Ripples In The Dirac Sea by Geoffrey A. Landis – The Time Traveler’s Almanac

Welcome to the second story for #TimeTravelThursday.  As you know, this is a group of five (including me) bloggers who are going to read one story a week out of The Time Traveler’s Almanac.  That will take us into January of 2017.  Feel free to jump on and off whenever you need to.  I hope you enjoy this ride.


Ripples In The Dirac Sea
Geoffrey A. Landis

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.

***Brief summary***

A guy is trapped in a hotel building that is on fire, but he can time travel.  Will he survive?  Can he survive?


I am going to go section by section for this story, I will put *** where the author does.  My hope is that it will help you understand my review at the end.

The story starts off with the main character (the narrator) telling us that his “death looms over me like a tidal wave…And yet I flee, pointless though it may be.”  He then leaves/time travels.


He tells us about one of their first tests involving a clock and taking a picture when it time traveled.  He realizes his mistake and wishes he would have put a movie camera in the room with the clock.


They arrive in San Francisco, June 8, 1965, the main character and Dancer.  They notice how busy everyone is, how no one takes the time to enjoy the here and now.  “There is no past, no future, only the now, eternal.”


He is now hiding in a janitor’s closet and watches a man carrying four, two gallon gas cans.  He lets the guy empty one gas can in the hallway.  Once the guy starts to empty the second gas can, the main character hits him in the head with a wrench and calls the hotel security and then time travels.  He then notes this:

Notes On The Theory And Practice Of Time Travel:
1.)  Travel is possible only into the past.
2.)  The object transported will return to exactly the time and place of departure.
3.)  It is not possible to bring objects from the past to the present.
4.)  Actions in the past cannot change the present.

He tells us about when he went to see dinosaurs.  He says all the books show us lush, green landscapes with dinosaurs everywhere but it took him three days to see a dinosaur bigger than a basset hound.  Once the dinosaur caught his scent it ran off.

In this same section he explains how his time travel works by telling this story:
My professor in transfinite math used to tell stories about a hotel that had an infinite number of rooms.  One day all the rooms are full, and another guest arrives.  “No problem,” says the desk clerk.  He moves the person in room one into room two, the person in room two into room three and so on.  Preston!  A vacant room.
A little later, an infinite number of guests arrive. “No problem,” says the dauntless clerk.  He moves the person in room one into room two, the person in room two into room four, the person in room three into room six and so on.  Presto!  An infinite number of rooms vacant.
My time machine works on just that principle.


1965.  This is when he meets Daniel Ranien, Dancer.  Dancer has really impressed the main character, “He had…as much wisdom as it has taken me a hundred lifetimes to learn.”  The way he talks about Dancer, he really loved him.  Dancer has/had an incipient bubble in his brain.  Even after an operation he dies.


The main character now explains the Dirac Sea (I don’t quite understand it still).  He says:

Time travel is subject to two constraints:  conservation of energy, and causality.  The energy to appear in the past is only borrowed from the Dirac sea, and since ripples in the Dirac sea propagate in the negative direction, transport is only into the past.  Energy is conserved in the present as long as the object transported returns with zero time delay, and the principle of causality assures that actions in the past cannot change the present.  For example, what if you went in the past and killed your father?
Who, then, would invent the time machine?
Once I tried to commit suicide by murdering my father, before he met my mother, twenty-three years before I was born.  It changed nothing, of course, and even when I did it I knew it would change nothing.  But you have to try these things.  How else could I know for sure?


They test time travel on a rat.  It made the trip undamaged.  Next they did a trained rat.  Same result.  He then decides to try time travel on himself, that way they dodged the university regulations on experimenting on humans.  The time travel “felt like nothing at all.”  One moment he is in the present at the university and the next he is one hour in the past.  When the narrator first went back it was the happiest day of their life, meeting Dancer was the lowest.

