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Time Travel Paradoxes and You: A Primer

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

I love time travel stories.  They just appeal to me on some fundamental level.  I’m a big history junkie, so the idea of being able to travel to the past appeals to me.  I would love to spend some time hanging out in the Colonial era or the Wild West or Regency England or ancient Egypt.  I’d love to meet Alexander Hamilton (my favorite historical figure) and John Adams (my second favorite—I have a thing for early American history) and Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and William Howard Taft (a distant relative of mine, according to family lore).  Speaking of family, I’d love to trace my own roots through Ireland and England and Germany and Sweden (or maybe it was Scotland).

So yeah, time travel stories appeal to me.  But the problem is that there are paradoxes inherent in time travel, which can easily kill the suspension of disbelief if they’re not handled correctly.  The main one, the one everyone knows, is the Grandfather Paradox.  What would happen if you went back in time and killed your own grandfather before he met your grandmother?  Could you even do it, or would the very act negate itself?  (In other words, if you killed your grandfather, you would never be born, thus eliminating the threat to your grandfather.)  

Back to the Future—arguably the best-known time travel story in contemporary times—has its own version of the Grandfather Paradox, in which Marty nearly negates his own existence in 1955 by preventing the event that caused his parents to meet and fall in love (and, in a weird, squick-inducing Oedipal twist, causes his mother to fall for him at the same time).  Luckily, Lorraine realizes kissing Marty is like kissing her brother, George punches out Biff Tannen, and Lorraine and George fall in love dancing to Johnny B. Goode.  

To make a long story short, here’s the problem with time travel fiction: they screw up the timeline.  A lot of time travel stories choose to ignore this element altogether, choosing to let the reader/viewer decide how to reconcile the discrepancies.  (Many romance novels I’ve read are very guilty of this, inserting the hero/heroine into a different time and totally ignoring the shitstorm that could occur.)  Thing is, ignoring it can totally screw with the suspension of disbelief.  As such, I have sort of a love/hate relationship going on with time travel stories: I love the concept, but I hate it when they can’t address the timeline logic in a way that makes sense or don’t even bother to try.

The time travel stories that do address these paradoxes do so in various ways—some more successful than others.  So here are a few of the methods that time travel fiction has used to deal with the question of altering history.

The Alternate Timeline: This happened, that happened, maybe they both happened.

I talked about the Grandfather Paradox inherent in Back to the Future.  But there’s another potential paradox in the Back to the Future series, one that never really gets discussed.  Full disclosure here: this particular paradox is not my idea.  A former boyfriend of mine explained this to me, and he told me that he had read about it in a magazine once.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it online (Googling “other Marty” just brings up pictures of Eric Stoltz), so I can’t link to it.  I’ll explain it best I can, but I just don’t want you to think I’m taking credit for this one.  Anyway, so at the end of Back to the Future, Marty returns to 1985 right before he left for the past.  Marty witnesses his past self in the final moments before he goes to 1955: Doc gets shot, Marty hops into the DeLorean to escape the Libyan terrorists, and accidentally transports himself to 1955 when he takes the DeLorean up to 88mph.  Two Martys existed simultaneously in those moments: the one about to go to 1955, and the one who had just come back.  So what happened to the other Marty?

The filmmakers never address this directly.  But in Back to the Future, Part II, we get a possible explanation: the alternate timeline theory.  In Part II, a chain of events alters the timeline in 1955, and Marty and Doc end up in an alternate 1985, where Marty’s father is dead, Marty’s mother has fake boobs, and Doc is insane.  Doc explains that by changing things in 1955, they skewed the timeline and arrived at the alternate 1985.

The question is whether both timelines continue to exist.  In other words, is there one timeline, or many that run parallel to one another?  If there is one single timeline, then changing events in the past can alter the events of the future.  But if we’re running a many-timelines scenario, both timelines can exist.  It’s a way of getting around the Grandfather Paradox: you can kill your grandfather in one timeline and still exist in another.  But in order for the many timelines scenario to work, you have to think of each moment in time as the center of a pinwheel, in which infinite directions and possibilities exist.  To me, it can be a cop-out: if multiple timelines exist, you can change whatever you want in the past and there are no consequences on a grander scale, because the unaltered timeline still exists parallel to the altered one.

So what happened to the other Marty, the one that left at the end of the first movie and went to 1955?  Maybe we’re meant to assume the two timelines merged and he disappeared.  But if we assume Back to the Future is working on a many-timelines scenario, this just isn’t possible.  Maybe since Doc knew what was going to happen that night, he may have also had the foresight to put extra plutonium in the trunk.  So the other Marty would have traveled back to 1955, found the plutonium in the trunk, and traveled back to 1985 without ever interfering with his parents’ lives.  Thus, he would have come back to the world we saw at the beginning of the movie: his mother’s a drunk, his father’s a wimp, his siblings are losers, and the guy who used to detail his car is now his father’s bullying boss.

It sucks to be the other Marty.

The Past Cannot Be Changed

This is the opposite of the many-timelines theory, and both Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife exploit this one.  Basically, you don’t have to worry about the Grandfather Paradox because the past is unalterable.

There’s a scene in The Time Traveler’s Wife (The book, not the movie; no matter how much I adore Eric Bana, the movie just sucked.) where a teenaged Henry (the titular time traveler) travels back several months and meets up with himself.  They lock themselves in their bedroom, and they…well, they masturbate together.  (Yes, it’s a little weird and icky, but if you were a teenage guy who could time travel and run into past versions of yourself, can you honestly say you wouldn’t do the same thing?)  Future Henry tells Past Henry to make sure the door is locked, because in the version he already lived, their father walked in on them.  In trying to lock the door, Past Henry inadvertently unlocks the door.  Their father does walk in, and the situation plays out exactly the same way Future Henry remembers it.  In trying to change the past, Future Henry had inadvertently created the circumstances that caused it.  

