A Product Review†
Are you joining us from the post-literate future? Perhaps you would prefer to listen to the audio version instead!
Comments are open for paid subscribers only.
“Car après la mort le Temps se retire du corps…” —Proust
We all know by now that the time-reversal invariance governing statistical mechanics at the microlevel maps by a simple equation onto the macroworld, making “time-travel” a wholly unsurprising possibility… but damn! The first time you go back there’s just nothing like it.
I know all these first-person accounts of ChronoSwooping have become a cliché here on Substack, where, let’s face it, anyone can write pretty much whatever they want no matter how self-indulgent and derivative. Nonetheless I think I have some unusual insights to share, which derive from my own experience but which may offer some general lessons as to the nature and significance of “time-travel”, both the original and long-prohibited “body-transit” method as well as the newer and more streamlined ChronoSwoop.
This is not only because I spent some years in the archives of the Stadzbybliotiēka of the Margravate of East K****, poring over the notebooks in which Quast first landed on the Quast equation, while in parallel jotting down sundry philosophical reflexions about the nature of Divine Tempus —as he called it— that have largely been neglected by other researchers. It is also because I have used the ChronoSwoop app in ways that are expressly prohibited by its makers, and indeed by the federal government. In light of this, while I am writing this product review for Substack and in the emerging “Substack style”, until the law changes or I depart permanently from the chronological present, I will be posting this piece only on the Hinternet-based Substack oglinda (Romanian for “looking-glass”, a hacking neologism supposedly coined by Guccifer 3.0), which I’m told is undetectable, remaining entirely unknown even to the original company’s founders. Fingers crossed.
Perhaps some readers on this oglinda will appreciate a brief summary of what’s been happening in the world of time-travel since Quast first came up with his equation in 1962. I don’t know what sort of information has been circulating down here, and I don’t want anyone to feel left behind.
The early 1960s witnessed great leaps forward not just in time-travel technology, but in the technology of teletransportation as well — which is to say dematerialization of the body, and its rematerialization elsewhere, but without any measurable “metachrony”. By late 1966 poorly regulated teletransporters had begun to pop up on the State Fair circuit, tempting daredevils into ever more foolish stunts. But this practice was curtailed already the following year, when, expecting to reappear kneeling before his sweetheart Deb at the stables with a ring in his hand, Roy Bouwsma, AKA “the Omaha Kid”, got rematerialized instead with the stable door cutting directly through the center of his body from groin to skull — one half of him flopping down at Deb’s feet, the other half falling, like some neat bodily cross-section carefully made for students of anatomy, into the stable with Deb’s confused horse Clem.
But while this atrocious moment, broadcast live on KMTV, nipped the new craze in the bud, the technology underlying it had already been adapted for use in what was then called “Tempus-Gliding”, which had the merely apparent advantage of concealing from those in the present any potential accident in the rematerialization of the voyager to the past. Of course, accidents continued to happen, and news of them eventually made its way back from past to present, bringing about all sorts of familiar paradoxes in the spacetime continuum. Tempus-Gliding, like any metachronic technology relying on body-transit, was a door thrown wide open to all the crazy scenarios we know from the time-travel tropes in science-fiction going back at least to H. G. Wells: adults returning to the past and meeting themselves as children, meeting their parents before they were even born, causing themselves never to have been born and so suddenly to vanish, and so on. By the end of the 1960s people, and sometimes entire families, entire lineages, were vanishing as a daily occurrence (just recall the 1969 Harris family reunion in Provo!). You could almost never say exactly why, since the traveller to the past who would unwittingly wipe out all his descendants often had yet, in the present, ever to even try Tempus-Gliding.
A campaign to end the practice quickly gained speed. By 1973 the “Don’t Mess With Spacetime” bumperstickers were everywhere, and by the following year Tempus-Gliding was outlawed — which is to say, as is always the case in such matters, that only outlaws continued to Tempus-Glide. Scattered disappearances continued, public outcry against illicit Tempus-Gliding became more widespread. In 1983 Nancy Reagan made an unforgettable guest appearance on Diff’rent Strokes to help get out the message about the dangers of illegal body-transit (“More than 40,000 young lives are lost each year to illegal Metachron gangs.” “What you talkin’ ‘bout Mrs. Reagan?”). By the late 1980s a combination of tough-on-crime measures and transformations in youth culture largely ended the practice, and time-travel would likely have remained as dormant as moon-travel if it had not in the last decade been so smoothly integrated into our new mobile technologies, and in a way that overcomes the paradoxes and inconveniences of Tempus-Gliding. It does so, namely, by taking the body out of the trip altogether.
