Tenet (Part IV)

TENET (Part IV) The Practice of Time Travel Explained

Onward to Part III

We are examining the practice of how to write a time travel story, which is, in theory, a story that should be impossible to write. There are three major cheats which allow such a story to be written, namely, fatalism, acausality, and myriad worlds theory; there are several minor or halfway cheats; and the biggest cheat of all, which is merely not to bring up the topic. We will discuss each in order. 

First, fatalism:

In OEDIPUS REX, any attempt to deflect or change what is known to be inevitable turns out, due to a crucial truth hidden from the hero, to be the exact act which brings it about.

Here we see a flaw with my theory of time paradox drama: Oedipus lives in a fatalistic universe, but he performs the actions, most notably, killing a stranger in a quarrel and marrying a widowed queen, which bring about the curse on Thebes and encompasses his own downfall. But no one in his right mind could claim, as I have apparently done, that a play taking place in a fatalistic universe lacks drama.

This is the first and the oldest way to preserve drama even in a situation where fatalism mocks free will: namely, by keeping the characters ignorant of crucial information, such as who is whom.

In such stories, the drama comes from the protagonist slowly unwinding the riddle, and discovering, to his desolation, that he is not who he thought, and that the very act he took to flee fate condemned him to it.

In ‘By His Bootstraps’, mentioned above, Mr. Heinlein attempts awkwardly to do what Sophocles does masterfully.

Let us dwell on this fatalistic short story in detail, because it is the best of its kind, and therefore shows the flaws of its kind most clearly.

In part, the awkwardness of Heinlein’s attempt is because of an awkwardness that cannot be avoided. The Oracle of Delphi speaks in riddles, and so what part of fate the oracle hides from Oedipus is in the hands of the gods.  Whereas a time travel story, in order to create a similar effect, some blind but convenient coincidence must hide from the time traveler the crucial facts of a scene he himself walks through more than once.

In the case of ‘By His Bootstraps’, our protagonist is conveniently drunk as a skunk when he is visited by a time traveler, his future self, and so he does not recognize himself, and this blurs his memory just enough that he does no notice, or does not mind, saying the exact same lines, word for word, he heard his later self say earlier, last time around.

Number Two tries to convince Number One into stepping into the Time Gate, when Number Three, from yonder down the timestream, arrives to prevent it. Number Three and Two get into a fistfight, while Number Four calls on the phone, and Number One is conveniently kayoed and knocked into the Time Gate, and hilarity ensues.

Please note that neither the name, nor anything whatsoever, about the protagonist is memorable, or needs to be remembered, for this story. The appeal of the story is not character development. The appeal is to see the cleverness by which the writer forces the protagonist to replay scenes word for word, without making it seem forced.

Here, the protagonist in the first scene conveniently does not know his day-older self because strong drink blurs his vision, and then he is conveniently knocked out so that he conveniently does not see what happens, and so on. In the next scene, he conveniently does not recognize his decade-older self because he is wearing a beard. Lois Lane, call your office.

At one point, the older time traveler conveniently fails to tell the middle time traveler that the man he is meant to invite through the time gate is their mutual younger self. The reason given for his silence is, and I kid you not: ‘you would not believe me‘ — when quite obviously he would and must, or otherwise the whole exercise has no point.

The surprise twist at the end is that the original time traveler who sent the time traveler to teach the time traveler how to be a time traveler was the time traveler himself.

Heinlein works a similar conceit in ‘All You Zombies,’ except by having the hero become a heroine halfway through the plot twist, to marry himself and give birth to himself.

Again, no names needed. The characters are forgettable because their actions ultimately make not a bit of difference. They are puppets in the puppet show of fate: everything happens in an eternal cycle for no other reason than that so it happened last cycle, which is to say, for no reason at all.

When the character is struggling in vain against the inevitable, the drama is not in the outcome, which is foreordained, but in the act of discovering that the struggle is in vain.

The appeal of fatalistic stories, then, rests in watching the author execute a revelation.

