• Part 2
• Part 3
• Part 4
• Part 4.5
• Part 5
• Part 6
• Part 7
• Part 8
• Part 9
• Part 10
• Part 11
Marching onward through “Tomorrow Rarely Knows.” The end is in sight!
I’ve now typed fifteen hundred words about time travel, which means I’ve reached the point where everything becomes a problem for everybody.
Klosterman lists and discusses eight dilemmas commonly associated with time travel. Most of these are based on the idea of a single, but not necessarily fixed, timeline.
Disclaimer: I’m fully aware, by the way, that everything I’m about to say below will sound (and probably be) ridiculous, in accordance with my previously stated assertions regarding talking about time travel. So, onwards!
1. If you change any detail about the past, you might accidentally destroy everything in present-day existence.
Self-explanatory, and definitively covered in that one Simpsons episode where it rains donuts.
2. If you went back in time to accomplish a specific goal (and you succeeded at this goal), there would be no reason for you to have traveled back in time in the first place.
This is the scenario in which, according to the “Hitler’s Murder” paradox that Klosterman cites, if you went back in time to kill Hitler as a baby, thus preventing WWII and the Holocaust, you would also eliminate the reason you went back in time in the first place.
(Klosterman goofs up a couple of times here, first by calling it, in print and on the audiobook, the “godfather paradox” — it’s called the grandfather paradox — and then by incorrectly attributing this idea to Chuck Palahniuk. This paradox does figure prominently in Palahniuk’s novel Rant, but the concept has been around for many decades.)
So, what would happen if a time traveler went back and killed baby Hitler?
This is assuming he could. One theory holds that the universe would not permit such a paradox to occur, so either the traveler would be destined to fail to kill Hitler, or fate would ensure that history would not be changed by the traveler’s actions, as on an episode of the 2002 Twilight Zone revival series, in which a time traveler successfully kills baby Hitler, replacing him with another baby, but — TWIST! — that baby grows up to become the person we know as Hitler.
However, if the plan worked and Hitler was definitively killed, thus eliminating his contributions to history, including the Nazis, the Holocaust, and Godwin’s Law, what then? Here’s the scenario that makes the most sense to me:
Let’s say the traveler is sent back in time from 2013 to 1889, the year of Hitler’s birth. The first consequence is that, once he arrives in 1889, the traveler becomes part of the world of 1889, and any actions he takes affects and creates history going forward. He remembers the world of 2013, and historical events preceding 2013, and those memories are fixed in his mind, even if many of those events no longer occur.
The traveler successfully kills Baby Hitler, then jumps into his time machine and zips back to 2013. What does he find?
Most likely, he’ll come back to a world drastically different from the 2013 he left. History will have unfolded very differently from what he remembers. The 2013 he remembers doesn’t exist, since it was the result of a very different sequence of events. It’s very possible that the traveler never existed in this timeline, or that time travel itself was never invented. (I believe the latter is the most likely, for reasons I’ll give later.)
I don’t believe the grandfather paradox is possible, because I subscribe to the idea of a single, but not fixed, timeline. Here’s the best illustration “I” can come up with (thanks, Hannah!) for what I mean:
Let’s say you’re working on an incredibly long-winded, wordy blog post, and you’re writing it in a text editor. About 3,000 words in, you realize you’re heading down a blind alley, and decide to back up to the first paragraph and start again. You go back, delete everything after the first paragraph, then hit save.
The document, in this example, is the timeline. Time travel is when you go back to an earlier point in the document. Some time travel theories hold that the entire document is still there, so you can make revisions earlier in the document without losing everything else. But I think what happens is that when you go back, everything after that point gets deleted, and there’s no Undo.
So you resume writing, and what gets written after that might resemble what was originally there, but it almost certainly won’t be an exact match. More likely, you’ll end up with something very different from what was there before.
Getting into even weirder territory, here’s a potentially disastrous consequence of the Kill Baby Hitler scenario. The traveler leaves 2013, enters 1889, kills Baby Hitler. The traveler’s timeline is overwritten as history proceeds from that point. As the centuries pass, the timeline diverges dramatically from the one we know, but we still eventually come up with a time machine.
So then yet another traveler goes back in time, to avert some tragedy — let’s say the assassination of President Henry Ford during his 1932 reelection campaign. This second traveler, entering 1932, overwrites the revised history the first traveler created, resulting in a third timeline that once again, decades later, culminates in the invention of the time machine.
And so yet another traveler goes back in time, creating a fourth timeline that overwrites the previous three.