This is the mode of time-travel, of course, that has shaped a significant subcurrent of science-fiction scenarios, notably Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), later adapted into the better known Bruce Willis vehicle 12 Monkeys (1995). While these films might seem exceptional, they also share something important with the great majority of what may be called time-travel tales avant la lettre, in which, typically, a man such as Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep for a very long time and wakes up in “the future”. The “zero form” of time travel, we are reminded, is simply to live, which is to say to travel forward in time at a slow and steady rate that only appears to be sped up or “warped” through deep sleep.
Be that as it may, when the new app-based time-travel technologies began to emerge in the late 2010s —relying as they did on a loophole in the 1974 law against time-travel that defined it strictly as “metachronic body-transit”— they were all confronted by the hard limit on innovation already predicted by Quast, who remained commited until the end to the impossibility in principle of future-directed time travel. “If you want to get to the future, you’re just going to have to wait,” Quast wrote in an entry in his Hefte dated 6 October, 1959 (SB-1omk 21.237). “To live in time is already to travel in time. So be patient” [In der Zeit zu leben, das ist schon in der Zeit zu reisen. Hab also Geduld]. Rumors of future-transit apps downloadable from ultra-sketchy oglindas have been circulating for years, but I’ve never seen any, and having studied Quast’s work I have come to believe that they are a theoretical impossibility.
The earliest apps, popping up mostly from anonymous sources, were mostly perceived as too dangerous and illicit to gain widespread appeal. “We’ve got that legal cannabis here in California now,” Whoopi Goldberg said on an episode of The View in September, 2019. “If I want to take a little trip, I’m sorry but there’s edibles for that. I’m not messing with spacetime [audience laughter].” In an echo of the panic leading to the prohibition of Tempus-Gliding in the early 1970s, the government began to issue PSA’s sensitizing the public to the serious psychological trauma that a return to our own pasts can trigger. “This is not lighthearted fun,” the messaging went. “Metachronism can ruin your life.”
The campaign against these new technologies would probably have killed them, or at least pushed them so far down into the oglindas as to occlude them from the public’s consciousness, if in 2021, at the worst moment of the pandemic, the ChronoSwoop company had not appeared as if out of nowhere and dropped its addictive new app with its signature “Swoop left/Swoop right” functions. Key to ChronoSwoop’s success was the discovery that users will draw significantly more pleasure from being cast into random moments in the past (Swoop left), than from being permitted to choose particular moments they have deemed significant in the post-hoc construction of their autobiographical self-narrative. And if you find yourself thrown back into an unpleasant or dull moment, then a single swift Swoop right will bring you immediately back into the present. You can of course go into your settings and laboriously reconfigure the app to permit you to choose your precise dates, but the great miracle of ChronoSwoop’s success is that almost no one bothers to do this. The people want their time travel to come with streamlined, easy interfaces. They want to move through the past like they move through their feeds: going nowhere in particular, with no clear purpose.
Quast had remained agnostic as to the possibility of body-less time travel, though he always insisted that, if it turns out to be possible, this will amount to an empirical proof of body-soul dualism. If the “self” can easily be inserted into the body it possessed at an earlier stage of life, while retaining all the memories of experiences from after that stage, this means, he believed, that the memories, as well as consciousness itself, cannot be dependent on the physical substrate of the brain that supposedly hosts them. When people first started ChronoSwooping, there were rumors of “headaches”, which were supposed to have resulted from the transit back in time of the more fully developed neurological structure of the time-traveller — essentially cramming, say, a thirty-eight-year-old’s brain into the cranium of his ten-year-old past self. But of course no such thing occurs, for what travels back, as Quast predicted, is the immaterial self alone, and the fact that this is possible does indeed demonstrate, whether the scientific establishment is ready to admit it or not, that we do not need to remain anchored to any parcel of matter at all in order to exist as conscious beings.
ChronoSwoop beat out its early competitors (remember TimeDig? 😂) not only by getting rid of the date-choosing option, but also by adding sensorimotor control to the package. The earliest apps only planted your consciousness into the body of your past self and permitted you to “ride along”, to see and feel everything your former self saw and felt, but not to exercise any control over any of this. Quast predicted that only such passive riding would ever be possible, in part because any will-driven intervention in the sequence of past events, such as ChronoSwooping now makes possible, seems to generate at least as many paradoxes for the spacetime continuum as old-fashioned body-transit.
It’s not clear how ChronoSwoop managed to pull it off, but we can at least affirm what the emerging scientific consensus says about this new option, namely that it demonstrates the truth of the so-called “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, where each new timeline created by a different course of action initiated by a time-traveller through the vehicle of that traveller’s own former self simply places that self on a different timeline of a different world, of which there are in any case infinitely many. These worlds are all self-contained and non-interacting, unless you can call ChronoSwooping itself a form of interaction, so that, however strange it all is, we at least avoid the more awkward conundra of body-transit, as when, for the millionth time, some idiot gets it into his head to “kill baby Hitler”, which of course means that more or less everyone in the world from roughly 1933 on, being affected by different events of the world, also ends up having sex at different times, different spermatozoa end up fecundating different eggs, and virtually all of us children of the twentieth century disappear, until someone else arranges to kill the idiot who killed baby Hitler and set us back on our course again.
