Time travel: Thrilling but baffling

Posted: May 28, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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Time travel makes me anxious. Not time travel itself, or even the idea of it. It’s not possible, I realize this, so I’m not nervous in my day-to-day life. I don’t think a friend from the present is actually my son from the future sent back in time to mess with his old man’s destiny. I don’t stay awake researching wormholes that would allow me to go back into the past and tell Magic Johnson to get a shot off at the end of Game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals — and if I was able to do that and the Lakers won that game and the series, would that affect their motivation for 1985 and maybe they don’t win that year?

No, real time travel — or the possibility of it being real — isn’t what makes me anxious. It’s watching, or reading about, fake people experiencing fake time travel that always leaves me wishing I could reach through the screen or dive into the pages and explain everything to them, even while the very concepts and science behind all of it completely confounds me.

When a movie character rockets into the future or falls into the past and they’re confused by their surroundings or only know something’s off but can’t quite figure out what’s totally wrong, I want to tell them what happened. This same instinct does not appear when a character’s in danger of being murdered by someone hiding in a dark corner. Analyze the psychology yourself.

This popped up again as I read Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I’m only 400 pages into the book, but I’m already loving it; it’s my favorite King book in probably 15 years. 11/22/63 is about a man who finds a portal that allows him to go back to a very specific time and gives him the chance to stop JFK’s assassination (again, I’m only 400 pages in so please don’t spoil it for me, or I’ll have to hop into the time machine I keep in the basement of our Inwood building, set it for one day ago and write a completely different post for today. And after I do that, I may just climb into it again and go back and erase you or your parents from history). Along the way he deals with more personal matters and tries altering those situations as well, the same way any of us would if we found a time portal in a pantry inside an old diner in town. Save someone who died in a car accident; warn someone away from an abusive spouse; or, in the book’s case, stop a man from murdering his family.

A few weeks ago I watched Looper, a movie about assassins from the future sent back to the past to kill people from the future (I think that was the main idea, though again I needed to draw out my ideas on paper to keep track of everything). 12 Monkeys, Terminator, Deja Vu with Denzel, same thing. Even Back to the Future (still not completely sure what George’s kiss meant). I enjoyed all of them and enjoy thinking about the concepts afterward but I never really understand the fake physics. Even when everything is explained — like when old Spock met new Spock in the 2009 Star Trek movie — it’s still something I can never quite wrap my head around.

You’ve heard of the grandfather paradox? Read that whole Wikipedia entry and disappear into a wormhole of theories and paradoxes, none of which make complete sense to me. I feel like Chuck Klosterman is possibly the only writer who could explain things like the grandfather paradox to me in a way I’d understand, and only because he could use Bo Jackson and KISS to help articulate his ideas.

Take this passage from Wikipedia, about something called the Temporal Modification Negation Theory:
An example of this would be for someone to travel back to observe life in Austria in 1887 and while there shoot five people, one of which was one of Hitler’s parents. Hitler would therefore never have existed, but since this would not prevent the invention of the means for time travel, or the purpose of the trip, then such a change would hold. But for it to hold, every element that influenced the trip must remain unchanged. The Third Reich would not exist and the world we know today would be completely different. This would void someone convincing another party to travel back to kill the people without knowing who they are and making the time line stick, because by being successful, they would void the first party’s influence and therefore the second party’s actions.

So could we have killed Hitler or not?

One thing I’m enjoying about 11/22/63 — in addition to the regular classic King writing — is it explores the idea that preventing one bad thing in the past on your time travel adventures might lead to many more bad things in the alternative future. The main character also struggles with blending in to the past, forgetting that he can’t use money from his time because the locals wouldn’t recognize it, and a payphone might not accept it. It reinforces the idea that you can’t simply go back 50 years and pick up your life (you know, if any of this was remotely possible).

When I attempt to decipher time travel concepts, I get the glazed look and half-grin someone who’s high would have if they were trying to solve the same issues, though being in an elevated state of consciousness might be my only hope of fully understanding Looper. Still, I’ll keep reading and watching, because I want to always know what happens next — even if what’s next takes place 100 years in the past or 200 years into the future.


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