Most time travel stories are about performing surgery on the past to fix the present. Rewriting history. Destroying the doomsday device. Stopping the assassination that triggers World War III.
This is a pretty basic wish for everyone – to fix the past.
I’m heaving into the toilet and remember eating that questionable sushi. If I could go back in time, I could …
Would I really want to travel back while I was writhing on the bathroom floor? If I push the time-travel button, would I pop back to yesterday in that wretched state? I would be bent over with cramps as I hid in the bushes watching myself eat the sushi that caused my illness.
Better to wait until I’m feeling better before going back to warn myself to have something else for lunch.
But would I really go back when I felt better? Really?
I’m finally out of the woods … maybe ready for a walk … or brunch with a spicy bloody Mary … am I really going to travel back in time to avoid an illness that has already passed?
Surely there are better past pains to fix. Why not go back to when I was 10 and warn myself not to climb out on that rotten branch?
Once I started to think about fixing past physical injuries, maybe I’d look at more serious instances. Instances that caused psychological scars. Being humiliated on the playground because my pants ripped. That long car trip where I made my father lose his temper and scream at me.
What were the key missteps that lead me to a dead-end job and disappointed dreams? Could I fix those?
But I digress. I’m just saying that with the bad sushi, I’d only really want to go back while I was suffering.
Maybe I could ask my wife to go. “Sure, honey,” she says. Then she steps into the pod.
So she goes back and …
I suppose she could borrow her own phone while her past self is in the shower. She calls me and whispers: “Don’t eat the sushi!”
“How’d you know I was eating sushi? Why are you whispering?”
“Just don’t eat it. Trust me. Gotta go!”
So my wife comes back to the future, steps out of the pod and asks “Feeling okay?”
“Sure,” I say. “Why do you ask?”
I didn’t eat the sushi and didn’t get sick. I don’t know otherwise that I’d be wiped out with food poisoning. So why the hell is she asking me if I feel okay?
This whole scenario implies a world where time travel is a common activity … where we’re all zipping around tweaking our pasts.
So when she asks “Feeling okay?” I would realize that she had changed something in my past and rewritten my history. She’d tell me what happened: “My God, I’d never seen you so sick! It was worse than Mexico!”
“Wow! Thanks!” I say.
And all around this world of commonplace time-travel, people would be helping each other out like that.
“Shit! I left my phone in the taxi.”
“I’m sorry, darling, allow me to fix that for you. Be right back.”
And, again, the me in the new present would not know that I had ever lost my phone.
Or maybe I would. If time travel were that common, I might be constantly encountering my future self. He’d feel no need to whisper into a cellphone or remain otherwise secretive. I’d see myself standing there as I walked to the subway. “Listen,” I say to myself, “Don’t take the F train this morning. There’s a sick passenger.”
But you never see this scenario of informal time travel in sci-fi stories because we all know about the butterfly effect: I step on a particular twig running from a T-rex and the human race just doesn’t evolve into being. Oops.
So no telling what sort of world we’d have if everyone was zipping around retrieving phones from taxis. How could we even have a world under those conditions?
Time travel is like brain surgery. A mosquito bites the surgeon just as he’s slicing away at the tumor. Oh well, there goes my childhood.
No, time travel has to be left to the professionals who tiptoe through a past world to destroy the technology that creates the sentient robots that enslave us.
Of course, there’s always a sidekick who shoots a laser gun in a roadhouse full of Hell’s Angels and shouts some wisecrack about the future: “You assholes DESERVE Trump for president!”
But that’s just dramatic license. The overall idea is that you can’t change too much of the past without messing up the present.
What’s sometimes hard to remember is that we can’t actually travel in time.
I feel so saturated in sci-fi and fantasy stories, I have to remind myself things like: No, we don’t ACTUALLY have space ships with warp drive. No, as far as any of us know, we haven’t encountered alien life.
It feels as though we’re almost there, right? On the verge. Like any day now, you’ll be able to buy a robot that can really think.
How lucky I am to be THIS close to so many miracles of the future!
For countless centuries, 80-year old men looked at young girls with despair. Unless you’re a billionaire, they won’t ever think you’re sexy and want to sleep with you.
But by the time I’m 80 in few decades, surely there will be realistic android girls who will sit on my lap and treat me like a young man. They’ll be programmed to think my withered body is hot.
Actually … no. That won’t happen.
Because we’re a fucking long way away from making that sort of robot. Sure, you could give grandpa a $6,000 sex doll. But he’d have to be into that sort of thing. Unless grandpa is in an advanced state of dementia, he won’t think you brought him a real hooker.
