To Every Patriarch, A Paradox

I would kill Hitler.

You know, if I had a time machine at my disposal.

Yes: I would be THAT GUY in the time-travel story.

And therein lies my point.

Which is: gosh, but we’ve been coasting for a long time, haven’t we? Shields down to seventy percent…if we change the past we might erase the future, so we dare not…I’m going out there/I’m going with you!/It’s too dangerous/I can’t let you do this alone…! (Aspiring Hollywood actresses: study this.) All the little tricks of our trade, so boring, so boring now. All the little permission-codes, that make stories so easy to write. But all — ALL — just so much panelbeating. The visitors from the alternate history are actually dark reflections of ourselves — GASP! We must change how things are going to be, lest we become them!

Oh, lestn’t we?

…Hi, I’m the Batman of Earth-1221, I call myself Wonder Woman and I ride an ass-kicking unicorn possessed by an ancient demon…glad to meet you, I’m the Blue Beetle of Earth-1692, my secret identity is Clark Kent and I’m an actual fucking BEETLE…who has a magic SWORD, given to me by the wizard SHAZAM…and by the way did you know there are an infinite number of universes, all as stupid as this one…?

So, well…guess there’s nothing more to see, here.

We cannot interfere in the development of another culture…!

Or else what?

Through linking our minds together, the power of our LOVE will avert this cosmic catastrophe by knitting reality back TOGETHER…!

But that trick ALWAYS works!

No…too much power…! OVERLOADING…!

Wait, wasn’t that your whole bit in the first place…?

I love you…but because I love you, I can’t BE with you! Because I have to PROTECT you…!

And that’s why you must die!

I would kill Hitler, I tell you.

After all, why not?

Sure, many people now alive would never have been born…but many more who didn’t deserve to have their lives taken from them would live. And isn’t that a fair enough trade-off? I mean, how fair does it have to be? If you really believe in this hoary old time-travel standard, then you already believe that we can never know what would have been, what might happen, what the consequences really are…and as I’ve said before, this is what time-travel is really all about, the literary delineation of the struggle with fate we all experience in our daily lives. We don’t know the consequences of our actions, but we have no choice…except to act nonetheless, and hope it all works out. It isn’t supposed to be easy. There aren’t supposed to be any rules. If I hadn’t spilled the coffee, if I’d only asked her out when I had the chance, if I hadn’t forgotten the combination, if I had only bought Apple in the 70s…

There is no one, no one who has ever lived, who hasn’t had these problems to grapple with. There never will be, either: it is simply the very core of the human condition.

By extension, therefore:

Dare you stop that serial killer from doing away with that innocent blond child?

You know in the future, many races will become allies, because of the Daleks…

Hitler. The idea is, that as human beings we’re fairly likely to perform self-sacrificial actions. You might do it for a baby in a stroller, old school chum, teammate, person on the street. Well, at any rate, you might. You might not, of course. That’s really up to you, and it’s not my place to judge…

However if we’re to exercise the slightest honesty in our lives, we should be capable of admitting that (at least) we know we ought to be willing to perform such sacrifices. And this is where the standard permission-rules of the average time-travel story let us down, these days, because they strip dilemma of its dramatic power: characters are kept well away from that hot stove, for fear they might actually decide for themselves whether or not to touch it. The inversion of the everyday grappling with destiny is thwarted, and thus time-travel’s original association with the monkey’s paw is broken up.

Because modern day time-travel stories like to play dress-up, carefully putting the mask of Oedipus in place over their features before they hit the stage…

But underneath the Oedipal mask, their true face is still the face of Abraham.

This creates a certain amount of dissonance, I think. Abraham, will you sacrifice your son for me? Not crazy about the idea, actually, Lord…but, I guess so. We are not supposed to like this story too much, and in fact we don’t — a dislike only slightly ameliorated by the bit at the end, where God rescues Abraham and his son by performing one of his famous miracles. Well, but isn’t every action taken by God necessarily a miracle…?

