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.