Friday, November 18, 2016

Confusing the Message for the Medium

Back in the 1950s, Ray Bradbury wrote a little short story called "A Sound of Thunder." It's the one about the dudes going back in time to hunt dinosaurs, and you should already know it. If you don't, go read it now before I spoil it. Look, it's a short story, it won't take you that long.

Anyway, the dudes are sent back in time to hunt dinosaurs. There are all of these precautions set up to keep them from disrupting the time line, and they are supposed to follow them explicitly. However, at one point, one of the dudes steps off of the designated path and, when he picks up his foot, finds he has crushed a butterfly. But it's just a butterfly, right? You'd like to think that but, when they return to their own time, they find that everything has changed.

I know! Trippy, right! That's, like, SO deep and meaningful and shit! The dude stepped on a butterfly and changed, like, EVERYTHING! Duuude! And only those dudes knew anything had changed! That's so weird, right! Duuude!

Oh, like, dude! maybe they could go back in time again to before the one dude killed the butterfly and stop him from stepping on the butterfly and fix everything. That's so trippy! Like, duuude!

The problem, though, is that the story is not about the time travel or that everyone in the group who had traveled had kept their original memories intact. That's just the medium to deliver the message, the message that even little things can have huge consequences.

However, this idea has become a staple in science fiction and time travel stories, the idea that the person who travels in time can change the past and yet retain their memories unchanged. It's bullshit, and it wasn't Bradbury's point and, frankly, I'm sick and tired of seeing it done, because it's one of the most ridiculous logical fallacies in science fiction. Probably more than anything else, it is the thing that makes me hate time travel stories, and I can almost say that unilaterally because virtually every time travel story out there uses this idea.

Probably, right about now, I'm stepping on some people's toes, because time travel stories are very popular, and people seem to love this crap.

But here's the other thing I hate about time travel stories and, for this, I'm going to use an example...

Recently, I've been watching The Flash with my daughter. (The boys have no interest in the DC TV shows (and for good reason!).) Because we watch everything after the fact, we're working our way through season two, right now. Now, as a character, I like the Flash -- If I could have a super power, it would be super speed. -- but I haven't much liked this version of the Flash. Sorry, the character in this show is NOT Barry Allen. However, it's been okay enough to watch with my daughter because she does like it. (She prefers Marvel, but she can't watch the Marvel TV shows, yet.)

It has been "okay enough" right up until we got to the episode "Flash Back." They've already done a few time travel episodes, but those were episodes -- see if you can follow this -- where time travel happened but were not about the time travel; "Flash Back" is about the time travel. And it turned a show which was "okay enough" into a show I am currently hating for its blatant and utter stupidity.

So let's break this down:
1. Barry Allen is supposed to be a brilliant scientist. To say that another way, he's incredibly smart.
2. Barry Allen already went back in time to the murder of his mother, and he refrained from saving her, something he desperately wanted to do, because of the danger of changing the past.
3. In "Flash Back," before Barry leaves for the past, they give him that whole speech, "Don't change anything, because you will be the only one who remembers how things are actually supposed to be."

1. Barry is super smart, so he should know better than to tamper with the things that have already happened.
2. If Barry could withstand the temptation to save his mother, he should be able to withstand any other temptations about changing the past.
3. Bullshit!

Of course, Barry can't resist and purposefully affects the past at least three times in the episode, not to mention all of the accidental/unforeseen changes.
Wait a minute...
Knowing the danger of messing with the past, Barry goes ahead and purposefully makes alterations to the timeline for which he cannot know the ramifications.
But the writers expect us to believe that
1. Barry is smart.
2. Barry would succumb to the temptation of fiddling when he didn't save his mother.

This is just... bad writing. Bad writing. Horrible, stupid writing. And it's the kind of thing that makes me hate more than 90% of time travel in popular culture. Not to mention that this particular example of it undermines the entire Flash TV series. We can now no longer trust anything in the show because the writers can just do whatever the fuck they want at any given moment and blame it on Barry having changed things in the past.

