Elizabeth Knox

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Fate, time travel, and truth-telling: The Dreamhunter Duet

Back in 2009 a fan of The Dreamhunter Duet found me on Facebook and wrote to me with questions. I answered her first few and she came back with more, prompted by a conversation she’d had about the books with some friends of hers. (I didn’t know it then, but this encounter was a little like a fairy tale, since one of M’s friends was Stephenie Meyer, who later named the Duet as one of her two favourite summer reads—which perhaps influenced the Duet’s fortunes even more than the Printz Honor had.) I lost the first lot of M’s questions and my answers, but these are the second. This is a long post, and anyone who hasn’t read the Duet should avoid reading this post, because of spoilers.

M’s Questions:

Anyway, here are the questions. I hope they aren’t too dense and feel free to tell us to bug off if they are annoying. I do appreciate you taking the time to answer them though!

Looking at the first 3 Nowns that we see created in the books (the first by Tziga, the second 2 by Laura), there’s nothing that suggests that these creatures exist outside of the space/time continuum or that they have any control over it. At most, we see that they have an awareness of past selves, but even these reincarnations seem to be bound to a linear history. How is it that the final Nown that is The Place is able to reach back in time to Lazarus’s grandfather Tziga?

When one enters The Place, what time are they in, or is The Place independent of time altogether?

Furthermore, how many times have the (majority of the) events in the book unfolded? It’s clear that the universe was changed to result in the happy ending of Sandy’s survival and the entire family having remained together by the time of the Quake, but at which point in the narrative did any of the characters do something different to affect this change? Assuming that there was a critical point of divergence, why has it occurred on this particular loop of history?

It seems to me that the clearest explanation would be as follows: At the time that Lazarus Hame had become so desperate that he created The Place, The Place had never before existed in history. By creating it, he was able to change history (and go back in time), resulting in the younger version of himself never having to suffer the same fate.

However, the older Lazarus tells Laura that he was particularly hated because of the name Hame—does the name Hame carry any significance apart from the one created by Tziga and Laura as incredibly powerful dreamhunters? If not, this suggests that The Place had already existed and ceased to be before this older Lazarus created it, suggesting that a previous incarnation of Lazarus had created The Place on another loop of time. But if this were the case, why didn’t this time loop result in a happy ending when the previous one hadn’t?

Are there any books about the physics of time travel you can recommend?

Typing all that out makes me think we’ve put too much thought into it. Ah well… it’s nice to put the brain to use now and again.

Hi M—

I’m going to answer your questions out of order, because the answers make will make better sense that way.

There are two books about time travel I can recommend—How to Build a Time Machine by Paul Davies, and Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe by J Richard Gott. They both helped with my thinking about time travel and causality.

You talk about ‘time loops’ and I think you have to get away from that idea. The ‘consistent universe’ and ‘many timelines’ views of time travel and causality aren’t about loops vs. no loops. There is in effect a narrative loop in DH DQ, involving time travel, but that doesn’t mean the time travel in the story creates a loop (I mean, the loop is there because it is a story and you, the reader, are like God in relation to it, like God and outside of the story’s time). The whole ‘Lazarus creates a giant Nown, Laura digs him up etc …’ may well have been running in circles for some period, with everyone in it doomed by the universe‘s self-consistency, only, by the end of the story, a number of things happen that make a difference and generate a new timeline—Laura’s new world. The reader is supposed to have a sense that there may have been repetition of events, and that the events may yet be repeated, but the reader is supposed finally to decide—like Laura—that somehow the family, and Southland, are set on a new course and have a fresh start.

For me, there isn’t one event that changes everything. There are several in concert, and, more importantly, there are attitudes, moral and emotional attitudes, that make a difference to the eventual outcome of the family’s story. You’ve got to remember the emphasis on free will in the story, for instance how important it is that Laura frees Nown so that he can think for himself (and sometimes also think for her, like a parent.)

