To paradox or parallel, that is the question. Whether a chance meeting foils your father’s first date at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance and causes your family photo to fade away or slide to a present populated by dinosaurs, each approach to telling tales of time travel presents its own unique pitfalls and enticements.
I believe fiction’s rules must be concretely established early and kept consistent throughout or else the flimsy fabric of an imagined universe flies apart and leaves the reader adrift, confused, and wary of works by the same author. That being said, I’m a fan of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and many other forms of science fiction that have double dipped into the realm of time travel.
Paradoxical time travel warns of the consequences of the voyager’s actions and questions the impact of every move. Marty McFly watched his history disappear and spent most of the movie, “Back to the Future”, working to orchestrate an increasingly unlikely pairing of his parents. Similarly Kirk and Spock are shocked to find themselves marooned on a desert planet when McCoy accidentally alters history in the episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”. Again, the protagonists must wrestle history back on track to preserve the present they’ve known all along. I enjoy the temporal collateral damage interjected amidst the main plot. My favorite little bits in these come from what I call paradoxical friction; where the time traveler’s adventure offers an interesting alternate explanation for some of history’s big moments. Star Trek explains the source of transparent aluminum and Marty McFly offers inspiration to Chuck Berry. Closer scrutiny reveals the absurdity of their existence but I love them none the less.
Some say; for every variation of reality, for every instance where things could go this way or that; a parallel universe exists. Although this can sound exciting at first, it dragged me down when I considered how mundane some of these parallels were. Did you put on the red shirt or the blue one this morning? If you’re wearing red these theorists suggest there’s another universe where you’re wearing blue. That’s it, the only thing different is a shirt. The most demoralizing aspect of such a concept stems from the realization that we’re not nearly as unique as we hoped and our actions matter even less in a universe with infinite moments in time occurring simultaneously.
Oddly enough, Star Trek has dipped its creative brush into both paints. In “Mirror Mirror” we see a Federation dominated by an inverted moral compass. Doctor Who, too, has dabbled in both.
As for me, I believe time is like a zipper; you’ve got to break the bonds that held it together in order to revisit past moments. Only through a controlled obliteration of our present, back to a given time, can one travel backwards. This model eliminates the danger of paradox without having to offer an infinite network of possible universes running in near parallel. So next time you’re putting on your pants, think of time travel; it’ll make the experience a little more rewarding 😉