Changing the Past – Or Avenging It

Introduction

Avengers Endgame posterI set out to do an analytical essay on Three Theories of Time Travel—until I realized that Larry Niven’s astute and entertaining brief article “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (1971) had already covered those theories pretty well.  (You can find that article in Niven’s All the Myriad Ways, and a couple other locations.)  So I decided instead to comment on how they’re used in Avengers:  Endgame, which seems to invoke at least two and possibly three different theories.

Maybe I’d have been better off sticking with the original plan; this post has turned out to be considerably longer than I’d planned.

Endgame came out on April 26, 2019, and was released on disc August 13, so it’s still new enough at this writing that I should issue a

Spoiler Alert!

I’m not going to address the mechanics of how one might travel into the past—whether via Tipler machines, or wormholes, or simply thinking oneself into the past à la Jack Finney.  (Endgame manages it via what the movies refer to as the “Quantum Realm,” which is completely incoherent in one way but rather fascinating in another—a side issue I won’t go into here.)  I’m interested in what happens if you let causality turn back on itself.  I can think of three main ways of handling the question of changing the past.  Each has its pros and cons, from a storytelling point of view.

“Make It Didn’t Happen”

First, let’s suppose we can change the past (and, by extension, the present and future).  The idea arises because we often wish we could go back and undo something—either our own actions, or the broader course of history.  Niven observes, “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence.”  He goes on to note, “The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”  These twin aspects of the idea generate plot tensions and conflicts immediately, on both a personal and a historical scale, so it’s not surprising they’re so popular.

Back to the Future posterThe most familiar example, of course, is Back to the Future (1985-1990).  In the three movies, Zemeckis played several variations on the idea of making history come out differently.  The cultural reference is so well-known that Marvel was able to riff off it for a comic moment in Endgame.  Scott Lang, the young and relatively naïve Ant-Man, says they’ll be okay if they obey the ‘rules of time travel’ (at about 0:35).  Tony Stark, the all-round genius of the Marvel movies, derides Scott for having gotten his “rules” from BTTF, and proceeds to shoot the notion down as hopelessly unscientific.

And Tony’s right, in the sense that building a theory of time travel purely on the assumptions made in fictional stories is silly.  We don’t know what would happen if it were possible to change the past; we haven’t done it.  That would make time travel really dangerous if it could be attempted in real life.  On the other hand, that same lack of knowledge leaves a wide field open for the fiction writer.  We can make whatever assumptions we like, as long as they’re consistent.  We can imagine that you can only go back in time a certain distance, at a certain geographical location, as in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (1981-84).  We can imagine that the transition requires vast energies, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Technical Error” (1950).  Or we can invoke the imaginary “Pym particles” of Ant-Man lore and time-travel at will.

This first theory of time travel generates the paradoxes we know and love.  We have the “grandfather paradox,” in which an effect removes its own cause.  (I go back in time and kill my grandfather.)  We have what Wikipedia calls the “ontological paradox,” in which an effect becomes its own cause.  (I go back but my grandfather fails to show up, so I marry my grandmother instead and name my son after my dad…)  I talked about these a bit in a 2016 post on the TV series Timeless.

One thing that’s not always obvious is that the idea of changing the past requires a second time dimension.  There’s the familiar one that’s typically represented by a “timeline,” a one-dimensional line ordering events from past to future.  But if someone changes the past, then the old line has to be replaced by a new one:  imagine a second timeline lying next to the first.  Every time a change is made, another timeline gets added.  The set of lines forms a plane, extending through a second dimension, in which each new timeline happens after (in some Pickwickian sense) the last.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense to say that we’d changed history.  Marty can’t rejoice in having “fixed” his family unless the new timeline succeeds the first, just as events along the timeline succeed each other.  Hence, a second time dimension, to accommodate the sequence of timelines.  (This may, or may not, be related to what TV Tropes calls “San Dimas Time,” a reference from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

As a narrative device, the chance to change the past creates suspense.  But it only works if you don’t look too closely.  The author has to stage-manage things carefully so that changes of all sorts don’t start happening in all directions, and this means that time travel must be rare.  If we imagine a period of hundreds or thousands of years, during which people invent time machines every so often and start changing the past, it would become impossible to make sense of what was happening.  Different changes, each with their rippling “butterfly effects,” would take place, one after another—or even at the same, er, time.  (I tried playing around with that idea in an as-yet-unpublished story called Getting to Gettysburg.)  So I’m skeptical about stories based on letting time travel become routine, as in “Time Patrol” scenarios or Asimov’s The End of Eternity.

Avengers Disassemble

Does Endgame, after all Tony’s disclaimers, involve changing the past?  Maybe not; but it’s hard to see how the story can avoid it.

Thanos with Infinity GauntletThe screenwriters chose to set themselves an interesting dilemma that makes the simple time-travel solution (go back and kill Thanos) unusable.  When the time-travel possibility arises, five years have passed since the Snap, in which Thanos killed off half the people in the universe.  Life has gone on.  Tony and Pepper, for example, have an adorable little girl.  But eliminating the Snap would also eliminate Tony’s little daughter Morgan, along with everything else that’s happened since.  That’s unacceptable (at least to Tony).  So the Avengers are not trying to avert the Snap; instead, they want to bring back, in the present time, all those who disintegrated.

The reason they have to go into the past is to retrieve the six Infinity Stones, which Thanos destroyed after the Snap.  The Avengers will need to use the Stones for a Snap of their own to bring back all the people Thanos destroyed.  But in order to avoid changing the past, they will have to put the Stones back in their earlier times after they’ve been used.  This is a clever idea, but it’s going to be really tricky to execute in practice, as we’ll discuss below.

