Warning: Spoilers ahead for the TV series “The Travelers,” “The Umbrella Academy,” and the movie Interstellar, as well as The Time Machine, Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever,” and Oedipus Rex. Plus thinking about things that make your head hurt.
Wyrd bið ful aræd: Fate is unalterable.Old English poem The Wanderer and Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories
(“weird bidth ful ah-red”)
The Norse understood about Fate because their worldview envisioned Norns, Weird (Wyrd) Sisters who controlled all that happened, weaving the giant tapestry of our lives. The sisters represented what was, what is, and what is to be. One Old English poet summed it up in that “weird” saying: Fate is unalterable. The Greeks understood it, too, at least the ones that told the story of Oedipus.
Science fiction writers are kind of on the fence.
Recently, I have been binge-watching series that happen to address time travel. We’ve gotten so used to this as a subject that we take for granted certain conventions, namely that it’s possible in a sci fi story to go back and change something in the past to alter the future. But what if it turns out that isn’t possible? What happens when Wyrd bið ful aræd — the idea that the future can’t be changed–smashes into the quantum technology that allows movement through time? Time travel, meet the Norns.
The Literary Rules
You probably know a couple of well-known science fiction stories that set the literary rules. For example, in H. G. Wells’ Time Machine, the hero creates a machine that he lets him move through time. He travels to year 802,701, where people have devolved to becoming either cannibals or food. Our hero spends most of the story fixing his broken machine so he can hightail it back home, where he pops into dinner–Ta-Da! He makes no attempt to change that future, although perhaps he travels back into it at the end. Mainly, the story illustrates the simple idea that time is on a line, and that the right kind of technology could access other parts of the line than the one we’re presently at.
Nearly a century later, in the classic Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever,” the crew lands on a planet with a time portal. When Dr. McCoy enters the portal, the orbiting ship Enterprise disappears. Spock quickly figures out–as Vulcans always seem to be able to figure out such things–that Dr. McCoy has changed something in the past which has negatively affected the future and prevented interstellar travel, stranding the crew on the planet. They are obliged to go into the time machine and un-change the past in order to regain their present. This underlying idea was that there might be multiple timelines possible, and that tweaking a past one could shift the present to a different line. So far, not so complicated.
But this is where Oedipus comes in. Oedipus, remember, heard a prophecy–also known as an incomplete description of a partial/potential future timeline–that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To prevent this timeline, he left town and family, and on the way killed someone of his father’s age while on the road and married someone old enough to be his mother in another city. He tried to change his future, to jump on to a different timeline, but he was unable to do so. Were Sophocles and the other Greeks trying to demonstrate that there really AREN’T multiple timelines, that they’re like rubber bands which snap back, no matter how you try to bend them? (By the way, there’s a terrific Zoom-version reading of Oedipus Rex with Oscar Isaacs and Frances McDormand by a NY group called Theater of War. Find out more here.)
Multiple Timelines Possible, Perhaps Not Advisable
Maybe the Greeks and Gene Roddenberry were the theme and Netflix shows in 2020 are the variations because modern versions of time travel have turned darker. Let’s take The Umbrella Academy. This is an odd postmodern kids-as-superhero story where the superhero powers seem to cause more harm than good. The children start as cute pre-adolescents foiling bank robberies but quickly end up in the apocalypse–and that’s just Season 1, Episode 1, so not revealing that much. All of Season 1, in fact, is trying to see if they can change events to avoid apocalypse, which doesn’t go so well, leading to a dramatic escape and Season 2, where they try something different, which turns out worse. What can be worse than the apocalypse? Such Clever Writers to have come up with Something Worse!
So, if you have all these amazing powers–giant laser beams that can shoot from your body, the ability to see the dead, or the power to move through space and/or time–why aren’t you all-powerful? Because Wyrd bið ful aræd, man, you can’t solve history! That’s my take on the ultimate meaning of this series. When characters keep trying to “fix” the past, it just makes the future worse–like Star Trek only on an even bigger scale than erasing interstellar human travel. The more jumping around in time you try, the worse things get.
Not Even If Humanity Is at Stake
Apparently, the characters (and writers) in another terrific Netflix series Travelers did not get the memo. In their dismal future, where climate change or war or asteroids–or something–has brought humans to the brink of extinction, time travel is invented to send people back to fix the past. If only enough super-chrono-FBI agents could be sent into the 21st century, they could divert asteroids or use electric cars or make peace ENOUGH to save the future. That’s the premise.
