Looking through Novikov Windows with Chris Cosmain

The window cracks open

Novikov Windows by Chris Cosmain
Novikov Windows by Chris Cosmain.

The time travel element in Chris Cosmain’s Novikov Windows is as intense as it is thorough! Chris doesn’t shy away from tackling many popular aspects of time travel, and not only backs them up with scientific ideas, but calls on his characters to discuss the fluffier side of hard science fact.

Mechanics, paradoxes, loops, and the big one in this novel: the notion of free will on a deterministic single time line. There’s a lot more to take in than I first thought!

Live review dies (again!)

I mentioned that writing and reordering my many notes for this novel was zapping my reading enjoyment, and that I could simplify the process by creating a chronologically linear list of bullet points and notes in a pseudo live review. And yes, I thought I could make this work in with a time travel novel!

After just a couple of chapters I discussed with Chris why I wanted to kill this idea and he agreed. My list was something along the lines of:

  • Oh, Chris has left out something.
  • Ah, there it is!
  • This bit doesn’t make sense, because that means…
  • Ah, now I get it!
  • This is crap!!!
  • Nope – this is brilliant!
  • I’m reminded of learning chemistry in secondary school. We learned something in Year 1, then in the following year the teacher told us everything we’d learned was wrong, and actually the correct stuff is the following. We learned the new correct stuff in Year 2, then got told the next year it was all crap and actually the right stuff is….

    In fairness, it wasn’t all crap – it was a gradual introduction to a theory, making sure we understood the main gist before we moved to the finer points. And it’s the same with Chris’writing – instead of slapping us in the face with a full scale time travel concept all in one go where undoubtedly the reader will need some further guidance, Chris creates these “Ah!” moments where red flags and question marked turn green and get answered.

    That said, I’d like to think I deserve some credit for prematurely spotting flaws and inconsistencies, but I should admit that sometimes it was my own misunderstanding of what was presented. I’m thinking here of a “milky white substance” that was injected into people before they time travelled. I went off on a right old rant about how this would work practically, why it wasn’t needed for inanimate objects and indeed, what is the difference between animate and inanimate objects on a molecular level anyway?

    It turned out I’d missed the word “propofol” which would have indicated it wasn’t anything to do with the time travel mechanism, but an anaesthetic agent used to put time travellers to sleep!

    Anyway. Kudos to Chrisos, he used this revelation technique with other parts of his novel too, including character Aaron, and indeed, the storyline in general! Curious?!

    Premise: the Novikov Window and Free Will

    I’m going to quote Igor Novikov’s self-consistency principle from my current read “Travels Through Time” by Mike Ricksecker (p72):

    Novikov self-consistency principle: The concept that if an event would cause a paradox or some alteration to the past, then the probability of that event occurring is zero.

    Chris’ novel puts this into practical terms by defining the “Novikov window” as the window of time where you know from the perspective of the future, the events that will happen in the present. Since other events have zero probability of occurring, characters are forced to play out these events because, in effect, they’ve already happened. (Note this assumes a single time line.)

    The novel therefore asserts there is no free will within a Novikov window.

    As an example, consider you’re a child going exploring on a hike with an older version of yourself. Years later you’ve grown up into that older version of yourself, and you’re meeting young you, and decide to go fishing. But you remember going hiking! So there’s no choice – you’re obliged to repeat your hiking trip, thus (re)creating your memory. Fishing doesn’t get a look in because that would cause a paradox. It has a 0% chance of occurring.

    (Note this creates a bootstrap paradox – young and old versions both know where to go on this exploratory hike – young you follows old you, and old you remembers the route from his childhood!)

    The Novikov window is closed when known events in the present are no longer known or remembered. In the above example, it might be that the meeting of 2 versions of the same character is over, so there are no more memories. Each character is now free to carry out any activity they like; they have the illusion of free will.