It’s Already Happened

Meanwhile, the business of a second time dimension may make us start to wonder about the whole idea of changing the past.  Maybe we’ve forgotten to take into account the integrity of the original time dimension.  After all, if something happened in the past, it has already happened.  The effects of past events should be baked into the present that follows from them.  If I go back to 1800 and leave a hidden time capsule, let’s say, I should be able to dig it up in 2019.  You might say that the change I wish to make has already taken place.

Kate and Leopold posterBut it follows that if I can find the evidence in the present, then I know the event occurred in the past.  (That’s what “evidence” means.)  If I find the time capsule, I know that it was buried.  This may allow me to predict or “retrodict” my future changes to the past on the basis of what’s known now. If I find the time capsule, I know I’m going to bury it—or someone else will.  A key scene in Kate and Leopold (2001) relies on just such a discovery about a future event that changes the past.  (Have we mixed up the tenses enough yet?)  Bill and Ted makes even more comically inventive use of this aspect.

But on this theory, the event in the past isn’t really a change.  It was always that way.  The time capsule persisted through all the intervening time.  You can’t change the past, because your change is already included in the past we know and thus embedded in the present.  As Niven puts it, “any attempt on the part of a time traveler to change the past has already been made, and is a part of the past.”

This approach deprives us of the fun of changing history, but I rather like it.  It ensures the timeline remains consistent with itself.  In fact, one version of this postulate is referred to as the “Novikov self-consistency principle,” named for Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov.  We avoid grandfather paradoxes:  we already know I didn’t succeed in traveling into the past and killing my grandfather, because here I am.  If I try, something will go wrong.  On the other hand, ontological paradoxes are still allowed, as in Heinlein’s classic novella By His Bootstraps (1941).  In fact, I tend to think of this as ‘Heinlein’s theory of time travel,’ because he used it extensively—not only in Bootstraps and the even more baffling  “—All You Zombies—” (1959), but also in the delightful The Door Into Summer (1957).  Of course, Heinlein’s by no means the only writer using a Novikov-type theory.

One reason I like this type of time travel story is that everything fits neatly together, like a puzzle.  The fun of the story is in seeing how they’ll fit.  In that sense, the enjoyment of you-already-changed-the-past stories resembles that of the Greek tragedies, in which an oracular pronouncement tells what’s going to happen, and the story shows how it happens.  No matter how Oedipus tries to avoid the awful future foretold, he can’t.  The efforts to avoid the predicted outcome may themselves produce it.

In such a tragedy, where time travel isn’t involved (except to the extent the oracle itself is future information acting on the past), the Greek tragedy tends to suggest that the outcome is determined by some kind of Fate, whether we like it or not.  (Niven puts this view under the heading of “determinism.”)  But the Novikov-type theory can also be seen as compatible with free will.  Even actions freely taken, once they are complete, become part of the fabric of history, not subject to further change afterwards—except to the extent that backward causation via time travel is possible, which alters the whole meaning of “afterwards.”

The Door Into Summer, coverA subclass of these stories assumes that the time continuum somehow defends itself against change.  It may automatically “self-heal” to swallow up minor changes, or all changes:  Edison doesn’t invent the light bulb, but someone else does.  Or the time stream may simply be designed so that with “fail-safes” that prevent catastrophic causality failures.  At the end of The Door Into Summer, the engineer hero seems to be speculating in this direction:  if time travel could be used commercially, he thinks,

it will be because the Builder designed the universe that way.  He gave us eyes, two hands, a brain; anything we do with them can’t be a paradox.  He doesn’t need busybodies to “enforce” His laws; they enforce themselves.  (p. 158)

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverIn a modern context, God seems to take over the role of Fate—not by predetermining everything, but by designing the system (i.e., the universe) so nothing can go fatally wrong with causality.  Something similar, I think, lies behind the way the time travel “net” portal functions in Connie Willis’s time travel stories.  If allowing something through the net would create a paradox, the net simply won’t open—which leads to some tortuous reasoning by the characters as to what is keeping the net from openingaat  a particular moment.  Something like Providence seems to be at work.  The only causal loops allowed are what we might call ‘virtuous loops’—those that work out right.

What makes this confusing is that we’re used to analyzing causality by looking at the conditions preceding the effect.  Here, we don’t see the ‘virtuous loop’ conditions being set at any particular point in time.  The conditions have to apply to the continuum as a whole—from outside it, in effect.

You Can’t Avenge the Future

When Tony initially declares Scott’s proposed “time heist” impossible, the remaining Avengers bring in Bruce Banner as a substitute scientific resource.  Banner (who now combines his own brain with the Hulk’s body) does make a nod to the fact that his scientific expertise is primarily in biology, not physics, but the story remains basically true to the comic-book idea that a scientific genius is a genius in every science.  At about 0:59, Banner says something that sounds rather like the Novikov principle we’ve been discussing:  if you kill someone in the past, that doesn’t erase their later selves.  Apparently causality doesn’t propagate down the world lines of already-existing characters to wipe them out when their original causes go away.  On this theory, Marty wouldn’t have had to worry about disappearing even if he couldn’t get his parents back together.

On the other hand, Bruce doesn’t seem to be saying you can’t kill the person in the past; he seems to be saying that if you did kill them, it wouldn’t make any difference.  This may have more to do with what TV Tropes calls “ontological inertia” (see here, but also here).  Bruce’s approach seems to allow for wild inconsistency in the timeline, because I can be alive in 2019 even after being killed in 1971.

