Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Time Flies Like a Socratic Dialogue: On Paul Levinson’s The Plot to Save Socrates

The literary convention of time travel has changed over time.

Paul Levinson’s The Plot to Save Socrates has been out in a paperback trade edition for a while and so it is an appropriate time to consider how the metaphor of time travel has been expressed in literature and the media. The Plot to Save Socrates offers a new way of telling time travel stories, one that is very much bound in the current communication environment of the Internet and encompasses role-playing games, multitasking and hypertext. In order to appreciate this change we must first put aside the language we use to describe time change narratives.

Just as our continuing use of the word “station” to signify radio and television frequencies betrays the original conception of “communication” as physically moving from one train station to another, the use of the term “time travel” suggests that we move through time the way we travel through space. It uses a linear metaphor to describe movement through the fourth dimension. Since you can go forward and backward in space, why not the same in time?

For want of a better term, let’s replace “time travel” with “time shift.” We then can see how portrayals of time shifting in our literature and mass media have been bound by this linear, spatial metaphor.

Time shifting has been accomplished by self hypnosis, pimped-up horseless carriages, rays of light, phone booths, portals of various types, FTL space ships and getting hit on the head. The usual technique is to employ some device to move physically from Time A to Time X. A protagonist travels to the past or future the way he would travel to Bejing or Poughkeepsie. He stays a while, either can or cannot change the future or betray the past, and then he returns to his point of origin to survey the results. Sometimes he becomes his own grandfather. Sometimes he falls in love with a contemporary resident, but then looks at a penny and returns involuntarily to his own era. Sometimes he steps on a butterfly.

The metaphor of time shifting employed by a given author has been largely determined by the dominant medium of communication of his era. In the industrial age, when print was the dominant medium of communication, time shifting was obtained by jumping in a vehicle and driving to the past or future. Time was a highway and we could ride it all night long. In the early electronic age, when television dominated, you could travel through time by passing through a portal (screen) or being converted into a beam of light. In our current computer era, at least according to Levinson, you shift through time in hops, skips and jumps and you do it while sitting in a chair. In other words, you “hypertext” your way through time.

The Plot to Save Socrates defies the “A to X back to A” structure of most time shifting tales. Instead of being a good traveler and spending a decent interval in Time X, the story moves continuously back and forth and up and down through time. Levinson’s characters don’t pay a proper visit to a different time, they jump all over history. They assume the identities of real historical characters and they gladly risk changing history at will.

Levinson uses the old medium of print to suggest how the new media can change our assumptions about time and space. Thus The Plot to Save Socrates offers, albeit covertly, a new metaphor for the literary tradition of time travel. Time is not a highway, it is a web. You don’t travel linearly, you click and jump.

1 comment:

grant czerepak said...

I haven't read the book, but I agree with what you describe as a new perspective for time. It appears to agree with what quantum theory tells us as well. We are presented not with a cartesian grid of states, but a three dimensional web of states we can navigate.

I discuss this in my own blog relationary