Broadly speaking, there are three ways to talk about time travel, two of which are, for 99.99% of human beings, nearly impossible to talk about without sounding ridiculous.
One way is to talk about “time travel,” the science-fictional plot device featured in such films as The Terminator, Back to the Future, and odd- and/or even-numbered Star Trek films, as well as every third episode of any given Star Trek TV series. Since science-fictional time travel primarily functions as a wish-fulfillment delivery device or deus ex machina, attempting a serious discussion of its rules or logical underpinnings is like arguing over the rules of Calvinball. It’s fundamentally pointless: no “correct” answer is possible given that it’s all pure fantasy to begin with.
Another way to talk about time travel is as something that could potentially happen, for real, in real life. If you are not a theoretical physicist, or have completed a significant amount of upper-level coursework towards becoming a theoretical physicist, whatever you have to say on the subject will almost certainly sound ridiculous, and should generally be avoided except when extremely intoxicated — and even then, only in the presence of equally intoxicated listeners.
I will concede that there’s an inherent goofballedness in debating the ethics of an action that is impossible.
Klosterman spends much of “Tomorrow Rarely Knows” discussing science-fictional time travel, so unfortunately a great deal of what he has to say on the topic sounds, at least on initial read, kind of ridiculous. Consequently, “Tomorrow Rarely Knows” is probably the shakiest, least successful essay in the book.
But I think Klosterman’s core interest in the topic is the ethical and psychological issues arising from time travel — why people fantasize about it, what people would do with it if they had it, and why. I consider this the third, and only non-ridiculous, way of talking about time travel.
Starting off with an anecdote about watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day back in the 90s, Klosterman gets into trouble almost immediately:
The details of the narrative never made sense. Why, for example, did Edward Furlong tell Arnold that he should quip, ‘Hasta la vista, baby,’ whenever he killed people?
This immediately tells me two things about Klosterman that suggest he may be in slightly over his head on this subject:
First, Klosterman doesn’t appear to have paid much attention to the movie. Arnold in Terminator 2 does not kill anyone. In fact, Edward Furlong expressly orders Arnold not to kill anyone. He says to Arnold: “Say ‘I swear I will not kill anyone.’” To which Arnold replies, “I swear I will not kill anyone.” True to his word — the letter if not the spirit 1 — Arnold does not kill anyone in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Second, the fact that Klosterman either initially misread or now misremembers this integral aspect of the movie renders his authority regarding science fiction cinema highly suspect. What SF movie buff under 50 so poorly recalls one of the most popular and influential SF films of the past thirty years? Answer: none. None buffs.
Klosterman wanders even further out onto the ice when he briefly flirts with actual scientific commentary in expressing his opinion that time travel is impossible:
My thesis at the time (and to this day) was that the impossibility of time travel is a cornerstone of reality: We cannot move forward or backward through time, even if the principles of general relativity and time dilation suggest that this is possible.
I’m going to skip the next section of the essay, about H.G. Wells, because I really do not care about H.G. Wells — or at least, the real-life H.G. Wells, not the fictional H.G. Wells as portrayed by Malcolm McDowell 2 in the 1979 science fiction film Time After Time, a film I greatly enjoyed (but which Klosterman dismisses, further eroding his credibility). If you like (the real) Wells, though, this is probably an interesting passage.
After establishing his core intentions with this piece — exploring the moral implications of moving through time — Klosterman poses the following thought experiment:
Let’s say you had the ability to make a very brief phone call into your own past. You are (somehow) given the opportunity to phone yourself as a teenager; in short, you will be able to communicate with the fifteen-year-old version of you. However, you will only get to talk to your former self for fifteen seconds. As such, there’s no way you will be able to explain who you are, where or when you’re calling from, or what any of this lunacy is supposed to signify. You will only be able to give the younger version of yourself a fleeting, abstract message of unclear origin.
Klosterman goes on to note that virtually no one he poses this question to can answer it satisfactorily. Understandably so — I mean, what useful information could you impart to your teenaged self in such a short space of time, wholly absent of context?
At first I dismissed the question as lame and pointless. If you’re calling your 15-year-old self to relay knowledge about the future, but due to some arbitrary restriction you’re effectively prevented from doing that, what’s the point of the thought experiment in the first place?
Upon further reflection, though, I think it’s actually a clever and possibly more profound challenge than it first appears. You can’t do the obvious but boring thing, which is to tell yourself to invest in Google (or even better, invest in and also apply for a job at Google — “Free food, dude. FREE FOOD.”) All you can do is “give the younger version of yourself a fleeting, abstract message of unclear origin.”
So, what would that be? Even if you can’t give specific advice, whatever you say will still be informed by decades of experience and knowledge of yourself between age 15 and now.
Perhaps some practical wisdom you didn’t know at 15, and would want your younger self to hear and remember. (Which you probably would — if I, as a teenager, got a random phone call from a stranger who yelled at me for fifteen seconds and hung up, I doubt I’d ever forget it.)
“TO AVOID HANGOVER AND VOMITING, CLEAR ALCOHOL ONLY AND NO SWEET COCKTAILS!!!”
“FUCK AP ENGLISH!!! TAKE AUTO SHOP!!! IT’S THE ONLY SKILL YOU’LL WISH YOU HAD AS AN ADULT!!!”
Or something more abstract, like an affirmation that would convey a feeling rather than specific information: “YOU’RE AWESOME AND YOUR DETRACTORS CAN EAT SHIT!!!” Maybe I’d just play 15 seconds of “You’re The Best” by Joe Esposito into the phone.
Or maybe I’d just try to freak myself out. “I BORROWED THOSE MAGAZINES UNDER THE PEE CHEE FOLDER IN YOUR DESK DRAWER BUT I PUT THEM BACK I HOPE YOU DON’T MIND!!!”
But here’s a question that should make you think twice about even making that call. How do you know that whatever you tell yourself at 15 won’t set you on a path that indirectly leads to your death? As directed by my future self, I drop AP English and take auto shop. One day, a car I’m working on suddenly explodes (they do that sometimes, right? I don’t know — I never took auto shop) and instantly kills me.
That’s the problem with the idea of changing your past to improve your present. You’re only here now because you’ve never been flattened by a bus. You’ve gotten this far by successfully avoiding all of the numerous crazy random ways that the cosmos has tried to kill you — and it is always, always trying to kill you. Change anything in your past, and you have to repeat every single one of those dice rolls.
The moment your 15 year old self picks up the phone and says “Hello?” you could cease to exist, because whatever you said after that point caused you to die in the past, erasing you from the future.
Something to think about the next time the phone rings, and there’s no one on the other line.