How I Learned to Get Over Myself and Learn to Love Quantum Physics

There have been a lot of advances in theoretical physics since the end of the 19th century when the first examples of what I would consider “modern” time travel stories were being produced by Mark Twain and H.G. Wells. One of the best of those in my opinion is the multiple worlds theory of quantum physics, largely because it finally offers us a chance to break away from the constraints of the paradox that have plagued science fiction for so long.
In the universe of the Shadows of Time series, there are no temporal paradoxes to contend with. This is because it is flat out impossible for them to exist. The main characters exist within a 11 dimensional omniverse where all possible outcomes of their time travel are accounted for. Now, as individuals who exist outside of the normal flow of any single universe, they do have the ability to flit in and out of several different universes as they see fit. But it is beyond their power to create anything truly new. The law of conservation of energy dictates that their ability is inherently finite.
Furthermore, the Guardians themselves are not unique. The very nature of the setting demands that there be innumerable copies of them all running around simultaneously, operating in near ignorance of each other simply because of the fact that as many versions of them as there are, there are far more possible destinations for them to be shunted to. And while there may occasionally be things that look like paradoxes where they are reacting to something done by themselves in the future, they’re actually the result of other iterations of them taking action. So not only is there no paradox, but oftentimes they’re left stymied by the fact that these other iterations made different choices than they would given the same circumstances.
I’ll admit that when I first decided to go this route for my books, I was hesitant. While the idea of being able to write in a universe free of the decrepit specter of temporal paradoxes was appealing, it seemed at first that the omniverse posed just as many problems. There seemed to be an inherent nihilism to the concept that I found to be abhorrent. After all, with constant reminders that there were near infinite other copies of my protagonists making different choices and living (or dying) under different circumstances, what incentive would my readers have to care about what happened to the one group I chose to follow? Furthermore, how would I address the concern of dual occupancy? After all, with so many near identical Guardians operating with impunity, surely it was inevitable that eventually two or two million sets of them would decide to go to the same universe.
So my initial response to the problem was to cheat, and basically try to fudge the logic a bit by elevating the Guardians as being somehow special. In the early drafts of Shadows of Time the Guardians were unique because there could only ever be one set of them at any given time. All the other iterations that existed were simply held in reserve so they could be rotated in as needed when one of them ended up dying . I don’t think it was an entirely bad concept. In fact I adapted it into another unrelated project later. But it still ended up causing too many problems for me. Every time I asserted this in the book, a little demon in the back of my head would pipe up and ask “So, does that mean that whenever they make a choice, there are an infinite number of universes where they simply vanish all of a sudden? And doesn’t that also mean that the starting point of the universe would have to be defined as the point where they became Guardians?” and so on.
I ignored the demon for a long time until I suddenly one day had an epiphany. There’s a reason that time travel remains such an appealing concept for us, even after it’s been demonstrated that a practical application will likely forever be out of our reach. It speaks to feelings everyone has experienced at some point in their life: guilt and regret. It offers a chance to go back, to correct our past mistakes, and basically just have things turn out the way we wanted them to. A key part of the human experience is the eventual coming to terms with the fact that ultimately there’s no way for us to do that.
Time travel offers us a way to cheat that. Now, I’ll admit, highlighting this is one thing that the paradox approach has done rather well. It dangles time travel in front of our noses, always whisking it away at the last second because our past is just that. The problem is that this really doesn’t work for an ongoing series where I have characters repeatedly going back to different eras.
By embracing the problems of the omniverse I found they stopped being problems and started being stylistic elements. In the face of that pseudo-nihilist existence, there really is no way for the characters to fool themselves into thinking they can make their own lot better by meddling in their own past. They can tweak history all they want, but at the end of the day they still have to go home to live with the choices that they made. The ultimate promise of time travel then is revealed to have been a cheat all along.
Now some might call me on this by pointing out that in some cases this is exactly the same kind of message that writers seek to convey through the paradox mechanic. However I still maintain that there is a difference. The conventional paradox story always at some point presents the audience with something that is wholly nonsensical and tries to pass this off as complexity. In this way it is very similar to some philosophers I’ve known who, when losing an argument, have attempted to undermine their opponents position by claiming that the concepts they are quite eloquently explaining are simply too far beyond human comprehension for anyone to understand.
The omniverse, however, does not have this problem. Furthermore, by placing several existing paradox stories within an omniverse, many of the problems with said stories can be resolved, and in some cases even made more interesting by the shift.