The simplest answer may be to conclude that Bruce wasn’t a very good physicist; maybe Tony silently corrected Bruce’s theory when Tony finally did agree to join the party.

Branching Timelines

At some point in SF history, people realized that the whole paradox thing could be avoided by introducing a third theory, the notion of multiple branching timelines.  Niven’s phrase is “multiple time tracks.”  If you change the past, the original future going forward from that point remains unchanged, but a new future comes into existence, branching off to take into account the change.  (The character making the change always seem to end up in the new branch, not the old.)  We can have our cake and eat it too:  one version of me devours the cake, but another, equally real, version of me prudently saves the cake for later.

The multiple-timeline approach gains some headway from the general popularity of alternate-history stories, and some plausibility from the fact that physicists take seriously the suggested “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  It appears to solve the problem of time paradoxes.  However, it runs very close to an assumption that would make it impossible to tell a good story at all.

Stories are about action and choice.  A mere recounting of a series of experiences that happen to someone wouldn’t be much of a story (which is one reason the ending of 2001:  A Space Odyssey is so weak).  James Michener’s introduction to the novel Hawaii (1959), which describes the geological formation of the islands, is only part of a story because it lays the groundwork for what the characters later say and do.

All the Myriad Ways coverIf every possible alternative branched off a new timeline whenever there were options, there would be no point in making a choice, because whichever choice I made, another version of me would make the opposite choice.  Niven captures the problem exactly:

. . . did you ever sweat over a decision?  Think about one that really gave you trouble, because you knew that what you did would affect you for the rest of your life.  Now imagine that for every way you could have jumped, one of you in one universe did jump that way.

Now don’t you feel silly?  Sweating over something so trivial, when you were going to take all the choices anyway.  And if you think that’s silly, consider that one of you still can’t decide . . .  (p. 117)

The title story in All the Myriad Ways explores exactly that issue—what would happen if people really started to believe that all alternatives were equally real.

But suppose we assume that every choice doesn’t spawn alternate universes—just the changes caused by time travel, by backward causality.  That doesn’t destroy all narrative in the way just described.  It just ruins the story you’re trying to tell.  The main characters move heaven and earth to get into the past and make the necessary change.  They succeed!  Whew.  Victory.  —Except that in another universe, the original one, they didn’t succeed.  Somewhere, the sad failures who are Marty McFly’s parents still languish by the TV.  That’s not a really satisfying conclusion.

Alternating Avengers

The multiple-timeline approach certainly comes up in Endgame.  What I can’t make out is whether it prevails in the end, or is averted.

Ancient One and Banner with timeline simulationAt about 1:24 in the movie, Bruce Banner is having a tense conversation with the Ancient One (Dr. Strange’s mentor) about the plan to return the stones to their original places in time.  The idea is that if he takes the Time Stone from the Ancient One at (let’s say) 1:03:12 p.m. on January 31, 2010, and eventually Steve Rogers returns it to her at 1:03:13 p.m. on January 31, 2010, there won’t be a need for a branch to form.  History continues on as it had always been.  (Steve describes his mission concisely at 2:43 in the movie:  “I know.  Clip all the branches.”)  Thus, the timeline of the movie, in which Thanos Snapped half the universe away, and five years later the assembled Avengers brought them back and did away with Thanos, remains the one-and-only timeline.  There’s a helpful description of this procedure in an article from July 2019 (which is also full of spoilers, by the way).

If we leave aside how hard it would have been to put things back exactly as they were, given the butterfly effect—not all the Stone retrievals were as simple as Bruce’s—does this work?  Did the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) come up with a way to manage the dizzying time loops and still save the story?

I’m still not quite sure.  One glaring plot hole, as various people have pointed out, is that we have to account for Thanos himself.  In order to give us a great battle at the end (and what a battle it is!), the movie has Thanos in pre-Snap 2014 discover what’s going to happen and time-travel forward to 2019, where he’s ultimately disintegrated by the Avengers.  He never returns to 2014.  That seems to mean that the disappearance of Thanos did create a branch, since if he vanished from 2014 and never came back, the Snap would never have occurred.

At least that reduces us to two timelines, the one we see in the movie and another where Thanos does not continue to exist after 2014.  And, interestingly enough, the Avengers’ actions saved both of those timelines from the Snap.  The people who lived through the movie timeline experienced the Snap, but the lost people were eventually returned.  Meanwhile, in the new alternate timeline, Thanos never came back, he never got the Infinity Stones, and the Snap never occurred.  That’s not such a bad (dual) ending.

I don’t know.  All these causal loops produce a kind of shell game in which I’m not quite sure how things came out.  Nonetheless, it’s a great movie, if you like the Marvel characters at all.  If you haven’t seen it, you shouldn’t have been reading this (but maybe the circuitous account above will be helpful).  If you have—see it again!  Just don’t try to go back to April to catch the premiere a second time; who knows what that would do to the space-time continuum.

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The End of Timeless

Poster for TimelessOver the holidays (Dec. 20) we saw the two-hour series finale of the time travel TV show Timeless, seasonally titled “The Miracle of Christmas.”  We were there at the beginning for this two-season series; let’s take a brief look at how it ended.

While I suspect everyone who’s followed this series will by now have seen the finale, just in case I’ll issue aSpoiler Alert!

An Appropriate Time

While we hate to see a good series go, sometimes closing down is the right thing to do.  Not every series can go on forever; we’ve all seen shows that linger on long past when they should have died.

