Essay: Hurtling through Space and Time with Books and Films

By Ratnottama Sengupta

So much of sci-fi uses science as a starting point and then uses fiction to fill up the gaps in our present knowledge. We use what we know today to imagine a different tomorrow –- a better tomorrow — for the world. Still, sooner rather than later, sci-fi that looks out-dated as science fiction becomes a scientific fact. Don’t we all know that Sage Valmiki wrote in Ramayana of the Pushpak Vimana ( mythical flying chariots in Hindu lore) and the giant bird Jatayu that clashed in mid-space aeons before the Wright Brothers wrote their names into aviation history or before the Central Science Laboratory in UK estimated that worldwide, the cost of bird-strikes to airlines had soared to US$ 1.2 billion annually!

But why does this possibility of fiction becoming a fact excite me? Admittedly because of my association with Me and I, which my father, well-known author and scriptwriter Nabendu Ghosh, had written for his two grandsons, and was translated by my son Devottam Sengupta for his grandpa’s birth centenary. Published by Hachette India, the novel breaks the barriers of space and time. Let me quote from the synopsis to give readers a glimpse of this. “They all had the same question for Mukul: ‘Why didn’t you recognise us? And why did you look so dark?’ Mukul was perplexed. The day had started as any other Sunday morning would, with him going out to meet his aunt, his friends and his mentor Noni Kaku of the Telescope. But when everyone, including his own parents insisted that he was lying about his whereabouts, Mukul had to look around for this imposter. And he found Lukum, who had travelled light years to meet his intergalactic ‘twin.’ Little did Mukul know that he had set out on the longest Sunday of his life…”

The original Bengali book cover of Me & I

On the book-laden pavements of Kolkata’s College Street, my father had come across an old book on flying saucers which had a reference to twin planets existing in our cosmos. This was a hypothesis some scientists were working on, he had heard from a friend, filmmaker Sudheesh Ghatak. This little nugget kept growing in the author’s mind and took the shape of an adventure tale for young adults in which Mukul boards a starship, lands in ‘Thrae’, takes the next flight back, and returns to find that 21 years have gone by. So, was the spaceship a Time Machine?

That is what fascinates me most about Me and I: Space and Time Travel converge into a composite story that the author himself has described as a ‘fairy tale of science’.  So far I have been reading/watching either Time Machine, Back to the Future, Abby Sen(Bengali) narratives, where someone goes back or forward in time, or watching ET, Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Bankubabur Bondhu, Arrival, PK, where creatures cut through space to land in our backyards and knock on our windows or on our conscience.

What is time travel? The best answer I found is from an explanation of the Einstein-Rosen bridges — better known as Worm Holes or Black Holes. It is the concept of moving from one point in time to another in a manner similar to moving between two points in space, generally using a theoretical notion dubbed ‘time machine’. “Mess around with Time, and the world you know could become a world you don’t know…” That was the tagline of Time Riders(2010), Alex Scarrow’s series of teen sci-fi novel later turned into a TV series. But though a recognised concept in philosophy, fiction, and cinema, time travel has hardly any support in theoretical physics.

H G Wells was the first to fabricate, in 1895, a tale ( The Time Machine) where an individual gets inside a car-like machine and travels, purposely and selectively, back to the past — an impossibility even today. Journeying from one time period into another can be a scientific research, but can any science lab account for the human experience it entails? So, although in our mind we constantly blur the divide between past and present or today and tomorrow, time travel remains a myth and whatever we have seen so far is entirely in the realm of fiction.

The success of Time Machine is easily measured, not by the number of films, television serial or the comic book adaptations of the book, but by the fact that the term coined by Wells is universally used to refer to the possibility of such a vehicle. Needless to add, it has inspired umpteen works of fiction in many media. The Time Traveller’s Wife (2009), Time Crimes (2007), FAQ About Time Travel (2009), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), 13 Going On 30

The Time Traveller’s Wife, published in 2003, had marked the debut of American author Audrey Niffenegger. It introduces a unique perspective on time travel as it recounts the frictions between two lovers — a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel unpredictably, and his wife who must cope with his frequent absences and dangerous experiences. Niffenegger saw the story as a metaphor for her failed relationship. The novel that examines ‘love, loss and free will’ went on to sell millions of copies within five years, and is now classified as both, sci-fi and romance.

