Time Travel Guide Genesis: Doing It Wrong

deja vu save her

Part 1 in a series about the development of SO YOU CREATED A WORMHOLE, from idea to proposal to book contract to shelves.

When tracing back the genesis of the project that would eventually become SO YOU CREATED A WORMHOLE: THE TIME TRAVELER’S GUIDE TO TIME TRAVEL, I suppose the very beginning would be my obsession with zombie fiction.

Way back in 2008, co-writer and hetero-lifemate Nick Hurwitch gave me Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide. After reading it, it was striking how true to concept Brooks stayed with the whole thing. I’ve heard the book described as being tongue-in-cheek hilarious, and you can read it that way if you want. You can also read it as being a serious take on the idea of being in the center of a zombie holocaust, given how methodical and logical the book is. It plays both ways.

Soon after I found myself watching the Denzel Washington film Deja Vu*, also at Nick’s suggestion. Being a big fan of time travel, I was excited to get into it, but I found it lacking in some ways.

It’s hard to explain (time travel is like that), but allow me a crack at it:

There’s a scene early in the film in which Washington, an investigator, goes to the home of a woman who was killed in a terrorist attack, looking for clues to the incident. I’m a little hazy on the details, but one element stuck with me: a message written in colored magnets on the refrigerator door, which reads, “You can save her.”

Incredibly obvious to all of us watching is that this is a time travel film and that message was undoubtedly left by Washington. And sure enough, later in the movie, he goes back in time, meets the woman, goes to her house and leaves all the clues he himself found the first time through, when he was back in the future. He even creates the message on the fridge, knowing that in the future, his other self will show up to do the investigation.

If you’re following along, you should be seeing that by creating the message for himself and leaving the clues he’s already seen in the future, Washington in the past is creating and matching all the events as they happened in the first pass through the timeline. Timeline A, in which his first time through the house was when he was investigating in the future, is being replicated by Timeline B, in which he goes to the past, because Washington isn’t changing everything. Up to this point, everything we’ve seen may as well be predestined. We’ve been to the future — we know the outcome of this chain of events. He’s setting up the antecedents to an ending we already have.

3 point 2How, then, is Washington able to change the timeline and save the girl by the end of the movie? By all accounts, he should have the exact same outcome this time through as he did the last time through — terrorist attack goes off, Denzel Washington comes to investigate. But it changes because it’s a movie and the writers needed it to change, the laws of causality and time travel be damned.

Long and short: everyone does this. Hollywood movies (and many books) routinely skip the nitty gritty of time travel in order to wrap up the story and keep the plot flowing forward. It can (sometimes) make for a fun popcorn movie, but it seriously lacks depth. The contention I came away with, having been thinking about it, was that no one has ever really done time travel well, except for Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis in Back to the Future.

Having just finished reading a humorous guidebook, I called Nick a day or two later and laid an idea on him: a guide to time travel. A good one, one that explained all the concepts, one that ripped apart the corner-cutting that always goes on in movies.

We would sit on the idea for two years after twisting it some in the early going. I wrote a nebulous, labyrinthine introduction to the hypothetical book, discussing the idea of the reader having read the book in the future and returned to bring it to the past, purposely confusing the tenses and the pronouns so it was never clear which “you” was “you” and which “you” was the other “you.” It was fun, and it was kind of funny, and after Nick came back with some more ideas of how the book would actually play out, we started developing an outline.

Time passed and the idea was in incubation until I finally moved to Los Angeles in early 2009. By the end of that year, we had a working book proposal. It took a while to develop, and we had no idea what we were doing. More on that next time.

*I could also bitch for a while about The Butterfly Effect if you want.

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