Ripples in the Dirac Sea by Geoffrey A. Landis
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5 Rating
This is how you science a time-travel story!
About the author:
Geoffrey A. Landis, who appears later in this anthology with “At Dorado,” is a NASA scientist whose first novel, Mars Crossing, was published by Tor Books in 2000, winning a Locus Award. He has also won the Analog Analytical Laboratory Award for the novelette The Man in the Mirror (2009). A short-story collection, Impact Parameter and Other Quantum Realities, was published by Golden Gryphon Press in 2001. His 2010 novella The Sultan of the Clouds won the Sturgeon award for best short science fiction story. “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1988 and won the 1989 Nebula Award for best short story.
This week in TTTA read along, we are reviewing the 1989 Nebula Award winner(!) for best short story. When I realized that, I raised my expectations. And you know what? I was not disappointed!
Our narrator is a physicist who has discovered time-travel. He starts off the story by telling us that “[his] death looms over [him] like a tidal wave…” He then goes on to explain how they had prepared for their time-travel trip, taking care to avoid any type of time paradoxes, but that they made one mistake. One mistake which is now obvious that they shouldn’t have made.
We now follow the narrator along as he tell us how he came to find time-travel, some of the events and trips he been on with it, and what that obvious mistake was and what it has to do with his looming death.
I loved how this story was told; it has 2 different time lines that Landis weaves back and forth in telling the story: The narrator tells us the story line of how he first came to discover time-travel and what came from it; and a story line of when he travels back to a particular year in time, February 1965, where we meet a man named Dancer. There is also brief snippets of these “notes for time-travelers” where we are explained the science behind this technology.
It was great starting off knowing that narrator is about to die because of some mistake that was obvious now in retrospect. The whole time I was reading, I was trying figure out why that mistake he made was crucial, and how did it cause him to get to where he is now with that looming death; what is so special about the year 1965 that the narrator loves it so much, and, again, what it has to do with where the narrator is. Actually, we don’t even know where he is at the start! All we know is that he is in some trouble.
As the story line of time-travel discovery goes on, the narrator verbally explains to us some of the rules of times travels and we also see him go on different trips in times to help explain – not the science behind time-travel – but to debunk certain theories about paradox and the whole time-continuum thing.
Between these two story-lines, there is that “Notes for a Lecture on Time Travel”. They are a couple of paragraphs each (not even half a page), and this is where Landis has the actual science, physics, behind the technology. Doing this, I thought, made the story better. Landis breaks it down to basic stuff… however, I do not think it was explained well. I got the gist of how it worked with particles, but I didn’t understand it, and that frustrated me. I would have liked more explanation of the basic theory, or break down even more into simpler science.
Time-travel, and science fiction stories in general, don’t have to provide the science behind how their technology works and it doesn’t hurt the story at all! But if you are going to bring the science into it, do it so the reader will understand it! Excluding giant info dumps – concise, coherent explanations will always make me enjoy the story more, and if there was just a few more sentences to tell me about the Dirac Sea, I know I would have loved this.
Character development, right? What about that? Well, I found most of the development for our narrator happened in the story-line of 1965. I didn’t find anything that really stuck out to me about his character as unique, and think was a lot room for more development, but I did like and sympathize with him, and the character Dancer that shows up here I thought was pretty cool.
The actual plot? That was great. If you can pay attention very carefully(!) you might be able to see why that mistake was so huge, and how this time-travel story’s time-continuum works 😉
Spolierific Speculations: (Highlight to read)
⊗⊗⊗ I didn’t get why the camera was so important until he said he went back and killed his father and nothing happened to affect the future. Then my time-travel theory was that we are in line A, and every time he goes back in time it was B, or C, or D, etc., and when he left, he always came back to that dividing point at A, and those other time lines he just left, would continue on in their own universe. When it later stated they did not, they just ended, that was when I wanted more of physics explaining why not.
Also, where are his graduate assistants when this fire is going on? And why didn’t they make a copy or have back up? And why not just bring the coils and do a demonstrations on stage? Have someone try it at the conference or use the camera then? ⊗⊗⊗
If your comments contains a spoiler, please type “SPOILER” at the start of your comment to alert fellow readers and comments. Thanks!
Ripples in the Dirac Sea is well worthy of a Nebula Award. I would have like a little more something to our narrator’s personality to make his stand out, but still found him sympathetic and felt his relationship with Dancer. Needless to be said, the time-travel aspect of this story is except! I just wished it was explained a bit more!