The drama, if the writer seeks a tragedy like Sophocles, comes when the helpless hero has revealed to him that he himself is the accursed villain, incest and parricide, hence the source of the curse on his city he was trying to cure, and he blinds himself, rather than gaze again at the horrific truth — enacting, perhaps, a punishment on himself so dire that his city is spared.

The cleverness, if the writer seeks a happier ending, is when the hero has revealed to him that the villain he has been trying to outwit was himself, not a villain at all, but a benefactor, who merely was maneuvering him into position to restart the cycle of events leading to his happy fate.

It so happens that in ‘By His Bootstraps’ the forgettable protagonist conceives for no clear reason the ambition to usurp the position of the time traveler, once he learns time travel is possible, but then has no ambitions beyond that, so the story begins precisely where it ends.

Which I suppose is the point, but the drama is missing. The drama has been replaced by a crossword-puzzle cleverness, where one letter serves two words, or, in this case, one event seen by two different viewpoints by the same man at two different hours has two different meanings.

But the protagonist himself is remarkably lacking in any needs or desires that would drive his efforts. There is nothing he needs to do. Which is perhaps proper for a puppet of unchangeable fate.

Indeed, one of the points made and repeated in the final scene of ‘By His Bootstraps’ is that the posthuman humans of the far future as docile and tame as the eloi of H.G. Wells, so that a man of the twentieth century can make himself king merely by impressing the natives, who apparently neither toil nor spin, nor marry nor are given in marriage, nor study war no more.

Apparently all the man of the Twentieth Century needs are copies of books by Machiavelli, Hitler, and Dale Carnegie. Whether or not Heinlein is being tongue in cheek here, is an open question. That is he is being deeply cynical, is not.

Heinlein wisely sprints past the whole question of kingly conquest and administration of the A.D. 30,000. Less than a page is spent on this topic: more paragraphs are spent in a sophomorically shallow discussion of free will.

A.D. 30,000 is every sailor’s daydream of a tropical paradise where comely island girls in grass skirts bearing fruit bowls atop the head will serve your every pleasure, with no cannibalism or human sacrifice to mar the mood. It is the garden of Eden, but with no cherubim with flaming sword to bar the way, and becoming king requires no riddle-games with a deadly sphinx, nor even the effort of prying a magic sword out of a stone.

None of the natives whose land the protagonist conquers without the slightest effort even has a name, except the toothsome slavegirl for whom the protagonist conceives an instant and nonchalant lust. And even her name is bestowed by him.

She herself has less personality that an Playboy centerfold, who at least might have the dignity of being named her month. And, of course, conveniently, he does not recognize her ten years later when she ripens to the age of nubile maidenhood as she was he first met her, despite giving her the same name.

She does not have a father to impress, nor any rival suitor. There is not even a rival bidder at any slave auction, nor a mention of running through the forest to capture her with a lasso. This is a fantasy slave girl, who wants to be owned by a guy with no particular distinct virtues, talents, or likeable traits.

In other words, there is no drama whatsoever, no love triangles, no struggle to capture the slaves, nor to free them, no fight with lusty barbarians, no plague victims to save with modern medicine, no dinosaurs to shoot with a modern elephant gun.

Again, it is all forced, strained, and absurdly convenient. None of the rigmarole of the plot was necessary for the plot.

The rational time traveler would have frankly and simply explained the foreordained future to his younger self when first they meet, for he has no reason to object nor to resist. The only reason why the time traveler does not act this frank and simple way, is because the author has him act as he acted the first time around, coy and mysterious, solely in order for there to be a mystery at all for the younger self to discover.

Ouroboros eats his tail because he ate his tail because he will eat his tail — and he will eat it because he did and shall. Round and round. It is an unsatisfying meal.

When Oedipus hears from an oracle of his evil fate, he departs from Corinth, where the couple who raised him reside, so that he cannot possibly murder one or wed the other. The drama is not when he quarrels with a stranger and kills him – in the Sophocles play, this event is not even on stage – the drama is when he discovers, years later, that this slain stranger was his true father.