Time-travel’s central concerns are all distinctly Abrahamic: what are the consequences of action? What are the consequences of inaction? What is the value of faith, and can one ever live without it? Take away the miracle, and you have the daily existential grind of the average man on the street, shopping for bread. But add in the various permission-rules (and, I should also say, neglect to hire a good writer to use them innovatively), and you might as well have God stop Abraham on his way up the mountain, and say “when you get to the top…here’s what you have to do…”

Of course in the modern SF/adventure story, we often embroider the Abrahamic pas-de-deux of dilemma and miracle with the motif of the Third Option. This makes for good half-hour TV programming, and personally I love the stuff: the last-ditch attempt to save the ship/planet/galaxy/universe/whatever fails…leaving only five untethered minutes for Mr. Spock or The Doctor to come up with a last-ditch attempt beyond the last-ditch attempt…in other words, a miracle. Absolutely gorgeous stuff, indispensible, and the heart of this particular hybrid genre. As a fan, I adore it.

But it’s very difficult to pull off when time-travel’s involved, because time-travel is a completely different kind of embroidery on the Abrahamic cloth, and it isn’t really compatible with the Third Option. Time-travel is itself the Third Option, really, in that fictional weave…so when you begin with time-travel, it’s very difficult to go back to Third Options. Not impossible, of course. But difficult. Because the thing you might otherwise use to solve the dilemma, is what’s creating it in the first place. The miracles are all out, already: all fully in play. So what actors are left after that, to play God’s part? I called it an inversion, because that’s just what it is: in that situation, all that’s left to the story is Abraham’s dilemma, and his faith. That’s the only “miracle” you get, then: finding out what kind of sacrifice he’ll choose to make.

But add in the rules, and you don’t even get that. Which is why I would kill Hitler anyway, and all you redshirts would think I was a crazy man: because don’t you see we have to destroy these rules, in order to save them. God, I feel like I’ve been getting too much Nietzsche in my diet, or something, but…yes: kill Hitler, date Mary Jane, expect nothing, blame no one, and embrace paradox…! If that’s all that’s left. Yes, interfere with that culture! Yes, assert that multiversal primacy of “your” reality! Yes, save that blond-haired innocent child! And let those shields go down to zero already, for God’s sake!

Shoot that Hitler, damn you! You’ve got him in your sights!

That’s what this should all be about.

“Oooo, but I can’t shoot Hitler, it would damage the timeline…”

Christ, what are you even doing in this story, then? Jesus, can’t you at least think about shooting him?

For God’s sake, is there no beginning to the sacrifices you’re willing to make?


22 responses to “To Every Patriarch, A Paradox

  1. That’d be like, the third thing I’d do with a time machine. 1st is a foolproof method for finding what the rules of time travel are, then, Robot armor or other rad future tech, then: Kill Hitler.

  2. Three stories:

    1. Candide. We live in the best of all possible worlds. Therefore, if you go back and change history, you’re changing the world from one that is the best of all possible worlds to one that isn’t, and why would you want to do that?

    2. Making History, by Stephen Fry. Guy uses a time machine to prevent Hitler from being conceived. And it doesn’t work out that well, as the socioeconomiphilosophical forces at work in Germany produce the Nazi Party anyway, only this time the leader is a much cannier guy than Hitler, and Germany wins the war. Which is the lesson of Candide made specific.

    3. Time and Again, by Jack Finney. One of the all-time time-travel classics, by the way (but avoid the sequel!). Watch as I spoil the ending: the secret of time-travel is about to be abused by some governmental types, so the hero of the book goes back into time and prevents the parents of the guy who invented time-travel from ever meeting (it was, by the way, the inventor’s idea), and paradoxes be damned. And he lives happily ever after.

    But what are we talking about here–about what we would do in ‘real life’, should real life ever present us with such a preposterous situation? Or about what would make a good story in the context of all the other good stories we’ve seen/read? Because those are two different answers.

    In real life… I’m not at all convinced that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but I do believe that the world we live in is sufficiently far from the worst that I don’t want to trade it for Door Number Three.

    In a story, well… sure, why not? Let the chips fall where they may.

    (What I’d really do if I had a time machine? I’d go back and give myself some good advice when I was about… let’s say five years old. Actually I’d probably have to visit myself a few times over the years.)