As an early adopter, I first ChronoSwooped in November, 2021. The particular experience might seem unremarkable when I describe it, but for me, beyond being an occasion to see my deceased father again, it was my initiation into a world from which I have not really returned. I ended up, at random, back in December, 2003. It’s Christmastime, and I’m visiting with my dad in Little Rock, where, I quickly recall, he has recently relocated after some career difficulties in the wake of the dot-com crash. “Have you seen this guy called Crazy Frog?” he’s asking me, as we stand in front of his desktop. “He’s kind of dumb but he makes me laugh.” I look at the animated amphibian with the aviator glasses, singing his ringtone melody over a techno remix of Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”. I had forgotten all about this. How many other fragments of lost culture, I wonder, lie dormant in me at every moment? Crazy Frog jumps on an invisible motorcycle and revs it along a Möbius-strip highway. “I like it,” my dad says, smiling childlike. I am filled suddenly with infinite love for him. I can’t bear it, and I Swoop right.
I go back again and ChronoSwoop tells me it’s June 21, 1998. I’m sitting on a barstool in a place I seem to remember, but only vaguely. I can tell immediately that it’s very late at night, and that the version of me I have just Swooped into was feeling considerable stress just seconds before. I don’t share his precise memories, or, rather, what happened for him just a moment ago is at a twenty-four-year remove for me, but his cortisol levels are mine now too, and I can tell something’s wrong. After a minute or so my ex-girlfriend S**** bursts out of the men’s room, followed by some miserable low-life wearing a t-shirt with a dumb neon alien’s head on it. He wanders off and she comes sheepishly to me. “We were only doing lines, I swear.” She sniffs and rubs her nose. I am suddenly filled with rage. What a miserable time of my life this was, I think, and again I Swoop right.
I took a break for the next three days, believing I had already had enough. I found myself not quite traumatized, but far more melancholic than I usually am, and largely convinced that what the PSA’s were saying was true. This is not lighthearted fun. And yet, for some reason, I went back. I landed this time on February 11, 1979. It’s morning, and I’m on the playground of my Montessori school with Jeremy. He’s wearing an Oakland Raiders windbreaker and has mushroom hair like Nicholas from Eight Is Enough. He’s holding his thumb up to his mouth like it’s a microphone and his hand over his ear as if he has a headset. “This is Howard Cosell,” he says in a funny voice — a “Howard Cosell” voice. I am staring at him confusedly. He sees that I’m not laughing at his imitation. Something in my face frightens him, and he begins to cry. I Swoop right.
What was that all about? Jeremy was always a cry-baby, but not like this. What did he see in my face that frightened him so? I drink a Nespresso and I think about what to do next. Maybe I’ve had enough already? No, I Swoop left, and it’s August 18, 1975. I’ve just had a shower and I’m in my long red nightshirt. It’s a summer evening in Rio Linda, the windows are open, and the frogs and bugs are croaking and chirping. I’m lying on the couch, and mom’s cutting my toenails. I have the strong sense that this entire composition and every being involved in it —the frogs, the bugs, Mom, the Sun— is in fact only one being; or more precisely, that it is only one being, and that being is me. This is what life used to be like! Before what? Before things came apart. That’s what it is to grow up: to see the world come apart. It’s too much for me. I Swoop right.
I resolve to end my explorations here, and a good two weeks go by before I find myself quite unconsciously, lying on my back on the couch, moving through the well-hidden settings in my app. I click on “Set Target Date” and immediately I am taken to a screen requiring me to upload a scan of a state-issued ID, which will then confirm my date of birth and prevent me from choosing any target date preceding that all-important threshold. Once this formality has been handled, I aim it back to November 19, 1972, and I set the visit duration for just thirty seconds (I presume that if I am not yet four months old, even if I have some sensorimotor control over my body as well as my usual forty-nine-year old consciousness about me, I still might simply lack the coordination to Swoop right). It’s hard to say what I experience when I arrive. It’s warm, it’s light, and all is one. I’m lying there next to a funny man who’s watching something on TV, but I don’t know it’s a TV, and the sound of laughter is coming out of it. “PB and J with pickles,” the man says, repeating what he has heard, laughing. Somehow I don’t understand what this means, but I’m thrilled that he finds it so funny. “Did you hear that one? PB and J with pickles!” he shouts to someone who is not in the room with us, but whose presence I can feel. Such joy. Such love. I disappear.