One film, Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) had an abandoned bathtub that transports four friends across time. However, the prime example of time adventure remains Back to the Future(1985), the comedy directed by Robert Zemeckis for producer Steven Spielberg. In it teenager Marty accidentally goes back to 1955 where he meets his future parents in high school and becomes his mother’s romantic interest. An eccentric scientist, Doc Brown helps him repair the damage by advising how to make his parents fall in love, and then return to 1985. The detailed recreation of period sight and sound, ambience and atmosphere, succeeded in such a measure that it became the highest grosser of Hollywood; won a plethora of awards including the Academy Award for Best Sound Effects; marked the beginning of a franchise with two sequels, an animated series, theme park rides, video games, a musical too! In 2007 it entered the US Library of Congress.

The publishing world boasts an array of names whose works continue to top the bestseller lists for decades. Isaac Asimov, who authored The Three Laws of Robotics in I, Robot(1950), recounts in his interplanetary novel, Foundation (First edition; 1951), a psycho-historian’s effort to preserve the best of galactic civilisation after the collapse of Galactic Empire in a universe of the future. Carl Sagan, most regarded for his research on extra-terrestrial life, had assembled the first physical messages sent into space: Messages that could potentially be understood by any extra-terrestrial intelligence that might chance upon them. The cosmologist-astrophysicist had published more than 600 scientific papers that are now archived in the Library of Congress. His Dragons of Eden (1977) won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction writing. He co-wrote and narrated the 1980 TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage which was then published under the title Cosmos(1980). His sci-fi Contact (1985) was made into a film in 1997.

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking popularised theory of cosmology based on a union of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Written in non-technical terms about the structure, origin, development and eventual fate of the universe, Brief History of Time(1988) talked about concepts like space and time, building blocks that make up the universe like quarks; and of fundamental forces that govern it such as gravity. Hawking outlined cosmological phenomena like Big Bang and black holes — theories that modern scientists use to describe the universe. Finally he spoke of a search for a unifying theory that describes everything in the universe in a coherent manner. Small wonder it sold more than 10 million copies in 20 years and got translated into 35 languages!

Arthur C Clarke was awarded UNESCO’s Kalinga Prize for popularising science. His screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) earned this lifelong proponent of space travel the sobriquet of ‘Prophet of Space Age’. These, I should point out, primarily build upon space travel. As did Bankubabur Bandhu (1962), about an alien from outer space who lands in the backyard of a somewhat challenged boy in Bengal backwaters. Satyajit Ray wrote the story for Sandesh, his family magazine for young readers of Bengali, creating the prototype of ET, a benevolent creature from out there with rejuvenating powers and friendly to children. In fact this very story was scripted by Ray as The Alien, the aborted Hollywood venture that inspired ET; made into a telefilm by his son Sandip Ray; staged by Kaushik Sen (2006); and adapted as the Hindi film Koi…Mil Gaya (2003).

Says Bengali film director Atanu Ghosh, whose Abby Sen (2015) is the first  Bengali time travel film: “The universally accepted concept of Time is that it is linear: watertight compartments of Past, Present and Future. So, imagine the sheer magnitude of the exercise where one out of the billions of people living in linear Time goes back in years! He would be like one drop in an ocean. So there is not even the possibility of research in this physical impossibility: Every story starting with Wells is entirely fictional. However, if we carry on the train of thought, we chance upon some interesting sidelights about human life, human emotion. For, when our memory puts the clock back in Time, say by 50 years, we see ourselves as a 20- year-old or 10-year-old, as we were at that point of time. In cinema, however, we are present in our present state – as a 60-year-old, or whatever our present age. If we were to go back with our current age, intelligence, and life realisation, it would create a very interesting analogy, for we would then have two backdrops, two perspectives, two worlds!”

