The Pitfalls of Writing Time Travel, Part 2

2) Don’t get bogged down in the rules

The finest films to feature time travel avoid detail about how it works.  Take Terminator: when Kyle Reese is asked about the time machine, he snaps “I didn’t build the thing!”

You need some rules, sure.  You need to keep it so that death means something and the adventures have a purpose.  But don’t get too hung up on them, because…

…I have spent a lot of time thinking about this.  I have read and watched an awful lot of fictional time travel, including a role-playing game system that tried very hard to nail down workable and watertight rules.  I am an allegedly smart guy with a physics degree, and I have come to the conclusion that an entirely self-consistent system of time travel is an impossibility—at least, not without making a total nonsense about our ideas of narrative, identity and free will (the “multiple universe” interpretation).  I smacked my forehead when I realised this because, duh, violating causality is the very definition of time travel.

Come up with something that works for your story, stick to it but don’t get too fancy or convoluted because if you do, it’s going to break down.

A friend has pointed out something else: whereas most sci-fi hardware has a starting point for your imagination, time travel does not.  A space ship can be inspired by a sea ship or an aircraft; a laser gun is a gun that shoots a beam instead of bullets; a robot can be extrapolated from existing machinery.  But a machine that moves you through the fourth dimension has no real-world ancestor.  Therefore it can be as original, or as bizarre and anachronistic, as you want.  Writers have played with this; from a phone in a microwave through hot tubs and, of course, the blue Police Box!

 

2b) Critics: you might not be as smart as you think you are

[Terminator 1-2 spoilers]

I have been pretty stupid myself, on occasion.  I have done things like clicking on links for “10 of the worst movie plot holes….” although at least I usually remember to wipe my tracking cookies afterwards.

If I had a pound for every time someone has said something like “Ah, but John Connor could not have existed to send his father back in time to become his father!” then I could afford a pretty nice meal.  (This sort of thing is called a “bootstrap future” by the way, after the proverbial boy who pulls himself out of the swamp by tugging on his own boot straps).  In Terminator, the paradox was used correctly.  It added interest and poignancy, but was not the main point or drama of the ending.

It’s time travel.  It’s inconsistent by definition, and who knows how it would work if it was real?  Accept it if you want to enjoy the film, but don’t accept half of it then moan about the other half.  Unless you’re me.

 

2c) Put a bit of effort in what rules you do have, don’t let them be an Eleventh Commandment

[“The Flash” in various media spoilers]

So, The Flash yields to the temptation to go back in time and save his mother’s life.  Only when he returns to the present, it’s different.  In fact, it rapidly becomes clear that the entire world is rapidly going to hell.  In the end, his mother has to die to save the world.

However, there is no plausible link as to why saving one woman’s life would cause Superman to be imprisoned, Bruce Wayne to die, Amazons and Atlanteans to embark on a globe-shattering war, etc.  It’s all because our hero dared to tamper with the way things are Meant to Be.  But this doesn’t happen when a villain jumps through time, oh no; they don’t accidentally make the world into a paradise.  In fact, in some versions, it was a time-travelling villain who killed Flash’s mother in the first place.

This is a fairly common trope; someone makes a change in the past that seems positive, but it leads to something else bad or worse.  It’s an interesting concept, and links in with the classic ends/means thing.  It also, when done well, meshes with the reality of very few things ever being purely good or purely bad, of moral compromise, and the whole complexity of everything.  But it can be done badly, and it can be done too often.  It often seems as if the writer is applying a general “conservation of suffering” or at worst a divine “do not tamper with fate!” edict.

The first famous instance of a tiny change in the past causing massive change in the future is “The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury, from 1952.  It has got a boost from chaos theory and its famous butterfly wing.

 

2d) It Is Written… Not!

A reversal of the above is where a character knows the future, but finds it completely impossible to change whatever they do.  In some cases this is entirely plausible; how many people fail to change government policy, for example?  But in others, it doesn’t seem that credible.  ‘Oh dear, I’m going to bet on the wrong horse and lose my money?  Well you can’t change the future, I suppose I had better get on and fill that betting slip out then.’