    There’s logic in this argument. Events in the past have already happened from the perspective of the present. So it follows that present events are similarly known from the perspective of the future. And if the outcome of events are known then indeed there’s no choice. We’ve seen this in countless other novels and movies where changing the past isn’t possible because it’s already happened – any dealings from time travellers from the future have already been factored in.

    There’s an illustration of time being like a freezing lake (from John Wyndham?). The frozen part is the past. Events cannot be changed; they’re locked solid. The future is the liquid water. Events are fluid and can go in any direction. The present is the boundary between the advancing solid ice and the liquid water.

    But I have a problem! The future hasn’t happened yet, because…it’s the future! So this means past events aren’t known, so they’re not frozen in solid. Hello free will!

    Besides, is free will really taken away just because the outcome is known? I know my daughter will choose ice cream over sprouts, but she still has free choice (and a father with a crazy desert menu!)

    Free will - I want an ice cream!
    You can have anything you want!

    A side of free will please! (If you will…)

    On a side note, a couple more I have free will! points:

    I’d argue zero probability of something happening is not the same as not being free to choose doing it. i.e. no chance of things happening doesn’t mean those things can’t happen.

    We know this: do we trust the second-hand car salesman when he absolutely guarantees that this car cannot ever, ever, not in a million years, break down? Do we believe the corporate boss when he absolutely promises us that promotion with a pay rise and a fat bonus next quarter? How about the trustworthiness of politicians when they promise us something will absolutely definitely will (or will not) happen?

    Their reasoning when these people let you down? Shit happens. Stuff changes, and it changes the odds. And besides, who sets the probably at zero anyway? Is there such a thing? I’d argue asymptotic at best.

    Tagline

    How do you make impossible decisions in a universe without choices?

    Events outside a Novikov window are unknown and seen as an adventure. One of the characters, Sarah, argues that it’s good to not know the future, even if it’s “fated”.

    This struck a chord with me. So is Sarah adventurous and fun loving? You might think so. But I (and characters Tori and Max) saw her – and many of the other characters – as cowards for the opposite reason; a bland acceptance of fate.

    Indeed, as Tori notes, these guys seem to go out of their way to do things they already know will happen. My feeling is they have free will but are too lazy-arsed to use it. It’s easy to give up and say “what will be will be, que sera sera” “it’s your destiny”, or “your fate” or even “we have no choice”. They’re just too lazy to think or try. They just go with the flow. They treat a Novikov window as a cop out, or at least, use it as an excuse to shirk responsibility for their actions. Cowards!

    It's your destiny!
    Novikov Windows characters: “I can’t do what I want, because I have to do what I already did.” MAN UP!!! Be Luke!(Images from Star Wars movie)

    Novikov Windows characters seem to say “I can’t do what I want, because I have to do what I already did.” Come on and MAN UP!!! Luke destiny in the eye and say NO! 😉

    There is no try
    Well. At least give it a go! (Image from Star Wars)

    Why not flip it? “I can do what I want because I know I’ve already done it!” (This approach is like the inverse of Bill and Ted’s behaviour in their excellent adventure when they say they’ll do something in the future to help themselves in the present.)

    Yoda famously said “Do or do not. There is no try.” Many characters in Novikov Windows don’t even bother with trying.

    Story line

    Aaron heads a team that’s building a time machine using instructions and materials sent to them from the future.

    That’s it for the first half of the novel.

    It takes half a novel before we find out why they are building a time machine, and the reason is only briefly mentioned (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say: to fix events in the past) and some of those events in the past were in only a few chapters scattered throughout the novel, often before it was clear what was going on.

    The team make decisions along the way, based on what they already know will happen. For me, it was too long that I didn’t know what was driving them, or what specific problems they faced. This meant I was almost reading for the sake of reading, like in an Arthur C. Clarke novel which has brilliant ideas but the realism means there’s no clear sense of story.

    At the same time, this wasn’t too big a thing because I’m happy enough for a time machine to be built (in a novel) so it doesn’t always need a reason! Indeed, my page-turning element was the time travel conversations between the characters.