I present as an example one of the single worst offenders in recent history: Star Trek Voyager. During her seven year stint as the Flying Dutchman of starships, Voyager was responsible for the absolute worst time travel plots that the Star Trek franchise has ever seen. What’s even worse is that the writers seemed to be aware of it, often having the characters point out all the plot holes they were creating only to have another character chuckle and say in a sage voice that time travel is supposed to be complicated.
To which I say: bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.
Let’s consider one of the worst of the bunch: the episode Time and Again. In this episode Kes, the resident quasi-Q (every starship seems to have one in the 24th century) detects the death of an entire planet. When Voyager goes to investigates Janeway and Tuvok are accidentally sent back to the same planet a few days before the cataclysm that will ultimately destroy every person on its surface occurs. Horror of horrors! Since they have nothing better to do, the two decide their best bet is to prevent the explosion from happening. This seems rather easy, as they’ve traced it back to a particular power generating MacGuffin which is apparently known to wipe out planetary populations when someone sneezes on the controls. That seems to be a bit of a design flaw to me, but I bet it’s got a great carbon footprint.
Meanwhile in the future, the rest of Voyager’s crew is working on trying to figure out how to get Janeway and Tuvok back. They come up with a system involving some kind of wormhole (though they wrap it in newer sounding tech talk) and start opening up portals everywhere just a few seconds too late to catch them. At the climax of the episode, Janeway is inside the power plant trying to stop a terrorist group from sneezing the wrong way and ending the world. A bunch of people, including Tuvok, are dead because she was trying her hardest to keep them out of this place. Only she suddenly discovers that the terrorist group is not, in fact, genocidal. They know full well that blowing up the power plant would end the world. Then the wormhole opens up behind her and starts moving in a menacing fashion towards a conduit. This being Star Trek, the conduit is apparently lined with C-4 and absolutely vital to the safe and non-explosive operation of the entire facility.
Janeway suddenly realizes that it was the rescue attempt of her crew that caused the explosion in the first place, not this bunch of loonies. She adopts her best “Captain face” and fires on the wormhole, blowing up the device on the other end and probably killing most of her command staff. This doesn’t matter though, because suddenly a bright white light sweeps over everyone and everything, and we cut back to Voyager going on her merry way. Kes wakes up again, then calls the bridge and declares that everyone’s fine. Which has got to be really, really annoying to everyone up there who is now probably thinking that Kes has been growing some really good space-weed in her hydroponic garden. The episode ends on a message of… what, exactly?
I know this is a little low, but this episode is a perfect example of all that is wrong with time travel stories these days. If Voyager was the cause of the explosion and had no reason to visit the planet in the first place (which, by the way, it didn’t) then the explosion never should have happened, and Kes never should have woken up in a cold sweat. That kind of absurdity should be reasons to can the script right there. And yet the episode revels in it. In fact, there really isn’t anything else this episode is about. There’s no attempt at a greater message, no attempt at any kind of commentary on humanity, society, or bad science fiction tropes. Even the somewhat interesting premise of eco-terrorists accidentally ending the world because they’re just as reckless as the people they’re trying to stop is nullified in the end because, what do you know, they’re arguably the only sane ones here. All there is to the episode is forty five minutes of self-indulgence where the writer tries to brag to the audience about how clever they are by being able to warp their minds like that. Sadly, even that falls flat.
Now let’s apply the omniverse model. In this version, the planet is destroyed by something (like, say, someone coming in sick and sneezing on a glowy thing or two toilets being flushed at exactly the same time) and Voyager comes to investigate. They get caught up in the after effects, Janeway and Tuvok get sucked in, etc. Finally, at the end of the story, Janeway fires on the rift and closes it, killing most of her command crew in the process. Yay, we’ve reduced the senior staff to a hologram who is still about a season away from becoming awesome and Harry Kim.
Of course, the problem is that Janeway has now basically ensured that the universe she now occupies will never become the one where her Voyager is currently in orbit and Harry Kim is wondering how he’s going to break it to the crew that he’s the captain now without causing a mass scramble to the escape pods. Are you honestly going to tell me that she isn’t making more of a sacrifice here? That the conflict isn’t more interesting, more worth exploration, than the original anemic version? You could even tack a happy ending on it by having Voyager show up in orbit, perhaps end on a close-up of the other Janeway watching this new universe’s version of her and her crew and shedding a “single tear™” of joy before turning away and setting out to build a new life for herself on this world she has saved. Or take it a step further, have her sent even further back in time, and have Voyager arrive after she’s lived a long full life on the planet’s surface. Sure, it’s still a bad episode. But at least now it’s one that features some form of lasting character development.
And really I can’t think of anything that could do a better job selling this idea than that. Adopting the multiverse brings consequences back into the equation. It requires the characters live with their choices, however they turned out, rather than wiping them away in order to return to the status quo. And why wouldn’t we want that? Choices should always matter in a story, otherwise you might as well just drop the whole thing.