Okay, so, in Lazarus’s story Lazarus’s Grandfather was a dreamhunter, the Place disappeared before Lazarus was born, he had no Dad, was raised by his mother and grandfather, had an isolated and rather precarious childhood, and his mother died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was ten. Lazarus doesn’t know why the Place disappeared. He doesn’t know what happened to his father. He doesn’t know why his mother’s beloved cousin Rose went off to live in the US with the man she married—the man who ‘no one much liked’. Now, as far as the reader knows the Place might have disappeared because Lazarus’s dreamhunter mother dug up it’s heart. And the man Rose married—the one who made the family so uncomfortable—might well have been the man Laura dug up. This is pretty much what the story suggests. (By the way I am aware that Rose marrying her cousin’s son is going to cause some people to go tut tut, but in kinship terms Lazarus is Rose’s second-cousin-once-removed, which is the same separation between Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, and no one is tearing their hair out over them!) But what it’s possible to tell from Lazarus’s story is that there is so much he doesn’t know because everyone around him has kept secrets. And this is the key thing that makes a difference to what happens when our Laura digs Lazarus up. For, instead of being appalled by what the family has done, it’s terrible power and the terrible consequences of that power, instead of letting her family scatter in shame, and retiring from the world of public affairs, our young Laura tells Lazarus about his life. (But remember, Laura still does suppose she’s going to have to live keeping lots of secrets, right up until the moment Sandy walks in the door and she realises with delight and gratitude that she has no idea how the rest of her life will work out after all!)

So, there isn’t one event that changes what happens. Yes it’s important that Laura digs up Lazarus and undoes the Place. Yes it’s important that, for whatever reason, the father of Laura’s child comes home to her. Yes, it is important that the whistle gets blown on Cas Doran and he loses his power and position (and that is all due to the efforts of everyone who gets Nown’s film of The Depot to Judge Seresin in Castlereagh). But the signal difference is the attitude of trust and faith and truth-telling—Laura’s resisting the shame of the strange events she set in motion (because she freed Nown and he loved her); Lazarus being able to decide he’s not a moral leper and might belong with this family—his family—so that he tells his story to all of them and stays with them. Laura’s ‘new world’—which she regards as God-given—is given to her as the result of her own willingness to sacrifice herself (give up Nown and live the lonely life she thinks she’s doomed to live), and the happy accident that saves her from having to do that (Sandy turns up), and free will and faith in people (she chooses to tell her story to Lazarus, and he tells his to everyone else). As a result of that—forewarned being forearmed—Chorley doesn’t go off on any doomed Antarctic expeditions, Grace doesn’t die of grief, Rose doesn’t take herself off with the man she loves and whom no one can bear to contemplate (Lazarus) etc etc etc … and the family stays together. The accumulation of what they all do changes their fates. This is what the book is about—truth-telling, good faith, trust, love, and doing the right thing.

So, although that explanation doesn’t give you any idea how many times Lazarus made his Nown and it time travelled and somehow failed to save him from his lonely and deprived life, the reader doesn’t actually need to know how many times, only that it has clearly happened before and may well go on happening for all Laura knows—till she realises that she’s in her new world, that somehow things have changed. What I hope this explanation does give you is some idea of all the things that—together—made the difference that created Laura’s new world. The ‘together’ is a big thing in these books. The interconnectedness of people’s lives, the world-altering power of empathy, of sharing experiences. After all, it matters that Laura stops wanting to sell dreams and starts really listening to what the dreams are telling her. And it matters hugely that she and Lazarus tell their stories to one another and others, although those stories make them feel shamed and appalled. And it matters that Laura frees Nown and makes him able to choose what to do with his own life (and he chooses to love her and then chooses to sacrifice staying with her).

The Hame name has ‘significance’ to Lazarus because his grandfather was a famous dreamhunter. But, anyway, the Hame name, and the other names of the five families that came to Southland from Ephrus with John Hame—listed in Dreamhunter right up to when it was it its final proof stage, but removed by my Faber editor as unnecessary to the story—all have a kind of spooky folk law significance in Southland culture, because those people brought a magic with them, not just a spell for making golems, but a whole magical lexicon (music for the Hames, and a kind of math for the Zarene family, who I’m writing about at the moment). A lexicon that can compel nature in various ways.

