Chess, time travel and science fiction

4/10/2003 – Some time ago we linked to an article in which discovering the laws of physics was compared to learning chess by observing games. At the end of his article there is mention of a 1959 short story by Robert Heinlein, which turns out to be a special favourite of Dr John Nunn. The Oxford mathematician and chess grandmaster tells us why this tale is important and gives us a list of the best works of science fiction.

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All you zombies

By Dr John Nunn

In the piece "Chess and the Laws of Physics" mention was made of the short story "All You Zombies-" (1959) by Robert Heinlein. It was interesting to see a reference to this time-travel story as it is one of my favourites. Heinlein, one of the top science-fiction writers of all time, explored the theme of time-travel several times in his career, not always sticking to the 'deterministic' theory of time-travel featured in "All You Zombies-". His development of the theme of 'deterministic' time-travel is quite interesting.

In 1941, Heinlein wrote "By His Bootstraps", in which time-travel allows the main character to travel back in time and interact with himself. However, he does not change the past. Although viewed from a different perspective, the scene is played out exactly the same way each time. Obviously, this would appear to contradict the assumption of free will; what happens if the "later" (from his personal time-line point of view) incarnation decides to do something different from his memory of the same scene he observed "earlier"? When there is close personal interaction, it is hard to get over the feeling that it is too easy to do something different. While "By His Bootstraps" is an intriguing story, this is not yet the Heinlein of his peak years – the style is rather laboured and the plot formal.

In 1957 Heinlein wrote the novel "The Door Into Summer" (Reprinted 1993, Ballantine Books, ISBN 0345330129), which again deals with 'deterministic' time-travel, but combines this with romantic and mystery elements. Although "The Door Into Summer" is not particularly ambitious, the basic idea is executed very skilfully. The plot is that Dan Davis, a brilliant engineer, is jilted by his fiancée, robbed of his inventions and patents and stuffed into 'cold sleep' for 30 years. When he revives, he starts a new life but discovers some documents from 30 years earlier that do not fit in with his memory of past events. Eventually Dan is able to travel back in time, put right the discrepancies and gain his revenge on those who cheated him before. He then returns to the future via cold sleep and finds happiness there. Dan never meets his earlier self so here the 'free will' objection is much less obtrusive. If one considers the famous 'grandfather paradox' (what happens if you go back in time and murder your own grandfather?), I doubt whether anyone would actually want to do this. Quite apart from the possibility of self-obliteration ('obliteration' is here used in the sense of 'never existing at all' – this is, of course, quite different from death), causing the space-time continuum to unravel and other potential dangers, there doesn't seem much to be gained from murdering your grandfather.

Building on his earlier efforts, in 1959 Heinlein wrote the short story "All You Zombies-", which is undoubtedly one of the great classic time-travel stories. The main character has a sex change, makes love to him/herself, gives birth to himself, kidnaps himself from the orphanage, recruits himself into the Time Corps, and so on. Every character who has had a significant impact on his life turns out to have been himself at different points in his own time-line. In the end he wonders "I know where I came from – but where did all you zombies come from?". The story is quite short, and makes its point with great impact. Heinlein's decision to include the self-copulation element was quite brave, considering the time that it was written, but there is no doubt that this adds greatly to the story's effectiveness.

"All You Zombies-" had a considerable impact on other science-fiction writers, one example being the novel 'The Man Who Folded Himself' by David Gerrold (1973). This again explored the self-interaction theme of "All You Zombies-", but without greatly extending it – indeed, the switch to novel length lessened the impact of the basic theme.

These days, 'deterministic' time-travel seems to be out of fashion. One reason may be that by its very nature it offers fewer imaginative possibilities than other time-travel theories; another might be that Heinlein's story said all that was worth saying on the subject, leaving others few possibilities for further exploration.

Dr John Nunn's Science Fiction list

This list covers science fiction novels I have read recently. This does not mean that they are necessarily new. Year of publication refers to year published in the UK and the ISBN numbers refer to editions available in the UK and may differ from (for example) US editions. Where a book is part of a series, I have often mentioned the earlier books of the series.

David Brin: Earth. 1990 (but recently reissued). 
ISBN 0708848729.
A black hole is discovered inside the Earth and the planet will be digested in another two years if nothing is done. An unusual mixture of hard science and environmental concerns. Very good except perhaps for the slightly mystical ending. Doctor's rating: 8
Charles Sheffield: Cold as Ice. 1992. 
ISBN 0812511638.
Intriguing story set amongst the moons of Jupiter after disastrous interplanetary war. Is there life on Europa and what has this to do with a rumoured secret weapon from the war? The book is enlivened by several colourful characters. Doctor's rating: 8

Peter Hamilton: The Reality Dysfunction. 1997.
ISBN 0330340328.