But, really, realistic android hookers who read Sartre are a bad example of a phenomenon that FEELS close but is really far away because we’re still just talking about a complicated machine. We can grasp the challenge of making such a robot in a general way. How to make the smile curve to suggest both innocence and naughtiness. How to make the voice less robotic. It’s still essentially BUILDING something – like the mechanical man in THE INVENTION OF HUGO. It takes many cogs and gears to make the automaton scribble but they’re still just cogs and gears. You aren’t trying to rethink the laws of the universe.
Time travel is a better example of the illusion. We feel as though we will do it someday relatively soon. But we won’t. We can’t travel through time. We’re not “on the verge” of figuring out how to do it.
And time still works the same old way. I’m here in something called “now.” That “now” becomes the past. Out of the past, a new now emerges. The future emerges from the now. This now. And this now is the ONLY source for the future. Which means a time machine would be useless. Useless at least for fixing anything in the past.
The future IS the past. It’s a loop. The future where you decide to go back and fix the past is always the product of the past you tried to fix.
There I am doubled over on the bathroom tile. I croak to my wife, “Go back and tell me not to eat that sushi!” Zap! She disappears. I moan and groan for a few minutes and think, “Damn, I wish she’d hurry it up.” Finally, zap, she returns.
“What happened?” she asks. “Didn’t you get my call?”
“No!” I groan.
As long as we are in a world of commonplace time travel, who knows what someone did in the future to make sure I ate that bad sushi … for reasons I might never know.
Whatever is happening to me right now is the result of everything that happened before this exact moment … including all the interventions by time travelers from the future. Whatever we might do in the future to change the past is FIXED.
Whatever is happening to me in this moment is the ONLY thing that could be happening to me in this moment.
The Now is FATED.
I was FATED to be writhing on the floor with food poisoning.
There are lots of stories based on this paradox.
Spoiler alert for this one example … the film Le Jette, which inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. The protagonist witnesses a murder as a child. As he grows up he is haunted by this memory and eventually travels back to this moment. Guess who, after all of this time, the murdered man turns it out to be?
The old story of Oedipus is a time-traveler story in disguise.
The prophets can “see” into the future that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. Of course, famously, everyone’s efforts to avoid this future make it happen. First, his parents freak out and tell a servant to kill the child. But, like the woodsman in Snow White, the servant can’t go through with it and just leaves Oedipus on the side of the mountain. Someone finds him, and he winds up being raised in another country. No one ever bothers to tell Oedipus that he was adopted. After a raving drunk at a party calls him a bastard, Oedipus goes to the oracle. The oracle gives him the same prophesy: you’ll kill your dad and marry your mother. So he runs away from his adopted parents, whom he thinks to be his real parents, and proceeds to kill his father and marry his mother.
He fulfills the prophesy by trying to escape it. If the prophets and the oracle had kept their mouths shut, nothing would’ve happened. The dictionary definition of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
An odd thing is how the prophets and oracles aren’t really offering a warning. It’s not like, “Change your ways, Oedipus, or you’ll meet the direst of fates.” No, the prophets just look at the queen’s pregnant belly and say, “Sorry to tell you, but he’s totally screwed.” They just inform the court about the baby’s inevitable destiny. The oracle just INFORMS Oedipus.
Nevertheless everyone treats the information as a warning. So, really, they treat the prophets and the oracle like time travelers from the future. In contemporary sci-fi terms, the king, queen and Oedipus then try to follow a different timeline.
Of course, the whole tragedy turns on a particular blindness. The soothsayers can’t SEE that they themselves are the cause of the tragedy they foresee.
It’s comical if you really picture it. Imagine this ominous pagan ceremony with billowing smoke and pounding drums. Some spin-chilling, Linda Blair-like prophetess slobbers and growls: “You’ll kill your dad and fuck your mom! You’ll kill your dad and fuck your mom! Aaaaahhhhhheeeee!” And she has no idea that it will only happen because she’s telling him it will.
The time traveler has to worry about the same sort of blindness. If you KNEW that your visit to the past caused a tragedy, you wouldn’t go back. You’d only be confident about the endeavor if you were blind to your own responsibility for causing the very thing you want to fix.
Imagine a world where you DID know that some time traveler caused a famous tragedy. You learn about it in school. Oh boy, today we discuss poor Oedipus. You all know him as the guy who killed his dad and married his mom. Well, what you might not know is that it never would have happened except that some well-meaning person from our time went back to warn him. Guess what? Everything Oedipus did after being told to watch out actually made it happen.