What’s curious (and ultimately wonderful) about the show is that while Eric McCormack (from Will and Grace) and his earnest, high-performing team perform their complicated maneuvers, like any old episode of NCIS or SWAT, success also leads to failure. They fix the problem, and another problem pops up. It’s like time traveler Wac-a-mole. They keep trying by popping into bodies that were about to die. They do “seem” to grant better future to those bodies, so that might be better for the non-travelers who meet them. (The popping into bodies is also the beginning of Episode 1, again not a huge spoiler.) On the other hand, there’s a lot of collateral damage, and the amazing technology from the future doesn’t make them better off.
The show was canceled after three seasons, so it’s hard to know if the writers were planning a different ending than the series finale, which begs for another season. Yet its open-endedness was the perfect messy recursive loop. It’s the end, but it’s the beginning. They will keep trying to change the past to change the future but it’s as if they will always be running in one place. The writers posit–by the way they write the episodes–that characters can change the future and end up on different timelines, but as with Oedipus, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a better future. Trying to avoid the worst ends up worse.
Multiverse? Or Just a Single Circular Eventuality?
Maybe this is quantum physics or maybe just mythology; a comment on the nature of free will or the collapse of a wave function. These stories seem to say: yes, time travel might be mechanically possible, based on Hawking Equations or tachyon particles or something, but the Norse and the Greeks were still right. There might be multiple timelines somehow, but they lead to the same outcome. Do you want holocaust A or holocaust B?
My third offering for consideration is the movie Interstellar. The kajmeister household has also been on a Christopher Nolan kick this week, plowing through the overly-complicated and lushly-scored Dunkirk, Inception etc. This was a second time through Interstellar so we knew What Happens and were watching for Does It Make Sense? It’s inordinately complicated, and some parts make sense, other parts WTF? There’s a lot of argument on the internets that No, It Doesn’t or Yes, Please See Diagram Below. We got stuck and had a lengthy pause-the-playback discussion, which I think proves the diagram is wrong and that it all made wyrd sense.
We got stuck because Matthew McConaughey communicates to himself–via a time paradox method too complicated and unimportant to explain here–the location for NASA which has gone into hiding in Earth’s future as crops are failing and the planet is dying. By telling himself in the past where NASA is, McConaughey allows himself to become an astronaut, launch into space, and get stuck in the complicated fifth-dimensional tesseract where he communicates to himself… see the paradox? The question is, what if he hadn’t? Could there have been a past/future where he didn’t communicate the coordinates for NASA to himself but still ended up able to time travel?
In the diagram constructed by David Ovienmhada, changing the past but not really changing it is shown as a circle. Good ol’ boy McConaughey is changing things for the better so humanity will survive, so he is moving on to different timelines, but that section is recursive, hence our confusion.
However, I think what it really illustrates is that the diagram is wrong, and the Fates have taken over science fiction. There aren’t three timelines but only one. If he tried NOT to communicate NASA’s location to himself, then something else would have intervened to do so, as with Oedipus. If he didn’t go into the black hole, access the tesseract, and become five-dimensional, something else would have communicated the key information to humanity so that they could save humanity. It only feels claustrophobic, feels like a closed loop, because we like to Think we have free will and can change the past and future. But what all these writers are trying to tell us is that we really can’t. The green and red lines are only in your imagination. It’s really just circling around on the blue line.
There aren’t two possible outcomes, a dead Schrodinger’s cat and a live Schrodinger’s cat. The cat’s future is already something; it’s not two things, it’s two possibilities but only one will happen. We just don’t Know what it is until we open the box, when all the possibilities coalesce into one. AND if we try to avoid opening the box, the box will open anyway.
So what happens to free will? Free will is deciding to stop trying to change the past or future in vain and pay more attention to the present. Umbrella Academy clearly suggests people should be nicer to each other, especially family members, while they can. Travelers: don’t assume other beings, even Singularity A.I.s or fancy technology, have any better notion of how to run things than you do. The sub-message of Interstellar? Use more electric cars and invest in okra.
As to the question about whether I would go back and change my past if I could, Non! Je ne regrette rien! Which is the song used extensively in that other Nolan mind-twister Inception. All I can do to help explain that movie is that whenever Michael Caine shows up, that’s reality. You’re welcome.