August 19, 2009

The Time Traveler's Whiff?

Back when I was a kid, I was fascinated by the concept of time travel. After all, who among us – especially after an incredibly bad day – hasn’t wished they could go back and have a do-over, with the knowledge of what exactly one needed to do-over to avoid finishing the day wishing they could go back a do a do-over.

Science fiction, both in film and on TV, has had a field-day with this concept – Quantum Leap, Tru Calling, Journeyman, Frequency, Harry Potter, Star Trek, The Butterfly Effect, Primer – just to name a few. In general, there are two theories of how this might work… a “closed universe” theory and an “alternate timeline” theory.

In an alternate timeline theory of time travel, you can go back and change things. As Doc Brown explains in Back to the Future… when the events of the past are altered in “your 1955,” you end up in a different 1985 than the one you started in before your trip. In order to “set things right,” you have to go to an earlier point in the timeline than where the “fork” took off from in order to “restore things to normal.”

In a closed universe theory of time travel, there is nothing you can do to affect the past. All events that led up to you being able to go back in time will happen, regardless of any interference on your part. So, no matter how hard Bruce Willis tries to alter the past in 12 Monkeys he ends up actually being the impetus for his own future course of events.

Now I have not seen the movie, The Time Traveler’s Wife nor do I plan to, as word of mouth has been less than stellar, and as someone who read the book several years ago, all I’ve heard leads me to believe it has been butchered to the point of non-recognition. I liked the book for the very reason of its ambiguity as to whether or not the Henry (Eric Bana) and Clare (Rachel McAdams) characters really have a choice or not in whether or not they can change the past.

Henry believes he cannot change his past… but why? Because he was told he couldn’t by his older self. We, as the reader, also are told by Henry that he’s tried many times to change his past and has found it impossible. However, we’re also hearing his account first-person and quite frankly, why should we believe him? After all, the first time he ever jumped in time, as a young child, it was an older version of himself that found him, and comforted him, and then trained him in the art of “time-travel survival.”

Why did he do this? Couldn’t he have simply avoided his younger self the entire evening? Not spoken to him? Refused to tell him anything at all? I think he very well could have – except for one key thing… Henry didn’t want to change his past, because it led him to Clare.

Similarly, Clare could have simply never looked for Henry when she grew up. If for some reason their paths did cross, she could have simply refused to identify herself to him – after all, when she meets Henry, it is BEFORE the time when Henry goes back in time to meet her as a child. He doesn’t yet know she is his future wife. But again, she doesn’t want to change her future. She is in love with Henry and doesn’t want to jeopardize that.

So for all the talk about how these two characters were powerless to change their fate, I believe they had all the power – they simply chose to let it play out. And as a husband and a father, I completely understand. If I were given the power today to go back in time and change my past, even a little bit, I wouldn’t take it. I wouldn’t risk not meeting my wife when I did, and there isn’t enough money in the world that would make me gamble on my son turning out any different than he has.

Now, if you want to give me the power to go back to yesterday, armed with today’s winning lottery numbers, I’m all for it. But more than that, and I’m afraid I’ll let it play out exactly the way it has – time after time.

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