(a somewhat dense blog post, created largely because I wanted somewhere to record my musings)
Now is a difficult concept. It's one I've thought about a lot over the years and, like science in general, got nowhere with.
I've been thinking about it recently because it's still niggling at me after cropping up in my Impossible Times series:
Simply put, "now" doesn't exist in the equations that to the best approximation science can come up with, govern existence.
If you write an equation to describe a system - like a ball being thrown - it will tell you at each time (t) where the ball is, how fast it's moving etc. But there is no special time (t=T) that corresponds to any "now". The system has been described and no one value of t has any significance over any other. Moreover there's no direction to time: the equations work equally well in both directions.
And this doesn't just apply to a ball being thrown, it applies to every equation describing every system ever.
There are vague arm-wavy explanations for the direction of time, relying on statistical arguments (entropy increases). But for "now" … nothing. Just Einstein pointing out that "now" isn't universal. One person can experience (according to space-time equations, not because they are crazy) two events being simultaneous, and another may experience them happening one after the other.
But this experience of "now" - this singular point moving forwards at 60 minutes an hour, a special divider between past and future... that does not crop up in any of the mathematics over the past few centuries that have described the universe ever more accurately and delivered all our technology.
Of course you can point at the failings of current theory to explain certain very significant components of the universe - primarily dark energy and dark matter. And you can say that maybe when such things are encompassed within the latest theories then "now" will also pop up. And I guess it may.
However, for now I am forced to hunt for someway of reconciling my subjective experience of existing with the science that so accurately describes everything I can see, and an vast amount that I can't.
And I've found a way that at least seems plausible to me and scratches the itch. It's not a scientific break through. I haven't solved any equations. It's just a way of thinking about it that for me has let me move on.
Consider the often drawn space-time cube. It's a diagram where 3-dimensional space is shown as a 2-dimensional plane and the third axis is time. The cube captures all existence, all space and all time. Our lives can be plotted on it (I show a section in green) as can a truck moving along in a straight line (I show a section in red). At each time the thing (me, or the truck) is at given coordinates (x,y). We can imagine the coordinates expanded to include the full parameter space we exist in, so that everything about the entity in question is fully described from its beginning to its end.
From this perspective there is no "now". Everything exists in one block. The old you in a care home, the baby you being born, and all the stuff in between are just points along the line that describes you.
You don't follow this line as time moves. Time is static and exists. The line exists. All the you's that we can examine by looking at a particular t=T … exist.
So … why do we strongly believe that there is a "now"?
Those with a science background may be familiar with the reformulation of classical (or quantum) mechanics into a Hamiltonian (thanks to Mr Hamilton in 1833) vector field where the evolution of the system through time is just given by following the slope of the field.
Basically if we go back to the thrown ball: its trajectory is the solution of the equations of motion given the starting parameters. At any point along the trajectory we can examine the parameters that describe the ball (primarily its position and velocity) and deduce its parameters at the next point.
For a ball it's pretty simple.
A person is also the solution to an equation. A far more complex equation. But the solution is their trajectory through the parameter space that describes them, and one axis of that parameter space is time. We can just think of the planes in the above diagram as not only the contraction of 3-D space into 2-D but of a huge parameter space into 2-D. That parameter space describes not just x & y coordinates, but temperature, posture … brain state … in fact the coordinates of every atom in the person's body, the chemistry of the brain … everything.
Now consider the Hamiltonian: given a ball at time t = t1 we can deduce the ball's state at time t = t2 by considering its position in the relevant parameter space, which is (IIRC) momentum space.
The Hamiltonian for a person is obviously vastly complicated. Their next action will be constrained by things like gravity and momentum but also by state of mind. The solution that delivers their trajectory in the space-time cube is one that includes a constantly changing state of mind (just as the ball's trajectory includes constantly changing x,y-coordinates.
In other words, the solution that is us, necessarily includes a changing state of mind that is dependent on stored versions of earlier events (memory) - they can only be earlier because of causality - and a model of future events (planning/anticipation etc), and as a consequence/by product of that solution there is in a self-aware system (one that models itself) a sense of now.