And so on and on and on. Humanity becomes trapped in a loop, as history cannot proceed beyond the moment that a time traveler activates a time machine set to the past. Each trip creates a new timeline leading up to that point where a time machine is invented, and someone travels into the past. It happens over and over and over….
A timeline is created in which humanity doesn’t invent a time machine. (Or invents one, but doesn’t use it. Or only uses it to travel into the future.) That’s the only timeline that can continue to exist, because every timeline with time travel inevitably gets overwritten.
I believe this is the reason why we’ll never invent time travel. Or rather, why we’ll never experience a universe in which time travel exists. The existence of time travel throws us into a continuous loop of timelines being created and erased, over and over, until a timeline occurs where time travel never happens.
What’s more, we can never know that this is happening, because for “us” in any given “now,” there has never been time travel. From our perspective, the timeline we inhabit is the only timeline that has ever existed.
So in a way, Klosterman is right: time travel, though theoretically possible, is effectively impossible, because only a timeline without time travel can exist.
One odd side effect of this theory, by the way, is that it allows for the presence of time travelers — but not time travel — throughout history. Going back to that first traveler who goes to 1889, if no other time traveler in any of the succeeding timelines jumps back to before 1889, that first traveler, if he remained in 1889 and didn’t (or couldn’t) leap forward, will not be overwritten, and will continue to exist.
But if someone in that timeline’s future goes back to 1887, for instance, that will wipe out the 1889 traveler by erasing the timeline leading up to that traveler’s trip.
(Although of course it’s possible, though unlikely, that this succeeding timeline still ends up with a time traveler going to 1889. Even in this case, though, it wouldn’t be the same 1889 traveler, even if it were the same person, since they would be coming from the 1887 traveler’s timeline.)
So, if by some chance every time traveler jumped back to a date after the previous traveler’s trip, and remained in that time, all of them would continue existing — until someone finally ruined it by going back to the Big Bang and overwriting everything.
This could be the basis of the admittedly weird-sounding conspiracy theory that the Large Hadron Collider is being sabotaged from the future. If it’s true that the discovery of the Higgs Boson could lead to time travel, then the first thing a time traveler really ought to do is jump back in time and prevent the particle from being discovered in the first place.
I could keep going with a few thousand words about how this all connects with the Many Worlds Theory, but I’m pretty sure we’re all extremely ready to move on.
3. A loop in time eliminates the origin of things that already exist.
The “Bootstrap,” or “Back to the Future” paradox: Michael J. Fox goes back in time to 1955, and unwittingly (via cousin Marvin) gives the song “Johnny B. Goode” to Chuck Berry (who wrote “Johnny B. Goode,” but not until 1958). Since Berry apparently didn’t, in fact, originate “Johnny B. Goode” — Fox gave it to him — and Fox didn’t come up with “Johnny B. Goode,” either, who wrote “Johnny B. Goode”?
This is not actually a paradox according to the theory of time travel I subscribe to (see #2). Chuck Berry writes “Johnny B. Goode.” Michael J. Fox travels back to a point before Berry wrote it, and gives him the song. Therefore, the new timeline’s Berry didn’t write the song. However, the song was still written by Chuck Berry, in a 1958 that no longer exists.
In the new timeline, Fox can be credited, more or less, with originating “Johnny B. Goode,” based on his memory of the song from his (now obliterated) timeline. Which kind of sucks for Berry, but since he’s totally unaware that he actually wrote this song in a previous timeline, it’s all good — as far as he knows, he appropriated it from some white boy at a high school dance, and is gratified by this rare opportunity for cultural payback.
4. You’d possibly kill everybody by sneezing.
This is actually just #1, reworded, but whatever. Traveling into the past, you bring with you a modern disease that humanity hasn’t developed an immunity to, thereby killing everyone. Or, you die from a vintage disease like smallpox.
This is definitely possible, and could happen at some point, but hasn’t yet, obviously, since it hasn’t. Unless deadly pandemics like the Black Death and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic can be attributed to time travelers. Maybe!
5. You already exist in the recent past.
This is the always-unsettling notion that, if you traveled back to a time within your lifetime, you might meet yourself.
There’s a science fiction novel I read as a kid — I remember nothing about it except that it had something to do with time travel — that posed the dilemma that time travel violates the “conservation of mass” law of physics, that matter cannot be added to or removed from the universe. If you go back in time, you’re removing your mass from the (present) universe you’re in, and dumping your mass into the (past) universe you’re visiting.