The narrator was at a bar, he tells a girl (Sarah) that she didn’t exist.  “It was all created by the fact that I was watching, and would disappear back into the sea of unreality as soon as I stopped looking.”  Her friends leave the bar and she eventually does too.  Once she leaves the narrator starts to follow her.  She sees the main character and clutches her purse closer to her.  This is when he meets Dancer.  Dancer tells him that following the girl won’t solve his problems.

He, the main character, says, “I was no longer sure exactly what I’d had in mind or why I’d followed her.  It had been years since I’d first fled my death.”

Dancer takes him back to the bar and feeds him pretzels and orange juice.  He tells Dancer everything (I am assuming about time travel) and Dancer listens to it all.  They leave the bar arm in arm and when they get near an alley Dancer says something is wrong.  Dancer goes down the alley and the girl from the bar has been raped and is bleeding behind a dumpster.  They take her back to Dancer’s apartment because Dancer says the police will rape her too.

In the morning he sees Dancer in bed with the girl, he is holding her as she sleeps.  That is all Dancer is doing, holding her, but he is jealous and didn’t know which one to be jealous of.

He then tells us that he once traveled to see the crucifixion.  He said the land was surprisingly green and fertile.  He hid his coils (that is how you time travel, wrap some coils around you and push some buttons) and started walking down the road.  While walking down the road he runs into a group of people and of course he cannot understand what they are saying.  Two of the people hold him while he third searches him.  Once they find nothing he is pushed to the ground and the two that were holding him up are now holding him down on the ground.  The third person pulls out a knife and slashes through the tendons on both legs.  (The way he narrator describes things I thought this was going to turn into the good Seminarian story.  I am wrong though because he can not change anything by going in the past.)  He is able to crawl back to his coils and travel back to the present, the hotel is on fire and he is in the room.

He knows he needs to get out of the room and he punches in a time before the hotel is on fire, five days before.  There is a couple having sex when he shows up.  He ignores them and goes back to 1965.  He is now standing on the thirteenth floor of a hotel being built.


“In the morning I explored Dancer’s pad.”  (So now we are, I guess, back to the morning after Sarah was raped.)  Dancer lives in an apartment that is decorated the way a teenager nowadays probably pictures the 60s.  He tells us that they (Dancer, Sarah, and himself) “spent the summer together, laughing, playing guitar, making love, writing silly poems and sillier songs, experimenting with drugs.”  He admits that Sarah truly loved Dancer but they were living during the days of free love so it didn’t really matter.

They now needed to send someone back farther in history, more than just an hour, and get proof of the trip.  They were afraid of making changes even though the mathematics said the present couldn’t be changed.  They decided to go back to September of 1853 and video record William Hapland and his family as they crossed the Sierra Nevadas and reached the California coast.  They would then travel to San Francisco and record some of the earthquake of 1906.  They hid in a building that would not fall during the earthquake, but would catch fire shortly after.  Once the fires got close to the building they fled back to the present.

They were now ready to tell the world.  The AAAS was meeting in Santa Cruz in a month.  He called the program chairman and got a spot as an invited speaker but didn’t reveal what they accomplished.


The day Dancer died they had a going-away party.  He told Dancer when he was going to die and Dancer believed him.  Dancer believed everything he told him.  Before Dancer died he told Sarah and the main character to not split up, to stay together.  Three days after Dancer died they split up.  They kept in touch.  Years later Sarah writes him telling him that she forgives him for causing Dancer’s death.

It is thirty minutes before he is to do his presentation for the AAAS.  He is in his room going over the speech again.  He will never give the speech though, the hotel is already on fire.


Dancer died on February 9, 1969.  During the morning he said he had a headache, which was rare for him.  He and Dancer decided to go for a walk through the fog.  During the walk he fell over and died.

Sarah committed suicide two days later.

He cannot change what is going to happen to him, no matter what he does.  He has tried telling himself not to go to the convention, he has tried blowing up the hotel and he even stopped the arsonist.  But none of that matters.  You cannot go into the past and change events.  He makes a plea to us, live your life to the fullest.  We are the ones that can make changes, he can’t.  He is going to die, his hotel is on fire.

