Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why I Hate Time Travel

The summer blockbuster season has arrived and it seems that the words of the day are “time travel.” Time travel is all the rage, and appears prominently in the latest “Star Trek” installment, as well as being a key element of Terminator: Salvation. Time travel was also a frequent theme of the Terminator television series, and of course is crucial to ABC’s ever popular LOST.

Time Travel in Science Fiction

While the latest Star Trek movie installment was hailed as “original” and “groundbreaking,” time travel is actually an extremely common element of the Star Trek series. It was the theme of four Star Trek Movies (“The Voyage Home,” “Generations” and “First Contact,” in addition to the latest installment), and has appeared multiple times in every Star Trek series (TOS: City on the Edge of Forever, Assignment: Earth, TNG: Yesterday’s Enterprise, Time’s Arrow, DS9: Little Green Men, Trials and Tribble-ations, VOY: Future’s End, Relativity, ST:E: Cold Front, Zero Hour).

The Terminator series is completely reliant on time travel to tell its story. Clearly time travel is a popular device for purveyors of science fiction. So why do I hate it so much?

Problems with Time Travel

My problems with time travel, like time travel itself, span multiple dimensions. These dimensions are Physical, Metaphysical, Logical and Aesthetic. To address each of these in turn:


Time travel the way it is depicted in most fiction is impossible. This, frankly, is the least of my concerns with time travel, as science fiction is generally predicated on the impossible. However, I just thought I’d put it out there. The whole idea of time travel is usually designed around Einstein’s Relativity theories, which essentially state that how fast time moves depends on your perspective, and that space and time exist together along a continuum. The faster you are moving and the farther away you are from an object, the slower time appears to you relative to the object that isn’t moving as fast or that you are far away from. The theory continues to suggest that if you could move fast enough, you could theoretically move backwards through the time stream, and there are in fact particles that do this, called tachyons.

The problem with all of this for say, Ambassador Spock, is that as one approaches the speed of light, one’s mass becomes infinite, and the human (or Vulcan) body is not really equipped for infinite mass, so anyone traveling through a black hole or some kind of particle accelerator might reappear back in time, but they would do so as so much mush.


Again, the physical objection is no big deal. Superman shouldn’t be able to fly either and I’m fine with that. I’m also not too caught up in the metaphysical problems, but I should address them as well.

The metaphysical problems are the paradoxes. There is the classic “Grandfather Paradox;” if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, you will never be born, and therefore you can never go back in time to kill your grandfather. There is the equally troubling “Ontological Paradox,” which comes up much more often. For example in Terminator, John Connor sends Kyle Reese back to protect his mother. Reese ends up in a relationship with Connor’s mother and becomes his father. But who was there to send Reese back the “first time?” That is to say, before the events of Judgment Day happened, who fathered John Connor?

Another example occurs in Star Trek. Scotty needs to transport the heroes onto a moving spaceship, but the technology hasn’t been invented yet. Future Spock assures Scotty that he will one day invent such technology, and in fact provides New Scotty with the required information. The question now becomes, where did this information come from in the first place?
It also appears in LOST. Richard Alpert in the past gives Locke a compass. Locke later gives this compass to Alpert with instructions to give it to him in the past. So what is the compass’ origin? Again, there is a rebuttal to these paradoxes, and these issues don’t concern me overmuch, although they are annoying.


The logical objection IS one that concerns me. Although there is a rebuttal, it is NEVER used in fiction to my knowledge, certainly not in Star Trek movies. Here goes. The premise of this objection is that time travel isn’t possible because it doesn’t exist right now. You can’t say “it hasn’t been invented yet” because there is no “yet,” since time travel is involved. If it is discovered anywhere in the timestream, then it must exist everywhere. Some might argue that this is okay because whoever travelled back kept it a secret, or met people who could not understand or evaluate the technology. But that assumes that time travel works like so:

One person travels from point A to Point B, and possibly back, no harm no foul. But if time travel is possible, there are an infinite number of travels, like so:

For as long as human beings exist in time, people will be going back, making anachronistic holes in the time line like so much swiss cheese. With an infinite number of travelers, eventually one will make time travel technology possible at an earlier time, which will then lead to infinitely more travelers between that earlier time and other times, until time travelers are EVERYWHERE. And as far as I can tell, they are not.


There are even rebuttals to the logical argument, but there is no rebuttal to the aesthetic argument, which is that time travel is just messy. In Star Trek, the 2009 movie, The Romulans go back in time and wipe out Vulcan. This causes the hundreds of years of fictional history and the decades of real Star Trek history to be wiped out. All the great Star Trek mythology you thrilled to as a child, well, most of it just never happened, cause the Romulans went back in time. How then, can I be expected to invest myself in this new group of characters, when I know that someday, the Romulans could go back in time and destroy the escape ship that contained the unborn Captain Kirk, or destroy the Earth in 1776, or take over the Federation in 2214 with advanced 25th century technology?

Furthermore, there is the Slippery Slope issue which I find so grating that the story is nearly impossible for me to enjoy. In Star Trek, the Romulan mining ship goes back in time and destroys Vulcan. Now that Starfleet is aware of this, why not send a Starfleet force back to where the Romulans will someday pop into the sky and destroy them before they do it? Why not send an espionage force to kill Captain Nero’s mother, a la Terminator? It seems to me that if you can go back and change things, you can always send someone somewhere else in the timeline to change things back. And that’s why I hate time travel stories.

Note: There are some valid rebuttals to all but the aesthetic argument, and hence some time travel concepts/stories that work. I’ll address those in my next post.


rick said...

Fascinating! The only thing I don't get is why on facebook you said No Country for Old Men made you want to gouge your eyes out -- was there time travel in that one, too?

Rick said...

This is kind of brilliant. I've never heard that logic argument. So you actually feel that, in reality, time travel must never be possible because otherwise we'd be seeing people from the future many times? That's interesting. But couldn't it be that, when people go back in time, they go to sort of a "new" past that they experience differently than us (similar to how, in relativity, people at different speeds experience time differently)? For example, maybe people in the future will be able to go back in time and just observe, without being observed? Or maybe they will go back in time and interact as in the movies, but that it will be sort-of a new, copied version of everything in the past that they interact with?

Craig Berger said...

No, I hated No Country for Old Men for other reasons having nothing to do with time travel:

Regarding your question about the Time Tourist objection, the answer is yes! Check out my next couple of posts!

Artūrs said...

one thing you didnt mention about time travel: say, a character must do something in the past to prevent bad things happening in the future. Even if he succeeds, it is impossiible that it will be the only thing that he changed. I mean his every move would affect the events that lead to the future, and when he comes back to the future, the future might be, and probably will be completely different. I mean you cant go back to change just one thing, it is ridiculous, and its the only problem i see with time travel.