Which brings me to your question about Nown and his nature. What each Nown is able to do—the parameters of his power—is completely dependent on what is put into him. What is at his heart, what desires, what impulses. The tenth Nown has his maker as his heart, and that gives him extraordinary power, and imagination, and motive force.

And of course any Nown might have power over time! He is the result of a spell based on ‘a song Lazarus heard in the tomb’. Lazarus was raised from the dead by Christ—presumably with power that came from God. Now, it has always seemed to me, as a storyteller, that one way healing people and raising the dead might work was by some manipulation of time. The healer would replace the broken body with the former whole body. In my book Black Oxen, the character Ido, who learns how to heal people, and make them younger—though he never quite gets a handle on raising the dead, try as he might—does it in effect by finding the whole body back in time. Ido first describes his understanding of what he might be able to do like this, when he’s looking at a shrapnel wound in a field hospital: ‘…he looked down at the wound and saw the whole stomach, as it was several hours back, the healthy body rising up though the injured one.’ So, in my stories, miracle-healing is often equated with some kind of manipulation of time. Nown is made from a spell created to somehow manipulate time—a spell, a prayer, an appeal to God, whatever it was Christ did to raise Lazarus from the tomb. (The whole Lazarus thing isn’t just metaphorical, I wanted to make the provenance for all the magic in the world of my story be an old pre-existing myth, and what better then than a Bible story? To my mind one of the most beautiful and mysterious and ambivalent and scary Bible stories).

I don’t know whether you are familiar with my other books but, in The Vintner’s Luck and its sequel The Angel’s Cut (just published), both the angel Xas and archangel Lucifer talk about God’s being ‘outside of time’ (which it has always seemed to me He must be to be Omniscient). DH and DQ just go with what I see as the implications of the old stories, and sort of questions I find myself asking when writing—what is God like? If Jesus healed people how might He have done that?

So, Nown, like all other possible manifestations of the magic of the descendants of the original Lazarus, is definitely related to the manipulation of time. If you think about it, what the family already knew about what he could do conformed to one theory about how time-travel to the future might be possible—the kind of time travel where only an individual’s consciousness travels. This is what Nown’s consciousness does, each Nown is the same ‘person’ with slightly different capacities. His consciousness alights time and again, in sometimes widely separated periods, with his memories of former existences intact each time he appears. So that is either the ‘time-travel’ of a consciousness, or a kind of reincarnation (and reincarnation could be said to be a kind of time travel, couldn’t it?).

As to your question: when one enters the Place what time is one in? Lazarus’s Nown goes back in time from 1935, stops in 1886, and falls into step with the Hames it wants to tell to rescue their buried family member. So, in 1906 the Place is in 1906, although the dreams in the Place encompass the memories of any living people who were in that territory when it turned into the Place. The people remained in 1935 (like the elderly and self-satisfied Cas Doran of the dream Contentment) but bits of their memories in the form of dreams went off with Lazarus’s Nown in search of Lazarus’s family. I actually hope this answer should be obvious in the book.

The thing about time travel when physicists discuss it, is that it is still only the time travel of stories. Physicist’s theories about causality—the kind of time travel we can talk about and what that might say about the nature of the universe—are all based on different time travel scenarios, on stories. If you read the Gott book you will see that he uses examples of time travel from fiction to discuss causality. DH and DQ are further examples of time travel in fiction (tricky examples, because they use the whole doom and destiny vibe of self-consistent universe theories and turn out to be many time line universe stories. And the reason they play most of the way through as self-consistent universe stories because what has always attracted me to time travel stories is the doom and the destiny and the horrible fatedness of the self-consistent universe—like the film 12 Monkeys—because those stories are at their hearts about the desire for redemption. Time travel stories are redemption stories.)

I hope all that helps clear up your questions!



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