So what would happen if you tried to fill in the winning horse instead?  Would your pen spontaneously combust?  Would the ink magically re-arrange itself?  Would the universe blow up or extra-temporal monsters appear to threaten you?  There’s got to be some kind of mechanism that doesn’t make a nonsense of the character’s agency.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The pitfalls of writing time travel (part one)

Time travel is a wondrous gift that keeps giving to science fiction.  It has become as important a staple as the intelligent machine or the spacecraft.  This is how it should be.  As Terry Pratchett said, if only one person had ever been allowed to write time travel and everyone else would be accused of copying, then the idea would have stopped with HG Wells’ “The Time Machine” and we would never have had Dr Who, to name just one.

But, like so many things that began life as a classic New Idea, it can fall into cliché, and of course even a great idea can be done badly.

Not to mention that even great new ideas might not be as new as one thinks, at first.  When I was writing Pendragon’s Shadow, I looked up who was the first to do Arthurian time travel.  It was Mark Twain, in 1889.  Wikipedia says the first time travel story was by Alexander Veltman in 1836 but even that is not as it appears.  When you go back as far as you care to mention and find myths and legends that involve Prophecy, what is that but an instance of information travelling backwards in time?  And information, of course, is the important part of most things.

At the start of every cliché there is a classic.  Sometimes you might get away with it if you re-do them very well, but they’re best avoided.  And having time travel in your story will offer you temptations, and traps.  So here are what I reckon are the things to avoid:

 

1) The Deus Ex Machina must Die.  Or at least shrink.

[Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure spoilers]

If it’s a joke, that’s fine.  Bill and Ted are trapped in a dungeon awaiting a horrible fate.  However, they decide that when they escape from this, they will go back in time and plant a key for themselves so they can get out.  They guess where they put it and, lo and behold, there is the key!  They let themselves out and, presumably, later zip back in time to put it there.  The logic problems are part of the humour.

On the other hand, a number of more serious fictions have heroes escaping by the assistance of their future selves.  The first few times you encounter this, you may be entertained at the concept.  By the tenth time you may be feeling less charitable and wondering why you should be concerned about heroes when supernatural aid may pull them out of any predicament.  It may even seem like—gasp—lazy writing.

Likewise, some stories use time travel to magically make everything alright at the end, all those horrible things didn’t happen after all.  For an alternate “what if” story then it might be a case of “easy come, easy go.”  But otherwise one might wonder what was the point of the story if the slate can just get wiped clean like that.  In narrative terms, it can rate near to “it was only a dream!”

Classic era Dr Who maintained iron discipline on this.  Whenever the TARDIS landed somewhere, you were part of events and could not mess about with the timestream until the story was over.  There is no zipping back an hour to yell “duck!” at the right moment, or to tip yourself off about the Daleks’ Master Plan and save all the messing about in episode two.

The new series have not stuck to this, and suffered as a result.

I’m not objecting to averting the Norman invasion or whatever.  I’m only objecting to interfering with your own time-line whenever things go wrong.  Unless it’s “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Groundhog Day” where repeated attempts are the point and stakes remain.

 

1b) Keep some stakes serious

A loved hero or a hated villain has died.  You cheer, or cry, or think wistfully about how you enjoyed that character.  But fear not!  Thanks to the miracle of time travel, that death can be averted.  Or they can have time travelled to the future before they died and are still around doing their thing for as long as you want.  If they die before they’re supposed to then you can just say they were a “time echo” or something.

Made a terrible mistake?  Never mind, you can zip back and correct it (or maybe not, see the upcoming 2).

Also… a drama has been engaging you with its crises, disasters, character and conflicts, then it is suddenly resolved by a time machine.  You may feel a bit cheated.

 

Part Two of our warnings about time travel shall be coming soon in… where else… The Future!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A rant about the film “Arrival”

Don’t let me spoil this film for you.  It is very well done and enjoyable, especially the first encounter with the aliens.  Most people won’t have a problem with the ending, or if they do, it won’t be as extreme as mine.  And even I am glad I saw it, because I quite enjoy ranting and nitpicking.