So time travel stories ultimately are less of adventure tales and more of social documents. How often have we heard our parents or teachers or other elders say, “Life (or the world) was so much better in our times!” This is one of the most enduring fantasies. But if we could go back in time and live our life anew, would we make the same choices? Science and technology has fulfilled so many of our dreams, desires, wishes, fantasies… Some day will this fantasy too come to pass? And if it does, will man arrive at the final destination? Will every quest of our lives be answered, every regret resolved? Or will we then be faced with a new set of complexities? For, our existence in a given timeframe is governed by political, social, economic and scientific realities. So, whatever is offered by science is never unconditional. It comes with its own set of ground rules. If we try to overtake these ground rules we mess up our lives. That is when we start thinking that we were better off with a simpler technology. Imperfections meant tackling it with our basic abilities, and perhaps we were better off doing so with our innate human skills!

Unlike time travel, space exploration is an ongoing effort to discover celestial structures in outer space. The common rationale for this exploration includes advancement of science, national prestige, uniting different nations and ensuring the future survival of humanity. Space exploration is conducted with the help of continuously evolving technology. It is happening at several levels: Astronomers with telescopes are carrying out the study of space. Unmanned robotic flights are conducting physical exploration of space. And there are manned space missions.

Yet, so many principles of science remain unchallenged. One of them is the theory of relativity, published in 1916. In fact, this is one principle of science that is getting reinforced with every passing year. Barely three years ago, in 2016, research affirmed Albert Einstein’s thoughts on gravitational waves. And in April this year, a team of international astronomers captured an image of a black hole’s silhouette. It shows that massive objects such as black holes or the sun can change how light travels – just as Einstein predicted. This has occurred exactly a century after a British astronomer and his colleagues photographed a solar eclipse in Brazil and off Africa’s west coast, to establish a key prediction of Einstein’s theory of relativity. These accomplishments, previously considered impossible, have changed the way human beings think about the heavens.

According to a NASA release dated April 19, 2019, “Evidence of the existence of black holes – mysterious places in space where nothing, not even light, can escape – has existed for quite some time… It was popularly believed that photographing a black hole was impossible because an image of something from which no light can escape would appear completely black. For scientists, the challenge was how to capture, from thousands or millions of light-years away, an image of the hot, glowing gas falling into a black hole. An ambitious team of international astronomers and computer scientists has accomplished both. Working for well over a decade, the team improved upon an existing radio astronomy technique for high-resolution imaging, and detected the silhouette of a black hole – outlined by the glowing gas that surrounds its event horizon, the precipice beyond which light cannot escape.”

Why is this important? Because learning about mysterious structures in the universe can not only help us understand theories such as Einstein’s, or gravity, and the dynamic nature of our universe. They also fan our fantasies and push the boundaries of our engagement with the cosmos. If black holes exist in photographs captured by Event Horizon Telescopes, can wormholes be left out of the realm of science, to belong purely to imagination? This possibility excites me. Here’s why.

A wormhole is a speculative structure linking disparate points in space-time (the concept of time and three-dimensional space regarded as fused in a four-dimensional continuum). It can be visualized as a tunnel with two ends, each at separate points in space-time. In 1935 Einstein and physicist Nathan Rosen used the theory of general relativity to elaborate on this idea, proposing the existence of “bridges” through space-time. If these bridges connect two different points in space-time, theoretically they can create a shortcut that could reduce travel time and distance in cosmic sojourns. Whether wormholes actually exist remains to be seen. But if they are proved to exist, wormholes could connect extremely long distances such as a billion light years or more, different universes, or different points in time!

Can Me and I, then, come to pass some day? The most daunting aspect of science fiction coming true in real life is the vast distances involved — and with it the insurmountable obstacles in travelling to even the nearest space object. A writer’s imagination, on the other hand, is fuelled by these very problems. From metal rockets to hollowed asteroids, from wormholes to meteorites –- all have made their way into the space — that is all part of a writer’s imagination. For, that imagination is probably the only thing actually faster than light –- everyday, in every part of the world, in every You and Me.



Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics (2018). Formerly Arts Editor with The Times of India, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication, writings books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written widely on Hindi films; served the CBFC, the NFDC Script Committee, the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National award. In recent times she has authored, translated and edited Chuninda Kahaniyaan, Kadam Kadam,Me and I, That Bird Called Happiness.



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