***Final Thoughts***

Landis said, ” ‘Ripples in the Dirac Sea’ was an experimental story for me. Quite a number of disparate threads wove into the final narrative. One important thread was my feeling that a story involving time travel should have a nonlinear narrative to reflect the discontinuous way the characters experience time. I also wanted to see if it was possible to write a story in which real physics is presented. Very little of modern SF goes beyond the early quantum mechanics of Heisenberg and Schrodinger, work which is admittedly remarkable and beautiful, but by no means the end of the story. Here I tried to invoke some of the strangeness and beauty— I might even say sense of wonder—of the physics of Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac. In ‘Ripples’ I decided to explore the inconsistency between Dirac’s relativistic quantum mechanics and the mathematics of infinity developed by Cantor and others (as far as I can tell, a quite real inconsistency). The Dirac sea is also real, not an invention of mine— despite the very science-fictional feel of an infinitely dense sea of negative energy that surrounds and permeates us.”

I struggled to get through this story.  I actually debated on not doing a review and skipping it.  The message is a great one:  Live your life to the fullest, you never know when your time will come.  You cannot change the past.  You only have right now.

As I said in my review of Death Ship, I want a story where I can just sit down and enjoy.  I can honestly say I did not enjoy this story.  Would I read this story again, heck no.  To me the story is to sporadic and hard to follow at times.  I didn’t exactly know where we were at points and the science described in the story is just over my head.

I also have a problem with his time travel.  I like time travel where you cannot mess with the past because you might really screw up the future.  I like that extra danger that can happen and wondering if anything that the character does will affect the future.  In this story, time travel really serves as a real life DVD.  There really is no point to the time travel other than he is not ready to die.  He can do whatever he wants and there is no consequences.

Rating:  3/10 Stars (The message of the story gets a 10/10)

***What Would I Read Next By Geoffrey A. Landis***

Nothing.  This is honestly the only story by him that I will read.  I did not enjoy his style or writing.  I would probably not want to read anything by him again. Lucky for me I have a year to hopefully forget this story before we read another one by him.

Do you agree with me on this story?  What were your thoughts?  Did you like this type of time travel?

***Find Out What The Four Other Bloggers Thought Of This Story.  Do They Agree With Me?***

DJ (@MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape)
Alesha Escobar
H.M. Jones
Timothy C. Ward


10 thoughts on “Ripples In The Dirac Sea by Geoffrey A. Landis – The Time Traveler’s Almanac

  1. Haha, this is hilarious. I love your honesty, and great evaluation of each part, too!

    It’s very interesting to see how his use of time travel didn’t work for you. I haven’t come to the conclusion of having a preference on time travel that can change the future or tt that cannot. In this story, I think he did a great job of illustrating the terror of death as a trap one cannot escape, juxtaposed with the many feelings we can have in life and how much better they become in that comparison.

    I’m not sure I get the beginning and why he wishes he’d have used a video camera, but other than that I think I understand the science enough.

    I love all the people we have in this reading group. You are all so insightful and really expand how I’m experiencing these stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even thought he sent a camera to take a picture of the clock – and has that picture of the clock from the past – if he had set a videocamera up to watch where the camera was to appear to the take the picture, when he would have watched the videocamera’s film, he would’ve noticed that the camera – which he had just sent into the past – would have never appeared on film. Then he would have realized that this would mean that the camera was sent into the past of a different time-line.

      If he did have that knowledge though, how it would have affect his future actions, I’m not sure. I don’t really think that having that knowledge ahead of time would have prevented him from being in the burning building.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting. I wonder if he wouldn’t have gone to the convention because there would have been more to study than just time travel. He would have opened up a new bag of worms.


  2. I love the insight, all. This was a like but not love read for me. I liked the theories, but struggled to understand what he was saying about them. I wanted to like the character more, but needed something more to hold on to. I also loved the message, and rated it up for that.

    Liked by 1 person

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