The Paradox of Writing about Paradoxes

For those of you who know me, it is no secret that I hate Time Travel as a plot device. I think it was possibly Star Trek (something I don’t generally hate) that drove me to that particular cliff and parked on the edge. Something about going back in time to save the whales just seemed absurd (Though I bet there is some guy on the Sea Shepherd having a nerdgasm at the thought of it).

The problem is the Paradox. You have to understand it to write a good time travel story, however even when it is clearly addressed, often times writers fall short. It’s the whole “what if someone (let’s even assume for fun it’s the guy who invented time travel) goes back in time and kills himself?” issue.

Take the latest Star Trek movie. Great movie, fun, lots of action, and awesome performances.  Then there’s the time travel. It ultimately centers around future-Spock. In the future, he fails to destroy some anamoly that wipes out a planet. The blowback throws Spock back in time along with some guy that holds a grudge about Spock’s failure. This guy in turn captures Spock and throws him on a desolate planet with a scenic view of the planet Vulcan. Bad guy then blows up the planet to make poor Spock cry.

Later, Spock explains to Kirk that he is from a different time stream. A logical, scientific sort of explanation that neatly avoids the whole paradox question. Travelling in time doesn’t mean back and forth travel in the same Zip Code. It means hopping into new alternate realities. Bravo!

There’s a problem though.

So, why is Spock crying? Why is he sad or even motivated to assist this Kirk? He just explained there are an infinite number of realities out there with infinite possibility and he ISNT FROM THIS ONE. He must also realize, logically, that there are countless “timeframes” where Vulcan has in fact been obliterated by war, astronomical event, maybe even dinosaur flatulence. This COMPLETELY negates the bad guy’s motivation. In fact, there’s even an alternate reality out there where Nero SUCCEEDS in destroying as many planets as he feels like.

In fact, if I’m Spock, I’m calling up Nero to explain what a complete dumbass he is. That’s probably how the story should have ended. Spock gives a lesson to Nero on the paradox, explains why seeing his planet explode wasn’t really a shocker and suggests to Nero that in an infinite stream of alternate realities, his family and planet are still alive and there’s no reason to be all touchy about it.

There are also implications for the story as a whole. Why should we even care what happens? Instead of the story leaving you feeling like something substantial was accomplished by the protagonists, you’re left with an empty feeling and the realization that what you saw/read is a simple probability which has already played out differently billions and billions of times already. Your own explanation for the paradox has made your entrie work inconsequential.

Next time – Time Travel that DOES work.

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2 replies

  1. So my problem about time travel is it assumes all these things about time, which is ultimately an abstract “thing” (yay, a word we can fit ALL OF TIME INTO) that we *sort of* observe and are subject to. Really. How much do we REALLY know about time from our little perceptions in these little, finite material bodies on this backwater ball of rock and water etc. ?

    “Oh, time runs in a line. If you go back and do something in the past it’ll have effects on the future.” In my opinion that’s a pretty massive assumption. For all that we know about time, it might as well be some other-worldly power or a higher power (“God” perhaps?). To say “-this- is how it works” is rather small-minded and prideful.

    In short, we know a little bit about how time affects us, and from that little bit extrapolate and assume how we can affect it. Sure, maybe fiction is about making that shit up. Ok, so we’re using these finite words, perceptions, and ideas to encapsulate TIME, which we know next to nothing about, which might as well be infinite.

    Part 2 of this is that I feel like it’s the sign of a crappy writer. It’s the “oh noes, I got my characters into such a pickle that I can’t think of a better way to get them out than to use time travel.” Time travel as a means of getting out of a jam is, in my opinion, about a half a hair’s width from a deus ex machina. I mean how different is it really from having a god show up and fix everything?

    That being said, I use a lot of time travel in my stuff. Read my writing. It’s awesome and sparkles. Paradigm.

    • I would agree – time as a dimension or quantity or, well, as anything is simply human convention. Applying our limited perceptions onto an incomprehensible whole. However, walking too far down that path sort of negates, well, everything. And then I have nothing to complain about on my blog.

      True, it can be a writer’s laziness that sparks time travel. Often though, it is the author trying to be clever and simply not having the ability to follow through. They aren’t trying to quickly solve plot problems so much as trying to “shock and awe” the LCD with their “amazing” grasp of relativity. Usually, the best writers make time travel not a plot device but a bit of window dressing for an already strong plot. That’s when it works IMO, but it is rare to see.

      Sparkly flashbacks intended to change a reader’s paradigm are not time travel…

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