortune telling, the occult and the like is a pretty basic literary element that has been used to a greater or lesser degree in hundreds of well known works. Im as much a fan of SF as the next guy, but I don’t think you can co-opt that literary device to do the work of classifying all its users as SF writers.

Beyond that I’d propose the rhetorical question of exactly where does the literary device of foreshadowing (whether done by spirits, witches or simple verbal reference) cross the line to becoming ‘time travel’ as compared to simply being a tool to build tension and increase the rising action of the story line. Sometimes a tombstone is just a tombstone.

26

John Holbo 11.30.22 at 7:02 am

Excellent! Thanks, everyone!

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>