Life On The Interfuck


The Interfuck is a name I’ve invented for a  definition-defying  recursive society which only takes three sci-fi ingredients: Primer-style time travel, interstellar travel (but not at faster-than-light speed!) and cryogenics.

I’ve long been a fan of Primer-style time travel. If you’re unsure how that works, have never seen the movie, or just have a tough time with time travel, I’ll start out by explaining that.


Okay. Time travel in fiction exists in a number of possible configurations, conveniently summarized by this Dresden Codak strip.

Start out by envisioning the timeline in which you’re time traveling. It can help to start out by thinking of time as a straight line: first the past, then the present, then the future.

In the kind of time travel that exists in, for example The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, everything “just fits together.” There is, to put it in other words, a single, fixed timeline; a single past and future history in which every event has already “happened” (or, depending on your perspective, is happening and will happen.) If you’re going to time travel to the past, you were always destined to, and cannot deviate from this timeline without causing a paradox!

Let’s talk about paradoxes briefly. Let’s say I have a time machine and I go back to five minutes before I travel back in time. There, I speak to my past self and convince him not to travel back in time. If I’m successful, then I should never have traveled back in time at all!

Another paradox is called the predestination paradox. For instance, if my future self warns me that there will be a plane crash tomorrow, and to avoid that plane crash or I’ll die, and then tomorrow I travel back in time to warn my past self, where did I gain the knowledge that I’ll die?

This is related to another paradox time travel could bring about, called the ontological paradox. This is when an object or action seemingly has no origin! For instance, let’s say my future self appears and gives me a wristwatch. I wear it for a while, then decide my past self should have it, and go back and give it to him. The same watch he receives is the same watch my future self gave me! In other words, the watch has no origin, and has always existed. Weird!

The thing is that since these paradoxes have never been observed in reality, it’s kind of up to the author to decide what consequences paradoxes have. In Back To The Future, paradoxes either kind of worked themselves out, with altered history reshaping itself to fit. In other fiction, the universe ends!

If time is a straight line, this paradox business is kind of scary, because we have no idea what it will do to the universe we break the natural rules of cause and effect. That means that if time is a single, closed, straight line, time travel is really weird business that we’d probably better not mess with, since changing the past would either have some unknown consequence or be impossible anyway. In the short story ‘Beep’ by James Blish, agents with knowledge of the future act only to ensure that predicted future events happen. That doesn’t seem like a very useful tool at all!

Since a given universe presumably exists, has existed for its entire history and will continue exist to the point that time travel is invented, it’s a good bet no universe-ending paradoxes have happened. Thus, any successful time travel is just part of the predestined history of past and future events. In this interpretation (which Dresden Codak calls ‘the Copenhagen interpretation (as opposed to ‘Many Worlds Theory’)) you couldn’t successfully kill your grandfather before he conceived your father, because then you would never have been born and could not travel to the past to do the killing. If time is a straight line then something is, presumably, preventing past-changing time travel from happening, and preserving the timeline.

This sort of time travel is interesting in some ways and is what is presupposed in any fiction that contains predestination or prognostication, because if these exist, then there is only one possible future!

In  most other ways this sort of time travel is boring because future knowledge becomes rather useless when everything is destined to happen a certain way anyway. Also, all illusion of free will is completely eradicated! If reality is deterministic and will happen the same way regardless, how does anyone have a choice about anything?

There is another conception of time travel which is closely linked to the Many Worlds interpretation of the universe. According to Many Worlds, every possible permutation of events happens in its own universe. Let me explain!

To this point we’ve thought of time as a straight line with a beginning, middle, and end. Many Worlds proposes that time is more like a tree with (a very, very large number of) branches.

Imagine a cat sealed inside a box. The box is shielded so that absolutely no information about the cat can enter or exit the box. Within the box is a flask containing poison as well as a radiation source. There is a 50/50 chance that the radioactive particles will decay in such a way that the poison is released, killing the poor cat. So let’s say we set all this up, close the box, and wait five minutes for the process to happen (or not.) At this moment, before we open the box, is the cat alive or dead?

According to Schrodinger, the answer is both! Mathematically, as far as the universe is concerned, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. It is not until the box is opened and the cat is observed that the quantum state of the cat decoheres and collapses into one possibility or the other, alive or dead. What does this mean in the context of Many Worlds?

Well, If the universe is like a branching tree, then the moment that the cat is observed, both possibilities occur, but we only observe one. In a parallel universe, at the exact same time, the other possibility is observed! Here’s the weird part: according to Many Worlds, new parallel universes are created all the time. Lots of them.

To simplify things, most fiction referring to MW doesn’t treat each individual “event” as a divergence substantial enough to merit the creation of a new universe, but rather tends to focus on the divergences which stem from human choice. Remember the TV show Sliders? Like that. A more realistic treatment of MW would create a new universe every Planck unit of time for every possible configuration of every fundamental particle– omnifurcation, if you will, which would lend itself to the Butterfly Effect within instants of timeline divergence. You see why most fiction skips this bit!

