So I was reading 11/22/63: A Novel over the weekend and it had me contemplating Stephen King’s method of time travel compared to other literary modes of time travel.
In the book, the hero is shown a magical pantry to the past, which takes him to one specific moment in 1958. Whenever he goes back to 2011 and enters the pantry again, everything gets reset to that moment in 1958. Maybe. King’s type of temporal displacement is probably most akin to the Back to the Future mode, which has never been my favorite.
Here is why – Marty McFly goes back to 1955, messes things up with his parents meeting, almost gets erased, blah blah blah, then upon his return to 1985 he is freaked out by the way everything has changed. However, what happened to the Marty in that alternate timeline who existed before Marty from Original!1985 returned back from 1955? That Marty(2) would have had different experiences and likely have different personality traits, based on the fact that his dad was not a loser like George (1) was. But THAT Marty (2) got erased, so while Marty (1) saved his own self, his alternate self ceased to exist. Or maybe he got bumped to yet another timeline, who knows. But do you see where I am going with this? Paradoxes all over the place.
Similarly, Jake Epping in 11/22/63 returns to a time where he would have had different experiences, but he retains no knowledge of those. While I thoroughly enjoyed the book (and BTTF, too, at least the first one), it is still an intellectually unsatisfying time travel methodology.
So let’s move on to the Lost method of time travel, affectionately known in Lost circles as the “Whatever Happened, Happened” mode. In this situation, Desmond’s consciousness gets knocked about in time and he retains snippets of memories from his past future on the island. If you never watched Lost then that probably makes no sense, but then again, it didn’t really make sense to people that watched Lost. Just stay with me for a second. Desmond is able to change minor things but nothing major because the universe will course correct itself to sort out any messes like those caused by Marty McFly. And he’s cute and has a fun accent. Anyway, this sort of course correction happens in King’s book too, and he was kind enough to teach me a new word, which is “obdurate.”
Still with me? There is actually a Whatever Happened, Happened version 2, where some of the Losties get transported bodily (as opposed to consciously) to 1977, and then in 2007 their pictures from 1977 are still there because they were always there. Whatever happened, happened, dude. No changing it.
Which brings me to one of my favorite time transportation devices, The Time Traveler’s Wife mode. This is a really badass version of Whatever Happened, Happened, in that Henry, the protagonist, unwilling flips about in time, bodily, and is able to interact with his own self, in more ways than one. He is never able to change anything because it already happened. So no matter how many times he is taken to the scene of an accident, none of his selves can stop it. It’s really quite sad, actually, and probably has no basis in quantum physics, but until I read this book this concept had never occurred to me and the McFly Method was the standard.
Then there is the John Titor method, which I will include as a cultural sidenote if you consider the Internet a literary medium along with books and movies. John Titor was a hoax but as a work of fiction he had some cool ideas. If you don’t care enough to click on the Wikipedia link, here’s the short story – About ten years ago, this guy starts posting on forums claiming he is from the year 2036 and he went back in time to collect this really old computer that they don’t make anymore. Oh and there is no more Best Buys anyway, because, you know, society has collapsed and 2036 is a dystopic, radiation-ridden puddle of ick. He made some intelligent-sounding claims that a civil war was imminent, and that people in the future really like guns. Then he disappeared, leaving everyone (okay, not everyone) wondering, in what was quaintly known as Netspeak, “WTF?”
Anyway, the important part of the story is that John Titor claimed that it is impossible to go back to one’s own timeline when one uses an automotive temporal displacement device, and that his timeline is slightly different than ours, in that different teams won the Super Bowl and whatnot. So our future may not be as bleak as his, if we care enough to change it.
And in his timeline, indeed there probably was no Fringe. Time travel here is secondary to the idea of a multi-verse, where there could be many versions of you doing slightly different things at different moments, but there is a Titor-esque consistency to that idea, that maybe there is a world where people still use beepers and take zeppelins to get where they want to be. Our hero Peter Bishop has indeed traveled to the future, only to discover upon his return that he no longer exists. Big huge bummer there, but he seems to be making the most of it.
In the Fringe world, there are fedora-wearing Observers who exist outside of time, and these fellas also seem to have some influence in 11/22/63, which makes sense, or not, depending on what universe you are in. In any event, we have come full circle.
And yes, I know I am ignoring Dr. Who and Star Trek, but I don’t care. Live long and prosper.