Monday, December 15, 2008

A Time-Traveller's Life

Nobody, but nobody, does time travel right.

This post is, in many ways, inspired by Heroes, one of the two television shows that I can be bothered to follow right now (the other is Lost). You see, one of my favorite characters on Heroes is Hiro Nakamura, the teleporting, time-bending, Star Trek-referencing geek-boy. Also, one of my least favorite characters is Hiro Nakamura (the other - from a writing-of-magical-powers perspective - is Peter Petrelli). Despite the fact that he's an awesome character in every other way, in my opinion, his powers have always annoyed me.

This isn't a Heroes blog, so I don't want to get into it. Suffice it to say that time travel is possibly the most problematic science fiction or fantasy trope ever. Almost nobody ever gets it right.

I say almost because there are three bright, glaring exceptions that prove the rule. The first is the book whose title was mangled at the top of the post - The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger - and two short stories by Robert Heinlein: By His Bootstraps and All You Zombies (both short stories are favorites of mine - the book I haven't read, yet). And, to be nit-picky, the the book is kind of disqualified; in many ways, it isn't a fantasy, but rather a serious psychological romance that uses time travel as a metaphor for the time traveler's issues.

What are the pitfalls that time travel can't seem to avoid?

The first problem with time travel is how it interacts with the question of free will. It is my opinion that human life is pretty much worthless (or, at least, uninteresting) without some kind of free will. I mean, sure, we're the product of our environment, we all have deep, messy subconsciouses full of weird shit, but ultimately I refuse to believe that I am not the author of my own destiny. I'm not a wind-up toy that was powered up by my childhood and let go for my adulthood, until I finally wind down. Sure, the idea is disturbing, but mostly it's boring. If I wouldn't even want to live it, why would I want to write a story about it (vice versa also applies).

How does time travel tend to do this? Many time travel stories seem to play with the idea that the future cannot be changed, that all your efforts to change the future actually lead you back to the future you saw. While compelling for some tragedies, it's ultimately a bit too much of a downer for me, in addition to cheapening the meaningfulness of human choice.

The second problem is one of consistency. Time travel and its attendant paradoxes are very complicated and require a lot of thought, and if you get them wrong, it's pretty glaring. Worse, the very concept of time travel is usually so alien that it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief already. Throw in inconsistent rules and you're doomed.

The value of time travel is that it is one of those pieces of magic or magical technology that everyone has wished they had at least once (for me, the other is teleportation - now you know why I love Hiro Nakamura so much). Seriously, haven't you ever been studying some historical epoch and thought to yourself "wouldn't it be awesome to go back and actually see it for myself?" or at the aftermath of an argument with a loved one and thought "damnit, if only I could go back and try that again." Who hasn't missed something you wanted to catch and wished you could bounce back in time so you could be there for it, even as you rushed to get there? Who hasn't wanted a night with a friend or lover to last forever? The endless, merciless march of time is one of the things about the world that sometimes really, really sucks. I think the desire to bend time, even just a little, is a pretty universal human wish, up there with flying and living forever.

Well, then, how can we do it right?

Well, one of the problems can be handled through simple careful writing. Take good notes, build a good setting, and follow your own rules, and time travel should work out ok. The latter problem, though, I'm not as sanguine about. The tendency of time travel to erode free will is a problem.

Your best bet, in my opinion, is to let your time-travelling heroes win once in a while. This is the saving grace of Heroes' Hiro - his time travel powers might be problematic and unexplained, but when push comes to shove, he saves the day in the end.

Now, if only he could get the girl...

* * *

  • Other than the above, are there any time travel greats that I'm missing? Because I'm always looking for recommendations.
  • When have you tried to write time travel and failed? When have you succeeded?
  • What historical epoch would you like to travel to. Me? I'd like to be a fly on the wall (an Aramaic-speaking fly) while the rabbis discuss how to canonize the disparate Jewish texts into a (more or less) coherent Torah and shape Judaism to survive the destruction of the temple and exile from Jerusalem. You?


Ben said...

I haven't read many time-travel stories, because time travel bugs the heck out of me. The one I have read and liked is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It's not about time travel itself, really. Time travel is more like a plot device to get the story going, then it gets ignored for the rest of the book. In this book, time travel is used by historians to observe the past. Mathematical paradoxes prevent any time travel that would disrupt the timeline, but certain time periods are off limits anyway because they're too dangerous for the traveler. And, of course, Something Goes Wrong, leaving the main character stranded in a very dangerous Middle Age village at the wrong time. Wonderful storytelling, and highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

I've had Doomsday Book recommended to me before. I'll have to check it out.

While some of the underpinning logic is a little weak, Connie Willis is, in general, a good example of time travel done right (I have read To Say Nothing of the Dog). She establishes rules and then follows them. Good stuff.

Dwight said...

Try reading "The man Who Folded himself" by David Gerrold and "Dinosaur Beach" for two very good treatments of time travel. The later is sort of s Satire, but very well thought out. The first one is, well, imagine a teenager with a time travel belt.

Both do time travel very well, if not right.