The same sort of thing seems to happen in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  In the first two books, Jamie, an 18th century Scottish Highlander, and his time-traveling wife Claire, a former WWII nurse, try to stop the 1746 Jacobite Rebellion that led to the destruction of many Scottish clans.  Yet nothing they do seems to have an effect on the outcome, and the rebellion begins—and ends—exactly as it always did.  (For the record, I’ve only read the first four books of the now seven-book series, but at least in the first four, it seems to conform to a “past cannot be changed” model.)

As far as avoiding paradoxes, this is the way to go.  If you can’t change the past, the future will never be altered, and you’re good to go.  But it’s also very limiting in a lot of ways.  In The Time Traveler’s Wife, Henry often feels trapped by fate.  Past and future are all the same to him; he knows his ultimate fate and is powerless to change it.  In Niffenegger’s world, free will is an illusion because it doesn’t matter what you do; everything turns out the same anyway.  It significantly limits what you can do with the story.  If you establish at the beginning that X is going to happen and you’re working in a closed-loop universe, you need to follow through on that at the end—even if you don’t want to.

It may not create paradoxes, but it is pretty damn depressing.

Change History: the future will adjust, and nothing bad will happen

Most of the time travel stories I’ve read or seen seem to operate on this principle: characters change the past willy-nilly, and the future adjusts as necessary.  Problem is, most of them never really contemplate the consequences of that.  

True, some do: the whole premise of Quantum Leap, for example, involves Samuel Beckett changing past events to make the future better.  But these changes all happen on a small scale.  Life may improve for the individual people Sam affects, but it doesn’t affect the large-scale historical picture.  And I don’t know how realistic this is.  Honestly, how many lives can Sam change before the timeline goes completely kaka?

The Canadian television series Being Erica had a similar premise, but it actually seems to address the question of how so many changes can be made without things going wonky.  Erica can go into the past and change pieces of her own history—only to come home and find out that, in most cases, changing the past doesn’t really alter the large-scale picture at all.  You get to where you’re going, no matter what small deviations you make to the timeline along the way.  In the one case she makes an unalterable change to the timeline—saving her older brother from death in a fire—the timeline “course corrects” when her brother dies years later.  But again, it brings up the question of what would happen if you tried to alter something bigger.  It’s one thing to go back in time and prevent yourself from getting drunk at the prom.  It’s another thing to go back and prevent the Civil War.

Change History: the future will adjust, but something REALLY BAD could happen

I think this best example of this one is the movie The Butterfly Effect, in which Ashton Kutcher’s character keeps going back and changing small events in his past…and really, really messing things up.  In one version, his girlfriend became a prostitute.  In another, he had blown off his hands and feet with a cherry bomb.  Every effort he made to fix his and his girlfriend’s tangled past ends up screwing it up even more.  Ultimately, he realizes that the only way to fix things for both of them is to disentangle their pasts altogether.  Lesson learned: screwing with the past can make things much, much worse.  (Second lesson learned: Ashton Kutcher should never play dramatic roles.)

This one shows the consequences of changing the timeline, but again, we’re still dealing on a small scale.  Small changes to your own life can have big future impacts…on your own life.  But what about the big impacts on big events?  Very few of the time travel stories I’ve encountered have really contemplated this—probably because this is the ultimate in paradoxes.  We know how history turned out, so how can we—even fictionally—go back and change it now?

Yee haw, let’s screw with history!

A few years back, I watched a New Zealand television show called Mirror, Mirror.  The protagonist was a teenage girl who traveled back in time from 1995 to 1919.  In 1919, she meets a boy who she finds out is actually Alexei Romanov, the son of the assassinated Russian tsar.  Alexei wants to go back to Russia and reclaim his throne, and the protagonist tries to help him do so.  But I, unlike the short-sighted protagonist, kept thinking about the consequences of this.  If Alexei had returned to Russia as the tsar, it would have changed the landscape of the entire 20th century entirely: Josef Stalin’s emergence as a major political power; the Soviet Union’s involvement in World War II; the Cold War; the Space Race; etc.  Much of the major socio-political developments of the 20th century can be traced back to one event: the assassination of the Romanov family, which allowed the Bolsheviks to maintain rule over Russia and form the Soviet Union.  The implications of changing that are HUGE!  And yet the show never even mentions it.  It drove me nuts!  In the end, it was all a moot point: Alexei was unable to reclaim his throne and ended up creating a new life for himself in 1995.  But it made me wonder: what would have happened if the show hadn’t wussed out and Alexei had gone back to Russia and reclaimed the throne?

Fact is, very few time travel stories I’ve encountered have actually gone there, taking the bold step to change history during a time travel narrative.  I’ve read alternate histories, but not alternate histories mixed with time travel.  Stephen King’s recent novel, 11/22/63, addresses this issue, when a man travels back in time to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy.  But to be honest, I haven’t read this one, so I have no idea whether this endeavor was successful.

But I guess, for me, this is something I’d like to see more of in my time travel stories: characters who contemplate the big picture of their actions, characters who wonder whether they can—and SHOULD—change history.  And maybe, I’d actually like to see a story in which we do change history and see it from the viewpoint of a character who’s seen both the before and after.

Of course, maybe my fascination is all because I really, really want to meet Alexander Hamilton…

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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