Timeless was built around a wide-ranging conspiracy—an evil organization called “Rittenhouse.”  Such stories have a certain inherent instability.  If the secret enemy simply keeps going, with the good guys never making any progress against it, then we’re stuck with a fixed situation that lacks the tension of possible resolution or serious arc development—take The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or any similar 1960s-type spy series.  On the other hand, if the heroes do succeed in making headway against their opponents, they eventually win, and the show can find itself at a loss for what the heroes are going to do next (I’m looking at you, Chuck).  So a struggle against a secret conspiracy is a good candidate for a limited series.

In this sense, I liked the Timeless wrap-up.  The show wrapped before it could lose momentum.

The Pointless Conspiracy

This limited lifetime is particularly important here, because even the short run of the series was enough to reveal some significant weaknesses in the “Rittenhouse” idea.

Timeless character portraitsYou’ll recall that the principal characters are Lucy Preston, a history professor; Wyatt Logan, a U.S. Army Delta Force operative; and Rufus Carlin, the technical expert and pilot of the “Lifeboat” time ship used by the good guys—along with Jiya Marri, a programmer who isn’t initially part of the traveling team but grows into the role.  They skip around from time period to time period, trying to prevent two groups of opponents from changing history for the worse.

The time travelers gradually discover that a secret organization, passed down along family lines, has been dominating American history since the Founding.  A NSA renegade, Garcia Flynn, and his henchmen steal the experimental time machine in order to stop Rittenhouse by changing history.  There’s an interesting ambiguity from the beginning about who is actually the villain, since we see Flynn’s machinations before we find out about Rittenhouse.  But we’re never quite sure either what Rittenhouse is about or how Flynn expects to stop it.

The secret society is supposed to derive from an actual historical figure, David Rittenhouse (1732-1796).  Wikipedia describes him as “an American astronomer, inventor, clockmaker, mathematician, surveyor, scientific instrument craftsman, and public official . . . a member of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the United States Mint.”  This Rittenhouse seems an odd choice for a sinister mastermind.  He actually sounds more like a hero (of science) to me.  So, right from the start, we’re a little at sea as to what Rittenhouse’s motives or goals are supposed to be.

Omniscient Council of Vagueness illustration from TV TropesTV Tropes has a hilarious discussion of what it calls the “Omniscient Council of Vagueness.”  Rittenhouse is a perfect example.  We don’t know what the organization wants.  We don’t know why.  If it’s been manipulating American society or politics, we don’t know when or where.  We don’t know how it exercises its influence or what historical events can be ascribed to that influence.  We know it’s bad, because its agents are ruthless.  Maybe the goal has something to do with master-race breeding (a favorite go-to way to characterize villains since the Nazis):  in the episode where David Rittenhouse actually appears as an old man (Season 1, episode 10), he declares that Lucy is a fine healthy specimen and orders her taken to his bedroom (a procedure which is of course timely interrupted before we can overstep the bounds of network TV).  But even the idea of some eugenic program isn’t really developed.

It’s easy to postulate some vast secret organization like Marvel’s Hydra or U.N.C.L.E.’s THRUSH, and equally simple to plaster them with enough repellent traits that we’re happy to take them for granted as The Bad Guys.  But given how sophisticated Timeless was in some respects, I was sort of surprised it never went further in fleshing out this premise.

Suppressing Technology

On the other hand, Timeless gets points for recognizing that you can’t wipe out a technology forever just by destroying all the prototypes.

Science fiction has frequently dealt with the difficulty of putting the genie back in the bottle.  If a scientific principle or technology can be discovered once, then even destroying all the existing examples won’t permanently prevent it from being used.  What can be discovered can be rediscovered.  (See, for example, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 story “Solution Unsatisfactory.”)

Doc Brown's time-traveling trainSo, at the end of Back to the Future, Doc Brown soberly declares that Marty must destroy the time-traveling DeLorean once he returns to his own time, since time travel is too dangerous to be allowed.  (In an appropriately comic conclusion, Doc then promptly negates his own directive by showing up with a wonderful time-traveling steam engine.)  But even if we suppose that the secret of Marty and Doc’s adventures is kept quiet forever, somebody else is eventually going to come up with a flux capacitor (whether or not the idea is occasioned by falling off a toilet and hitting your head).

The characters recognize this issue at the end of the Timeless finale.  Rather than destroying the “Lifeboat” prototype, they decide to hang onto it, just in case.  This is not just a good way to leave a thread hanging in case anybody decides to make a sequel someday; it’s smart thinking.  And, in a clever final twist, the last scene does suggest—in the innocuous setting of a science fair—that some years later, a high-school STEM student, in a program started by Rufus and Jiya themselves, is about to stumble upon the time travel principle again.

Character Development by Substitution

The most important part of the story’s end, though, is about the characters.

Timeless action scene in hallwayI was glad to see that, after a number of twists and turns, the romances worked out satisfyingly.  Lucy and Wyatt, as we always suspected, do end up together.  So do Rufus and Jiya—but their situation is a little more complicated.  There’s more going on than meets the eye in the resolution of these relationships.

A key part of Wyatt’s motivation throughout had been his guilt and grief over the death of his wife Jessica.  When Jessica turns up alive, after a particular historical change (Season 2, episode 3), this naturally throws a wrench into the budding romance between Lucy and Wyatt.  But Jessica, it turns out, is alive because Rittenhouse (now in possession of a time machine) has changed history to save her, and in the new history has inculcated Jessica into Rittenhouse’s plans from the beginning.  This is not, in other words, the Jessica that Wyatt originally new:  this is a Rittenhouse Jessica, subverted from childhood (Season 2, episodes 7, 9).

