Of Popes and Paradox

by Christopher DeFilippis

DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 11
(First Appeared: December, 1999; First Light E-zine, Issue #87)

Time.

This abstract concept—of which not even the loftiest theoretical physicist has more than a rudimentary grasp—seems to inordinately preoccupy us.

Time has been big in the news lately. Or, rather, a specific point in time. The turn of the century, the millennium, THE YEAR 2000. Be it the Second Coming, global Armageddon or world-wide Y2K meltdown, this date has loomed as the bogeyman of our collective consciousness for, well, as long as I’ve been alive. But none of us really know why.

We base our understanding of the origins of the universe on the Big Bang. But unless you’re one of the aforementioned theoretical physicists, you most likely base your understanding of Time on the Big Begat.

The man responsible for our concept of time.

Let’s face it. When Pope Gregory XIII rolled out his shiny new calendar in 1582, it’s not like it had anything to do with the true machinations of the universe. It was just a more mathematically precise method of charting our seasons and also came in handy when you wanted know what saint needed venerating on any given day. His choice of Year One was based on a biblical roll-call of who begat whom, all the way back to the Big Begat. You got it. The big guy. The J-man himself.

Most of humanity quickly adopted this quantification of its days and nights and, since then, has been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like kids with our hands in the cookie jar, we’ve consolidated our fear of getting caught and given it a nice round number. 2000.

Why does this arbitrary reckoning hold such sway? Could it be that we’re all inherently paranoid, always half expecting something to grab us from the shadows? Perhaps we were seeded here on Earth a few millennium ago by aliens who implanted a timer in our genetic code to let us know when they would be back to see how we’ve come along? Or is it the legacy of our Puritan ancestors? Are we, as the Bible says, only on recess from Judgment?

Whatever it is, we’ve devised some interesting means of coping with our vague feelings of impending millennial anarchy. Mass suicides. Burrowing down into the soil with firearms and canned meat. Getting Saved and waiting for The Rapture. Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Or, if you’re of a particularly escapist nature, concocting fantasies of traveling through time.

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You knew I had to come around to it sooner or later. The notion of time travel has always held a special fascination for me. It jazzes me like nothing else in Science Fiction. From the childhood cartoon Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History to an adolescent mania for Voyagers! right on to my adult fascination with Quantum Leap, time travel has been a continual haven. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always personally been a bit out of sync with time.

It started in the womb. I decided it was time to leave three months before everyone expected me to. As a result, I spent the first few months of my life under a french-fry lamp in a terrarium in the ICU.

As a kid I was slower than everyone else. I always had to sit in a special section of the class so I could get my work done. It was never a matter of comprehension. I just took my own sweet time to do assignments, usually a step and a half behind everyone else. I ran slower. My body certainly metabolized food slower.

In puberty I sped up again. Maturity claimed me early. I never went through a Dwight the Troubled Teen phase where I thought the world was against me. While my classmates were reading Catcher in the Rye and sympathizing with Holden Caulfield, I couldn’t help but think he was just an irresponsible whiner who needed a good boot in the ass to get him in touch with reality. I bucked the horrible Euro-pop that swept the 80s and had a maniacal devotion to classic rock. And it always felt as if I had been born 100 years too early or 20 years too late.

In adulthood, I still find myself in misstep with time. It is 2:30 a.m. as I sit and write this column, yet I’m more alert and awake then I’ve been all day. I don’t usually make it to bed before 2:00 a.m. on any given night. Three or four is more common.

And through it all, I’ve never had rhythm or coordination of any kind. Just ask anyone who’s ever had to go through the trauma of watching me “dance.”

So who better to identify with than those who somehow managed to escape their temporal tethers? Sam Beckett, Marty McFly, Phineas Bogg and Jeffery, the crews of every Starship Enterprise (except for maybe the Enterprise B, which we don’t have too much information on), Sy Morely, Billy Pilgrim, Gully Foyle and others like them make up my own personal pantheon of Sci-Fi greats. I even got a kick out of Bill and Ted, dopey though they may be.

And just as appealing as the notion of traveling through time are the methods authors have devised for their characters to do so. Nothing has come in more guises than the time machine. From the pure power of the mind, to the scientific sophistication of a nuclear accelerator, to the absurdity of a flying DeLorean, getting there has always been half the fun.

The other half lies in the intricacies inherent in the genre. Granted, most time travel fiction has two hackneyed “standard” plotlines: the time traveler goes to the past to effect a change for the benefit of the future or the time traveler goes to the past and inadvertently changes something which must be fixed to get time back on track. Your enjoyment of either will be largely influenced by your feelings on paradox.

To briefly educate any of the uninitiated out there, the notion of paradox in time travel goes something like this: What would happen if I built a time machine, traveled back into the past and wound up killing my grandfather before my father had been born? Then how would I have been born to travel back in the first place? You get the idea.

Physicists have formulated theories on this concept, because you can’t hold a serious dialog on the subject without somehow taking it into account. Some maintain that you can’t cause a paradox, that the laws of nature wouldn’t permit it. When asked to explain, one scientist said that deciding to travel back in time and preventing your own birth would be like deciding to walk up a wall. You might have all the determination in the world, but the laws of nature make it patently impossible.

Personally, I think the Grandfather Paradox takes a view of time that’s too linear. The past is the past. It’s already happened. So if you were to travel to any given point in time, anything you might do has always been a part of the timeline that has shaped our reality. You have to get out of the cause and effect mindset. To quote Zaphod Beeblebrox, “It all fits together like one big puzzle.”

Of course, no one knows what mechanisms nature may employ to prevent paradox from occurring. I have some theories, but you’ll have to wait to read about them if and when a publishing house picks up my latest fiction project.

Nonetheless, authors and readers (I am among both) like to persist in the notion that time is malleable, that the past can be altered to create a better present. And aside from its entertainment possibilities, I think it has more to do with our preoccupation with calamity and penchant for cataclysm. It’s always nice to think that if we’ve really screwed things up, there might be a chance to go back and fix them.

I prefer to attack our collective anxiety from a different angle. When I was working in radio, I did a feature on time travel and one man I interviewed pointed something out that I never considered up until that point. We’re all time travelers. We’re all moving along the space-time continuum. We just haven’t figured out a way to change the speed or direction in which we do so.

So until that day comes to pass, I suggest we affect time in the only way we can: alter the present to create a better future.

* * *

Okay, enough of the serious stuff. If you want to have some fun with time travel, I recommend the following stories and films:

  • A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury
  • Now Wait for Last Year by Philip K. Dick
  • 12 Monkeys (The best TT flick I’ve ever seen)
  • Back to the Future Part II (the most innovative sequel I’ve ever seen)

At all costs avoid:

  • Terminator 2 (completely lacking in continuity, it insults the intelligence)
  • Time Cop (Van Damme. Need I say more?)
  • Lightning by Dean Koontz (mediocre TT at best and highly uninteresting)

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