Likewise, in a time travel story set in a fatalistic world, there is no real time travel. As said above, time travel means knowing the future and changing the past. But in such stories, the knowledge gained from visiting the future will always be a deception, because the hero’s ignorance drives the drama. Likewise, in a fatalistic world, the past, after all is said and done, cannot be changed, because nothing can be changed: all attempts to do so merely bring about the fate already foreknown.

To read a well-crafted and dramatic story about this same theme, that is, to see what being trapped in a cyclic life of eternal return would really mean to a human, and not merely as a clever logic puzzle, read ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ by Gene Wolfe. It is not a time travel story, but the theme concerns a man trapped in an ouroboros cycle of his own making.

Second, acausality, also called chaos:

Few stories opt for the chaotic, non-causal option, where time travel makes free will absolute, but time itself is discovered to have no continuity.

In the Bester story mentioned above, ‘The Men who Murdered Mohammed’ an enraged scientist sees his wife in the arms of another man, and in retaliation, invents time travel, returns to the past, and undoes the betrayal before the fact by preventing their births — only to return and find the current time unchanged.

Frustrated, he changes more and more of history in ever widening ripples, but can change nothing in the present. In that universe, no one’s past can be changed by time travel save the time traveler’s own, and, if he erases himself, he becomes a phantom. As a phantom, he can go anywhere in time, and do anything he likes, but it changes nothing.

And again, the lack of drama inherent to time travel is cured by the same means, namely, that the hero slowly discover, to his sardonic dismay, that he can do anything, but at the price of nothing meaning anything. As before, the drama springs from the act of lifting the veil of ignorance.

Finally, myriadism, also called multiversity:

Very commonplace is the myriad worlds option, where changes in the past create differing branches, and any future visited is merely one branch of many.

This solves the time travel paradox by making time travel be not really time travel.

Real time travel, as said above, is the ability to change the past and foreknow the future. In a branching multiverse, changing the past creates a new branch but leaves the old intact, so the change is not really a change, and visiting the future visits only one of many, so any foreknowledge is merely a likelihood.

This bears further comment. Logically, in a myriad branching universe, either the time traveler can return to his native branch, or cannot. Either the change changes him, or it does not.

Let us suppose Captain Ahab, time traveler, returns to warn his younger self not to seek the white whale, so that he never loses his leg to the jaws of the monster, hence never becomes obsessed with hunting Moby Dick.

Rejoicing, he returns to the current day, where there are two of him, him and his twin. His twin has two legs, while he is still a cripple. Nothing changes as far as his memory is concerned, even if the rest of the world changes.

His twin has a memory of a forewarning he heeded from a man who looked like his one-legged version of his father, and his long career as a vine-dresser and wine-bottler (or whatever career Ahab would seek if he never went to sea). But his twin is not him.

In effect, a tale where you visit a world not yours is must the same as a tale which ends by waking from a dream: in Frank Kapra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George Bailey discovers what the world would be like had he never been born, and the moral lesson is all that he keeps from that visit. Like Dorothy Gale waking up back in Kansas, the moral lesson is all that is needed. George does not recover the money purloined by Potter the evil banker, any more than Dorothy saves her dog from the coming sheriff.

Or if the laws of time travel allow Ahab to be changed by his own changes, there is only one of him, and he forgets his life as a cripple, and his trip as a time traveler, and, again, nothing is changed, as least so far as he remembers. As far as he is concerned, time travel can change nothing. This is the same, ultimately, as the fatalistic option.

Or if the laws of time travel allow Ahab to return to the original, unedited branch from which he came, again, nothing is changed, neither for him, nor anyone, so the Pequod is still sunk, and poor Pip is still dead. This is the same, ultimately, as the chaos option. He is free to do anything he wants, but it has no consequences.

And, in any case, if a myriad worlds story takes the conceit to a logical extreme, as it does, for example in David Gerrold’s MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF, every single decision, not just the convenient ones, would be open to be revisited, and a new branch formed, including the decision to make a branch, or to not make a branch.

No matter what you do, the opposite also happens, if you wanted it to, or ever will want it to.

As might be expected, the time traveler in Gerrold’s tale is recruited by his future self, given a time-traveling belt which otherwise has no origin and no explanation. The time traveler creates myriad multiple twins of himself by branching away into other timelines.