My friend C indicates she might have a problem because she remembers Amy Adams [lead actress] from the Muppets movie and associates her with them.  If somebody has not done a video mash-up of scientists attempting to communicate with Muppets from outer space, they should get on that.

This links to the upcoming epic blog post about time travel.  COMPLETE SPOILERS from this point on:

arrival_hkFor starters, an essential part of the story wasn’t well told.  The film showed a lot of what I assumed were flashbacks to how the lead character had married, got divorced, and had a daughter who died young of an incurable illness.  In fact they were flash-forwards; all this happens after the end of the main story.  I had been thinking that she looked a bit young, but then she would not be the only Hollywood character to play older, or look improbably good for her age.  Which of course is how it is in the “future” segments.

Then, if she was having premonitions, she was presumably spending her life under the impression that she was psychic, or mentally ill, and keeping it quiet.  Which might make an interesting subject for a film in its own right; it didn’t really work as part of one.  It’s hard to see how it would not shape her whole character, make her into a passive figure that expects and embraces tragedy.  “Oh, that’s the house of my visions where my child dies!  I have to buy it immediately!”

It turns out that she has or receives the power to see through time, and that she uses this to save the day by bringing back information from the future where the day has already been saved.  This kind of works as  Deus Ex Machina, albeit it’s a cliché (Bootstrap Future) unworthy of the film up to that point.  A gubbin should be rooted in character development or conflict, though.  Here, that seems to be the discovery that the bitter (dead child) comes along with the sweet (saving the day).  It’s still not a decision or development, though.  The price simply comes attached to the Deus Ex.

But what doesn’t work is, why on earth doesn’t she change it?  Perhaps from her point of view, the “future memories” of her daughter are so strong that she felt she already existed, and the joys the child had were so great as to make her life worthwhile despite its tragic end.  Which is a perfectly fine attitude to have if your child has already lived and died.  To marry and conceive the child knowing their fate in advance is quite another thing.

(Perhaps I have a little sympathy here; how can you write a situation where knowing the future does not change it?)

I am, of course, taking the attitude of the child’s father, who divorced the mother when she told him the child’s fate (after the birth) and, knowing what was coming, was unable to deal with it.  Whatever the mother’s philosophical views, to know and not tell the prospective father is very wrong.

The mother was also dropping hints to the child about her eventual fate.  I doubt that will make the book of good parenting somehow.

This situation itself is a pretty rich one.  It could make a subject for a film in its own right.  You wouldn’t even need time travel; you could just have a child who was told “Oh yes, I knew that I carried the gene for galloping incurable leukaemia.  No, I didn’t tell your father.  But I knew that even though you’d die in your teens, the fun you had on the way and the joy you brought to me would make it worthwhile.  I suppose we could have had the foetuses tested until we had one without the disease, but that just wouldn’t have been you!”  This is, of course, a very touchy subject for all kinds of personal, political and religious reasons.  But that also makes the subject rich,  exploring science and how we perceive reality.

So, does seeing a future comes with the price of being unable to change it?  That could be like some presentations of schizophrenia, believing you have no agency of your own and are at the mercy of other fates.  Which would be a synergy with the self-fulfilling prophecies many of us fall prey to in our lives.  Again possibly worth doing.  But this is never revealed in Arrival.

But instead we have the intriguing premise of learning to communicate and deal with aliens, which turns out to be because they perceive time differently, and then a Deus Ex brings up things that might be worth exploring, but which aren’t, and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Why I am no longer fond of this time of year

First off, the stressed people.  Even a fair number of the shoppers in town are looking grim and harried, or at least flustered.  The roads are full with drivers squinting into the gloom through their smeared windscreens and swearing at the jams.  The postie and the couriers look like they haven’t slept in weeks.

Second, Christmas makes demands of you.  On top of all the normal ones, which just get trickier.  I have trouble coping with normal life, let alone feeling like I should be doing decorations, cards, presents, and interacting with a lot of relationships at once.  Back when I had to arrange work leave, cat cover and endure travel on Hell-trains, it was even worse.