These three books form the “Night’s Dawn Trilogy”. This is a very well-written and complex story set hundreds of years in the future, featuring many interwoven ideas: interstellar travel using wormholes, antimatter used as a weapon of genocide and new types of human society based on telepathy. Into this future two new elements appear: a secret super-weapon capable of destroying stars and a bizarre plague of possession, apparently the souls of the dead returning to life. The author has attempted, more or less successfully, a mixture of horror (10%) and science fiction (90%). There is a moderate violence level, which is acceptable since it is part of the basic plot. As is often the case with a series of books written over a period of years, one gains the impression that the author’s ideas developed as the series progressed, and the books do not give the impression of having been planned out from the very beginning. The ending is not entirely satisfactory as it is not an evolution of the ideas developed earlier.

Doctor's ratings: 
8
8
7
Peter Hamilton: The Neutronium Alchemist. 1997. ISBN 0333722442.
Peter Hamilton: The Naked God. 1999. 
ISBN 0333687914.
Peter Hamilton: A Quantum Murder. 1994.
ISBN 0330330454.

High-tech murder mystery set in the near future. Humanity is recovering from the ecological catastrophe of ‘The Warming’, but technology has made considerable advances. It is remarkable that a telepathic investigator has so much trouble solving a crime, but perhaps telepathy is overrated. Generally satisfying, but the author introduces a drug which enables one to see the past - clearly this would prove troublesome in future books of the same series, so the author has this drug destroyed at the end of the book.

Doctor's rating: 7
Peter Hamilton: The Nano Flower. 1995.
ISBN 0330330446.
Sequel to ‘A Quantum Murder’, set slightly further in the future. A mysterious flower appears, containing DNA incompatible with terrestrial life. This eventually leads to a confrontation with an alien intelligence. Lots of good ideas, and perhaps rather more satisfying than the previous book. Doctor's rating: 8
John Barnes: Mother of Storms.  1994. 
ISBN 185798191X

A nuclear explosion on the sea-bed releases huge quantities of methane; accelerated global warming then triggers a plague of super-hurricanes. The book features an intriguing plot spoilt by an excessive level of sex and violence, apparently introduced gratuitously by the author since it has nothing whatsoever to do with the basic theme.