The plot complications that ensue are one thing.  But the setup produces a rather novel view of character.  To what extent is this alternate version of Jessica the same person that Wyatt fell in love with?  And if loving someone means loving her “for who she is,” what happens when she’s now someone else?

In a case of brainwashing or mind control or the like, one can at least imagine going back to the ‘branch point’ and recurring somehow to the original state of the person.  But if (in this timeline) Jessica has always been a Rittenhouse recruit, there is no such original state to return to.  (If there had never been Back to the Future sequels, one might imagine Marty similarly having some trouble coming to terms with his new, more assertive parents.)

The same issue is played out more subtly with Rufus and Jiya.  In the last regular episode, Rufus is killed.  Since this is a time travel story, the other characters are naturally bent on changing things to prevent that from happening.  In the finale, this is achieved:  but the Rufus who’s now alive is from a timeline different from the one originally inhabited by Wyatt and Lucy.  He hasn’t had all the same experiences.

Rufus and Jiya, San FranciscoMeanwhile, Jiya has experienced a much more traumatic change.  In the last regular episode, she is stranded in 1888 Chinatown and must survive by her wits alone for three years.  The Jiya who meets the revised Rufus has gone through things Rufus has never imagined.  We see that they nonetheless stay in love; but they will have to work through some major issues together.

This identity issue is not unique to time travel.  We have a much longer history of stories about experiences that significantly change a person:  for example, a man goes off to war and comes back “a changed man.”  For example, in the movie Sommersby (1993), a Civil War veteran’s wife is not entirely sure whether the man who came back is the one who left, or a near-identical twin.

But in this normal case, continuity is still expected:  the change is from an already-known branch point.  Laurel Sommersby ultimately concludes the man before her cannot be her husband—“because I never loved him the way I love you!”  Character development happens, if not always gradually, at least in some kind of organic way.  She does not believe her husband could have become the man she now loves.

If time travel can rewrite someone’s entire history, is that still true?  We’re almost back at the nature-nurture debate:  to what extent is my character fated at birth, and to what extent created through life?  Timeless gives us subliminally convincing evidence of continuity:  a new timeline’s version of Rufus or Jiya is played by the same actor, speaks with the same voice, wears the same persona—except to the extent specifically varied for purposes of the plot.  But the story of the finale raises disconcerting issues of how much continuity is necessary to remain “the one I love.”

Stories generally involve the kind of character development that comes through the accumulation of experience.  But Timeless gives us kind of character development by substituting a new version of a person, with a new history of experience—a deft use of the “what-ifs” for which time travel tales are famous.

 

Timeless has been a cool series to follow.  I don’t know that I’d have wanted it to go on indefinitely, but it sparked some stimulating thoughts in its brief run.

Timeless finale scene with Christmas lights

An Incredible Sequel

The Incredibles 2 movie posterSome quick, spoiler-free comments on The Incredibles 2, which I had a chance to see this weekend.

The First Incredibles

The original Pixar film The Incredibles (2004) is a great favorite of mine.  My fondness for superhero stories goes way back, and The Incredibles does an irresistible job of both exemplifying and spoofing the genre.  Moreover, it’s a character-driven story, little as one might expect that from a superhero flick.  It’s got a gallery of memorable characters—not just the family, but distinctive supporting cast members like Frozone and Edna.  And they change over the course of the tale in ways that are plausible, illuminating, and heartwarming.

The Incredibles is genre-savvy enough to be both worldly-wise and innocent.  It starts with a premise that borders on the cynical:  these costumed brawlers cause so much damage that a public outcry forces them to go underground and live normal lives, in a sort of witness protection program.  There’s a note of realism there that contrasts with the usual comic-book conventions.  We see it again when the business of creating the colorful costumes itself turns out to require expertise worthy of James Bond’s Q—giving us Edna Mode as an independent contractor (and style maven).

This issue of collateral damage seems to have preoccupied superhero movies a lot in recent years.  It’s a primary plot driver in both Captain America:  Civil War (2016) and Batman v. Superman (2016).  But The Incredibles was there first, twelve years earlier.  What that says about contemporary attitudes is something at which we may want to take a closer look, another time.

The New Incredibles

Incredibles 2, family in force fieldThe first question that arose when a sequel was announced was, where do they go from here?  Of course, superheroes are almost by definition open to continuing adventures.  And The Incredibles ended with an obvious starting point for another story:  the appearance of a new villain, the Underminer.  But at the end of the first movie, the character arcs, the development of the main characters, had all been neatly completed.  Could the director and screenwriters come up with something equally good from that starting point?

The answer was always:  if anyone could pull that off, it’d be Pixar.

I enjoyed The Incredibles 2 immensely.  I’ll have to let it settle for a while to evaluate how it stands with respect to its classic predecessor.  But the movie is a lot of fun, and it manages to carry forward a story that’s consistent with the first movie, yet departs from it enough to avoid simply repeating the original.  As we’ve seen, this a tricky business.

Despite the fourteen-year gap in realtime between the first and the second movie, the latter picks up exactly where the former leaves off, with the appearance of the Underminer.  This tunnel-drilling villain is an obvious shout-out to Marvel’s Mole Man, who was introduced in the very first issue of The Fantastic Four.

Since the Incredibles have always been a kind of retake of the F.F., the Mole Man connection has a pleasing nostalgia aspect for the long-time comic-book fan.  There’s a similar homage to the F.F. in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City comics—a superhero group called the “First Family.”  (Their last name is actually “Furst,” making them another instance of the proverb that the last shall be Furst, and the Furst shall be last.)  Busiek, incidentally, may have been the first graphic novelist to highlight the collateral damage question; the matter of “everyday life in a superhero universe” is treated not only in Astro City (which started in 1995), but also in his revisiting of the Marvel universe, the limited series Marvels (1994).

