Thursday, September 29, 2011

Time Travel Intervention

Now that I’ve seen the pilot of TERRA NOVA, a couple of my doubts have been addressed. Its premise seems to make more sense than I originally thought. The characters from the overcrowded, dystopian near future have been sent back in time to make a fresh start for themselves and humanity in a new home, like colonists in the historical age of European expansion or in many SF novels. But instead of colonizing a virgin continent or planet, they’re settling in an earlier time. Unlike such real-world ventures, though, it’s a one-way trip. Why did they choose such a distant, dangerous period as the age of the dinosaurs? They didn’t purposely decide to go there; that eon just happens to be the point an accidentally discovered rift in time leads to.

I also wondered whether the series would acknowledge that a human presence in that prehistoric era, assuming the colony takes root and the characters’ descendants survive, will generate profound changes in the future. In the classic Ray Bradbury story, simply having a time traveler step on a butterfly creates a changed future, although not an unrecognizable one. Fortunately, Spielberg and his writers haven’t forgotten that problem. They even include a bit of dialogue alluding to Bradbury’s story. In TERRA NOVA, it’s explicitly stated that the past they have traveled to belongs to a “different time stream” from the world they came from. Therefore they won’t be changing “their” future and possibly obliterating their own existence.

Robert Heinlein deals with the impact on the future of travel into the past in two principal ways: (1) Whatever happens would have happened anyway; the effects of the character’s actions were built into the existing timeline all along (e.g., "By His Bootstraps" and THE DOOR INTO SUMMER). (2) Each change causes a different timeline to split off; the future the character changes isn’t the future he or she came from. So the approach in TERRA NOVA is something like the latter.

Lots of time travel stories feature characters trying to make some change in the past that they hope will improve their own time. That was the premise of the TV show QUANTUM LEAP, in which Sam is destined to “put right what once went wrong.” Stephen King’s forthcoming novel (due this November) stars a character who travels to 1963 in an attempt to prevent the assassination of Kennedy. Some authors assume such attempts are doomed to failure; whatever happens is what would have happened anyway. That’s the outcome in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series when Claire and Jamie try to mitigate the disastrous results of the 1745 Jacobite uprising. They succeed in saving some individuals, but history on the macro level remains unchanged. The same premise drives the action in Connie Willis’s wonderful novels about an Oxford-based team of time-traveling historians (DOOMSDAY BOOK, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, BLACKOUT, and ALL CLEAR). The time stream itself—or so their scientists believe—prevents travelers from getting too close to the sites of historically critical events. The only changes they can effect (supposedly) are minor ones invisible to recorded history.

My recent reading of M. J. Putney’s YA fantasies DARK MIRROR and DARK PASSAGE (with at least one more to come) brought to mind the fact that we don’t often see the kind of time travel intervention featured in these books—time travelers attempting to change for the better not the past, but the future. Putney’s teenage mages travel from the early nineteenth century to World War II and aid England’s struggle against Nazi Germany. The only novel I remember reading in which a time traveler comes from the past specifically to help someone in our contemporary present is Dean Koontz’s LIGHTNING, still one of my favorite of his books. Trying to change the future rather than the past at least avoids the usual problems of time paradoxes involved in attempts to alter a known timeline.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment