Time Paradoxes

Argh. I have this great time-travel story—very political, very much a possible tear-jerker, I think—and I’m sure once I figure out what to do with the damned time paradox problem that has stumped me, it’ll be even better for the struggle, but right now, it’s annoying the hell out of me.

It doesn’t help that no book I’ve ever read has dealt with time travel and the attendant paradoxes in quite the way I mean to deal with them. Someone probably has done it before—it’s been argued that SF has been completely mined out, after all, though I don’t believe it’s true#&151;but anyway, for now, I am struggling with that. Right now it looks like I have to give up either paradoxes, or the focus of my story, and I’m not willing to give up either, or to write off the stumbling block either.

Ah well, it’ll make for a better story in the end. I’m sure it will.

I hope.

7 thoughts on “Time Paradoxes

  1. I’m curious about what the paradox is as well as the way you mean to deal with it. I’ve written a few time-travel stories, a couple with unusual paradox resolutions. Perhaps an extra set of eyes might help. If so, just email me.

  2. Well, I don’t want to give it away just yet. I think I’ll wrestle with it a bit, but I may send it to you for feedback when I am finished a first draft to see your criticism.

    In one way, it seems I’ll have to ditch paradoxes altogether (blah, Calvinist time-travel, not what I want and the whole thing would lose its point), or write a lot more about the future (protagonist’s time-reference) than I want to, probably resulting in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic mess. Since neither option is particularly what I wanted to write (though the latter option could be interesting), I think I’ll have to just wrestle the problem some more.

    Maybe something will come to me while I am swimming tomorrow, or something.

    Anyway, thanks Dan, and I’ll definitely contact you when I finish it.

  3. FWIW, here are two paradox resolutions I used before. They may, or may not, be useful.

    1. Chaotic systems, singularities, and strange attractors: Imagine timelines as a solution space for a nonlinear equation, very chaotic. I’m going to presume you’re at least vaguely familiar with these — if not, read “Chaos” by Glick… worthwhile anyway. In such a system you have singularities and strange attractors. A singularity is a timeline that can remain static, either happening just once (no time travel) or repeating (closed-loop time travel). A strange attractor would be a collection of infinite timelines that all carry certain traits, i.e. they all fall within a subset of the solution space, and you’ll switch from one to another at each point of time-travel, though each iteration is subtley different. You start with the original no-time-travel timeline and kick it off that singularity with a time machine. Then you muck up some history and are adrift in the chaotic solution space causing all kinds of terrible paradoxes which will keep kicking you off the current timeline. Eventually you’ll settle into either another singularity or a strange attractor. It’s heady stuff, but if the characters comprehend it, it can be used to massage certain details of how you got where you are.

    2. Show the first iteration of a closed loop. The movie Terminator is a well-known closed loop tale. John Conner is born only because Reese travelled back to meet Sarah Conner, but Reese is only sent back because John Conner was alive to lead the resistance against the machines. How did we get into this situation? It’s one of the standard paradoxes. So, instead of just presenting us with it, show us how we got into it. Show that first iteration, where Sarah raises John from a different father, but John goes on to lead the resistance anyway. It can be an interesting trip, because you get to see two iterations, one where time travel had not occurred and one where it did. Certain key actions must remain the same, but the motivations for taking those actions can and often must change. I used this in a tale to show the transformation of a character. In the first iteration, he is a broken man and invokes time travel in an act of self-destruction, and that causes a change to the timeline so that in the second iteration, he remains pure but ends up invoking time travel in the same way, but now as an act of noble self-sacrifice.

  4. Well, Dan, the second one seems a little too contrived for me… I understand it as a writerly conceit but I’m not into it, at least not for this story. In fact, if it were even possible in this story, the story itself would probably fall apart.

    I think the former paradox resolution is kind of like what I’m working on, except that (a) the presence of strange attractors at all (as probable timelines—in this story, there is only one “real” timeline… so I am using the term somewhat differently from how you are) kind of mitigates the smaller-scale effects of changes in the past… while the bigger-scale paradoxes are avoided by outright intrusive intervention to minimize the effects of (or prevent) any actions that could have paradoxical effects big enough to jolt the single worldline off the course taken in the original iteration. The desperation to prevent restabilization in another strange attractor is attributable to the fact that there is only one “real” worldline, but the loophole provided by the “strange attractors” that mitigate the effects of minor changes by time travelers, also raise interesting potential problems. It’s tis particular issue I’m grappling with, though after my swim today I think I am closer to a solution. We’ll see.

  5. Decades ago, back when Larry Niven was still a good, coherent SF writer, he published a collection of stories and essays titled “All the Myriad Ways,” and in that book is an essay all about time paradoxes. This is well before the advent of chaos theory, though, so you might find his insights dated. But I’d still give “Myriad Ways” a read; you never know where that might lead you.

    Bonne chance,


    PS: That book also contains a hilarious speculative essay about Superman and the problems he’d have, as an alien, in breeding with an Earthling like Lois Lane.

  6. What about Gilles Deleuze’s Logic of Sense?
    He extensively uses Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll in a way for understanding paradoxes..

    BTW, Dan’s comment is quite amazing too…

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