Much of the plot was consumed with the characters grappling with this concept, and, in order to prevent the universe from unraveling, figuring out how to transport the equivalent mass of the time traveler out of their universe and into the traveler’s universe. This could be why I don’t remember a whole lot about this novel.
If you don’t get hung up on the details, though, “meeting your future self” is rich soil for story ideas.
My favorite tale based on this premise is Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Touch of Petulance.” In this story, a newly and happily married young man encounters an old man, who claims to be him. He’s come from the future to warn him that his cherished wife will, in time, become so shrewish and aggravating that, once day, he’ll snap and kill her.
Naturally, the young man dismisses the crazy oldster and his wacky stories. But what’s that he sees on his wife’s pretty face? Could it be…a touch of petulance? (This premise would resurface in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Hell’s Bells”.)
Another story that isn’t time travel-based, but has to do with meeting your Doppelgänger, is Harlan Ellison’s “Shatterday,” one of his best, creepiest stories, about a man whose exact double shows up out of nowhere one day, and begins gradually taking over his life. The kicker is that the double actually is a better person than the original, and more deserving of his identity. Depressing ending. You’ll love it.
Some stories try to resolve or bypass the complications of meeting yourself (and the whole conservation of matter problem). Quantum Leap had its hero, Sam Beckett, changing places with people in the past, “leaping” into their lives and indentities while the “leapee” was transported out of that timeline. (I believe he physically exchanged bodies with them, rather than switching minds, but I was never totally clear on the process.)
This is essentially the same concept as mental time travel, one of my favorite tropes. It’s used to great effect in the film Peggy Sue Got Married, in which Kathleen Turner, attending her 25th high school reunion, is transported back in time into her high school self. Of the myriad time travel methods, I like this one best, since it bypasses most of your thornier time travel dilemmas.
6. Before you attempted to travel back in time, you’d already know if it worked.
This one is kind of nonsensical, so I’m going to ignore it.
7. Unless all of time is happening simultaneously within multiple realities, memories and artifacts would mysteriously change.
This one is basically the Looper theory of time travel, although of course it also applies to Back to the Future. According to this model, there’s a single timeline, but all points along the timeline, past and future, exist simultaneously, and changes to the past/present affect people from the future even if they, via time travel, are physically in the past/present.
The classic example from Back to the Future is when Marty McFly, in 1955, starts to fade out of existence because his father George doesn’t stand up to bully Biff, and therefore won’t end up marrying his mom. And in Looper, there’s a scary scene where a looper is being tortured into revealing the whereabouts of his future self, who’s at large somewhere in the film’s present day. As the present-day looper is mutilated, the effects of the mutilation appear on the fugitive future-looper’s body.
This time travel conceit has never, as far as I know, been handled correctly, because of one significant issue that is never acknowledged.
Take Back to the Future, for instance. The film posits that Marty, who has traveled to 1955 from 1985, shows the physical effects of events occurring in 1955 that affect his development in the future. When his parents’ romance appears unlikely, Marty’s hand starts to disappear, because the chances that his parents will fall in love, marry, and conceive Marty become slimmer. As the chances of him being born grow more precarious, his physical form in 1955 actually reflects that diminished probability.
So, okay, let’s accept for the sake of argument that this is all possible. What we’re being asked to understand, then, is that Marty, while physically in 1955, is entirely his 1985 self — no matter who/what that 1985 self is, depending on how that self develops as the circumstances of his birth and upbringing change.
Let’s say that, because Marty’s parents got together in a totally different way, there’s some chain of events that lead to Marty’s mother taking thalidomide while pregnant with him (I know the historical dates don’t fit, but bear with me). As a result, Marty is born with a prominent birth defect (although one that doesn’t prevent him growing up in a way similar enough to his original life so that he can travel back in time).
That means, according to the time travel theory the film is premised upon, the moment George McFly knocks out Biff and kisses Lorraine, Marty should suddenly change appearance to reflect the birth defect he now possesses. Although he is not in 1985, he is completely malleable based on everything that occurs while he’s in 1955.
Are we good on this? Okay! So here’s the thing. If Marty is 1985 Marty, wholly and completely, no matter who that is at any given moment, then, when George and Lorraine finally kiss and fall in love, altering the timeline, why doesn’t Marty instantly gain all of his memories of his life and that of his family in the new “happy” timeline?
Likewise, why doesn’t Marty instantly lose all of his memories of his life and that of his family in the old “unhappy” timeline?
