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Out of Time

January 28, 2010

It’s likely that the upcoming season of LOST is to blame for my recent noodlings about time travel, but the topic’s been appearing with increasing frequency in pop culture of late. The newest Star Trek movie hinges on time travel; it’s been the focus of a few episodes of FRINGE; The Time Traveler’s Wife, anyone?

The trouble with time travel is that it mucks with our sense of orderliness and free will. You’d be hard-pressed to find a viewer more geeked out by LOST than I am, but I have to confess I have no idea what year(s) it was/is/are in tempore when the last season closed. Once you’ve traveled into the past, met yourself, sent yourself messages, given yourself advice on how to behave in the future, and altered your own time line, it’s hard to tell asses from elbows. We don’t even have the proper language to discuss these things, really: When are you? sounds like an incomplete sentence. At a time when technology has opened most of the world to instantaneous, nearly light-speed contact, time remains among the last impermeable, one-way media through which we travel. We live our lives frozen in the same glacier, lock-stepped. If you’re behind me, I can’t turn to look, let alone speak; if you’re ahead of me I can send notes, but you’ll never reply. Stepping outside of that fixed course edges on insanity; walking through walls seems perfectly sensible by comparison.

The stickiest wicket of all for me is free will. The Grandfather Paradox is a popular trot-out in time travel circles: Suppose you travel to the past and kill your own grandfather before he’s been fruitful with your grandmother. The death of your grandpa in the past eliminates the possibility that you were born in the first place, and obviously if you weren’t born at all you can’t very well make it back in time to kill gramps. Which means that he did make time with your grandma (forgive the pun), which means you were born and capable of going back to kill him. You see where this is headed. The only reasonable solution is that it’s just not possible to kill your grandfather if you’ve traveled from the future to do so. No matter what you do, grandpa is safe. Shoot him, and the gun jams. Throw him out a window, and a truckload of pillows is waiting on the sidewalk. Light him on fire, and he’s worn an asbestos suit. There’s literally nothing you can do in this model because, in a larger sense, it’s all already happened. This, of course, is predestination, which is anathema to our sense of independence and agency.

Following this line of reasoning it’s impossible to do anything in the past that would mess with the established time line, which essentially means that there’s almost nothing you can do, that there’s one narrow track down which you must proceed. Going one step further, what’s the real difference between the past and the present beyond “location” in time? Whatever it is that you’re doing now, there’s nothing you can do to alter what’s already happened in the future, right? Bye-bye, free will.

Preserving free will in this scenario, on the other hand, endows each individual with virtually god-like power to alter the path of the universe. Killing a person (or even just kicking him/her really hard in the right spots) creates a cascade of changes in the time line that are awesome in their scope and implication. Races die, civilizations fall before they’ve risen. Maybe you like this version of things, but frankly it frightens the piss out of me. Scariness aside, though, that kind of power just doesn’t make a lot of intuitive sense to me. Butterflies and hurricanes notwithstanding, farting in East Orange isn’t going to do much in the Greater Magellanic Cloud.

Then again, maybe time travel doesn’t need to make any sense. Aside from being a clever plot device and brow-wrinkler, why do we keep returning to time travel as a fictional device? There has to be a whiff of nostalgia, doesn’t there? We cling like castaways to our rafts of photos, videos, recordings, scrapbooks, bits of cloth and paper, mere ephemera. How sweet it would be to step backwards for a moment, to turn our heads to face those who came before us, to reach them palpably, to touch them. To hug your mom or dad one more time. To laugh again with a lost friend. To say what you ought. To undo what’s been done while logic and sense are chucked to the ground like torn wrapping paper.

I’m aware that these musings are completely uninformed. My core understanding of time travel is based mainly on old episodes of Doctor Who. I know much of this falls neatly under the grand category of Stoner Conversations, but the true language of time travel is math, really hard math, of which I speak about enough to order a beer and figure out which bathroom to use.

All of that said, friends, the danger,  impossibility and brain-splitting nonsense of it all confessed, I’d go back, if I could. Wouldn’t you?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 28, 2010 9:52 pm

    [Insert Time Traveler’s Wife joke here, because it’s always funnier when you have to repost it. Ahem.]

    Dearest Monkey,

    I loved this. I think I said something along the lines of “magnificent” and then “why the %*&# did you write that on Twitter?!?!” when I read it. What I loved most about this post is the undeniable sound of you. Nerdling and connoisseur of life and humor rolled into one.

    Sometimes I like to fancy that there are simply slices of time, that my 6-year-old self exists somewhere, going about her days playing under the willow in the front yard. I think about these ongoing moments in units of months or years (because anything smaller would overwhelm me, natch). Therefore, if you did travel back in time and changed the placement of a vase or the course of a life, things would indeed continue that way, but only in that world. Like different houses on a street, you’d move on each birthday, leaving your old self behind to carry on. So essentially yes, a civilization may die, but there’s another one very much like it thriving down the street.

    My answer? Different than yours. I wouldn’t want to go back. I’ve become something of a fan of the now being just where we’re supposed to be, even when it’s terribly uncomfortable. Going anywhere in time, back or forward, only allows us to see things through the filter of our current experience, to think of impacting a world we are unable to understand. I recognize the longing people have to make things right, to peer into a world in which their parents were actually in love, to watch from a distance as an older sibling was born. If I’m honest, I don’t think my heart (my mind?) could handle it. Some of the beauty in scrapbooks is that they’re static; we can assign to photographs the meaning and emotion that we’d like. And unlike a very tangible experience such as that you’re describing, you can put a photo album on a shelf when you’re done. Do I really want to see my parents as a young couple? Would I like what I saw?

    Out of time (pardon the pun) . . .

    the wino

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