Time and Tide

The time lapse (realtime) between Incredibles 1 and 2 is less disruptive than one might imagine, because both movies are set in an alternate past, not in our present.  One article concludes that the main action of The Incredibles takes place in 1962, based on a newspaper date.  This fits with the fact that Brad Bird’s inspiration for the film came from the comic books of the 1960s.  The time period is visible in the charmingly retro designs of the homes and cars in the original movie, not to mention the big rocket used by the villain.

So we’re not disturbed by the fact that the characters in The Incredibles (1 or 2) don’t carry around cell phones or use personal computers.  There are, of course, computers and other high-tech devices in both movies.  But this is consistent with the standard comic-book depiction of advanced technology in the hands of certain individuals or groups, as opposed to the society as a whole.  (This convention also applied in other adventure stories, like the Saturday morning cartoon Jonny Quest, one of my childhood favorites, which makes a brief appearance onscreen in The Incredibles 2.)  We might see high-powered computers and such in the Batcave, or a villain’s lair—or even in some hidden country, like Marvel’s Wakanda (which first appeared in 1966).  But these were always “islands” of high technology, having no effect on the technological level of the overall culture.

Mr Incredible with Mirage's tablet messageThere is a subtle difference between the 1960s depictions of advanced technology and what we see in the Incredibles movies, which may throw us off a bit.  A 1960s-era imaginary supercomputer looked like an extrapolated version of 1960s-era mainframe computers.  One thinks of old James Bond movies showing computers ornamented with slowly rotating tape drives, which now look ludicrously anachronistic.  But this nostalgic re-creation of 1960s-era high-tech has the advantage of knowing how the future actually turned out.  Thus, in an early scene from the first movie, Mr. Incredible is tracking a car chase in his Incredimobile—and the electronic tracker looks not unlike a GPS, albeit one with primitive graphics.  When Mirage sends a “This message will self-destruct” recording to Bob, it’s on a tablet strangely reminiscent of a modern iPad.  In effect, the movie designers are reimagining the imagined future of the 1960s, by reference to the actual future (our present).  The mind boggles a bit.

All in all, The Incredibles 2 does a very good job of resuming the story fourteen years later with a minimum of retcon.  Compare Back to the Future II, which required a distinct revision of the closing scene from the first movie, only four years after episode 1 was released.

Managing the Handoff

There were a couple of things I didn’t quite expect in the transition from the end of episode 1 to the beginning of episode 2.  But they weren’t really retcons—more like things I’d assumed at the end of The Incredibles that turned out not to be quite so simple.  These aren’t really spoilers, since they become apparent almost at once in the new movie.

Incredibles 2, family chargingThe Parr family and Frozone are publicly acclaimed for defeating Syndrome in episode 1, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods yet.  The anti-supers law still hasn’t been reversed.  When the story was wrapped up in a single movie, we would reasonably assume that such things would automatically be resolved after the movie ended, just as we assume that the main characters’ romance will proceed swimmingly when a movie fades out on a kiss.  But there’s still work to be done on society’s acceptance of supers in The Incredibles 2.

Then there’s baby Jack.  We saw Jack exhibit a variety of assorted superpowers in the first movie and the associated short subject (“Jack-Jack Attack”).  But his family didn’t quite see that; they don’t yet know he has superpowers.  Of course, as the trailers make clear, they find out pretty soon . . .

Conclusion

I heartily recommend the sequel; most fans of The Incredibles should enjoy this follow-up.

And one bit of practical advice for the moviegoer:  the closing credit graphics are entertaining, but there’s no need to wait around for the very end.  Our 1960s-ish superhero family has not yet adopted the modern practice of putting a “stinger” scene at the conclusion of the credits.

Action and Passion

Our story approaches its climax:  Our Hero prepares for the cataclysmic action on which all depends.  She tenses her muscles, tightens her fists, screws up her face into a tense grimace.

Or does she?  There are actually two ways to imagine how one achieves some brilliant feat.  We have conflicting ideas about what makes action most effective.

Passion Conquers All

The most common view is that passion brings a sort of high-tension focus that intensifies action.  (I’m using “passion” here to mean any violent emotion or supreme effort, not specifically romantic passion.)  The more you feel, the more vigorously you act.  This connection obviously correlates with our common experience.  F&SF, as always, takes the idea to new levels.

The HulkWe picture this most obviously in fighting.  Today’s most iconic image is probably that of the Hulk, from Marvel Comics, who changes from mild-mannered Bruce Banner to a massive powerhouse when Banner gets angry.  The idea isn’t new to comics, of course; it goes back at least to the Norse berserker, who fights in what Wikipedia calls “a trance-like fury.”  In a more mundane case, we see the milquetoast George McFly motivated by anger at a threat to the girl of his dreams when he finally decks Biff in “Back to the Future.”

But we also see passion as the path to other kinds of achievement.  Great stress, suffering, or effort leads to a breakthrough in ability.  Jean Grey of the X-Men becomes the cosmic-powered Phoenix when her power and endurance are tested to the limit piloting a space shuttle through a solar flare.