The block on pre-birth travel is ostensibly to prevent the risk of “ditching”, where someone gets permanently stuck in the past. But as long as we are able to pre-set the duration of the visit, this concern seems ill-placed, and we can only imagine that the real reason is the one that Quast foresaw: “If it ever becomes possible experimentally to prove the immateriality of the soul,” he wrote, “they will do everything in their power to prevent us from finding out about it” (SB-1omk 24.785).
I’m not the sort of person to break the law casually, but what I experienced in the autumn of 1972 was simply too powerful, and I wanted more. I went to the Pakistani mobile-phone shop down at the corner, and sure enough, what they always say about these places is true. Just as the agile shopkeeper will happily oblige any request to repair your touch-screen or to unblock some old battered phone, no questions asked, neither will he look surprised when you ask him, as the parlance has it, to “take away your birthday”.
When I got back home I drank a Diet Dr. Pepper and I pondered different dates and durations until one came to me as if in a message: 1 minute, July 30, 1971 — exactly a year before my birth. I Swooped left. I cannot tell you how or why this is so, but I can tell you that exactly a year before I was born, I was floating in warm liquid, and although I had no eyes to see it, I can tell you that there was light. This scene too was charged up with love.
It was also, somehow, charged up with knowledge. Though I did not “know” anything —about PB and J sandwiches for example, or about parents, or Howard Cosell, or Crazy Frog— it seemed to me after my return that this is only because I knew everything, and I knew it from a vantage where the sharp differentiation between these sundry things seemed a far greater error than their combination. Seeing them all as one, it seemed to me now, felt unmistakably like what is imagined under the idea of heaven. St. Augustine writes that in death the soul returns to regionem suae originis — to the region of its origin, and here he is adapting within a Christian context the broadly Platonic vision of a pre-life life spent in direct communion with the eternal and unchanging Forms. Is that what I was seeing in 1971? If so then why was everything so wet? No Platonic philosopher, Christian or heathen, ever conceived “baby heaven” in precisely this way.
You probably have some idea of what I did next. I scrolled back to the earliest transit date possible — January 1, 1900. I would have gone back far earlier, to 500 BCE, to 50 million ybp, to God knows when, but the drop-down calendar made its cut-off the beginning of the twentieth century. So that’s where I went; nor did I set a duration for the visit.
I can’t tell you what happened after that, or whether I’m still there, or what is even happening anymore. If you think I’ve been spending my days watching moustachioed men on velocipedes going to the beach and changing there into comical striped one-piece bathing suits to play beach-croquet with ladies in bloomers, you really haven’t understood what pre-birth ChronoSwooping is like. I set the thing for 1900, but the human calendar doesn’t mean very much when you’ve shed your body, and your senses, and any trace of your connection to the world of particulars.
I would not recommend doing what I have done. It is not a question of being able “to handle it”; we “handle” whatever comes our way, even or perhaps especially the most impossible things. Unlike the world I saw in 1971, here it’s not even wet or light, but neither is it dry or dark. I know everything, if by “everything” we mean the timeless and universal truths, but as for individuals, facts, things that come and go, contingent beings and the ever-vanishing traces of events, I just can’t make anything out anymore.
“God made time to prevent everything from happening at once,” the diminutive Billy ponders, while looking up at the bright North Star like some junior magus in a Family Circus cartoon circa 1988 that somehow remains vivid to me in its particularity, like the answer to a riddle I never meant to pose, even as almost all other particulars recede from my consciousness. This too is a cliché, of course. Albert Einstein said something similar; so did many other people in fact, and they were all drawing broadly on a theory of temporal idealism that runs through many philosophical systems, including, on at least one understanding, that of Augustine. But no matter, it’s Bil Keane’s cartoon version that sticks with me. I love the Sunday funnies: so stupid; so comforting; so warm. I love TV. I love memes. They’re kind of dumb but I love them.
On these and other such small things was I trained up, like some innocent AI that knows no temporal flow at all, so that the dim outlines of them still move across memory’s stage even after I have used my app against the rules and withdrawn from Time altogether — before Time was yet able to withdraw from me.
Don’t forget to listen to the latest episode of my podcast, “What Is X?”, featuring Vladislav Davidzon on War (with special reference to the war in Ukraine), and what it is.
The dazzlingly smart critic Josefina Massot has written a must-read review of In Search of the Third Bird in the LA Review of Books. I am thrilled to see that the long critical boycott of our work is finally coming to an end, and I could not imagine a better treatment of such a hard-to-treat volume as this. If you find you enjoy historiographical metafiction, of which indeed today’s ‘stack provides some small taste, then why don’t you order the book?