Time on My Hands
I’ve been thinking about time a lot, lately.
It started when I played through the game Quantum Break, and it turned out to be one of the few stories that treats time travel really logically. Throughout the game you’re continually confronted with the idea that events in time are fixed, that they can’t be changed. That time is a singular consistent series of events. You can’t go back in time and change things, because those things already happened. This is the crux of the conflict in the game, because there’s lots of things that happen that you really wish didn’t, and yet no matter how much you try you can’t undo those things. All you can do is try to move forward and fix things in the future.
And then I watched Primer. And I was disappointed. Primer is a good film, and worth watching, especially as it’s only like an 67 minutes long. It’s not a lot of commitment. But it had been sold to me by literally everyone who has seen it as being the best time travel story ever. So I went in expecting some great time travel shenanigans. I expected it to really treat time travel well. And it didn’t. It did the same shit that nearly ever time travel story ever does: time travel is used to go back and change things. It’s a great story about Man’s reach exceeding his grasp (though I’m getting a little tired of that theme to be honest), but the time travel is just as flawed as ever. The opening of the 3rd act will throw you. It’s meant to throw you. Woooo, the movie got complicated because it forgot to show you several key (though upon reflection, obvious) scenes. But it does that not because the time travel is convoluted, but rather to show you how out of control the technology has become. It’s effective. But I was still disappointed that “the best time travel movie” used poor time travel logic.
So many stories about time travel revolve around wish fulfillment. Make it didn’t happen. Our hero goes back in time, changes things, comes back to the present, and life is awesome. But that doesn’t work, and it’s obvious why. That present you come back to after changing things wouldn’t be the present you left. It’s different. At best, you’ve returned to an alternate reality and there’s now two of you running around. The you that went back in time to change things, and the you that grew up in this altered timeline. Marty McFly doesn’t get the cool parents and the truck he wants, those belong to the Marty McFly born to those cool parents. The Marty McFly that went back in time had nerd parents. They’re different Marties. So unless we’re acknowledging a multiverse sort of environment, this just leads to problems and really messes with causality.
As far as I’m concerned, The Terminator is still the best time travel film ever made. Not T2, the popular one. The first in the franchise. And it’s wonderful because it’s a closed loop scenario. In the distant future of 1999, the machines wage war upon mankind. John Conner, leads the human resistance and ultimately defeats Skynet (said so right in the film). But before Skynet finally falls to the humans it pulls a crazy scifi hail marry and sends a robot assassin back in time to kill John Conner’s mother before he was even conceived, thus leaving the human resistance without a leader to organize them from the get go and rewriting the entire history of the war. Despite the machines clearly being dumber than a 7th grader who would know that if they did kill John Conner, then he would have never defeated them, prompting them to kill him, so he’d be alive to defeat them…paradox. Anyway, plot happens, and not only does the Austrian robot assassin fail to kill Sarah Conner, but the soldier sent back in time after the machine to protect Sarah Conner impregnates her. Thus Sarah Conner will give birth to humanity’s savior and the machines are destined to be defeated even before the war begins. The machines’ attempt to make It didn’t happen directly lead to It happening. It’s a closed loop. It’s perfect.
All evidence points to time being fixed like this anyhow. We all agree that you can’t change the past. Even if you could go back in time (which most physics agrees is impossible), you couldn’t change anything because from your perspective these things have already happened, even if you’re “now” watching them happen “again.” So, if we can’t change the past because it’s happened, why are we so conceited to believe we can change the future? It hasn’t happened yet, sure. Not to us. But what about future people? Our future is their past the same as our past is Cleopatra’s future. If Cleo can’t change her future because it has already happened from our perspective, why should we be allowed to change the future that is undoubtedly someone else’s past?
Now, before you think I’m gonna tell you that free will is a lie, and that choice is meaningless, I will tell you that that’s a bunch of nonsense. Choice is vitally important. What you or I or any of us choose to do, will shape what will happen. No less so than Cleo’s choices shaped our past. The events of tomorrow will be dictated by the actions of us here, now, today, as well as the actions of billions of us in all of the yesterdays. We can and will shape the future, but we can’t change it.
Here’s where I’ve gotten it to: What will be, will be. No less so, than what has been, is. The future cannot change any more than the past. But while we know (more or less) what has happened, we cannot know what will happen. We can only guess. We can project, imagine, model, and guess at what the future might hold, and take actions to make the future fit or not fit those projections as we wish. But we will make the predictions we are bound to make based on our past experiences, our hopes, and dreams, and fears all of which are based on what has happened before. And we will make our choices. And we will take our actions. And we will arrive at the future we set… but just because we can imagine multiple possibilities, does not mean that there are multiple actual futures. We will experience only one future, as much as we have only experienced one past. Our actions matter, but events cannot be changed.
If this seems like two contradictory thoughts and find yourself uncomfortable trying to hold them both in your head at once, don’t worry. You’re hardly alone. It is this very conflict of world views that makes games like Quantum Break, and the time travel bits of movies like Interstellar so very interesting. Reconciling the idea of having control of our lives and existence and the all but immutable truth that the future is written and predestination is a real thing, is an amazing conflict. In the end though, it probably doesn’t matter. Our understanding of what has already happened is hazy even in the best of circumstances, as we are prone to rewriting our own memories and histories to suit our own purposes. No reason to expect we won’t re-imagine and rework that which has yet to be as well. It probably is best to live in the moment, and keep doing the best we can right here and now.
Time will sort itself out.