Doctor's rating: 5
David Brin: Sundiver. 
1980. ISBN 1857233700
The first ‘Uplift’ trilogy, although the stories are more or less independent. Humanity has made contact with galactic civilisation, which is ancient but rather ossified. Fundamental to this civilisation is the process of ‘Uplift’, in which elder races bring forth intelligence in pre-sapient species. All existing intelligent races were created in this way, except possibly for humanity and the mythical ‘Progenitors’. Of these three books, perhaps ‘Startide Rising’ is the best. Doctor's ratings:
7
7
8
David Brin: The Uplift War. 
1987 ISBN 1857233719
David Brin: Startide Rising. 1996. 
ISBN 1857233727
David Brin: Brightness Reef. 1996. 
ISBN 1857233859
The second ‘Uplift’ trilogy, following on from the events of ‘Startide Rising’. These three books are closely linked and really have to be read in sequence. All are extremely well-written. They start slowly, but the action rapidly gathers pace. The only real flaw is that the last book of the series is somewhat drawn-out and repetitious - we go to a white dwarf, then we go to a neutron star, then we go to a ... you get the idea. Doctor's ratings:
8
8
7
David Brin: Infinity’s Shore. 1997. 
ISBN 1857235657
David Brin: Heaven’s Reach. 1998
ISBN 1857235649
Dan Simmons: Hyperion. 
1989. ISBN 0747234825
These two books are one story and must be read in sequence. Set in an interstellar society of the future, humanity, the mysterious ‘Ousters’ and the TechnoCore (descendants of man’s Silicon Friends) exist in precarious balance. The computing abilities of the TechnoCore can predict almost everything, except for the influence of the mysterious ‘Time Tombs’, which are apparently travelling back in time from an unknown future. Empty and ruined now, it is believed that in the near future they will open and release their cargo (this sounds odd, but is logically consistent). Brilliantly written, the book starts slowly but builds up to a shattering climax as interstellar war breaks out. Doctor's ratings:
9
9
Dan Simmons: The Fall of Hyperion. 1990. 0747236046
Dan Simmons: Endymion. 
1996. ISBN 074723826X
Set 250 years after the previous pair, these are even better. I won’t say any more about them, except to add that if you are fond of the Catholic Church, then you probably shouldn’t read these. Includes an enemy that makes the Terminator look as harmless as a teddy bear. Doctor's rating:
10
10
Dan Simmons: The Rise of Endymion. 1997. 
ISBN 0747276668
Poul Anderson: Starfarers. 
1998. 
ISBN 0812545990
When SETI astronomers discover evidence of an advanced civilisation, a manned interstellar mission is mounted to contact them. Thanks to time dilation, it will be 10,000 years (Earth time) before they return. The book follows both the mission and the cultural changes on Earth while they are away. The strength of this book is the believable characters, even if they sometimes talk so much that the action slows to a snail’s pace. Still, a good solid hard-SF novel. Doctor's rating: 6
Joe Haldeman: Forever Free. 
1999. 
ISBN 1857989317
This a sequel to Haldeman’s classic The Forever War. It starts out in promising style, but sadly what could have been a interesting theme is never developed. Instead, two different races of hitherto unknown aliens put in a last-minute appearance to ‘explain’ what has happened. Not only is one of these races totally unnecessary to the plot, but ‘explaining’ events by saying that an omnipotent alien willed them to be so is hardly satisfying. Moreover, the actions of the alien are so irrational that one fears the alien is mad as well as omnipotent. Doctor's rating: 3
Gregory Benford: COSM. 
1998. 
ISBN 1857237242
An accident in a high-energy physics lab creates what at first seems to be a new form of matter, but turns out to be a window into another universe. A well-written novel, with believable characters, an interesting plot and a satisfying climax. Doctor's rating: 9
Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio. 
2000. 
ISBN 00006511384
Seemingly unrelated events - an inexplicable archaeological discovery, a mysterious new disease and a mass murder - all turn out to be linked. The race to discover the cause of the new disease before disaster strikes provides a backdrop for the development of main characters. An exciting genetic thriller, even if the general tone is downbeat and the final resolution of the mystery is slightly implausible. Doctor's rating: 7
Michael Crichton: Timeline. 
1999. ISBN 0099244721
A technological thriller in the usual Crichton style. A slightly sinister private corporation discovers ‘time-travel’, but a researcher disappears in the past and needs rescuing. The historical scenes are well-done, and the book, as one would expect from Crichton, is well-written and hard to put down. The main weakness is the confused description of the mechanism of time-travel, which at one point is explained as travel to a parallel universe indistinguishable from our past. However, one of the key elements of the plot is a message written by the missing researcher, which is found by a contemporary archaeologist. If the researcher is in a parallel universe, how did the message turn up in ours? H.G.Wells knew better than to try to explain how a time machine actually works. Since no-one actually knows how to make a time machine, such an explanation is bound to strike a false note. I dare say this book will be made into a successful film. Doctor's rating: 7
Larry Niven: Destiny’s Road. 
1997. 
ISBN 1857235487
The days of Ringworld are long gone. Now Larry Niven tries to write novels with well-developed characters. Unfortunately this is often at the cost of the real strengths of his writing – believable aliens and hard science. In this case the result is totally boring and I admit to not finishing this tale of dietary deficiencies. Doctor's rating: 2
Stephen Baxter: Moonseed. 
1998. 
ISBN 0006498132

A good disaster novel. A piece of moon rock stored from the Apollo missions is found to contain a mysterious nano-organism. When it escapes and starts to transform the Earth for its own purposes, humanity’s days appear numbered. P.S. Edinburgh is the first city to get the chop.

 
Doctor's rating: 8
Stephen Baxter: Time. 
1999. 
ISBN 0006511821
The birth of a group of super-intelligent children and a mysterious artefact on an asteroid both turn out to be related to events near the heat-death of the universe, where intelligent beings are struggling to survive on the last remnants of free energy. A pot-pourri of different ideas and paper-thin characters which never quite mesh together. Doctor's rating: 6
Orson Scott Card: Children of the Mind.  
1999. 
ISBN 1857239547
The fourth and presumably last of the novels about Ender Wiggin. Jane, the interstellar computer intelligence, is threatened with death as a result of the shutting down of her hardware by the Starways Congress. The race against time to save her makes for an interesting novel, but it never really grips the reader. The characters apparently have plenty of time to chat about their personal problems while the clock ticks down. Doctor's rating: 5

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