Thursday, February 19, 2009

time travel as plot device

If you're a fan of science-fiction, at some point you have to confront your own personal feelings about the use of time travel in narrative. My father, for instance, absolutely detests time travel. It nearly always creates a series of paradoxes which, for him, destroy the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy the story. And certainly, there are numerous examples of movies and books that prominently feature time travel as a plot device to their own detriment. I'd have to put the whole Terminator series in this category. Given how easy it has become in the future to create and send back homicidal robots, I just don't see how/why anything in these movies actually matters.

Then there are stories that feature time travel but the plot is kept constrained so that we don't care about potential paradoxes. In particular, these stories avoid discussion of the so-called Butterfly Effect (as it applies to time travel) wherein a minor alteration to past events can lead to an entirely new future. This idea was first penned in a sci-fi context by Ray Bradbury, in his short story "A Sound of Thunder" (parodied amusingly in the Simpsons episode, Treehouse of Horror V).

For example, consider Planet of the Apes, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and 12 Monkeys. Time travel exists but we need'nt worry about our protagonists fucking things up.

Then there are movies that focus quite specifically on this paradox, but do it with so much style and thought, we are moved to forgive them. The excellent and perplexing Donnie Darko is a good example of this.

We might very well place the indie movie, Primer (2004), in this category as well. I watched it a fortnight ago, with my DVD remote close at hand, and indulged in its time looping depravity. Briefly, the film takes a very modern, engineering approach to time travel. What if two young technical entrepreneurs successfully created a time travel device? One that could only take you back in time, mind you, but worked nevertheless. And what if they not only used this time machine to make money (in the predictable stock market way) but also to affect their personal lives and relationships?

I'm not sure how much more I want to tell you about it, except that it's probably worth seeing. Many, I'm sure, detested it. My god, this movie is probably the worst possible thing I could have my father watch. But I appreciated how seriously the writers took the topic of time travel - the paradoxes form the basis of the entire narrative structure.

The only way to resolve time travel paradoxes (and it's not entirely satisfying, of course) is to create alternative time-lines (universes) every time someone activates a machine. This is necessary because the mere presence of an individual in the past creates a different future. Furthermore, it prevents infinite loops that would halt all of reality (travel back to the past, live, eventually travel back to the past, live, etc. - the so-called, predestination paradox).

Here's a simple schematic of the time travel in Primer, which could very well apply to every story featuring temporal movement.

But that doesn't cover the details at all. Just for kicks, take a look at this:

It's the complete breakdown, created by some committed fan of the work. After watching the movie, you might want to at least glance at it to see if some of your suspicions are confirmed. Regardless, my tiny human brain could not process all of these possibilities at once - and so, ultimately, Primer must be judged on whether it is a satisfying artistic experience. I'm not sure if it is. It really is all about the time travel - there's nothing else that matters - and if that frustrates the hell out of you, the film-makers say, "too bad, you probably shouldn't have rented this."

If you want something quite different and ultimately more satisfying, I might suggest another book by my favorite author, Gene Wolfe. Pirate Freedom looks cheesy as hell, but like everything Wolfe, it's deeper and more challenging than you initially expect. Overtly, it's a tale of a boy who somehow (never explained fully) travels back in time to the golden age of piracy in the 17th century. The narrative is revealed as a first-person account, typical of Wolfe, in which you as the reader must constantly wonder at how much information the narrator is failing to reveal or simply lying about.

Fortunately, you can enjoy the book as historical fiction about what it may have been like to be a pirate in those days. Wolfe is obsessive about his research, and if you know anything about the history of piracy, you'll be able to identify important events and patterns in the text. For example, at one point early in the story, our protagonist, Chris, is left on the island of Hispaniola by the English privateer, Capt. Burt. On Hispaniola, Chris falls in with Frenchmen surviving by hunting wild cattle - the historical origins of the buccaneer. It's an action-oriented plot, and it's about pirates god damn it, so there's killing and torture and raids and booty and even hidden treasure. Wolfe never forgets the essential trappings of whatever genre he is writing within.

But of course, there's a time travel element involved, and only towards the end of the book do we get a sense of its implications. Depending on how you feel about Wolfe's writing in general, you may find this intriguing or incredibly frustrating.

I'm curious to know how other people feel about time travel as a narrative device. Leave a comment if you're so inclined.


  1. My favorite time-travel movie is the ridiculous film "Time After Time." Malcolm McDowell plays HG Wells, father of science fiction. He builds a time travel machine, and in it travels to modern day (1979) San Francisco. The real kicker in the film is that our hero HG isn't alone: Jack the Ripper manages to come along for a ride into the future!!!! What a great plot! What awesome seventies cheese! Truly great.

  2. a). the universe is deterministic. done and done.

    b). also, our model of time or time-space is probably insufficient for this kind of thing. i think without the proper tools (e.g., neural hardware) to 'perceive' time correctly, this dialogue inevitably spirals into discussions of reality. and we all know how that ends. or rather, doesn't end.

    threeve). Bill and Ted (-10.5) over D. Darko.

  3. My fave time travel book is The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold... he really gave the paradoxes of time travel some thought and makes it work.

  4. hey, great suggestion, ed. i just checked it out on amazon and it looks awesomely old-school and interesting. i'll see if my local library has it.

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