    As for time-paradoxes… there’s no way to avoid them, is there? If you go back in time, then you’re back in time, and something is already different from how it was ‘originally’. That’s a paradox. You’re there, but you shouldn’t be there. If you sent a single atom back in time, that would, as far as the universe and the laws of logic are concerned, be just as bad as having Elvis elected president in 1960. You think the universe gives a rat about human history, any more than anything else going on with any other set of its atoms? So either don’t do time-travel at all, or do it and don’t worry about it.

  3. A lot of that is the basis for a story I’m writing that involves a new theory of time-travel for SF purposes, Matthew: briefly, the idea of time-travel itself (as you correctly note) is the same idea as a time paradox, and the two things are the same, but if time-travel worked it would work, and so…


    I’m quite proud of the answer I’ve concocted for that “how?”, but naturally I can’t go into detail. However on a purely literary level, rare indeed is the time-travel story that is not, from the word go, all about paradox. There’s no other reason to think about it, after all! “Guy goes back in time, has a blast.” There’s no story there. Because without the paradox element, it’s not a time-travel story at all, it’s a space-travel story — this is really the meaning of Einstein’s conjoined spacetime in GR, that these two things are different names for the same thing, and so time-travel is space-travel, space-travel is time-travel…and there’s only one kind of travel, which is through spacetime.

    And if time-travel were even possible at all, we would’ve already received “I Love Lucy” episodes well before the Fifties. Period.

    You know…on the face of it…

    And of course we’re all making the same decisions as any time-traveller every day in our ordinary lives. What will be the effect of my actions? Ed is fond of saying about C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books that one of the key ideas in them, if not the key idea, is that you don’t get to know what would have happened…sorry, you just don’t. Very advanced imagining of what time is actually like when you’re living through it, there…no, indeed: you’re not permitted to know.

    And time-travel stories can screw around with this, but maybe they’re tempted to screw around with it too much, I believe. The key is that the moment of interfering in the past is a dilemma, an Abrahamic action, and yet many of our modern fictional time-travellers seem not to feel that it is, which is surely a wasted storytelling opportunity, I think due to the innovations of a lot of earlier authors having fossilized into SF dogma.

    And, Bret: hah, you betcha. I was thinking, if you were gonna kill Hitler, why wouldn’t you kill Stalin too? But then why wouldn’t you kill any number of awful people throughout history. But then the farther back you go, the more likely you’ll be to wipe yourself out before you get any further. Even killing Hitler will likely erase you from existence, let alone Napoleon, and probably Cyrus The Great wasn’t any peach, either. So you’d basically have to be all Light Yagami about it, to do it right.

    Yes: I too would research the Death Note thoroughly, before setting my plan in motion.

  4. So great, always new angles to analyze and concepts to explore here. That’s what sci-fi really should be about. The best things maybe are the throw-away imaginary tales that get suggested along the way. Recent favorites include Depression-era Dreadstar and Matthew’s President Presley. Great!

    I suppose the existential dilemma of the go-back-in-time-and-change-history plot always comes down to questions of the existence of free will. No ready example springs to mind, but I like it when it becomes apparent that the time-traveler who thinks he or she is changing reality is revealed to be part of the program all along. Real change is not possible and their actions contribute to the matters they tried to alleviate. Though I don’t like it when time traveling characters become their own grandfather. That’s just gross. Talk about oedipal.

    In the comics of course changing events only generates alternate timelines. The remnants of the X-Men of 2013 can go to great effort to stop the Days of Future Past, but it doesn’t stop Kurt, Amanda and Illyana from being gunned down on the lawn of the School for Gifted Youngsters, merely creates a side stream where it doesn’t happen. And then Nimrod, who is the Fury, who is Death, eventually comes for you anyway because there’s no way to run from the Inevitable.

    I probably wouldn’t go back and kill Hitler, but if I had a vision of the nuclear apocalypse I’d shoot Greg Stillson while I still had the chance. But in some realities Johnny Smith is Farmer Ted/Rusty Griswold and Stillson ended up being the President for an hour a week, and much better then the one we got in the real world. The multiverse is strange indeed.

  5. I don’t like it when time traveling characters become their own grandfather. That’s just gross. Talk about oedipal.

    Check out Heinlein’s time-travel short story, “All You Zombies”. It’s infinitely creepier than that–it’s maximum creepy. I’m not even sure I should explain how.