Gully Foyle achieves a previously-impossible interplanetary teleportation (“jaunte”) when he’s at the end of his rope in the SF classic The Stars, My Destination.  Roger Zelazny’s hero Corwin recovers his memory and his full powers when he effortfully “walks the Pattern” in Nine Princes in Amber:

          It was agony to move.  Everything tried to beat me aside.  The waters were cold, then boiling.  It seemed that they constantly pushed against me.  I struggled, putting one foot before the other.

In Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, the tormented Felice Landry achieves new levels of power under extreme stress (The Golden Torc, part III, ch. 3).  On a more positive note, the coda of E.E. Smith’s Lensman series shows Clarissa MacDougall, intensely suffering the loss of her beloved, finding the power necessary to retrieve him from unimaginable reaches (that chapter is a trope namer for TV Tropes’ “The Power of Love”).  Just last night, I saw the movie version of Wonder Woman (excellent, by the way) use the same trope:  a climactic accession of power under immense emotional strain.

Some of the modern roots of the passionate effort concept can be found in the Romantic movement.

Dispassion Also Has Its Points

But there’s a more paradoxical view that we can achieve more when we stop concentrating and enter a state of calmness or centeredness.

This approach also has many roots.  We’re frequently advised, when struggling with a difficult task, that we’re “trying too hard.”  Zen and other Asiatic traditions mobilize a strategy of detaching one’s mind from too great a concentration.  The currently popular practice of “mindfulness” seems to partake of the same idea:  a focus on the present moment without worry or intense concern.  Wikipedia even refers to “choiceless awareness,”  “the state of unpremeditated, complete awareness of the present without preference, effort, or compulsion.”

A nonpassionate sense of focus also appears in F&SF as a way to great achievement, though it’s much more rare.  In Robert Jordan’s massive fantasy epic The Wheel of Time, for example, Rand al’Thor is receiving sword training from a mentor who recommends “[n]ot the wild leaping about and slashing that Rand had in mind . . . but smooth motions, one flowing into another, almost a dance.”

“ . . . Blank your mind, sheepherder.  Empty it of hate or fear, of everything.  Burn them away. . . .”

Rand stared at him.  “The flame and the void,” he said wonderingly.  “That’s what you mean, isn’t it?  My father taught me about that.”  (The Eye of the World, ch. 13, paperback p. 177)

It’s through “the Void” that Rand can be most effective with the sword—and, later, with other things.

Honor Harrington faces the duelDavid Weber’s military SF heroine Honor Harrington, after surviving a shuttle explosion and emotional trauma, faced with a ritual duel to the death, dramatically decapitates her opponent with a single stroke.  But she doesn’t do it in a burst of rage, well-justified as that would be.

Honor waited, poised and still, centered physically and mentally, her eyes watching every part of [her opponent’s] body without focusing on any.  She felt his frustration, but it was as distance and unimportant as the ache of her broken ribs.  She simply waited—and then, suddenly, she moved.  (Flag in Exile, ch. 29, paperback p. 376)

We might also compare Frozen, from a previous post.  Elsa gains full control over her powers not when she lashes out passionately, nor when she painfully restrains herself, but when her power flows freely and gladly.

It’s hard to specify exactly what this dis-passionate state is.  It’s not pure rationality, à la Mr. Spock.  We might consider it a sort of pure will; but it’s not a blind will creating its own goal à la Nietzsche.  What you’re seeking still matters greatly; this Void state is how you approach it.

Nor is it lack of restraint, as we saw with Frozen.  Rather, the mindful actor seems to have perfect direction, perfect control, by means of this very Void state.  The arrow goes straight to the target—but it strikes with unparalleled force.

We don’t see as many examples of such centered intensity in the movies.  Film tends to prefer the display of passion:  it’s showier.  A character whose action arises from an inner balance is likely to look entirely inert, from the outside—until she moves.

Convergence

What these two approaches have in common, maybe, is wholeheartedness.  This seems to be the point of Yoda’s famous advice:  “Do, or do not; there is no try.”  Mr. Miyagi says something very similar to Daniel in The Karate Kid (at about 0:54).

The best modern description of a condition in which complete involvement in an action combines calm with wholehearted dedication may be “flow state.”  Most of us have probably experienced this ourselves.  There’s a certain detachment; yet there’s also deep involvement.  Emotion doesn’t get in the way, but the activity itself involves a sort of ecstasy (which, etymologically, means ‘standing outside oneself’).  Note that the berserker was described above as possessing (or possessed by) a “trance-like fury.”

In other words, the two paths may converge in the end, where maximum emotion is wholly embodied in or transmuted into the act.  None of that energy is wasted on subsidiary symptoms or mechanisms like straining, sweating, grimacing, screaming,

 

The way we approach these two paths affects how we tell a story.  Depending on our hero, and the hero’s personality or way of life, we may depict the climax as the moment of greatest strain or passion, or as a great achievement in a moment of crucial calm—“the still point of the turning world.”

If we’re simply living life—dancing, singing, coding, negotiating, loving—this may be good advice as well.  The way to do our best may not be to strain every sinew, but to relax and center.  Or possibly both.

Changing History: “Timeless”

The initial episode of NBC’s new time travel series, Timeless (premiered Oct. 3, 2016), does a neat job of handling the classic trope of changing the past.  There’s more to that kind of plot than generally meets the eye.

Spoiler Alert!The following necessarily contains spoilers for the first Timeless episode, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, be careful when scrolling down.  I’ll drop another alert message at the point where the spoilers begin.Poster for Timeless

The Lure of the Past

Oddly enough, travel to the past fascinates us more than travel to the future.  One might expect it to be the other way around.  After all, we’ve been to the past.  The first classic time travel tale, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, concerned itself exclusively with the future.  But it’s backwards time travel that lets us imagine changing the present by altering its causes—and produces the causal tangles that are unique to time travel stories.