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Isn’t it Time We Stopped Using Paradoxes?

(NOTE: I wrote this article a few years ago, so some of the references may be a bit old.)

                As a writer of fiction which involves time travel as one of its core elements, I have had more than my fair share of questions from friends and readers regarding the question of paradoxes.  Usually I make a habit of avoiding blanket statements as to my own authorial intent or future plans for anything I write, as I have a disturbing habit of proving myself wrong more often than not.  On the question of paradoxes, though, I have no problem in making my opinions clear.  I don’t use them.  Nor do I ever plan to.  Ever.

                To some this may seem vaguely heretical.  Paradoxes and time travel have been linked so closely over the years that it’s practically become an essential part of the genre.  Everyone who dabbles in time travel has had their take on it.  Some even argue that fiction about time travel is really all about paradoxes.  To these kind of people, the omission of such a vital part of the narrative is a mistake comparable to forgetting to include a protagonist: it simply isn’t done.  Even TV shows like Doctor Who, which is ostensibly about a protagonist who does nothing BUT meddle around in history, have had their token episodes warning of the dangers of unleashing a paradox on the world by some small mistake or change made by one of the well meaning protagonists.  These kind of stories seem to establish that, while it may not be something we’re constantly presented with, the paradox is a constantly looming threat that may strike at any moment.

                Unfortunately the problem is that it’s usually crap. 

                Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there has never been a good paradox story written.  I’ll admit that I did get a sort of guilty pleasure out of watching the most recent Doctor Who paradox episode, wherein the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler destroys the universe by saving her father.  It made little to no sense in the grand scheme of things, but it did allow for some great character moments and some absolutely brilliant acting on the part of the show’s leads.  But the sad fact is that these are the exception rather than the rule.

                The first problem with paradox stories these days is that, when it comes down to it, they’re basically just a slight retooling of the old trick where the main character wakes up at the end of the story only to realize that it was all a dream.  Every great story centers around conflict, which drives the main characters to action and eventually ends up changing them or the world around them.  And yet the standard fare of paradoxes these days seems to take pride in flaunting that old tradition by completely nullifying any change that occurs.  It’s the cheapest of tricks, and is generally the first thing that any writer is told to avoid.  I suspect that the reason they keep doing it is that a lot of writers have tricked themselves into believing that this is in fact making some kind of profound philosophical statement, and that their readers (or viewers) will be walking away from the experience shaking their head and thinking deep thoughts.

                Which brings me to my second problem with paradoxes as a plot device.  They’re not profound.  Not at all. 

                I think part of the problem is that the very idea of paradoxes were first raised by philosophers before being co-opted by science fiction writers.  Writers, myself included in most cases, are usually laymen playing at being experts.  They learn just enough about the subject their writing about to establish a veneer of credibility.  But when it comes down to it no wholly sane person really expects a diagram from a Star Trek technical manual to work in real life.      But philosophers, well, they’re experts in paradoxes.  They get paid to sit around and make sense of circular logic and complex ideas.  And so, automatically, they get more attention when they say that something bears consideration.

                The problem is that most of these philosophers were raising these paradoxes as reasons for why the time travel stories being presented to them were patently ludicrous.  Their inclusion in so much of time travel fiction wasn’t so much a move towards verisimilitude as it was putting up a huge flag saying “THIS NARRATIVE IS IMPOSSIBLE!”  And in trying to make the stories work anyway, they only ended up creating a whole lot of confusion.  Ultimately it seems this confusion was mistaken for some kind of greater meaning.  And, being writers, most of the group simply decided to run with it.

                Which brings me to the third and final point I’ll raise as to why temporal paradoxes simply don’t work for me.  As a matter of course, the audience is requested to simply sit back and accept that what they see in front of them is possible in the odd sort of hyper-reality that fiction operates in.  For the most part I would say that suspension of disbelief is a good thing.  No one can every get every detail right in fiction, and if they spend too much time trying to get the minutiae nailed down the narrative usually ends up suffering for it. 

                The problem comes in when you consider that the very label of paradox highlights it as an impossible thing.  To fully suspend your disbelief regarding a paradox, you essentially need to stop thinking.  And while that does work very well for some forms of entertainment, in science fiction this is equivalent to suicide.  Sci-Fi has always been a genre relying very heavily on allegory.  When done right it casts familiar human characters into a vastly different set of trials and tribulations in an often unfamiliar setting, and thus works to strip away the influence of the real world to more fully explore who we are.  And you simply cannot interpret this allegory if you are being requested to not think about it.

                Many writers have tried to counter this problem by giving complex explanations of how paradoxes aren’t supposed to happen, but cause a great deal of damage if they do.  Thus, they explain, it’s vital that you try to stop these paradoxes whenever they rear their ugly head.  And they inevitably do, creating millions of new paradoxes without even a second thought.  I’ve yet to hear one good explanation from one of these writers as to how you deal with the problems of conservation of mass or energy when you’ve got molecules existing in two places at the same time.  What’s even more infuriating is the fact that they all tend to use the same explanations anyway, leaving the audience with nothing they haven’t seen a hundred times before.

                Once upon a time, long ago, the idea of a paradox was a new and challenging concept.  It offered writers a chance to experiment with a new kind of story, one where the ability of man to truly control his destiny was constantly being challenged, and all our heroes humbled.  But that time has passed.  And every time I see a writer spit out another repackaged paradox story I can’t help but feel like we are becoming more and more creatively bankrupt.  It’s time we put it to rest.  Fortunately, despite the common misconception, there is more to the concept of time travel than how we can kick physics in the groin and steal it’s lunch money.  In my next installment, I’ll explain to the few readers still interested at this point how I choose to do it.