  6. I hears ya. One of my favorite lines in “The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius” came when Barry and his friend travel back to the old west. Said friend asks if they shouldn’t worry about “affecting the timeline.” Barry responded by saying he could kill the whole town and it wouldn’t matter — humans have an exaggerated sense of their importance in the timestream.

    Barry then proceeded to mess things up, as Barry will do.

    Also, one of my ill-fated attempts at comic book fiction on my old blog was an “Hourman” story centered around this very premise.

    It begins in Our World, the normal one we know and kinda sometimes love. Our Hero, a Regular Guy who lives in a random subburb, makes a discovery: Our World is an aberration, a creation by an eeeevil bad guy who’s been tweaking the timelines. Due to the Bad Guy’s tweaks, he’ll be the Absolutest Eeeevil Monarch of Earth forever and ever, starting in the year 2200.

    Our Hero, bedecked with the time-travel gear of “Hourman,” courtesy of a crash-landed robot head from a now-erased timeline, has to race back and forth in the time stream to figure out how to prevent the conquest.

    The Beeg Tweest comes near the end. To prevent Bad Guy from achieving his goal, Our Hero has to take only one action. The “proper” timeline will be restored. But doing so will totally alter human history in subtle ways, preventing both himself and his lady love from ever being born. Our Hero considers that he could let it go — after all, the Bad Guy won’t actually take power for two more centuries. Leaving this be will save his family and his lady love.

    But he is Our Hero, and does what he must. Hourman pulls a roundabout maneuver in time that prevents the Bad Guy from existing. History snaps back to its proper shape.

    Our Hero returns to his home and our present, only to discover it’s now a giant, science-fiction looking city called “Metropolis,” and that there’s some dude in blue and red flying around in it. The right and proper state of Earth is the DC Universe version, filled with wonder and awe. Our Hero takes it in and hopes he made the right call.

    For a happy ending, the robot from the beginning created an individual time-paradox to allow the lady love to exist. Cheesy, true, but a downer ending felt forced. I am not a miserablist. Too old and crusty for that teenage crap.

  7. This reminds me of the idea I almost submitted for your “time travel TV show” thing. I had been thinking of something with a time traveling protagonist who, after one accidental change, keeps constantly trying to fix things, but of course keeps constantly getting farther and farther away from the timeline he knew. Not a terrifically original notion itself within the genre, sure, but I hoped that doing it as a kind of black farce, with the protagonist getting more and more, well, squirelly is the best word for it, and just keeping the pace of change as relentless as possible, almost like “After Hours” with a time machine, it might work. The name I had in mind was “Time Sucks”.
    I hadn’t thought of the right format, but I realized with your contest that a TV show would be ideal, especially a British style tightly scripted six episodes.
    This post makes me think that an episode where the protagonist becomes outright giddy and totally stops caring and goes nuts with the changes could be a good vein to tap for the funny.

  8. Ah! I remember you talking about that one — quite liked it, your description here doesn’t really do justice to the “After Hours”-y feeling you put forward.

    But, Ed…you were supposed to help judge the TV time-travel thing…

    Speaking of judges, did you know I got my celebrity judge all lined up for the SF Radio thing a couple of posts back? I hope I don’t have to tell him it’s all off…

  9. I’m sure it flies in the face of this entire discussion, but the new Futurama DVD-movie takes great pains to justify its paradox-free time travel. The story’s pretty good, although it’s more of a parallel-universe story than a time-travel one.

    (Enjoyed your story, Harvey!)

    … So, is an immutable timestream incompatible with a Multiverse? Or is it the thing which makes a Multiverse possible? Because, see, if I were to kill the Hitler of Earth-24, what would prevent me from jumping back to Earth-Prime and living my normal life? Oh sure, maybe there’s some thought that Future Nazis from Earth-24 would track me down — but if Earth-24 is “The One Where Tom Kills Hitler,” then it’s kind of academic, right? It’s like the Grant Morrison theory of the Crime Syndicate: their Earth is irredeemably evil, such that nothing the Justice League does will ever change that.

    Hmmm, better quit before I start down a path for which I’m not that well-prepared….