Larry Niven’s essay “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (found in All the Myriad Ways) points this out:  “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence. . . . The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”

The Past Doesn’t Change

Some stories assume that the past can’t be changed.  The time stream protects, or heals, itself automatically once the moving present has passed.  There was an old-time SF story (anyone remember the title?) in which successive attempts to change history misfire because of progressively more unlikely accidents.  The gun misfires.  The bullet misses.  A bystander intercepts the bullet.  A meteor knocks the gun out of the assassin’s hand.  The hypothesis has an air of fate about it, as in the Greek myths.

But unchangeability needn’t be a matter of fate.  It may simply reflect the fact that the past event has already happened, incorporating any interventions from the future that may have taken place.  There is a single past event, which is the product of all its causes, whether they come from the event’s past or its future.  As TV Tropes puts it, “You Already Changed the Past.”  Robert A. Heinlein wrote some of the most famous time travel stories using this approach to generate “constructive” or “ontological” paradoxes—By His Bootstraps and “—All You Zombies—”.

A technology that only allows viewing the past, rather than interacting with it, falls into a similar category.  There’s no chance of changing things; we’re mere observers.  Isaac Asimov’s The Dead Past leaps to mind.

These kinds of stories are fun, but they don’t have quite the emotional appeal of “Make it didn’t happen.”

How A Change Propagates

Suppose, then, that we can change the past.  How exactly is that supposed to work?

A writer sometimes introduces a sense of urgency into the plot by imagining that a change in history propagates through reality in a process that itself takes time (of some sort).  This is what creates the tension in Back to the Future.  We can see Marty’s family gradually disappearing as his disruption of history works its way forward.  Presumably Marty disappears last because he was conceived last.  If he doesn’t reestablish history before he disappears, it’s all over.

This makes a weird sort of sense, because natural processes do normally propagate gradually.  Even gravity has its waves.  But it does result in the curious phenomenon of a reality that isn’t entirely self-consistent.  Marty’s parents never got married, but Marty himself is still inexplicably there.  (For the moment.)

It makes more sense, maybe, to picture the change as taking effect instantaneously.  Take away the causal “supports” for something, and it’s no longer there at all.  This assumption would have made Back to the Future a much shorter movie—and highlighted the “Grandfather Paradox” at the core of its plot.  The time lag gives Marty a chance to cure the paradox before it fully takes effect.

What Happens to the Traveler?

But we’re assuming that the causal ripple from history’s change follows the time traveler even when the traveler’s world line has looped around into the past.  What if that isn’t how it works?  (We’re inventing a theory of time travel; we can make what assumptions we wish.)  If the traveler is absent from the future when the change “gets there,” will the traveler be affected at all?

If the traveler is affected by the same change that affects everything else, we get a time stream that’s more consistent, but harder to tell a story about—because no one in the story will remember the change.  The traveler’s memory alters along with everything else.  (There’s an old SF story about this, too—and it only works because the reader is outside the story’s time stream.  At the end the bizarre monster that was human on page one proclaims, ‘the time experiment is over, and nothing has changed.’  The story only works from an omniscient point of view.)

So a time travel story almost always assumes that the traveler, who was out of the affected time region when the change occurred, remembers the old when she encounters the new.

Here Be Spoilers!

You Can’t Go Home Again

Here’s where Timeless comes in.  Villains of some sort—or are they?—steal the secretly developed time machine and set off to change history.  Our three heroes take the older prototype vehicle (a little less streamlined than a DeLorean) and follow.  They don’t quite succeed in preventing their adversaries from altering the past.  The Hindenburg explodes on its return trip, rather than on its arrival in America.Hindenburg disaster

When our heroes come back to the present, their colleagues believe the zeppelin had always exploded on its return trip—because the change in history has affected them.  The three travelers have to explain to them what’s changed.  In a sense, they no longer belong in the world from which they set out.  It’s an unusual and interesting situation for a TV series.

The Butterfly Effect

So far, we haven’t seen what larger alterations or political ramifications may have resulted, in this new world, from the deaths of several prominent figures on what was now the Hindenburg’s ill-fated second flight.  But the personal implications turn out to be devastating.

Butterfly effect graphicThe screenwriters also have a good handle on another time travel staple, the “butterfly effect,” named for the metaphor that in a massive chaotic system, a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent might result in a tornado in another (or, possibly, named for a classic Ray Bradbury short story).  When main character Lucy Preston comes home from her adventure in the past, she is overjoyed to find that her mother, comatose when Lucy left, is now perfectly healthy.  But Lucy is appalled to find that her beloved sister never existed.  How could the Hindenburg’s altered history have anything to do with this, she cries—and now she has new, and very mixed, motivations as to setting time back on its original course.

The show thus picks up on a theme that’s frequently neglected in a tale about changing the past.  Each change has unpredictable ramifications.  Marty McFly comes home to find his parents much improved, his siblings successful, and the despised Biff reduced to a cipher.  But what of all the people in town who will have interacted with the changed McFlys and Tannens over the past thirty years?  If even minor events can have large long-range effects, it may not be so easy to confine a temporal change to the intended consequences.

This means that our Timeless heroes may have no way to put things back the way they were.  The change may be essentially irreversible—a sort of temporal entropy.  Anything they do to counteract the bad effects of the original change will lead to still more alterations.  They really can’t go home again.

If the writers carry through this fascinating, if rather chilling, line of thought in subsequent episodes, we may get some really interesting story lines—as time goes on.