‘Messy’ Time Travel is the Only Proper Kind

terminator reese

Fiancée Caitlin brought to my attention an io9 article titled “Why Time Travel Stories Should Be Messy,” and I found author Charlie Jane Anders’s view of the subject pretty well in line with my own. In fact, it seems like she’s been having the same thoughts that co-writer best friend Nick and I had several years ago that caused us to write a book.

The premise of the article is that the best time travel stories are the ones that don’t wrap themselves up neatly as being closed-loop instances of time travel. That is to say, they’re not of the variety of stories such as Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” or The Terminator; the best stories are not those in which the future is antecedent to the past and the actions of the protagonists are preordained.

Anders is right — these are the worst time travel stories. They’re also the most common, because I think, and so does Anders, that writers find them to be the most fun and clever to write. Anders uses a classic example in The Terminator, in which the human resistance soldier Kyle Reese is sent back to protect the mother of his leader, John Connor — and then ends up banging John’s mom, thereby conceiving John himself. John has to send Kyle back in order to be born under those circumstances; and thus, the supposition is, Kyle always time travels. He is destined to time travel. He is part of the fabric of the past in order to create the future.

But it’s lame when characters are moving in such a way as to create the future they already know about. It’s puppetry, Anders writes, and she’s exactly right. Stories are about the characters taking action, making changes, learning and growing, but pre-destiny removes all agency from characters. It’s lame. And most writers get around that trap by making their dumb characters not realizing they’re playing along to Fate’s tune. They never seem to notice or remember the little significant details that would clue them in to the fact that they’re creating the future they hope to prevent.

The article doesn’t quite go far enough in its analysis, however (which, again, is kind of why I co-wrote a book on the subject). Andres prefers time travel stories in which the loop is open and things are “messy,” but in actuality, those are the only time travels that make logical sense. The closed loop ones are just smoke and mirrors.

Consider Terminator again. As Anders points out, the story doesn’t make a ton of sense. Because there’s a chicken/egg question at some point that must be addressed: who is John Connor’s original father? At some point in this time loop, there must have been another man; the loop had to have been free of Kyle Reese. John Connor had to exist in order to send Kyle Reese back to create John Connor — so there must be an antecedent future in which the resistance was not led by John Connor but Kyle Reese traveled back and met Sarah Connor, or in which John was fathered by someone else but didn’t have the benefit of his mother’s preparation and training for the eventual machine war. Maybe that future was a hell of a lot bleaker and time travel improved it. Who knows.

The point is, most closed loop stories fail to address that situation, and really the only logical way to make such things work is to create splinter timelines from each change. That’s the way we deal with it in So You Created a Wormhole, and really, it’s how most time travel stories deal with time travel even if they don’t realize it.

So while closed loop stories are inherently boring, they also require some kind of unified time, in which past, present and future exist simultaneously. And that’s a bit…weird. The stories themselves function, but they’re not really in such a way that seems in line with objective reality. They’re fun for the writer, but characters without agency aren’t characters at all, and time travel stories that don’t really allow for time travel to function as travel, to borrow Anders’s way of putting it, are really kind of wasting the concept.

Read the full io9 article here. Or better yet, read So You Created a Wormhole, because we wrote a whole book on this subject.

Speaking of which, to you UK folks — Wormhole goes on sale on the other side of the Atlantic tomorrow, Sept. 27. Hope you enjoy it. Here’s the Amazon link if you don’t have a local bookseller to patronize.

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