The story has no plot, as it is just an examination of how degraded the time traveler can make himself once he realizes the world has no point because no events have any consequences.

He does not actually have anything he needs to do with the timebelt, no problems to solve, neither his own nor those of anyone else. He has no family to share the secret with, as his parents and children are himself, as is his Uncle Jim, and he has no friends.

The time traveler edits history as an idle pastime, killing Hitler or Christ or saving John F. Kennedy, but the side effects of the changes displease him, so he changes them back.

In other words, he has godlike powers, but they are never used to feed the hungry, cure the sick, raise the dead, tell the truth.

It is grotesque to see such a wish fulfillment fantasy carried out to such an extent, described in novel-length detail, where the protagonist is so shallow and selfish that he has no wishes, aside from an interest in his own personal comfort and sexual adventures.

(But since the time traveler in Heinlein’s ‘By His Bootstraps’ which inspired this novel, himself, is motivated by an urge to abandon his shrewish fiancée to cuddle with a pulchritudinous pleasure-slave, Gerrold is following in his master’s footsteps.)

One of the time traveler’s myriad twins is from a timeline where he was born a girl, who becomes his lover, and she is the time traveler’s own mother, but who is driven away by visits from his older self, who is a creepy old greybeard trying vainly to recapture his lost first love. And another twin, more decadent, becomes his own homosexual lover, and yet another twin tries to prevent him from doing so. And so on.

The tale ends where it begins, with the time traveler giving his younger self not only the belt, but the manuscript which contains the journal which is, itself, the book the reader is reading.

It is really a rather dismal book. Read at your own risk.

A myriad worlds story, as has been said, is the worst of both worlds. As in a chaotic world, since a time traveler able to spawn and visit infinite timelines, he can visit none that make any difference; and as with a fatalist universe, nothing he does changes anything, since the main branch, unchanged, must always exist since the branch where no branches branched off is always an option.

So much for myriad worlds. We turn now to the halfway explanations.

The halfway explanations I have encountered are usually set in a myriad worlds background, but one where the number of time branches, or the available decision points (called ‘Jonbar hinges’ by older fans) are sharply limited. The reason for the limit differs from author to author.

A clever way out of the problem of too many branches, and one I prefer, is seen in ‘Timesweepers’ by Keith Laumer, later expanded into the novel DINOSAUR BEACH.

The time travelers in this tale spend their efforts, as one any author of time travel stories could have predicted (but only Laumer did) in a futile labor attempting to undo the paradoxes, side-effects, and temporal litter left by previous generations of time travelers, to prevent the degradation to the timestream. Except no time traveler dare undo the accidents and paradoxes which led to his past, so care is needed.

In the Timesweeper universe, the laws of nature allow the time traveler to create branches of the time stream, but not all branches are created equal: the improbable ones, created by too much meddling in the time stream, simply dissipate. Meanwhile, the act of making a new branch weakens the main stem by diverting hence dividing the energy of its current. Time travel, in other words, has a dire cost.

The drama here is that the whole river-delta structure of time itself is unsteady, doomed to ruin, but the time travelers cannot use more time travel to fix the problem, because time travel is the problem. Preventing a paradox by retroactively unmaking it before it begins is itself a paradox: patching the hole makes more holes.

I call this a halfway explanation, because cause and effect sort of exists in a river delta universe, as a spectrum running from certain to probable to improbable to impossible; and free will sort of exists, but the universe itself is an active entity, one where fate will try by coincidence to force the time traveler onto the path that creates the least damage.

As one might expect, the only way to save the universe in such a universe is to eliminate the time travelers by eliminating the invention of time travel, which requires the self-sacrifice of self-erasure.

Please note that Mr. Larry Niven, in his essay on the theory and practice of time travel, was adroit enough to coin this as a law of time travel, namely, if time travel can change the past, time travelers will eventually and inevitably erase themselves from existence.

If not done deliberately, as in ‘Timesweepers’, then accidentally, as nothing less will prevent unwise meddling in the past from leading to more unwise meddling, eventually snowballing to self-elimination.

Back to Part V