(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 Waltham 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.