Third, so many of the seasonal stories, music and so forth have an imperative: You Must Be Jolly And Conform.  Some of them go so far as to hint at the personal shortcomings of people who don’t, or hint at what will happen to them as a result.  Of which the worst prospect is inevitable conversion.

So I am taking inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death: fill up the castle storerooms, seal the gates, and wait for it to be over.  I am, at least at the moment, not bothered in the slightest by the prospect of the day being without human company.  I’ll welcome the peace.  That may change, but I’m not whingeing about it yet.

I used to like Christmas, and perhaps one day I will again.  But not this year.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Rant about the Arrival film [Spoilers after intro paras]

Don’t let me spoil this film for you. It is very well done and enjoyable, especially the first encounter with the aliens. Most people won’t have a problem with the ending, or if they do, it won’t be as extreme as mine. And even I am glad I saw it, because I quite enjoy ranting and nitpicking.

My friend C indicates she might have a problem because she remembers Amy Adams [lead actress] from the Muppets movie and associates her with them. If somebody has not done a video mash-up of scientists attempting to communicate with Muppets from outer space, they should get on that.

This links to the upcoming epic blog post about time travel. COMPLETE SPOILERS from this point on:

For starters, an essential part of the story wasn’t well told. The film showed a lot of what I assumed were flashbacks to how the lead character had married, got divorced, and had a daughter who died young of an incurable illness. In fact they were flash-forwards; all this happens after the end of the main story. I had been thinking that she looked a bit young, but then she would not be the only Hollywood character to play older, or look improbably good for her age.

Then, if she was having premonitions, she was presumably spending her life under the impression that she was psychic, or mentally ill, and keeping it quiet. Which might make an interesting subject for a film in its own right; it didn’t really work as part of one. It’s hard to see how it would not shape her whole character, make her into a passive figure that expects tragedy. “Oh, that’s the house of my visions where my child dies! I have to buy it immediately!”

It turns out that she has or receives the power to see through time, and that she uses this to save the day by bringing back information from the future where the day has already been saved. This kind of works as a Deus Ex Machina. A gubbin should be rooted in character development or conflict, though. Here, that seems to be the discovery that the bitter (dead child) comes along with the sweet (saving the day). It’s still not a decision or development, though. The price simply comes attached to the Deus Ex.

But what doesn’t work is, why on earth doesn’t she change it? Perhaps from her point of view, the “future memories” of her daughter are so strong that she felt she already existed, and the joys the child had were so great as to make her life worthwhile despite its tragic end. Which is a perfectly fine attitude to have if your child has already lived and died. To marry and conceive the child knowing their fate in advance is quite another thing.

I am, of course, taking the attitude of the child’s father, who divorced the mother when she told him the child’s fate (after the birth) and, knowing what was coming, was unable to deal with it. Whatever the mother’s philosophical views, to know and not tell the prospective father is very wrong.

The mother was also dropping hints to the child about her eventual fate. I doubt that will make the book of good parenting somehow.

This situation itself is a pretty rich one. It could make a subject for a film in its own right. You wouldn’t even need time travel; you could just have a child who was told “Oh yes, I knew that I carried the gene for galloping incurable leukaemia. No, I didn’t tell your father. But I knew that even though you’d die in your teens, the fun you had on the way and the joy you brought to me would make it worthwhile. I suppose we could have had the foetuses tested until we had one without the disease, but that just wouldn’t have been you!” This is, of course, a very touchy subject for all kinds of personal, political and religious reasons. But that also makes the subject rich, exploring science and how we perceive reality.

So, does seeing a future comes with the price of being unable to change it? That could be like some presentations of schizophrenia, believing you have no agency of your own and are at the mercy of other fates. Which would be a synergy with the self-fulfilling prophecies many of us fall prey to in our lives. Again possibly worth doing. But this is never revealed.

