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Time Viewer

Entry updated 11 July 2022. Tagged: Theme.

A passive form of Time Machine which typically displays, but allows no interaction with, scenes from the past. Almost certainly the first clearly envisioned example of the device appears in "L'historioscope" (in Fantaisies, coll 1883; trans Brian Stableford in News from the Moon, anth 2007, as "The Historioscope") by Eugène Mouton, where an electrical telescope is explicitly used to survey the past. Gardner Hunting's The Vicarion (1926; exp 1927) is an early example in which the viewer is used for both crime-solving (see Crime and Punishment) and entertainment. Another is J W Chancellor's Through the Visograph (1928), whose titular device penetrates a vast Time Abyss to reveal a civilization now millions of years gone. The viewer in Before the Dawn (1934) by John Taine shows the passing of the Dinosaurs. Similar devices channel history in H Bedford-Jones's 1930s story series Trumpets from Oblivion, rationalizing various myths and legends, and its 1940s successor Counterclockwise. Though far from central to the narrative, time viewers are employed to debunk Religion in Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990) by Arthur C Clarke. A Technofantasy viewer features in the supernatural story "A View from a Hill" (May 1925 London Mercury) by M R James (Montague Rhodes James, 1862-1936), where images of the past are offered by unusual binoculars filled with a fluid brewed from old human bones.

Time viewers as a rare Cinema plot device feature in The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918) directed by Willis H O'Brien – seemingly the first appearance of the concept in film – and The Invisible Ray (1936) directed by Lambert Hillyer.

There is a sense in which all astronomy is time-viewing, owing to the limiting speed of light. Thus Faster Than Light travel might take an observer to a location light-years from Earth, allowing – at least as a Thought Experiment – the study of past events whose images are still arriving via old light. A disembodied spirit traversing space faster than light is thus able to view the past in the earliest version of Camille Flammarion's Lumen (1887; trans anon 1892) [for further publication details see Flammarion], which appeared in Recits de l'infini (coll 1872). Israel Zangwill discussed the possibility while writing about H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895) in his literary column "Without Prejudice" (September 1895 Pall Mall Magazine); after noting that starlight shows us most Stars as they were thousands or millions of years ago, he continues:

In like manner the whole Past of the Earth is still playing itself out – to an eye conceived as stationed today in space and moving now forwards to catch the Middle Ages, now backwards to watch Nero fiddling over the burning of Rome.

This technique is used to show the life of Christ in Around a Distant Star (1904) by Jean Delaire, to view centuries-old episodes of Earth history in Donald A Wollheim's "The Space Lens" (September 1935 Wonder Stories), and to reveal events a month past in Skylark Three (August-October 1930 Amazing; 1948) by E E Smith – where it is also suggested that it would be possible thus to "photograph the actual construction of the pyramids of Egypt". Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969) goes further, deriving images not from light but from ancient "macron" particles which have circled the galaxy many times, allowing the formation of our solar system to be observed. Frederik Pohl's "Hatching the Phoenix" (Fall-Winter 1999 Amazing) sophisticates the old-light technique by using a Black Hole as a gravitational lens to reveal surface details of a world six thousand light-years distant, before its destruction by supernova.

One variation on the theme posits a time listener rather than a time viewer, a device to pick up old sounds as in Florence McLandburgh's "The Automaton Ear" (May 1873 Scribner's Monthly). This concept is echoed in J G Ballard's "The Sound-Sweep" (February 1960 Science Fantasy) and literalized in Gregory Benford's "Time Shards" (in Universe 9, anth 1979, ed Terry Carr), which without any actual Time Travel mechanism imagines ancient sounds recorded via fine work on a potter's wheel and recoverable from the ceramic surface by modern Technology.