Let’s review: Many Worlds theory means that all possibilities, no matter how unlikely, occur in the complete indexical reality of the multiverse. This includes the unlikely possibility of time travelers appearing out of nowhere. Of course, they’d be far more likely to appear at, say, the receiving end of a time machine.

That’s all pretty complicated! So let me walk you through a simple one-hour Primer time travel trip, and you’ll see where Many Worlds comes in.

In Primer, you start out with an alpha timeline. Just imagine the universe as usual, no worries yet. You build yourself a time machine, but this time machine isn’t anything crazy like a Delorian or other instantaneous transport. Rather, it simply reverses the flow of time within a closed system. So your time traveler first activates the time machine at 1:00. For reasons that will later become evident, it’s actually best to set a fifteen minute timer at 12:45 so that the machine automatically starts at 1:00.

Your time traveler spends an hour doing whatever he likes. In Primer, they just stayed at a hotel all day playing cards and eating sandwiches.

After the hour passes, he returns to the time machine and turns it off at 2:00. In Primer, the machine cycles down gradually, so that the time traveler can climb in and begin his backwards journey.

Remember, inside the machine, time flows backwards. So after climbing in, from the time traveler’s perspective, the machine warms back up! The time traveler is now traveling through time at one second per second, just like we usually do– only in reverse (or negative one second per second.) He spends an hour in the machine, reading or sleeping or doing whatever he likes. After an hour, the machine cools down from his perspective. This is actually the original ‘warmup’ when the machine was turned on, but he’s experiencing it backwards.

The time traveler climbs out of the machine just as it cools down all the way– right at 1:00. As soon as he climbs out, he hears the machine warming up– the timer has just gone off, after all, and he has just reversed the direction he is traveling back to the regular one second per second.

Here’s where Many Worlds comes in. From the perspective of the Alpha Timeline, when the machine turned on, nothing happened. There wasn’t yet anyone to climb out of it, because the first iteration of the time traveler hadn’t yet experienced his backwards journey. However, as soon as the machine turns on, the universe splits and all possible time travelers climb out of it in all the different universes in which this could happen. Following me? No? Okay.

When someone eats a bite of spaghetti, according to Many Worlds, there are a huge number of ways this could go down: the molecules in the spaghetti could randomly rearrange themselves into poison, the guy’s hand could twitch and he could get it all over his shirt, he could change his mind at the last second and decide not to eat it. Or he could just eat the bite uneventfully! In MW, all these universes exist.

Going back to the time traveler, suppose the first iteration of the time traveler had changed his mind. Suppose he hadn’t gone back in time. No one would climb out of the time machine, because in the future, no one climbed in! But here’s where the sticky part begins: After one time traveler goes back, he has a doppelganger who sits at a hotel and plays cards and eats sandwiches, then at 2:00 enters the machine. This is why the timer is important, because otherwise, upon climbing out of the machine, he’d’d run into his past self!

The time traveler’s past self, from his own perspective, is himself the original time traveler. Unless the first traveler informs him, he has no way of knowing that he isn’t. When he enters the machine, he will emerge with a doppelganger of his own (who will also think himself the original!) This will continue indefinitely. This indefinite continuing is, according to Many Worlds, simply all possible consequences of the time machine turning on, as all the possible time travelers climb out of the machine into their respective universes. Of course, if a time traveler felt like it, he could well build an army of himself, with a big enough time machine and some careful negotiation with himself. This doesn’t violate causality or the conservation of matter, because within the multiverse, the amount of energy and matter remains constant.

Time travel is a very interesting and complicated (fictional) process!

So that’s how you’d travel into the past (fictionally.) It’s the most elegant form of time travel in fiction that I know of, from a scientific perspective, because it answers all the niggling little questions about paradoxes, popping out in space somewhere (when the Earth has moved) and why history isn’t inundated with time travelers: time travel is only possible to a point when the machine has been turned on, and it doesn’t happen all within one universe.

Let’s take a breath. Traveling into the past requires a lot of nonsense about multiple universes and machines and selves and serious existential questions about consciousness, choice, and self. Traveling into the future is much, much easier!

The simplest, most plausible way to send a man forward a thousand years is to freeze him cryogenically.  I don’t think I need to say much more on this subject, because it speaks for itself! Now, Many Worlds comes in and points out that a time traveler seeking a specific future would find himself in trouble due to the pesky butterfly effect and the astronomical number of possible futures he could wind up in. But even across a thousand years I think there are certain things of which a cryonaut could be reasonably certain, and that’s enough to merit visiting the future!

A few moments’ thought yields some very exciting possibilities when you combine these two (very) speculative technologies. If you could cryogenically freeze yourself and live a thousand years, you could turn on a time machine, wait a thousand years, do your business in the future, climb into the time machine, freeze yourself again, wait the thousand years to finish your round trip, and awaken again in the past. Traveling into the past at negative one second per second is suddenly not that bad a deal.

So if these machines were widespread, obviously some very, very, very strange things would happen to society. For one thing, time itself would become a navigable terrain. If lots and lots of these machines existed and were turned on at overlapping intervals, you could travel back as far as you wanted by catching connecting flights. People would pop into and out of existence all the time. If there was someone you didn’t want to lose, you’d have to travel with them or risk losing the latest version of them.