But instead we have the intriguing premise of learning to communicate and deal with aliens, which turns out to be because they perceive time differently, and then a Deus Ex brings up things that might be worth exploring, but which aren’t, and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

[Not sure if these problems presented in the same way in the original short story, of course]

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sadly Predictable

In 1929, the Wall Street Crash happened. Its effects were felt all over the world. Times became hard, or harder. When people become stressed they become more extreme politically, more insular. They tend to think in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms. They punished whatever government or system they had and instead they turned to “strong” men who promised them simple answers to their problems and gave them someone to blame and to hate. Within seven years we had Mussolini, Franco, and a certain German dictator whose name begins with H.

Thank goodness it isn’t quite that bad this time around, at least not yet. Our practice of democracy remains flawed, but hasn’t collapsed. Trump is a borderline fascist but still subject to some checks and balances. The far right is significant in Europe, but not in power. Although times are hard and our finances look ridiculously bad, we have not had currency collapse.

But if we are to arrest the rot, we are really going to have to get a bit smarter. To quote a computer game character “Who are you, who do not know your own history?” Because that is the only way we will be able to stop repeating it. It is tragic that we did not try voting for enlightened socialism or green politics instead of the old-fashioned nationalist.

It’s not just us little voters who should take note. Insofar as there is an “Establishment” that has been shaping the world and its nations, this is their mess; they have lost as much as Trump has won (assuming he isn’t one of them, of course). If the 1% had not become stupid and greedy, if they had not expected everyone else to pay for their failure while dominating mainstream politicians and media, people might not have turned to the xenophobic. But there’s more than enough blame if we’re throwing it; after all, most of us went along with it.

PREACHY PARAGRAPH

All is not lost. No matter how bad things are, they could always be worse, and there is always a way to improve or resist, even in a small way. Don’t bust a gut trying to save the world unless you are a saint, but don’t give the word up for lost. Just think and try to act in ways that make the world a better place, even in small ways.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Brexit, Art and Science

So, what about art and science in the referendum? And how on earth would I categorise this post? Mind you, it’s my firm belief that a lot of the world would be better if these things did mix more.

The other week in a writing group, someone turned out to be a Brexiter. Good on her for breaking the mold and for being honest and brave, but it did feel as if she had suddenly yelled for Sunderland in the middle of a Middlesbrough crowd. Of course we were a bit nicer than that, but I could feel some folk holding themselves back from weighing into a political argument.

The whole referendum business has hardly been enlightening. Both sides have manifested a lot of aggro, a lot of distortion and exaggeration, and continued ill-feeling after the result. I suspect that both the official campaigns did more driving people over to the other side than persuading people to their own.

Well, damn good for our writing group lady for being different and brave enough to say it, even if I disagree. But it did make me wonder: would people with differing politics feel welcome amongst us? Are they here already and some of them are keeping their views quiet? Have they been put off? Or are right-wingers just naturally bigots without imaginations? (Joking.)

Let’s face it, us creative types tend to be liberal lefties. Also, at a time when the traditional left and right have fractured pretty much down the middle, my friends from the writing groups were overwhelmingly for Remain. You can probably guess what my “well-known social interaction site beginning with F” is like; when I do get a challenging opinion, it’s more likely to come from further to the left or be about conspiracy theories. You may have heard people lamenting about how the internet feed us news that confirms and feeds our existing prejudices and clannishness; in fact I think it was the internet itself that told me that and is busily confirming it.

I mean, why is “artist” almost synonymous with “leftie” anyway? That seems to persist in places outside the North-East too, that aren’t generally Labour anyway. We take it for granted, like we assume that armed forces tend to be more right-wing. I suppose the armed forces automatically do their best to instil patriotism, although it still puzzles me why that is assumed to be inherently right-leaning. The rest of it… I suppose that the forces tend to have fit healthy people in a rigid ranked system based largely on ability with some elements of class, and people tend to absorb and generalise those values. Sadly, some less enlightened views have been persisting there as well.