An inevitable sf insight is that a machine capable of viewing any past time and location can effectively spy on the present world of seconds or microseconds ago (see Spy-Rays). One pioneering story of this kind is "The Time Eliminator" (December 1926 Amazing) by "Kaw": after brief glimpses of history, the viewer's inventor sees the potential for present-day espionage. In T L Sherred's "E for Effort" (May 1947 Astounding), the realization that national secrets will no longer exist triggers World War Three to ensure the time viewer's suppression. "Private Eye" (January 1949 Astounding) by Lewis Padgett (see Henry Kuttner and C L Moore) centres on a murderer who ingeniously plans his crime to seem innocent to a time viewer's scrutiny. Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past" (April 1956 Astounding) ends with the horrified revelation that the release of "chronoscope" technology has ended privacy forever. Similar gloom pervades the close of Bob Shaw's Slow Glass novel Other Days, Other Eyes (fixup 1972), with particles of image-capturing glass spread by crop-duster planes in order to render the entire environment subject to police and state interrogation. Damon Knight responded to these Dystopian visions with "I See You" (November 1976 F&SF), where universal ownership of viewers has eliminated most human embarrassments and neuroses to produce an unnerving (to us) glass-walled Utopia. Barry Malzberg's "The Present Eternal" (in Foundation's Friends: Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov, anth 1989; exp 1997, ed Martin H Greenberg) is a Sequel by Another Hand to "The Dead Past".

Since light is a form of energy, a viewer which literally retrieves the light of other days can logically be adapted to extract free power from the Sun (see Power Sources), as in Knight's "I See You". Such interaction with the past implies viewers which are no longer passive but can interfere with history. Historical figures observed in Horace Gold's "The Biography Project" (September 1951 Galaxy) are driven to Paranoia by the unseen scrutiny of the time viewer; John Wyndham's "Pawley's Peepholes" (Summer 1951 Suspense as "Operation Peep"; vt Winter 1951/1952 Science Fantasy) satirizes intrusive tourism as privacy is violated by visible though intangible future time-voyeurs; in David Langford's "The Final Days" (Winter 1981 Destinies) a person's importance to futurity may be inferred from the level of time-viewer attention detected by instruments. Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (1996) moves from purely observational use of the "Tempoview" device to realization that it can be deliberately employed to change the past – at which point the viewer merges into the wider sense of Time Machines. The same is true of the time viewer in the film Déjà Vu (2006).

Further sf novels featuring time viewers that look into the past include Blood Brothers (1996) by Steven Barnes and The Light of Other Days (2000) by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter. The latter explores all the familiar avenues including privacy issues, study of deep time, and free power; it additionally posits that the viewer can map and recreate the minds of the dead, pre-empting Frank Tipler (1947-    ) and his vision of the Omega Point.

Inventions that see into the future rather than the past appear less frequently. Examples include the titular device that photographs future scenes in Lance Sieveking's "The Prophetic Camera" (February 1922 The English Review); the McGuffin in the early film The Fugitive Futurist (1924), which despite some impressive glimpses of future London proves to be a hoax or delusion; John R Pierce's "Pre-Vision" (March 1936 Astounding); Philip K Dick's "Paycheck" (June 1953 Imagination); and Lord Dunsany's The Pleasures of a Futuroscope (written 1955; 2003). The same general principle features in more restricted devices such as the moment-of-death predictor in Robert A Heinlein's "Life-Line" (August 1939 Astounding) and the Dirac Communicator introduced by James Blish in "Beep" (February 1954 Galaxy; exp as The Quincunx of Time 1973). Viewing the future inevitably raises questions of free will versus determinism. An offbeat variation is the titular device of the theme anthology Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die (anth 2010) edited by Matthew Bennardo, David Malki ! and Ryan North, which infallibly predicts the manner though not the time of death for anyone who consults it. [DRL]

see also: Precognition; Time Radio.

further reading

  • Stephen Baxter. "The Technology of Omniscience: Past Viewers in Science Fiction" (Autumn 2000 Foundation #80) [pp97-107: mag/]

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