Book: The Time Traveler's Almanac

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Charles Yu

1. Here’s the thing: you’re doing something that you don’t understand. That’s not a knock on you. It’s just a fact. Humans can’t wrap their heads around time travel, and it’s not a software thing. It’s hardware. Our brains just don’t get it. Not yet. Maybe someday. But that will take, for lack of a better word, time. We could evolve, as a species, but that would require a selection pressure, some environmental advantage for minds unburdened by the illusion of temporal sequence, of the notion of cause and effect. But that’s not what we have. What we have is the opposite. What we have are minds that are very good at being trapped in time. We are geniuses, each and every one of us. We are unbelievable machines, capable of incredible feats of psychological athleticism. We are full-grown, half-starved Bengal tigers, pacing in our cages, and we know every inch of the space in front of us, and behind, and to either side. We have evolved to survive as prisoners, and so, when one of us manages to get free, we look for walls, for a ceiling. We want to get back indoors, back inside time. We look for our cages. We look for rules.

2. So, the most important thing is, forget any rules. If you’re really going to do this, you’re going to have to open your mind. If you go into it with preconceived notions about what time is, what causality is, well, then, you’re only going to see it through those conceptual lenses. You’ll understand it, of course, because that’s what we do. We understand things. But sometimes understanding gets in the way. Especially when something can’t be understood.

3. But, but, but, you say. What do you mean? What could it even mean to understand something that can’t be understood? Well, that’s easy. When things can’t be understood, and you understand them, well, then, what you’re doing is just making stuff up. A circle looks at a sphere, and it understands it as a circle. A cross-section, it understands it exactly to the extent that it already makes sense to it.

4. So if you can’t understand it, then what are you supposed to do? Well, not supposed to do, that’s not right. You can’t suppose anything, that’s the point. You are free. As free as any human who has ever lived. You broke out. Of the ultimate constraint. There have been a few others – go look in your library books. Maybe in your religious texts – they’ve got stories of people who have done the same. Although you might not think of them as time travelers, that’s what they were. We tend to worship them, tell stories about them. People might tell stories about you, too, depending on how you handle this.
    So get rid of the concept of supposed to do. Suppose anything. You can, you know. Suppose that you are a time traveler. Sounds like some kind of philosophical experiment, doesn’t it? And that’s the thing. You’re traveling in time, my friend. That’s pretty philosophical. And the ultimate experiment.

5. Which is not to say you are imagining this. This is as real as anything.

6. What kinds of tips are these? You thought you were going to get some advice about avoiding paradoxes. About ripple effects and avoiding stable time loops and all of that. Don’t kill grandma, do kill Hitler, don’t step on that twig. No kissing family members. All good ideas, to be sure. Don’t need to repeat them here.
    Or maybe you wanted a brochure. A guide from the tourism office. Some good times to visit, catch the show. Back-row seats at some key moments in the history of the world. Crucial moments in the history of the world.
    But that’s not what you’re getting.
    What you’re getting is this instead. Ask yourself, who am I? Am I important?

7. You are. You’re very important. By definition. You’re a time traveler, and with that comes some level of responsibility. Think about it. Your whole life, you’ve imagined time travel. You have the power to affect the flow of events, the lives of other people, the course of the universe, in a way that is unique and ineffably strange. How did you get to be one of these select, chosen few? What makes you so special?

8. Here is what makes you so special: you remember. You always had a gift, a knack, a predisposition to this. You look ahead. You knew there was more to it. That there had to be, if not a way out, a way up, and around, and back in. That there was something fishy about the whole infrastructure. Why build roads if no one can go anywhere? Why do we have all of this temporal equipment inside of us, if we can never use it? You were right. You didn’t know how right you were. Everyone thought it was poetic. A grand metaphor. A way of thinking about our psychology. You knew it was more, waited for the moment, waited for this moment. You were right, and you had no idea how right you were.

9. Here is what you need to ask yourself: how did you come to be a time traveler? Did you choose this, or did it choose you? Are you on some kind of mission? Do you feel like you might be stuck in a stable time loop? Is there anyone in your life who you need to go see in the past? Have you ever had dreams about the future that might not be dreams but premonitions? Are you lost and adrift outside of time and if so do you want to get back in? Who is asking you these rhetorical questions? Why are you looking for tips, and especially from someone or something that you don’t know anything about? How do you know you’re not asking yourself these questions, that this isn’t your own diary you are reading, from the past or the future or the present and that you haven’t read this eleven million seven hundred ninety three thousand four hundred sixty one times? And will read it an infinite number of times more? That these tips are all that you have, all that there ever will be, or ever was, which is the same thing, because nothing has ever existed that has not always existed, that you live in an eternal block universe, timeless and frozen, and that time, as you knew it when you started this, that time is in the past, but it’s still there, and you can go back, and then you can come back here, and you have, and you will.
    You wanted some tips. You have some tips. Probably not quite what you were expecting. But what were you expecting? Time travel is a lonely activity. Time travel means you can never go home again. But maybe it also means always being able to see home from here. Don’t you remember? These tips are what got you into trouble in the first place.

10. Now that you know this information, go back to tip number 2 above. Go back to the time when you first read that, and read it again. There are no rules. Okay? None. Now: what a concept. Now. Now: you’ve got your whole life, what came before and what will come after, gathered up here in this little area here, the whole thing. What are you going to do with your life? What was it, what is it, what will it be?

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