Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

22.11.63, time travel and paradoxes

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Stephen King. I think Carrie is a stunning debut novel and a fantastic concept, IT scared me so much I couldn't sleep and I believe The Shining is one of the best examples of storytelling in the English language. 22.11.63 is a total change of direction for the horror writer but then, so was the Shawshank Redemption and look how that turned out. A great storyteller should be able to turn his or her hand to any kind of story, I reckon. I devoured his time slip story and could hardly put it down.

I was thinking about 22.11.63 this morning and chatting to The Good Husband about time travel and paradoxes. King's clearly thought hard about this side of the story and come up with some clever counters. We've probably all heard of the Grandfather Paradox; ie the idea that, if you could travel back in time, you could kill your own Granddad, thereby erasing yourself from existence. Stephen Hawking took this a step further in his Into the Universe series, describing seeing yourself down a worm hole through time and shooting a gun... King's counter to this is pragmatic - Yes, you could kill your granddad but why would you? In a sense, this is the only place the logic of the book falls down for me because there would always be someone who would, just because they could, in order to set off the paradox and see what happened.

In fact, there's a wider problem with this solution to the paradox because the Grandfather Paradox and even Hawking's picture of the bullet down the wormhole, both are massive simplifications. Everything is causal. You go back and change anything at all, even stand on and kill an insect, you change the world completely. Here's an example. If I had a time machine and looked back at history, I might decide that the First World War was an abomination, which it no doubt was. Over 15 million deaths and 20 million casualties. A sickening example of the price of human conflict. So I might decide to go back and stop the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or summat, and take out some of the aggressive European leaders, and stop the whole thing in its tracks.

In kicks The Grandfather paradox, see. The thing that I might not know (except that I do because of my sister's recent work on our family tree) is that, without the First World War, I would not exist. My Grandfather was the product of his mother's second marriage. My great grandma, Elizabeth Goodwin, was widowed when her husband, Frank Morton Boot (there's a good ode Nottinum name for yer), died in Flanders. So, whilst I wouldn't be killing my granddad by stopping the war, I would be effectively preventing his existence too, and hence my own. It's all a bit mindblowing if you think about it too hard. This flies in the face of King's solution in a number of ways. There are so many unlikely things that have to happen for any one of us to come into being that changing anything would change the population of the world completely. And hence, risk the chance of destroying our own conception. And, besides that, without the emotional punch of actually having to shoot our own Granddad, we might just decide that it's worth it to save all of those people. We might go ahead and risk the paradox anyway.

More compelling in King's world of time slip, is his invention of the 'obdurate past'. ie You can change history but history doesn't like it and will fight you. In King's story, in order to make any significant change, you pretty well almost die trying. I like this idea and it's one I could go for more. Like my husband suggested; if you did manage to kill your Granddad, you'd probably find out he wasn't there at your mum's or dad's conception after all... In fact, some of the issues with the consequences of changing the past do play out in King's novel but I won't say too much; no spoilers.

Whilst the logic of King's story didn't entirely hold for me, I was happy to suspend my disbelief. It got me to thinking about suspension of disbelief and where that comes from. Common wisdom is that it's to do with consistency of the world and it playing by its own rules but I'm not sure that entirely happens in this book. What I decided, in the end, was that it was because I was rooting for the characters and enjoying the story. I was prepared to leave the science behind me because I wanted to know what happened. So, I think it was about the power of the storytelling, in the end.

King says he'll never write another time slip novel because of the perils of trying to keep everything properly consistent between the timelines. I know this should put me off but it doesn't - it fires me up to have a crack at one myself! I'm not sure a writer has done anything that original with this concept for a while, although I'd be happy to be corrected on that, and to be pointed to books that have. I quite enjoy having my head twisted by these things.

47 comments:

Jonathan said...

Whether the Grandfather Paradox is a paradox or not depends on how time works. Many people have written time-travel stories and found many different ways of handling it.

A common one is that, when you go back in time, you start a new time track: the old track and the new one exist in parallel. You originated in the old one, where your origin is undisturbed.

Some writers don't bother with parallel time tracks but just suppose that going back in time replaces one version of the universe with another. You killed your grandfather, so you never get born in the new universe, but you exist in it as an adult interloper from a previous version of the universe.

I seem to remember one or more writers imagining that time-travellers could exist in the past after changing history, but would wink out of existence if they returned to their own times. I'm not quite sure of the rationale for that.

In the film "The terminator", a time-traveller from the future fathers a son, but his trip from the future was a direct result of the son's activities as an adult. This is actually worse than the Grandfather Paradox: it seems logically impossible no matter how time works.

Niki V said...

Yes, that drives me a bit mad about the Terminator movies and it's never explained! There are a few similar things in the Doctor Who mythos too that feel very contradictory.

The splitting time tracks idea is interesting and, yes, this gets rid of the Grandfather paradox. It adds a whole load of others, though. Like where does all the new matter come from in the new Universe, for example? And, if you disappeared from the old one, doesn't one of the places have more matter than it should and so isn't a copy?

I think I might need a lie down if I keep thinking about all this stuff for long enough!

Brian Clegg said...

I think you need to take a look at my 'Build Your Own Time Machine'… :-)

Niki V said...

You're right, Brian, I do. Been meaning to get hold of that one for a while, actually. :)

Farah said...

This post reminded me of the fun I had reading Stephen Fry's 'Making History' - and I loved your husband's add-on about the further unanticipated and undesirable consequences of killing your grandfather!

Niki V said...

Yes, that made me smile when he said it. Thanks Farah.

Andrew Kells said...

Great post, Niki - King's novel is still on my 'to read' list.

The great thing about time-travel stories is they can be whatever you want them to be - from a detailed exploration of the principles, to boldly going back without worrying too much about ripping holes in spacetime stuff, to all points in between.

The interesting part (for me) is exploring what drives a character to leave a linear life behind to be somewhen else - what are they striving to be closer to, or to get away from... rather than just a temporal travelogue.

It'll be interesting to see what your take on it would be - the trick is sticking to the rules you've set yourself (prepare for a lot of head-scratching): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_travel#Rules_of_time_travel (thanks to Jonathan Palfrey for the link)

Kinga Bee said...

Hi, there is a bizarre Spanish film Timecrimes (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0480669/) which deals with the concept in an interesting way I think. I would recommend it.

btw. thanks for the comment on my blog. I have replied.

Niki V said...

Thanks Kinga. I'll check that out. Have you heard about The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes? It's not out until next year but sounds quite interesting and perhaps along similar lines. http://www.thebookseller.com/news/shining-girl-beukes-lands-hc.html

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A common one is that, when you go back in time, you start a new time track: the old track and the new one exist in parallel. You originated in the old one, where your origin is undisturbed.

Some writers don't bother with parallel time tracks but just s

DIANA RACHEL said...

A common one is that, when you go back in time, you start a new time track: the old track and the new one exist in parallel. You originated in the old one, where your origin is undisturbed.

Some writers don't bother with parallel time tracks but just s

DIANA RACHEL said...

A common one is that, when you go back in time, you start a new time track: the old track and the new one exist in parallel. You originated in the old one, where your origin is undisturbed.

Some writers don't bother with parallel time tracks but just s

Anonymous said...

Great post, Niki - King's novel is still on my 'to read' list.

Babar said...

Yes, that drives me a bit mad about the Terminator movies and it's never explained! There are a few similar things in the Doctor Who mythos too that feel very contradictory.

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