    By the time I’d got to the end of the novel and beyond (beyond = having a good think about it afterwards) I realised the truth of it. The story line is an enormous, humungus bootstrap paradox in itself with characters unknowingly following certain courses of action – and we’re dragged along with them. I’m not sure Chris could have done it any other way!

    To avoid spoilers I’m going to leave it at that – but when you’re reading…hang in there!

    Dialogue-driven

    If anything, the storyline is pushed through with dialogue where characters muse with one another over various aspects of time travel. A nice touch is that some of Aaron’s team undertake side projects which are effectively practical applications of thought experiments. Sometimes it makes the conversations seem rather contrived or wooden, but these talks are the real page turners because they get interesting points across that otherwise would be very difficult.

    Writing style

    I began writing a list of Chris’ particularly beautiful lines of writing, but it wasn’t long before the list was too long to do anything with. And on a similar footing, there’s an abundance of vocabulary that required me to use the dictionary feature on my dreaded e-reader! I’d like to think I know quite a few words (Dutch ones too!) but even after 52 years treading on this planet and reading its literature, I was amazed at how many new words I was exposed to! Maybe Australian literature is simply ahead of other English speaking countries! 😉

    I mentioned in my previous article how Chris shows instead of tells, and how open conversations between characters about feelings show how Chris is really inside their heads. But sometimes their actions seemed quite melodramatic. For example, one couple seems to have taken their ethos for living out of a dreadful teenage soap opera where the smallest thing sets them off into a chaotic tizzy. Other characters have sissy-fits with outcomes that are needed for the story line, but in themselves seems contrived and far-fetched.

    Movie ready

    Novikov Windows reads like a ‘movie-ready’ novel – a film producer will have very little work to do in finding the film characters dialogue, and I must admit some of this was tiresome to read. There’s the obligatory romance and sex and I’ve mentioned the melodrama. But of course there are also the “science bits” and historical asides or flashbacks. There’s even a delirium-based talking horse and tree!

    But let me be clear through this delirium – I’d love to see Novikov Windows as a movie! Indeed, in some places this might work better where pages of dialogue that don’t move the story forwards will be over in a few seconds, rather than a several minutes of frustrated page turning.

    Historical accuracy

    Einstein and Vincent van Gogh make appearances! Living in the Netherlands, I should know whether I’m now reading historical fiction or complete fiction. But I don’t! So I checked with my Dutch wife, and she tells me that some aspects are true. It’s a sign of Chris’ good research, but admittedly this is a frustration for me; there’s a good chance I’ve missed a lot of details that Chris has researched and woven into his novel.

    Characters

    The biggest trouble I have is the characters – there are so many of them, and they’re often presented en mass.

    Many characters in Chris Cosmain 's "Novikov Windows"
    Screenshots of (some) character names

    I struggled a lot in keeping track of who was who, so the characters became just names. And this is the tragedy – the juicy ending when everyone is each other, or related to each other, or is the same person who we read about earlier…I lost all of that 🙁 And I know I’ve lost out because it’s these connections which make time travel novels brilliant!

    It also means that revisits to the Van Gogh and Einstein (sub) plots were very confusing because again, I didn’t know who was who.

    That said, some new characters (such as Tori) are introduced into the novel with a backstory and seamlessly streamed into the main narrative. I remember these characters because I understand them better. And David and Bella I loved! What a brilliant a beautiful first meeting they have!

    Time travel

    Let’s get back to the time travel because this is essentially the backbone of Novikov Windows! And I think it’s fair to say the time travel element is incredibly solid! Novikov Windows is a ‘proper’ time travel novel with time travel science, mechanisms and discussions around it, and Chris certainly seems to have ensured that all bases are covered. And more! This section highlights a few areas that got me thinking.

    Ex nihil, to coin a phrase

    A revisit to ‘Schrodinger’s coin‘ via a character conversation is complete with examples of the bootstrap paradox (or “ex nihil” as I’ve learned it’s also called). The conversation touches on whether teleportation – or here, scanned atoms, are modified or copied.

