Friday, August 28, 2015

Past imperfect



I give due respect to novelists who write about time travel. Given that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, you just know some snarky reviewer who pans the book is going to say, “I wish I could go back in time to before I read this book and convince myself not to do it!” That said, I also give due criticism to those same writers. While the premise of time travel is enormously fun and appealing, it never, ever, ever, ever, ever makes sense. Ever.

Without getting into quantum physics (which I couldn’t get into even if I tried), the proof is quite simple: The only way you could go back and change past events is if all possible timelines exist at once. If this is the case, then it doesn’t really matter what you do in the past, so why worry about whether you do the right thing? And if you can go back but can’t change events—if there’s only a single timeline, and everything is predestined, and changes you try to effect in the past will still lead to the same outcome—well, then most of those time travel books don’t work, since most of them are about people trying to avoid bad change and create good change, plus who would ever go back in time if you could only be a passive witness, if it’s just going to be a documentary minus the Ken Burns montage effect.

There’s another issue in the fact that many of these time travel stories have a certain degree of nostalgia about the era to which the time traveler travels. This assumes that the era in question would welcome you—an assumption that doesn’t work for most of the people on earth in most past eras. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is just about the only time travel novel I’ve read that addresses this fact—her time traveler is a black woman who travels back to an America that still accepts slavery—and as such it’s one of the very few time travel tales that I grudgingly concede works pretty well. But come on, Terminator? Didn’t make sense the first time, much less the hundred and twelfth time.

I admit that the idea of traveling to another world, doing so by moving through time rather than space, is an intriguing and exciting one. It’s fascinating to think about where we came from and how we got here, plus come on, the past had hats. I like that there was a time when everyone wore hats. The irksome part of time travel stories comes when the characters who are whisked off to the past are given some kind of crucial mission, upon which the fate of humanity rests. In the book I just finished reading for my book group, a character goes back just a handful of decades to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination, believing that this will prevent all manner of turmoil and destruction that followed in the 1960s and 1970s. The book doesn’t quite make it clear why the character believes this, though I suppose it might be sufficient motive for him to prevent all manner of boring conspiracy theory debates. Still I couldn’t help but wonder why the guy couldn’t have just stayed in his own time and, like, tried to prevent bad stuff from happening today. Sure, the late ‘50s and early ‘60s didn’t use quite so much high fructose corn syrup in its root beer, but is that really any reason to ditch the now for the then? Why is it so much more compelling to fix the mistakes of the past? We’re still making those mistakes right now. Why not try to change the mistakes of the present?

On a personal level, there are a lot of things in my life I wish I could have done differently, yet I try very hard to avoid thinking about these things. If I had to send a two-word message to my teenage self, as per the facebook meme, the best I could think of is “Avoid perms.” (I was around in the ‘80s, you know.) If you allowed me two million words (the approximate length of that time travel novel I just read), I still couldn’t come up with anything to persuade my past self to do anything other than what she did—because what I did came from who I was. I cringe a lot when I think about who I was, even in the non-perm years, because even if my hair was OK there still probably something huge I was fucking up. Still, all of that had to happen for me to get to the point where I now understand just how badly I fucked up. And in fact I did manage to change the future, even without time travel, because I became a different person. Thirty years ago I was a glum, clueless kid in Hawaii. Twenty years ago I was someone who lived in Manhattan, worked on Wall Street, and looked down at anyone who bought bagels from a grocery store instead of H&H. Ten years ago I was a university professor working towards tenure, being told that it was OK to say “no” to yet another committee assignment and taking on the damn thing anyway. Today I write books, run ridiculous distances, and live in a subdivision that’s right next to a cornfield. Who the hell could have predicted that.

Going forward, I most likely will continue to fall for the lure of the time travel tale. I don’t know whether my future self will look back at this time in my life and cringe—or sigh, wistfully, and long to go back. I hope it’s neither; I could do without wallowing in either regret or nostalgia. Who knows, though. Guess I’ll have to get in my time machine and travel, slowly, minute after minute, into the future.