Be sure to check out my fellow time-travelers’ reviews!
Preston Leigh’s Leighgendarium
Timothy C. Ward
Follow along on Twitter with #TimeTravelThursday
To see a full list of The Time Traveler’s Almanac reviews and reading schedule, visit The Time Traveler’s Almanac Page
Feel free to join in any join time! Just leave a comment down below 🙂
See you next Thursday for Needle in a Timestack by Robert Silverburg
Not a fan of this story. Loved the message the story delivered but his writing style is not for me.
We were almost the exact opposite one! XD I loved the time-travel, and was focused on that, so message went a little under the radar for me. Didn’t hit home until after I reflected on the story.
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Sorry, DJ, gonna have to agree with Preston, but I will concede that there were some great little parts that did make it worth a read 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it, though!
That’s okat! 🙂 This short story is showing just how differently reader’s opinions of a story can carry; it’s nice seeing what every thought.
I enjoyed the ways in which the story was broken up with little scientific explanations, as well, actually. I really enjoyed the theory, generally, though I had to re-read it several times. I did want more from the character development arena. It was a good read, in my book.
SPOILER… I was almost studying the time-travel explanations, after I finished, trying to figure out how it explained we could travel in time, and why different time lines, and why they didn’t continue… END SPOILER
A few more sentence to explain that, and a couple more pages with the Narrator and Dancer would have done wonders for this story.
Agreed, I would prefer no explanation at all to an explanation that’s halfway there or overly complex so I don’t understand it. I’m no physicist, so when it comes to time traveling mechanics I definitely subscribe to keeping it simple 🙂
It can be so frustrating. Like, he had basics there, and then all he had to do was write a couple more sentences connecting the dots and BOOM! Takes the story to the next level.
I should join in with these – I’ve had a copy of this book for absolutely ages so perhaps it would get me started.
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You are more than welcome to join in on our time-traveling journey! 🙂
Knowing that you are going to have 4+ people reading one of the stories with you each week is great motivation to help get through this anthology. And it’s showing to be pretty interesting how differently everyone’s take on the stories are.
I have the full reading schedule on my TTTA Page (https://mylifemybooksmyescape.wordpress.com/the-time-travelers-almanac/), but basically it’s one short story a week except for a few weeks off in December for Holidays.
If you have any questions, please ask. Otherwise I hope you’ll post up a review on Thursday! (And when you do, I’ll be sure to link you up in the read along and let other the read-along know too) 🙂
Sorry I’m late to this party but I’m confused. If the present can’t change, why are there 2 fates for Lisa: suicide 2 days after Dancer dies and/or forgiving our hero years later?
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I am actually out of the country currently and don’t have my copy of TTTA on me, so I’m re-read my review to jog my memory…
Best I can remember, nothing he does in the past cannot affected the present that he is in; the present the he always goes back to (the burning room). Every time he goes into the past, it a new and fresh start. Meaning, that is Lisa committees suicide after two days, our protagonist can simply come back to the present (fire room) and the go back to the past again, where Lisa has yet to kill herself. He can change his actions and interactions with her and cause and cause a different timeline.
In theory, he can do this an unlimited amount of times, because whatever happens to his body in the past (death, mutations, age, etc.) will NOT affect his body in the present. The only time he will not be able to anymore, is when the burning ceiling finally collapses on him.
Why does Lisa believe Dancer’s death is the narrators fault? That is the only thing i was not so sure on.
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Hi Rann! So, I read this short-story nearly 3 year ago now, and I’m afraid I don’t remember every detail… but I just skimmed it over! I belive it was because she was in love with Dancer and not him.
The first time the narrarator mentions Dancer’s, him and Lisa slowly grew apart following that event, and then several years later she told him she believed it was his fault Dancer died. Then later in the story, when he says the specific date that Dancer dies, Lisa commits suicide 2 days later. Don’t forget that before both these happens, the narrarator tells us that Lisa loves Dancer more than she love him.
Keeping in mind that Lisa is in love with Dancer, what she does makes sense: distancing herself from another man who loves her but isn’t the man she loves; still being upset about the death of Dancer so she blames it on him; so hurt by the death of Dancer that she decides to take her life. It seems like that one time, where she blamed him for the death, was just one of the ways that she ended up coping with Dancer’s death.