  10. The more I think about this, the more it sticks in my mind as a device for comedy, and not just the idea I discussed above. I mean, why the hell not have, rather than the usual timid tip-toe-ers, gleeful vandals?
    We’ve seen umpteen examples of various types of “time police” and sundry guardians of the “integrity of the timestream” in all sorts of media, be they comics, novels, television, whatever, but for the most part the only “time crooks” we’ve really seen are cool manipulators looking to use time travel to bring themselves wealth or power. Otherwise, most time travel related problems are usually the result of well-meaning bungling on the part of the protagonist.
    How about someone who just wants to mess with things to see how fucked up they get? Instead of Bill & Ted being innocent stoner goof-offs, how about if they were more like real rocker goofs we knew in our day? Not just “hey, if I kill Hitler, there might be negative consequences in the long run, but there just as easily might not, and besides, it’s fucking Hitler”, but “Dude! If we totally blow Hitlers brains out, who knows WHAT things will look like when we get back! It’s just too fucked up not to try it!”
    Well, I think it’s funny.

  11. Not at all, Tom! You and Adam put it perfectly: alternate histories are not real time-travel stories, so it doesn’t matter what you do in them. It doesn’t matter, both ways: yes, you can kill Hitler with impunity, but on the other hand Kurt, Amanda, and Illyana are still dead on the lawn, so I think it ultimately goes down as a loss no matter how you look at it. This is an extreme inversion of the Abrahamic dilemma: there are no consequences to your actions. There isn’t even any Oedipal fate to speak of. You just stay insignificant.

    To which I say, “bah”. There are only so many stories like that I can be bothered to read. And multiversally speaking, I suppose it doesn’t even matter if I read any of them at all.

    So where’s the moral?

    You could totally have one, of course. But when I read multiversal stories, I notice that hardly ever does anyone trouble themselves to cook a good one up. The ultimate question may still be Odin’s question, but the units of measurement have to keep pace with one another, don’t they? If you change one term, you should be changing all the others, too.

    You know what’s a good example of how this can get away from a writer? Michael Crichton’s “Timeline”. Not only does he end up awkwardly calling “A Conneticut Rabbit In King Arthur’s Court” to mind (rule for aspiring time-travel writers: avoid jousting scenes), but if they’re in a parallel universe, and not the past, then how does the old Professor’s note end up in the archaeological dig? Obviously it doesn’t, unless it comes from yet another parallel universe, in which the same tedious shit went down. Gosh. What a mess.

    And Harvey…yes, I like it too. The dilemma is well-phrased, and the miracle sounds like it would make sense. Because in the DCU, many more things are possible, right?

  12. Okay, Ed…I’m gonna have to steal that hook, if you don’t mind. Just steal it a little: a “Time Patrol” that’s a collection of hidebound, unimaginative, bumbling bureacratic tough-guy idiots who totally never get the point, and have all these retardedly unnecessary rules they try to enforce. Oh shit! Suddenly I love it.

    I should not have said this out loud.

  13. Uh yeah – Pax Romana. Coming out next week by Jonothan Hickman. It’s about the pope’s own Time Squad. And it’s exactly what you just said from what I understand. Sorry bout that.

  14. Damn!

    …No, wait, actually that’s okay. I’m envisioning something a lot different from what that sounds like. But even if it isn’t all that different, isn’t that why they make Pepsi and Coke?

    Best of all, this means I haven’t given anything away.


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  16. Sorry, I’ve just realized I forgot to point something out about the hopelessly-fossilized “alternate timeline” time-travel in Marvel Comics.

    It’s already contradicted. Ben Grimm became Blackbeard. The FF, Dr. Strange, and the West Coast Avengers all interact with the Pharoah Rama-Tut. Hawkeye plants a rescue note in Bonita Juarez’ family Bible (LOVE that touch!), where it’s discovered a hundred years later. Dr. Strange stops Morgana Blessing’s soul-shard before it hits the origin of human consciousness. All of that takes place in the “actual” past, not a parallel timeline — and just coincidentally, every one of those stories would suck, if the “real” past wasn’t involved.

    I said all this before, but it can’t hurt to repeat it: Roy Thomas tried to fix the whole mess in that MTIO Annual with the Invaders, but no one was paying attention (except possibly Kurt Busiek). Too bad: I loved the simplicity of the Watcher’s “time wedge”…

    It will come up again, I’m sure.

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