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Time Loops and Causal Loops in Time Tales

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“Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop.”

Haruki Mukakami

 

The ‘Time Loop’

A Time Loop is where Time, as it were, is put on repeat. A Time Loop, were you able to draw it, would be like an Escher sketch of a staircase that had no beginning or end. If it were a road, it would take you back where you started, a cul-de-sac in time. If you want to think in terms of Greek myths, it would be Sisyphus’s worst possible nightmare. You’ll find Time Loops in LOOPER, SOURCE CODE, THE ENDLESS and TIMECRIMES, plus the iconic Shadow Play episode in THE TWILIGHT ZONE series. Sometimes a task must be completed, or a discovery made, in order to bring the ‘Time Loop’ to an end, you’ll find this in EDGE OF TOMORROW, HAPPY DEATH DAY, ARQ, DAY BREAK, RETROACTIVE, RUN LOLA RUN. There are many Time Loops too where some sort of personal growth or redemption must be achieved, for example, CHRISTMAS DO-OVER, BEFORE I FALL, REPEATERS.

In the SWIDGERS book series, William experiences a ‘Time Loop’ of sorts very early in the story, but it’s the one he experiences at school later which leads ultimately to the major time travelling adventure. William’s Time Loop incident at his school is the kind where a task must be completed before the Loop can be closed. It does take a while but William does eventually realise what he must do. Throughout the SWIDGERS book series, it is as if Time itself is almost a sentient entity, aware of what must be done. It does not allow itself to move on or be fixed until a task is completed. Or at least until an opportunity is offered. And as the story goes on, William learns to understand the unique relationship between Swidgers and Time.

The classic Time Loop movie is of course GROUNDHOG DAY. In fact the title of this film has now given its name to the concept of a day repeated again and again. GROUNDHOG DAY features Bill Murray as Phil for whom life has not turned out as he hoped it would (male angst is a very common theme in Time Tales). Phil asks Gus and Ralph as they slowly get drunk in a bar in a bowling alley, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?” Ralph replies, “That about sums it up for me.” One of the reasons this film became so popular was because, although a fantasy, in some ways it reflected the reality of daily life for many people.

Phil is a man in crisis. Writer Harold Ramis said that the screenwriter Danny Rubin used Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theories on death and bereavement, the so-called Five Stages, as a template for Bill Murray’s process. Strictly speaking, in the psychological work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross these stages are not linear (“they were never meant to tuck messy emotion into a neat package,” she has said) however they did become a framework for the movie. Phil undergoes denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. In the ‘bargaining period’, Phil uses what he discovers about the women of the town who he finds attractive, such as Nancy Taylor, to persuade them to have sex with him. The exception is Rita (Andie MacDowell), his television producer, who sees through this ruse and recognises it as a dishonest set up. Rita tells him that the only person he loves is himself. Phil disagrees. He can’t love himself because he doesn’t even like himself. His misuse of knowledge then ultimately leads to failure and even deeper depression.

However, Phil is asked the question, ‘What would you do if this were your last day on Earth.’ He’s lucky, he can relive that day again and again but it is from this question that he learns one of the greatest things you can do in life is help others. Eventually this new Phil wins Rita over. She stays the night with him, not for sex, but because she cares for him and likes him.

GROUNDHOG DAY is a modern redemption story, much in the same vein as Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. LOOPER on the other hand is a Time Loop Tale that is ultimately dealing with the cycle of violence in modern life. And a very moral tale it is too. The director and screenwriter of LOOPER, Rian Johnson, said that his movie was an answer to the question, ‘If you could, would you travel back in time and kill Hitler?’ What happens in the story is that a boy in the present, who has supernatural powers, becomes The Rainmaker, a dangerous monstrous murderer in the future. When this boy is angry, it is seen that his powers become a killing force. Old Joe tries to kill the boy because of who he becomes. The Rainmaker of the future has killed Joe’s wife, but in attempting to alter the past the Old Joe kills the boy’s mother and, ironically, it’s this event that sets off the circle of violence. For what starts with blood ends with blood. The Young Joe says, “Then I saw it. I saw a mom who would die for her son. A man who would kill for his wife. A boy, angry and alone. Laid out in front of him, the bad path. I saw it. And the path was a circle, round and round. So I changed it.” And the only way to change it is for Young Joe to put a gun to his own chest and shoot.  Put simply, Young Joe decides it would be better if he did not exist. He realises that to close the loop will take an act of self-sacrifice. In many ways LOOPER is a mythical fable.

Poor Jonas in DARK, who pretty much finds himself in every time period he visits, takes a while to realise the only way to end the suffering is for him never to have existed. A very literal existential crisis. But again it’s a powerful fable. Such stories force us to contemplate the value of our lives, the contribution, good and bad, that we make to the lives of others. And ultimately in a way they prepare us as human beings for our non-existence.

Another curious moral fable Time Loop Tale is THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIFES OF HARRY AUGUST, the novel by Claire North, where the eponymous hero has an entire lifetime that is repeatedly relived. His first lifetime is unremarkable, but as his ‘lives’ go on, Harry develops into a well educated and prominent academic who eventually meets others of his kind. The message here perhaps about what is possible if we are each given the opportunity to reach our maximum potential.