The solution that is us exists at every point on the space-time trajectory (we don't follow that trajectory any more than a ball does - it's the entire solution, there's no following - that's just an artefact of playing around with one of the parameters (t)). And at every time on the solution there is a local solution (us) which by necessity maintains a sense of now as a consequence of the nature of its formulation - the solution included solving for the mind state since this is part of the parameter space of the Hamiltonian. We exist at all times from our creation to our destruction - all those times are equally important points on the line joining our birth to our death. At all those points (at least when we are conscious) our minds retain memories and plans, and an artificial sense of "now" that is a necessary component of linking the two. But there is no now. Just a quadrillion Marks along a certain stretch of my trajectory all with a brain state that equates to wrestling with the concept of "now" because that is part of the solution of me given my starting conditions and the equations that govern us.
I've been doing this for a while now with posts to celebrate my first book, Prince of Thorns, turning 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 and now 80 ... as in 80,000 ratings on Goodreads.
This time the milestone has fallen just after the release of my latest book, Limited Wish. The Impossible Times trilogy which starts with One Word Kill concludes in November with Dispel Illusion.
So, what exciting topic will I broach for the milestone 80K?
Let's talk covers! Recently there was a bit of internet fuss by Czech readers who weren't all impressed by the cover reveal for Red Sister by my Czech publishers:
Some of them remonstrated with me. How could I allow this etc etc. In the end the publishers decided to go in a different direction and this is now the cover:
The discussions revealed considerable misunderstandings about how much input traditionally published authors have on their covers. I'm currently running a cover contest in the 5th SPFBO, and these covers come about in the way many readers imagine that traditional publishing works. The authors choose their artist, ask for something specific, there is a to and fro, and the final product is hopefully something they feel ownership of. Things in traditional publishing are very different. When my first book, Prince of Thorns came out, the first I heard about the cover from the publisher who provided it was an email saying "here's your cover, we hope you like it". As it happens, I really did. It was a fine piece of art from the excellent Jason Chan who went on to provide covers for 6 of my books and internal art for my special edition omnibuses.
As a more successful author my opinion is canvassed to a greater degree by my US and UK publishers but still it's nothing like what happens with self-published authors. With overseas publishers (of whom I have dozens) in 99% of cases I'm not told when the book comes out, what the title is, or shown the cover. I find out when a reader sends me a link. Two things to remember, however. Firstly: I'm not paying for the art. Secondly: My publishers know a lot more than I do about what sells in their market. Emotionally, the cover is a statement about the author's art. The author wants one they like. Obviously. Economically, the cover is a sales device. The publisher (and the author) want to sell books. Since the publisher has bought the rights and made a significant financial investment both in the advance to the author and the costs of production, they sensibly take hold of this important factor in the success of the book. They know that the author is good with words. They have no reason to believe that the author is an expert in covers. And it's true. I'm not an expert in covers. Indeed I often don't have strong opinions when I am asked for input at the early stage or to choose between options at a later stage. The UK Book of the Ancestor covers changed character through the course of the trilogy but it wasn't me driving those changes. I had no objection to the Red Sister hardcover cover. I didn't campaign for the change to the paperback cover. I like both. Readers, however, often voice strong opinions in both directions.
When considering what might be on the cover of One Word Kill I never even thought of just the title. My mind was wandering across D&D paraphernalia, dice, maps, characters... None of it really jumped out at me as "yes, we must have that". And when 47North came up with the text-only idea I was very pleasantly surprised. It somehow captured the era and seemed to invite readers in without loading them with preconceptions. The images I'd been thinking of would have turned away some readers whose biases reviews now tell me that that text overcame. So bravo to the publishers.
I'm not a control freak - I'll leave them to do what they do best and stick with what I know. Sure, sometimes the results won't be great, no cover is universally loved, but then again, neither is any book! Some of my covers I love. Some not so much. You won't catch me telling you which is which. And in all cases my thanks go to the artists for their skill and hard work.
Each year I run a cover contest for the SPFBO entrants. Each blog choses its 3 favourite covers from their pool of 30 entrants. The 30 favourites collected from the 10 blogs are then voted on in separate ballots by the bloggers and by the public.
The public vote is of course a bit of fun and subject to all the issues of brigading and cheating that online polls often are - though our anti-cheat software is more effective than the raw poll results might lead you to believe.