Humanity is constantly in search of a new horizon. Capitalism has brought about a world in which newness, innovation, and transformation are considered the highest virtues. The contemporary marketplace moves at blistering speeds in search of the next horizon. This movement is reflected in our media. Through film, television, and writing, artists are able to depict phenomena which, while impossible in our contemporary settings, allow one to dream of a new horizon. Through narrative one is able to travel not only to the deepest depths of earth an space, but also to the present and the future through the magic of time travel.
One of the gifts of humanity is that we have the ability to dream. Time travel allows us to dream about things that seem an impossibility. Through our narrative media we enable each other to experience these dreams come to life through the text or the screen. Sometimes these dreams seem more understandable than others.
As I see it there are two types of time travel in fiction. There is linear time travel and nonlinear time travel. As far as I know these seem to correspond with a linear and nonlinear view of time. I don’t wish this post to become a rigorous undertaking of different philosophies of time (though I do think that this would be a fun exercise – particularly comparing each with a ancient and modern view of temporality), rather I hope to explore how time travel functions within fictional narratives.
“If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious shit.” -Doc Brown, Back to the Future
The First time of understanding of time that we reach is a linear understanding. What I mean a “linear” understanding of time is that events happen within a linear space (such that A causes B causes C) within a linear line of time.
A perfect example of this is Back to the Future. When an event occurs in the past, its effect changes the future. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly uses a time machine, created by his friend Doc, in order to travel from the year 1985 to 1955. In going to the past, Marty’s actions have impact events as he knows him. Marty and the viewers connection to 1985 is given through a photograph that Marty has of him and his siblings. The seminal movement in the film occurs when Marty saves his father from being hit by his mother’s car. It is this moment which changes everything in the future. Marty’s father is never hit by his mother, thus she never takes him up to her room. Now Marty is the one whom his mother falls in love with. Ignoring the Oedipal implications of the entire film, Marty becomes the figure that his father was supposed to take.
If we posit that Marty’s father being hit by Marty’s mother constitutes point A in their relationship as husband and wife, every event that occurred after this event is, hence force, changed as the result of A never having taken place. When Marty pushes he father out of the way of his mother’s car, Marty changes the future. This is shown in the film through the photograph. As Marty navigates the world of his father and mother, he sees that his siblings begin to fade from the photograph. This ultimately culminates as Marty, himself, begins to fade. In order to restore the future that he had changed, Marty works throughout the film to reunite his father and mother, thus setting off a new series which culminates in the birth of him and his siblings.
The film positions everything as strictly linear. Event A causes event B causes event C. By changing event A, everything that comes afterwards is also changed. This is sometimes known as the butterfly effect – an event where one small action can change everything going forward. So Marty’s actions in the past have an unreserved impact on the future. A paradox occurs from this, however. If Marty never existed, how would he come back to change the past? If Marty changed the past so that he never existed, then it would be impossible for him to change the past.
One narrative that attempts to circumnavigate this paradox is the world of Dragon Ball. In Dragon Ball Z, the character Trunks travels from the future to warn the other characters of a series of events that will lead to much destruction on the earth. One aspect of this is that the character Goku will die of a heart virus without a cure in the present. Trunks, being from the future, is able to provide a antidote that allows Goku to survive the heart virus. In doing this, Trunks effectively changes an event in time (the death of Goku) which changes the reality of the future. Again, this appears paradoxical. If Trunks comes from the future and saves Goku, the current Trunks will no longer have any reason to come back to the past. The circumstances that lead Trunks to come to the past no longer exist.
Rather than simply allowing the paradox to fester, Dragon Ball presents the present and future as alternative timelines. When Trunks returns to his present, the reality has not changed as a result of his actions in the past. So while the actions in each of the timelines occur as A>B>C the actions in the present timeline does not seem to impact the future one.
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.”
-the Doctor (Blink)
Doctor Who presents an example of a nonlinear timeline. Under a nonlinear view events still happen within a linear space (A causes B causes C), but these events do not take place upon a linear line. Using the language of the Doctor, time is “wibbly wobbly”. What the Doctor gets wrong in the given quote is that such a view of time still remains linear (if linear is taken to mean that A causes B causes C) because, as we see from the events of Doctor Who events still take place within the realm of cause and effect. In the diagram below I give and example of what this time might look like:
While the Doctor often warns against creating paradoxes, and often warns against breaking the rules of time, there are many instances in the show where the audience is given evidence of the “time-y wimey” nature of time. One example of this is in the episode entitled “The Fires of Pompeii”. In the episode, the Doctor and Donna travel to Pompeii just before the volcano is set to explode. Throughout the episode the Doctor is convinced of the rules of time, and, despite Donna’s best efforts, refuses to stop the ruin of Pompeii from occurring. According to the Doctor, to stop this from occurring would be to break the rules of time. Near the culmination of the episode, the Doctor discovers that an alien race is using the volcano to conquer the human race. In order to stop the destruction of humanity, the Doctor must destroy the converter which is holding the volcano at bay, thus causing the destruction of Pompeii. In order to save humanity, the Doctor must sacrifice the city of Pompeii.
In this action, we realize that time is cyclical. The actions of the Doctor were always already taking place. The destruction of Pompeii is a point within the overarching tim-y-wimey, wibbly wobbly reality of time in this universe. If we look at the Fire in Pompeii as point A that caused B (the Doctor knowing about the destruction of Pompeii) it would seem that B would follow from A. Given the strange “wibbly wobbly” nature that is presented in this nonlinear or cyclical view of time, B is able to actually proceed A creating time as more of a flux, rather than a straight path.
Time and time travel are really interesting conundrums. The ways that we’ve theorized time travel in our fictional narratives makes use of our creative energies in ways that provide new pathways through fiction. Our ability to dream is awakened in these energies and pathways.