As an aside (I love asides!) the American armed forces are in many respects the most socialist organisation in the country. The highest rank earns only about 13 times more than the lowest, rather than 100 times. There is free medical care, childcare, subsidised accommodation and generous pensions.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._uniformed_services_pay_grades

But why does Art/Creative tend to be left? Some of it might be situation. Given that a lot of artists make very little money and depend on grants, benefits or low-end jobs, they feel the sharp end, and might remember that if they do make it beg (although a lot of people who become super-rich abruptly start objecting to sharing it by taxes). That might not apply to hobbyists so much though.

Here comes my article from New Scientist: research has apparently shown differing characteristics between conservatives and liberals in that conservatives have a stronger and more sensitive “disgust” response. They are more likely to view something done by someone else as being objectionable, even when it isn’t directly affecting them. Whereas a creative, on the other hand, spends a lot of time thinking into the heads of other people, seeking out new sensations and stimuli, imagining scenarios that might push an emotion to the extreme. They could be inherently less likely to condemn something different without making an effort to understand.

(There are exceptions, of course. HP Lovecraft based a highly successful horror career on his fear and repulsion of “The Other” although sadly it led him into racism for a while, and a major award no longer bears his image. Memo to self: do a blog post sometime about when art should or should not be rejected because of its politics or its creator).

So we have working theories about the social and economic faces of your traditional left/right. But one of the whole points about the referendum thing is how it has broken down things we took as read. The North East of Britain (with the honourable exception of my adopted city Newcastle) is Labour heartland, but voted Leave. Scotland is generally socialist as well, but voted Remain. The Right split in half and got nasty with itself, as is its wont. All of which hammers home the shortcomings of a “winner takes all/first-past-the-post” voting system.

I’m interested in how the major political parties may or may not split. Labour looks like its MPs and Councillors are divided into Blairites and Socialists, whereas its voters seem split between Nationalist and Internationalist. If the party split, the voters would be left with no clear choice, and there would be a highly unstable electoral situation. (Note that if the party did split along the same lines as its voters, one wing should really NOT call themselves “National Socialists!”)

It’s worth mentioning how Neal Stephenson imagined the globalised future in “The Diamond Age.” He thought that nationality would become almost completely independent of actual geography or space in general; a city might be in what used to be China but have enclaves that were British, Turkish or Zulu, and these citizens would remain largely under their own law wherever they went. This seems a pretty good prediction in many ways; you have huge populations of foreign nationals working all over the world, and often treated very differently and subject to different laws then the people a couple of metres away (this more often works in the favour of Anglophones and Europeans).

One does of course wonder whether anything one country or even Europe as a whole might do could fight the tide of Globalisation.

Immigration is a big thing. We might consider that a fair amount of immigration, whether migrant or refugee, is being driven by the Greenhouse Effect already. In the long term, as temperatures rise and weather patterns shift, a lot of the globe will become very hard for humans to survive in, let alone build prosperous societies. In fact, the whole planet will likely become unable to support its current population. I will have to stop considering this for the moment or I will wind up moving to a survivalist bunker in Greenland.

Pulling back to the short term and what can be faced… I reckon New Scientist, which is normally my single most trusted and opinion-forming magazine, put a foot wrong here. They ran an editorial in favour of staying in Europe (fair enough; after all, a lot of our science funding comes from there and things like CERN would be impossible without it) and also a big section about the benefit of free population movement. This article went far farther into Economics than they usually do. It mentioned GDP (Gross Domestic Product) which is a dodgy and contested measure at the best of times, and especially since the big Crash, one might rightly conclude that economists know nothing. I only skip-read it but so far as I know it never discussed how we might move from a state of ever-growing population and economy to one of sustainable stability. As has been said, “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” That is not an exclusive “or” by the way.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23030680-700-the-truth-about-migration-how-it-will-reshape-our-world/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23030681-100-the-truth-about-migration-rich-countries-need-immigrants/

http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/399387-anyone-who-believes-in-indefinite-growth-in-anything-physical-on

But let’s end on perhaps the most important note, and a more positive one even if it’s a little patronising to say it out loud. Always remember that the other side are people too. Even if their views go beyond what you might think are acceptable, they are human beings who are probably doing their best to do what they think is right, even if that’s fatally deluded. Universal compassion for people; you know it makes sense.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment