Wibbly wobbly timey wimey

Working mostly through the internet has introduced me to a whole new set of problems around time, ones that are probably going to shape our future. As we enter an era in which men in London write accounts for managers in Hong Kong whose factories are somewhere in the middle of Asia, time starts working differently, professionally speaking. The same goes for leisure. If the new episode of Sherlock shows at eight o’clock GMT in the UK, how quickly do BBC America need to show it before they start losing viewers to torrent sites? (Answer – straight away because that show is awesome.)

The only real way of getting round this
The only real way of getting round this


So if it’s Tuesday in Australia…

I’ve noticed two different aspects of this in the past week.

First up is the employer day problem. I’m doing some work for a chap in Australia. Problem is, half the time Australia’s on a different day from me in England, never mind a different time. And Australia’s a big place, so I imagine it’s not all on one time zone. If I say I’ll provide some articles on Tuesday, when do I need to send them to reach his Tuesday? Do they need to go Monday night or sometime in the middle of Tuesday? Do I have until Wednesday morning?

Yes, I could work this out for myself if it was a big issue. But the point is that, for a couple of hours a week, it’s an issue at all.

The other thing is blogging. I read an interesting article (sorry, lost the url) that gave data on the times of day to post blog posts to maximise links (7am) comments (8am) and views (10am). But whose timezone should I be working on here? Should I go by American time, as that’s where the largest number of potential readers for my blog are? Should I go Greenwich Mean Time, as my core readership is built around fellow Brits I know outside of the electronic sphere? What about the people reading me in Australia and Estonia (hi guys!)?

And now for some science fiction

The issues I’ve stumbled across are ones I can work out with some research and a bit of trial and error. But they highlight the fact that our sense of time is no longer as geographically bound as it once was. That has potential for the future, and for social science fiction.

Cory Doctorow beat me to this one by a decade with his novel Eastern Standard Tribe, but there’s still much more to explore. Will we start to align not by daylight but by our professional schedules? Will we one day be split not by Greenwich Mean Time, Dubai Time and East Coast Time, but by Accountant Time, Cleaner Time, Writer Time? Will there be some mishmash of the two? Are there people already living in Britain but on Australian time because that suits their lifestyle? Or on New York Time, Hong Kong Time, Berlin Time?

There’s a character in this, and a story. I haven’t quite come up with either yet, but if you have an idea then maybe share it below. Or go write about it yourself, because everybody should take the time to write.

And has our fractured temporal landscape (note to self – use that in a book) affected you? Let me know how. Share below. I’m curious.


Picture by Toenex Lacey via Flickr creative commons.

Piecing together a past

A recent post about time by everwalker got me thinking about how we relate to the past in fiction.

Often, the past is a matter of back story, presented in scattered references throughout the story, or in cruder examples dumped on the reader through dialogue and exposition. Uncovering that past becomes a matter of literary archaeology, piecing together the clues so that you can understand where the characters are coming from. That’s part of why the exposition dump is less satisfying to read – it takes away the satisfaction of putting together the pieces.

Time travel stories are obviously different. Characters step back into the past, whether their own personal past, as in Looper, or a bit of history, as in Doctor Who. This allows the story teller to play with our perspective on reality, to question how reliable the truth is that’s been presented to us, as when The Doctor discovered that the eruption at Pompeii was caused by an alien. It also raises questions about how we are shaped by our past, as when history is re-written and characters change – shown entertainingly, if not coherently, when a character in Misfits headbutted Hitler.



Writers can play around with the past through story structure too. Iain M Banks did this in Use of Weapons, with one narrative strand moving forward and the other back, diverging chronologically but coming together thematically. While challenging to pull off, this can make for some interesting storytelling, and give the writer more control over the order they reveal information in. And of course this can be used to heighten tensions and create dramatic irony – those moments when a character says ‘of course that could never happen’, but we know it’s happened there three weeks into the future.

Some of my favourite examples come not from sci-fi but from sitcoms. Before he was the brains behind Doctor Who, Steven Moffat wrote Coupling, in which time was fractured to comedic and dramatic effect several times, most notably in the episode Nine and a Half Minutes, which showed the same period of time from three different perspectives, giving the same events different meaning in each version. And then there’s How I Met Your Mother, a mostly unremarkable American sitcom, but which presents the whole show as past events told by an unreliable narrator, allowing his faulty memory, imagination and deceptions to be presented directly on screen, as he rambles around and occasionally re-writes his own past.

The past isn’t just a foreign country. It’s a puzzle that has to be pieced together any time we write a story. But it’s a puzzle with many different solutions, and the order we put it in, as much as the pieces, help create the story. I haven’t had the courage to properly experiment with this yet, but I look forward to the day when I will. And in the meantime, if you can think of other good examples, let me know below.