The 4th Humour
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Monday, October 20, 2003
Plausible Time Travel in Storytelling: Is it Possible?
With the exception of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show, I hate anything to do with time travel (at least that I've encountered), because nobody gets it right. There's a rip in the spacetime rug, characters patch it up, and paradoxes not mentioned in the story get swept underneath it. There's always a philosophical inconsistency, and that ruins the story for me. It's not realism I need, but plausibility.
Although it would make my explanations easier to understand and relate to, I'm not even going to get into all the movies that do it wrong. I hate pop culture, so I'm not going to encourage it by mentioning anything by name.
Instead, let's take the canonical example of someone going back in time and killing their father. Enter the remedial mind: "Oooh, but if they kill their father, they'll never be born, so they can't go back and kill their father! Oh, but then they WILL be born, so they can! Oh, but then they won't, so they can't! Augh! I found a paradox! Boy, am I smart for figuring that out!" Okay, now what?
There seem to be two possibilities at this point. Either time travel isn't possible, or there are many worlds. Since you can't tell a time travel story with the first, the many worlds hypothesis becomes a popular alternative, even if it is a gross misinterpretation of quantum mechanics and--like God--is not a necessary component to understanding how the Universe operates. Anyway, so then we end up with a world where your father is dead, you were never born, but you exist anyway, and a world that you existed in up until you left it to kill your father.
That in itself it not very exciting, but authors then like to consider how changing that particular event would change the world. Then the character is caught in this strange world where tons of stuff has happened that he never anticipated because of Chaos Theory and Dirk Gently's fundamental interconnectedness of all things. All fine and dandy if you're not a diehard determinist like me, EXCEPT....
Is it even a time travel story anymore? It's more like a "what if" story to me. Well, I guess that's the point of time travel, to answer the "what if" questions. But still, it's imperfect, because an agent had to go back in time to make something change. There was no random factor that just happened another way, so one can't know the true cause of the effects in the future. Maybe killing his father has little to do with what happens in the future compared to the future assassin whose life he inadvertently saved by stepping in front of him in line for the bathroom. Who knows?
Alright alright, so what would I like to see? How do I think it should work? Alright, imagine this: You get a large, round bath, made of ebony...
Okay, seriously. First, to have time travel in the traditional sense, you must at least humour that determinism is true, and that there is only one Universe (and one possible Universe). Since the Universe exists, then any time travel that's ever been done has already happened. Like a big jigsaw puzzle, as The Guide puts it. So paradoxes either never happen, or they don't destroy the Universe. Why? Let's find out.
I go back in time with the intention to kill my father. I kill him, resulting in a paradox. Like a computer program, the Universe is now caught in an endless loop. However, since everything has already happened, we know this can't be so, so something MUST be changing with each iteration of the loop. Let's call it flotsam. So we're caught in this loop until finally this flotsam value reaches a threshold that ends up changing enough butterfly flaps in the prehistoric era to result in my knife just barely missing my father's heart, and my father lives. I fail and the loop ends.
Surely there's no way I'd actually be going back in time a zillion times to kill my dad, though, right? Right. The Universe would be doing this calculation internally, and me as an observer would only see the end result: my failure. I can go back and try again and again, but I will ALWAYS fail. Someone else will get in the way, or he'll trip, or I'll get killed. In other words, I can't do anything in the past that would prevent me from going back and doing that very thing in the future.
Naturally, this could be ANYTHING, so the possibilities are endless if not maddening, and you can only tell stories about how you shouldn't mess with fate, which doesn't exist anyway, so why bother.
So unless you're Douglas Adams--and you're not, because he's dead--forget about using time travel as a literary device.