    The scanning part of the time travel methodology is an important point because I was confused about the scanning process each time it came up:

    Scanning

    At first I thought it was as the word describes – molecular structures are scanned and stored, and this positional information is sent back in time.

    “Destructive scanning”

    I can’t get my head around the destructive element unless “scanning” means teleportation. Why else would a molecule be destroyed after its positional data has been measured?

    In fact character Tori picks up on this aspect – wouldn’t a time traveler whose body is transported through time molecule by molecule be subject to a horrific death (despite a milky white anaesthetic ;)) ?

    Pay attention – Chris has an interesting line through this…! 😉

    Scan and 3D printing

    By the end of the novel it seems we’re scanning for positional molecular information, and using this information to effectively 3D print a person or object in history. This seems to make sense, and also allows for variations such as creating multiple copies from a single digital scan, and a novel way of storing information.

    But it doesn’t account for the destructive element unless the molecules themselves are transported. If this is the case, the discussion surrounding copy versus transport is over and we have a blurry intersection – original molecules, deconstructed then reconstructed with positional information – with the minor inconvenience of death inbetween.

    But (again…) transporting molecules negates the idea of 3D-printing multiple copies from a single “scan”. Right?

    So somewhere along the line I’ve missed something.

    Personal messaging service

    Team members are recruited to the time machine building team by showing them futurist tech., medical practices, or highly personal objects (like a coin) or messages only they know cannot be faked.

    It was a nice tie-in to the early chapters when futuristic medical techniques were shown to a family who responded by calling it “magic” – much like Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Here it is in practice!

    It makes me wonder. What object would I need to see? What message would I write to convince myself time travel is real?

    Stephen Hawking’s party for time travellers

    Stephen Hawking’s party for time travellers makes an interesting cameo. This is the party where Hawking sent the invitations the following day, hoping that one day in the future they’d be preserved and found. This means only time travellers will be in attendance. There were none, and references on Wikipedia quote Hawking as saying that the event was “experimental evidence that time travel is not possible”.

    This conclusion makes many assumptions, such as the time travelelers had nowhere / nowhen better to be. Maybe they wanted more than “balloons, champagne, and nibbles” (reference Wikipedia). Maybe the invitations weren’t preserved; if you were a time traveler, would you know where to find the invitation, or be bothered looking for it? Or is the whole thing self-fulfilling; Wikipedia announces there were no attendees. By Novikov’s own reasoning, doesn’t this signal to future time travelers that either they shouldn’t attend the party, or don’t even have the choice to go? I sense a grandfather paradox looming!

    I trust Hawking sent his invitations. But one might argue that after the event was a ‘failure’ (there is no failure in science, just undesired results) Hawking might think why bother sending an invitation later, when he knows it will fail? But is this lack of invitation sending the reason why no- one turned up to his event?

    Conversely, if he does receive a visitor then he’s now compelled to send his invitations, otherwise no-one will know about his party. He’ll have no choice! 😉 If he doesn’t, there’s a reverse grandfather paradox.

    Have I just talked myself into believing in Novikov’s self consistency principle? Nope – there were no visitors. Then again, there was no grandfather paradox either…

    So is lack of free will nature’s way of ensuring there’s no grandfather paradox? Could one argue that without free will, is there nature at all?

    Final words

    Novikov Windows is a true science fiction novel; a novel with science at its core. Author Chris Cosmain tackles a plethora of time travel issues, and addresses a multitude of interesting deviations from the standard conundrums with novel applications of the technology he’s created within his universe.

    Although I don’t agree with the premise of having no free will, the argument for it is presented logically, and indeed, how it fits within a newly defined (I think) term – the “Novikov window”.

    Igor Novikov might like to argue you don’t have a choice in whether you purchase a copy of Chris Cosmain’s Novikov Windows.

    What do you think?

    Paul

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    Summary

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