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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Good and Bad Paradoxes

I feel like it's time to broach a geeky subject.

"But, Justin!" You say, "You do that all the time."

"No," I answer from the peak of my ivory tower, "You have seen only the shadow of my nerd. It is enormous. If I were to whip my nerd out then it'd be like, Whump! That's my nerd hitting the floor."

So time travel is probably the most romanced element of science fiction, but it's also the least reliant on actual science.

I think that's a good thing. A very good thing, actually. It's safe to say that nobody is ever going to jump into a Delorean, rev up to 88 MPH and leave fire-laced tire tracks as they punch a hole through reality; but who cares as long as it's really fucking awesome, right?

Back to the Future. Terminator 2. Futurama. Star Trek(2009). Bill and Ted(Fuck yes, Bill and Ted!). They all kicked ass. This is the good time travel fiction.

But then there's the bad time travel fiction, and while you can usually tell the two apart by relying on the normal qualifying elements of good fiction like character and plot and crap, with time travel you can also rely on something else:

How they handle the paradoxes.

I don't care if paradoxes are handled in a scientific manner. That's not really the problem, because we are dealing with time travel, right? (In the classical sense, not the MIT theoretical physicist sense).

So there will be paradoxes, which are situations that, when you think about them in a logical sense, won't make any logical sense at all.

And every sci-fi time-travel writer has a different means of handling this situation.

Back to the Future

In Back to the Future if you create a paradox (like mess with your parents so they never bother to conceive you) you will be erased from existence.

But it won't happen immediately. First a photo of your siblings will start to fade and disappear in the creepiest way imaginable (if I was Marty I don't think I'd be able to carry that photo around).
Then, when it gets really bad, you'll actually begin to fade away yourself, one limb at a time.

But even if you manage to keep yourself from being erased from existence and you hop back to the present, everything is going to be different.

Except for you.

That's right. Sorry Marty but the world you left behind is no more. Everything is better here, but you can never go back to the world you grew up in. You changed the time-flow and now it's always going to feel wrong.
Enjoy the life you inherited with all the people you thought you knew but are now just strangers with familiar faces. That's the power of love.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

Paradox? What paradox? Bill and Ted avoid them the way most drunks survive car accidents: Just go limp, don't pay any attention to what's going on, and you can live through just about anything.
Take the scene where Bill and Ted meet their future selves. "Hey, what number are you thinking of?" "69!"
Yeah, that scene.

And then later on they become their future selves meeting their past selves from earlier in the movie and go on to perform exactly the same scene. And why did they do that? Why not say something slightly different? Why not tease the laws of time and space? Is the universe really held together by the fact that Bill and Ted are simply too stupid to say anything different?

The answer is yes.
This isn't Primer. It's Bill and Ted.

Okay, let's get to the shit.

The Time Machine (2002)

What I got from this movie was the vivid image of some horrible, cherubic deity smirking with sadistic glee as he focused all of his limitless attention on the torture of one poor bastard.

So there's this fellow by the name of Dr. Hartdegen, and he's got a chick named Emma.

Emma dies an untimely death, and in his grief Dr. Hartdegen does what any man in his situation would do: He builds a motherfucking time machine, travels through motherfucking time and saves his girl. Pretty cool right?

At least it is until ten minutes later when Emma dies again.

The time machine still works, though, so Dr. Hartdegen does a second run, saving Emma another time...

And he watches her die a third time.

This process repeats over and over, cementing the fact that time and space is like a very fat man. You can slap his belly as hard as you'd like, but all that flesh is eventually going to roll back into place.
Basically, the little things don't mean shit but the big things, like Emma's death, must happen, which is sort of an anti-paradox system. You can't have conflicting logic if everything is pre-determined.

The tragedy of this movie is that during the first half-hour I really, really enjoyed it, but then we get to the distant future and all of the intelligence and charm and drive is replaced by a two-bit action adventure.

In most sci-fi movies the time travel bits makes them better, but this one just goes bland.

A Sound of Thunder(2005)

(Screw the movie trailer. Rock your balls off with some Warhammer-inspired metal by A Sound of Thunder).

Now here's the opposite situation: It's the little things that matter.

For instance: You fart on a butterfly in the year 20 million BC, and this act of flatulence sets off a chain reaction that rewrites the course of evolution.
Okay, that part makes sense, but when you're done crapping on the wildlife and you get back to your dumb-shit, modern world everything is still just the way you left it, and it's only later when it all goes goofy.

But it's not really time that messes up. It's evolution. Starting with lower-evolved life forms, all of the species on Earth are changing into their alternate-timeline forms, or maybe they're spontaneously appearing. One or the other. I don't fucking know. It's not like I remember this shit. You think I'm going to watch this movie again just to find out for you? Remembering A Sound of Thunder is like remembering a really boring dream you had six months ago. And it's not even your dream. It's some other guy telling it to you, but he can't remember it too well so he keeps going back and trying to describe it over and over again, and if he would just shut up for two seconds you're positive that the first words out of your mouth would be, "Fuck off!"

And then he turns into a dinosaur man.

Why the hell did that city get covered in vines and moss and crap? Shouldn't the city have disappeared? Wouldn't that make more sense?

Here's a better question: If farting on a paleolithic butterfly causes a slow, horrible evolutionary apocalypse and nothing else, then why would you ever want to risk travelling through time?

Time Cop

Doctor Who

Now it's time for the worst offender of the all-too-loose rules of time travel fiction: Doctor Who.

I don't even know where to start.

How about that one episode where the Doctor is reading a letter written by a recently departed lost love of his. He was supposed to meet up with her, he was supposed to see her again, but he fucked up the whole time-flow situation (excusable for you and me, but not if you're a god-damned TimeLord), he missed a few decades, and she was dead before they could be reunited. The poor Doctor, right?
Sure, I'd feel sympathy for the guy, except that he's reading the letter inside of a time machine.
God forbid he fixes his own mistake and at least drops in for a minute or two so he can give this poor woman some piece of mind.

What an ass.

Or how about when the TARDIS gets jerry-rigged into a Paradox Machine, which is like saying I tweaked my car into a people-moving machine.

Or how about that episode where Rose is in the past, watching her father about to get creamed by a car, and instead of watching her old man die she pushes him out of the way and saves his life.
Given that the Doctor manages to save an average of two or three million lives an episode(past, present and future), saving one dude from getting hit by a car doesn't seem like such a big deal.

But guess what? It is.
It's so bad that a bunch of monsters materialize out of thin air and start devouring people.

Rarrr! You're not the Doctor! You don't get to do stuff!

The Doctor is pissed about Rose taking initiative and he gets right in her face, calling her a stupid ape and some other racist shit.

But Rose (bless her), goes and makes an excellent point:

"Yeah, but you save people and change history all the time, and none of this crap ever happens to you."

                     "I know what I'm doing. You don't."

What the fuck does that mean?
That's not an answer. That's not even close to an answer.

It's not like I'm asking for an honest, scientific explanation for the shit that goes on in Doctor Who, but could you at least make something up? Something consistent? Anything?

And saying it's like Back to the Future doesn't count. We both know that's not how it works. Not even close.

To summarize (Doctor Who):

Awful science.
Bad science-fiction.
Decent fiction.
Great music.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, so that's why Van Damme became a crackhead! I was wondering what his problem was.