In the time travel model I support, this isn’t an issue, since in that scenario Marty — the Marty who travels to 1955 — would be unaffected whether his parents got together or not. This Marty would retain all of the memories he arrived with, since he would not be of the new timeline growing out of the film’s 1955 events.
But in a film that proposes that Marty is affected by 1955 events, because he is at any given moment the product of those events, it totally violates the film’s own rules when Marty doesn’t actually become the Marty of the “happy” timeline. He should immediately forget his former existence, and now only know himself to be the son of the successful, happily married, affluent Yuppies we see at the conclusion of the film.
Looper makes an even bigger deal out of the premise that Bruce Willis Joe, who has traveled back to 2044 from 2074, changes physically based on his actions and those of Joseph Gordon-Levitt Joe in 2044 — since those changes ripple up the timeline to affect Bruce Willis Joe in 2074, and therefore Bruce Willis Joe in 2044.
So then, when Bruce-Joe arrives in 2044, and he and JGL-Joe (who’s tasked with killing Bruce-Joe, but fails to do so) engage in their cat-and-mouse game, why doesn’t Bruce-Joe, at any given moment, know exactly what JGL-Joe is thinking or planning? Not only would Bruce-Joe know JGL-Joe’s thoughts and intentions, but he’d also remember the outcome of all of JGL-Joe’s actions, since he is JGL-Joe, just older.
The film treats the two Joes as individual people, but they are in fact the same person. That sounds self-evident, but in a different time travel model they might be different, distinct individuals.
For instance, going back to my preferred time travel model, a Bruce-Joe that went back from 2074 to 2044 would have memories of the original timeline leading up to 2074, but once he was there, and interacting with JGL-Joe, everything would change, and events would progressively diverge from Bruce-Joe’s memories. He might remember what he originally thought or intended when he was JGL-Joe in the original 2044, but the JGL-Joe he’s interacting with in the new 2044 would have totally different thoughts and intentions.
But in a universe where Bruce-Joe is always part of the same timeline as JGL-Joe — no divergence, no overwriting, no multiple time streams — Bruce-Joe is the same entity as JGL-Joe. They are not two separate people. The only reason we see them as two people is that this is the only way we can perceive Joe simultaneously as his present and future selves inhabiting the same physical and temporal space.
The most explanatory way to portray Joe in Looper might be as kind of a, um, human centipede, with JGL-Joe at one end and Bruce-Joe at the other end. In between the two would be a series of increasingly older Joes, representing his state across the years between 2044 and 2074. Whatever changes happened to JGL-Joe would ripple down the line to Bruce-Joe, including all of JGL-Joe’s thoughts, experiences, and memories. At the other end, Bruce-Joe would have all the knowledge and memories of every Joe from JGL-Joe onwards.
That’s why Looper, while an entertaining enough film, makes no narrative sense whatsoever.
I’d love to see a film or read a story that actually took into account this aspect of the “past/future self are one” time travel model. If one exists, please drop me a line and let me know. I think it’d be fascinating to explore the interaction between two characters who are essentially the same person at two different ages, not in the usual way this scenario is presented, but where the older version changes dynamically based on how their interaction affects the younger version.
Older: “Damn it, I’ve got lung cancer now because of our lifelong cigarette habit!”
Younger: “What the! In that case I’m quitting right now!”
Older: “Well done! I no longer have lung cancer!”
Younger: “Let’s celebrate with a martini!”
Older: “Dammit, now I have cirrhosis and I’m an alcoholic!”
Younger: “Fuck! All right, I’m going dry! Not another drop!”
Older: “Liar! I remember what I was thinking when you…er, I…said that! I was thinking of an excuse to sneak out to Malarkey’s!”
Younger: “Ahhhhhh…I’LL KILL YOU!”
Older: “Eh? You’d only be killing yourself, you idiot! I’m you! I already know you don-” [VANISHES]
Younger: “Thank God. Now where’s that gin.”
8. The past has happened, and it can only happen the way it happened.
Finally, we get to the time theory I find most intellectually challenging, because of everything it implies about predestination and free will, and also because just thinking about it makes my head hurt.
Most of the time travel discussion so far assumes that the past and/or future can be altered. But what if time is absolutely fixed and unchangeable, and, while you can travel through time and interact with all time periods, nothing you do in the past can change the future, because your actions are already part of the timeline?
I’ll call this the Twelve Monkeys model, because Klosterman uses that film to illustrate this concept, and also because it’s an awesome film.
In Twelve Monkeys (any time anyone talks about Twelve Monkeys, they’re required to note that it’s inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée, so I’ll note that Twelve Monkeys is inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée), Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time, from a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has been ravaged by a deadly plague. He’s been tasked to obtain a sample of the original virus, that will be studied in hopes of developing a cure.