And the bigger problem?
Once you've established that your hero can time travel, you can't have him not do it without that being equally as stupid as having the time travel. Either way, the show can't move forward, now, without being dumb.

Maybe I should go back in time and explain to Bradbury the horror he is going to unleash on the world with his one little short story.


  1. I wasn't crazy about that twist either. However, it did set up an interesting narrative for this current season.
    And the crossover event in two weeks will be very entertaining!

    1. Alex: Having now seen how season two ended, Flash has dropped down into my list of one of the worst super hero shows ever. Maybe one of the worst shows ever. It's like the writers got together and said, "Let's put in ALL the stupid!"

  2. I'm not a big fan of time travel shows. Never have been. My hubby is though. He's been watching that new show, Timeless. So far he's been enjoying it. I've been on the laptop while he's had it on and can safely say, not my cup of tea at all.

    1. Elsie: I had not heard of that until now. I'm not adding that to any list of things I want to watch.

  3. You should read Ted Chiang's "Story of your Life." It's a short story you can get for free here:

    I think "Arrival" is at least loosely based on it. It's a very different view of time, and I like it.

    Anyway, I was thinking about time travel because I just finished reading all those Legion of Super Hero collections, and Superboy and the Legionnaires are always traveling in time. I was wondering: if Superboy can go to the future and then return to this exact time, could he go live in the future until he's like 100 years old, and then come back to Smallville in the 1950s, and if so, would he be 100? Or would he travel back in time and be young again?

    Then I started wondering, like you, about people changing the past and whether that would work. Most of the scifi people I like deal with it in a sort of "the universe will correct itself" kind of way, so that you can't accidentally kill your mother before it gives birth to you, but that's as unsatisfying a version of time travel as any, as it supposes predestination, but only predestination for some things. I mean, if the universe will correct itself, then how could you change ANYTHING in the past? I got into a minor car accident on Monday, with the boys in the car (we're all okay, not my fault) but I only was at that intersection because I'd decided to go pick up something from another law office after the boys got home from school, rather than going during the day.

    So could I go back in time and stop that accident from happening? If so, what determines which things the universe will allow and will not? God? Fate? Quantum mechanics?

    The thing for me is that I don't believe time travel is physically possible. I know that the math apparently says that you can do it, but that supposes that there is a "world" frozen in the future waiting for us to come get it, and a world in the past that is still living with younger versions of us. Leaving aside the kind of insane mathematics you'd have to work out to travel in time -- just to figure out WHERE THE EARTH WOULD BE would be difficult, because if I go back to September 1978 for example, the Earth is in an entirely different part of its orbit in a different part of the universe because the Universe is expanding, and I'd have to also make sure I don't go back to the part of September 1978 where I am appearing in the midst of a brick wall --

    leaving all THAT aside, what are those people -- including younger me -- doing while I move on without them? I'm uncomfortable with the idea that 9 year old me is just back there waiting to see if time travelers exist.

    That said, in my current epic superhero novel I am experimenting with a theory I call The Rubberband Earth that would allow for a kind of time travel, even though it's not really that. You'll have to wait, though: it's about a year away at least.

    Also: I'm hot and cold on The Flash. I've just started season 2, I think, but I got distracted by "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" on Netflix. very good! That said, though, I thought Flash's hesitance in saving his mom was because his other time-traveled self warned him off -- not that he didn't want to do it but that a different version of him told him not to. Did I miss something?

    1. Briane: The math, currently, shows that time is not linear; that's just a perception thing. If time is not linear, it then becomes theoretically possible to move around in it. No one knows how to do that, yet. Well, other than forward. We can actually achieve that.

      After having finished season two, I'm not talking about any of that stuff from Flash. It's so dumb it makes my head hurt.

  4. Funny how I just read that story a little while ago. It feels like we're in that butterfly crushing timeline right now.

    A lot of time travel stories bug me for the same reasons. Plus no one ever acknowledges that if they're travelling back in time they have to be travelling through space also. Except for Doctor Who, I guess.

    1. Jeanne: Dr. Who is the only one I know of.
      That and that short story I wrote a couple of years ago.