Let’s talk about space travel. Most science fiction involving interplanetary travel contains some method of Faster Than Light transport, whether it be through a parallel universe where time dilation isn’t an issue, the warping of the fabric of spacetime to, once again, eliminate the pesky space and time issues, wormholes, and all sorts of other outlandish things. Slightly more realistic speculative fiction contains only slower than light travel, which is facilitated by cryogenic preservation, generation ships, or I guess that’s pretty much all you can ask for (unless you’re in Firefly, in which case you just move all the planets a whole bunch closer together!)

The problem with these is that it takes a very, very, very long time to get anywhere! So unless the people you know and love are cryogenically frozen with you (or are similarly committed to the goal of interstellar travel and will raise your children on a multigenerational spacecraft) you will be leaving them all far, far behind. The relevance of interplanetary travel to any living human or group of humans is thus far diminished except in the airy, distant sense of history, to the furthering of the human race in case of disaster, or in the pursuit of some goal much more important than mere human lives. None of this sounds very palatable to me!


A Challenger Appears

This part is the fun part as far as I am concerned. So let’s say you have a spacecraft that travels to the nearest star, and it takes five hundred years to make the journey. The simplest way to travel forward in time five hundred years… is to freeze oneself! Congratulations, you’ve skipped the long, boring journey and are now orbiting Alpha Centuari. Kickass!

You land on a planetoid, take some pictures, do what you like. You can now freeze yourself and return home, except… another five hundred years will have passed, not to mention any time dilation effects from the acceleration and the changing frames of reference. Anyone you knew or cared about may be long gone, unless they’ve frozen themselves to wait for your return! Which isn’t a bad idea really, but still that seems like it would take a long time and be cumbersome.

So what if you put a time machine aboard the spacecraft?

You’d turn it on as soon as the journey started. When you get to the end of the journey, you could take your readings, do whatever you need to, then send the ship home… to complete its 500 year second leg of the trip. But what about you?

Well, you climb into the time machine, freeze yourself, and return before the ship ever took off. You have the readings, you have the experience, and you’re back home before dinner.

Time machines make the perfect escape pod, too!

If the computer detected any problems, your intrepid adventurer could take notes and if the emergency was bad enough jump into the time machine, freeze himself and travel back to the point when the ship took off. He could tell Mission Control in this new timeline about the upcoming complications and save everyone a bunch of trouble.

That’s all fine, that’s all good. Let’s take it up a notch.

The Interfuck

The important thing to understand about connecting two points in time and space in this fashion is that only one round trip is necessary to open up transportation between two worlds. So if you have a space colony somewhere and you have one big ship travel there and back with time machines going both ways…

To get to Alpha Centuari, you have to get on board the ship or its return flight’s time machine. Either end will get you where you’re going. Once the trip has been made, if you have other time machines (the overlapping kind) that can get you to within a couple hours of the time you need to be, you can navigate to 6:00 at spaceport B. Lots of passengers? Utilize a five-minute trip back in time to establish a line. People climbing out of the waiting machines get dibs. In order to get dibs, climb into a waiting machine. From the perspective of the people who have dibs, the people they’re overriding simply disappear from the timeline. Because there’s effectively an infinite amount of timelines (as far as anyone initiating time travel is concerned) there’s no reason this can’t work.

Rinse, repeat. Now you’ve got spaceships that have traveled/will travel to systems all over the galaxy. Hooked up with other civilizations? Neat.

Getting anywhere is a matter of getting on board and freezing yourself. Each trip is essentially a node in a network. The trip is a single historical event which passengers navigate to through space and time.

There’s no reason you couldn’t connect all navigable planets in existence this way. All galaxies.

Understand that once you bring time travel into the equation, the chances are that you are very, very, very far down the line. (You’re a copy of a copy of a copy. The original time-traveling you did his thing lots of you’s ago.) What’s that mean? Civilizations will have risen and fallen. Trillions of years of recursive paradox history will become instantly accessible. Scientific progress from civilizations that never were will be commonplace. Quintillions of timelines will get free lunches.

Of course, there would probably be wars. Terrorism. Lots of craziness. People gathering armies of their eigenselves. But I’m talking about a system that requires only a single round trip to connect any two points permanently, and once it’s done, it’s done. Heck, the same ship could probably be reused, if it was built sturdily enough.

And each successful round trip brings another star system into the fold.

The glorious, trans-universal, anarchical society that these developments would engender is the phenomenon which I decided could only be called the Interfuck. Anyone can go anywhen, and will. All of it’s interconnected, time as a directional constant is meaningless, organization becomes all but impossible and impossibilities stack up everywhere you go.

What I’m saying is, time travel plus space travel plus cryogenics equals a (fictional) disruptive technology.

Anyway, all these implications kind of blew my mind the first time I thought of them so I wanted to share them!

For next time, I’ll discuss the real-world impact of cheap, mass-produced portals!

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