The scientists who send Cole back acknowledge that the past cannot be altered; Cole’s mission isn’t to stop the plague, just to retrieve the virus. Of course, this doesn’t stop Cole from trying to stop it anyway, but his actions not only fail to prevent the global outbreak, but actually set in motion the events leading to the outbreak.
From our individual points of view, there is no apparent reason why we cannot exert some measure of control over future events. We make choices and decisions. We shape and plan our actions. We project our imaginations into the future and make decisions that anticipate coming events.
But then, so do characters in novels. From their perspective, they live in their own present, can only guess at future events (Dune novels excepted), and behave according to their assigned motivations. As far as they are aware, they are fully autonomous beings who possess free will, whose fates are not predetermined.
Yet, as readers, we know better, because we have the entire novel in our hands. Whatever a character, on page 50, thinks they’re going to do, we can turn to page 55 and know exactly what they did. The novel is completely static; the story is set and unchanging.
A story about a character’s death might have that character trying all sorts of desperate measures to avoid dying, but if the story ends with their death, that’s how it ends — the character’s efforts alter nothing; they’re simply part of the narrative.
Applying this to real life will lead to all kinds of horrifying existential questions. If characters in a novel live in the delusion that they have free will, or even minimal control over their destinies, oblivious to the fact that their entire lives have already been pre-written, printed and bound, what makes us think we’re any different? What is there to suggest that any of our choices aren’t just part of some predetermined narrative — even those choices we make in the awareness of that possibility, in presumed demonstration of our autonomy?
And if we do accept that our every action, thought, and decision is predetermined and immutable, what then? What purpose does that knowledge serve?
I suppose that, while this knowledge can’t change anything in your life or anything you do, it can perhaps change your attitude towards those things. Knowing that I do not have free will, and therefore, I am not fundamentally responsible for my decisions and actions, is somewhat reassuring, if not exactly comforting.
To be sure, I still make choices, and strive to make the best choices I can according to my judgement, wisdom, ethics, and morals. But to the extent that I have any kind of soul or basic essence of self that can be held accountable by a cosmic higher power, I’m essentially off the hook. Without free will, I can’t be held accountable for what are, in effect, involuntary actions, except of course within the context of the narrative (i.e., as a human among other humans in society).
In a novel about a character who commits murder, that character can be judged and punished within the world of the novel. As readers, we can react to the character’s actions and what they represent. But it would be irrational for a reader of a novel to hold that fictional character responsible for its actions. Everything the character is, thinks, and does is a manifestation of the author’s imagination. A fictional character has absolutely no choice or influence in its own portrayal.
Perhaps our belief in a predetermined universe can bolster our confidence in our actions and choices. I am exactly who I am supposed to be. I am where I am supposed to be. What I do, I do because it is, simply, what I do. No more and no less. There is no need for me to justify my existence. Whether there’s an ultimate meaning to the universe doesn’t concern me. I’m here because I’m here.
Throughout Twelve Monkeys, Cole has a recurring dream/flashback. In this dream/flashback, Cole, as a child, is standing in an airport terminal with his parents. He is looking at a man lying on the ground, bleeding. A woman kneels beside the man and tends to him.
Each time Cole has this dream/flashback, as he moves through the world of his past, what is initially a jumble of fleeting impressions takes on more detail and form. He encounters people who he then sees and identifies within the dream. Elements of the scene keep changing — or are they being corrected?
At the end of the film, Cole, attempting to stop the man who intends to spread the deadly virus around the world, is fatally shot by police. As Cole dies, cradled in the arms of his lover, we see a young boy watching from the crowd — it’s young Cole, of course. The dying man in Cole’s vision was himself.
I can’t think of a better metaphor for life. Something you see, as a child, only in the vaguest, blurred outlines, understanding little of what you’re seeing.
And as you see it again, growing up, details begin to resolve and become recognizable. Blank areas fill in. Misperceptions are corrected, one by one.
You grow older, and the picture begins to come into focus as the significance of the things you’re looking at, the connections between them, become more apparent.
And finally, at the end, you see it, all of it, as clearly as you’re ever going to. And then — of course! — there you are. Tiny and almost indiscernible against the crowd, but there’s no mistaking. Yourself, as a child, watching you.
One last time, you see yourself through the child’s eyes, and this time you understand everything.
Next: Ethical Helen Kellers and the most confusing film ever made.