So every educated person knows that some jerk went back and caused the tragedy of Oedipus.
Then one day your parents sit you down for a talk: “It beaks our heart to tell you this, my child, but YOU are the one who will go back and cause Oedipus’ tragedy.”
How strange it would be. You don’t have any particular interest in Oedipus. You hardly know the story. You actually slept in class when they talked about it.
And you have no interest in the latest advances in time travel. The idea of being zapped to a different coordinate in the time-space continuum actually triggers a panic, a phobia of disembodiment. Think about getting beamed on Star Trek. Wouldn’t that be terrifying? No thanks!
And yet, from the moment your parents give you the bad news, you have to live with the idea that you will do this absurd thing. Ironically, you are in the same boat as Oedipus – oppressed by a kind of prophesy that no matter what you do, you will go back and ruin this guy’s life. Just because someone TOLD you this is what you’d do.
Oedipus had to walk around thinking, “Okay, when am I going to do this crazy thing? Dad walks in the room and I just stab him then start flirting with Mom. Why? It’s not just that it would be horrific. It’s that it doesn’t make any sense. What would make me think I needed to do it?”
And it would be the same for you. What? Will I just wake up one day and think, “You know what I feel like doing? I feel like trolling some guy 3,000 years in the past for no good reason”?
Understandably, you start thinking, “I don’t HAVE to do anything. I am a free individual with my own free will. Fate is a superstition.”
However, the problem is that as long as you have the story of the meddling time traveler in your mind, as long as they still teach it in school, someone DID go back. If that someone was YOU, then sooner or sooner or later you WILL go back. As long as that’s the story everyone knows.
In fact, if you stopped yourself from using time travel technology until the last seconds of your life, you still couldn’t be absolutely sure. The EKG machine is beeping. It starts to slow down. These are the last seconds of your life. Yet you still remember the story that someone went back and gave Oedipus bad news. Some men rush in and say, “Please, you have to go back and tell Oedipus that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. If you don’t, the world will come to an end.” So in the final seconds of your life, they zap you back.
That’s how it always came to pass.
But let’s say you make it to the very end. You’re dead, and you stopped yourself from going back. Upon your death, the Oedipus story vanishes from everybody’s mind. Except yours. Because you’re dead. You could never actually know that you hacked the vicious circle of Fate.
Well, okay. So maybe you can’t be sure that you can escape your fate. But you figure you should at least avoid it. So you run away to a hut in the Himalayas, as far away as you can get from the labs where they’re developing time-travel technology. Years pass. Decades. Your beard grows down to your waist. The civilized world you fled becomes a dream. But still you remember the Oedipus story the same way.
But maybe, there’s some paradox. The timeline has actually changed. No one else in the world knows the version of the story where someone from our time goes back. The past has changed for everyone else. You remember this alternative timeline because of your unique role. So maybe you have in fact defeated Fate!
Or maybe this memory that there was ever such a story was only a dream in the first place.
A mountain climber stumbles over the cliff into your little nook.
“Hey, do you know the Oedipus story?”
“What? The guy who fucked his mom because some asshole went back and told him not to?”
So finally you say “to hell with it.” You’ll go back and say something totally innocuous. Live long and prosper. Every little thing’s gonna be all right. You most definitely will not even mention his mother or father.
So, zap, there you are in the oracle’s temple. Here comes young Oedipus. You start spouting your empty, nothing message. But right then, the temple priests pour oil on the burning coals to make it more awesome and spiritual. The hiss and roar drown out your voice.
Oedipus says, “What? Who will I fuck?”
You shout, “No! Just chill and enjoy life!”
But there’s more hiss and roar from the brazier. Then you see through the smoke that Oedipus is freaking out: “I’ll kill my father and fuck my mother? Woe is me! Woe is me!”
At that exact moment, you realize they’re pulling you back to the future and this is ALWAYS how it went down.
The best way to fix the past is in the present. By fixing the present that will become the past. Which doesn’t really tell you anything new.
The entire body of teaching about how to live, all education, all psychotherapy, all wisdom, all philosophy and, let’s face it, all religion …it’s really just trying to fix our past in the present. Trying to fix the present that will become the past.
Everything we do has an incalculable butterfly effect. We’re still running around in a primeval forest. Every twig that cracks under foot wipes out an infinity of species that could have evolved, an infinity of things that could happen … and creates the species that WILL exist, the events that WILL happen.
In truth, we ARE time travelers. Right now. In this moment. Right now … you are traveling in time. Fasten your seatbelt.