ARQ stands for ‘Arcing Recursive Quine’, which is basically a self-perpetuating power source. In a rebel attack, this machine is electrically shorted and as a result puts Renton (Robbie Amell) in a Time Loop. It’s a get-it-right-next-time scenario with a who-can-you-trust subplot. In EDGE OF TOMORROW, Cage (Tom Cruise) has a connection with the alien brain of the Mimics which somehow is giving him the opportunity to relive one day in a battle against the alien invaders. The plot complication which links these two stories is that it isn’t just Renton or Cage who are able or who have or who will relive that day.

Other Time Loop movies include THE INFINITY MAN (2014), where a romantic weekend goes wrong with the introduction of a time machine; 12:01 (1993), where a man witnesses a murder and the Time Loop gives him a chance to save the victim; THE ENDLESS (2017), where two brothers go to a camp where an entity traps people in Time Loops allowing it to sadistically enjoy their ever repeated violent deaths; BLOOD PUNCH (2014), with the movie tag-line ‘Live the same day. Die a different way’; CAMP SLAUGHTER (2005), a ‘slasher’ movie set at a camp near a forest; TRIANGLE (2009), a supernatural horror mainly set on a boat; REPEATERS (2010), featuring with a deranged murderer and TIMECRIMES, again with an insane killer, and MINE GAMES (2012), with – you’ve guessed it – another killer on the loose.

On a more cheerful note, The Time Loop scenario has also been adapted for the Romantic Comedy genre, notably of course GROUNDHOG DAY, but more recently in PALM SPRINGS (2020), THE MAP OF TINY PERFECT THINGS (2021), NAKED (2017) and the comedy-horror HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017). HAUNTER (2013) also has a Time Loop scenario but this movie has more of a paranormal flavouring that takes it well into classic Horror territory.

A variation on the Time Loop is where the protagonist, or should we say protagonists, unknowingly meet versions of themselves. The phrase ‘you’ll meet yourself coming back’ is useful to bear in mind when reading Robert H. Heinlein’s BY HIS BOOTSTRAPS or ALL YOU ZOMBIES (recently turned into the movie PREDESTINED). These stories now bring us on to that mind-challenging sibling of the ‘Time Loop’ and that is the ‘Causal Loop’.

 

“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

Warren Buffett

 
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‘You would have me believe that causation can be completely circular. I went through because I came back from going through to persuade myself to go through. That’s silly.’

‘Well, didn’t you?’

BY HIS BOOTSTRAPS by Robert A. Heinlein

 

The ‘Causal Loop’

Causal Loops aren’t that simple. Trying to explain them can easily do your head in as they deal with backwards-causality, where an event causes a subsequent sequence of events, which in turn is among, or culminates in, the very cause of that first event. In effect, the effect becomes the cause that caused it. So, how’s that head of yours now?

Anyway, here’s perhaps a simpler way of looking at the Causal Loop. Imagine you are a child with an unusual interest in snooker but you don’t know where the attraction came from. All you know is that you get excited when you watch how one snooker ball hits another, setting off a causal sequence of hits on other balls that eventually leads to the black ball being pocketed. This excitement of yours sets off its own series events in your life that lead – stay with it – to time travel into the future where you become the most skilful player of snooker in the world. However, a jealous rival wipes your mind of memories and sends you back to the past when you were just a child. Yet that love of snooker survives and so when you see snooker being played, you become fascinated as to how it is that when one ball hits another it sets off a causal sequence that eventually leads to the black ball being pocketed… and that leads to… and so on and so on…

That, in a nutshell, is a Causal Loop. And the principle works even without the child and with only the snooker balls themselves, for the whole thing would start again if that pocketed black ball found its way back onto the table and the other balls rebounded from the cushion back to where they were in the first place. That is of course if there ever was a first place.

ARTEMIS FOWL AND THE TIME PARADOX explores the concept of the Causal Loop in a similar way to how our fictitious child’s interest in snooker came about, only with Artemis Fowl the curiosity is with fairies, who have been known to be even more mysterious than snooker balls.

A very early example of Causal Loop in a Time Tale is F.J. Bridge’s 1931 story VIA THE TIME ACCELERATOR (F.J. Bridge was a pseudonym of Francis J. Brueckel). In this story, a time traveller has doubts about travelling into the future, only then he sees himself returning from the future, which reassures him about the success of his voyage and as a consequence he takes it. Later in the story, when he is in danger in the future, he asks himself, “Had I not, with my own eyes, seen myself appear out of the fourth dimension back there in the twentieth century, and glide down to my landing-field? Surely, then, I was destined to return to my own age safe and sound.” The Causal Loop here is a ‘spoiler’ of sorts.

Robert H. Heinlein’s title BY HIS BOOTSTRAPS comes from the phrase ‘pick yourself up by your own bootstraps’, which in a way pretty much tells you where the story will eventually lead. This tales was so influential that the Causal Loop in DARK is even referred to as ‘The Bootstraps Paradox’. In DARK itself, there is much talk about how The End and The Beginning are The Same. Yet, unlike many Causal Loop tales, there is an ‘Origin’ and ultimately we find out exactly what that moment was. It appears Time can be ‘re-set’, but only with self-sacrifice from Jonas and Martha. And a very moving moment it is too.

Causal Loops in Time Tales can involve people, objects, events or even information. In TIMELESS, Lucy’s journal, only handed over to Garcia Flynn in the final episode, is essentially the ‘first cause’ of the Causal Loop in that without it, Garcia Flynn would never have gone back in Time in episode one. There’s a neat comic take on the Causal Loop in STAR TREK: THE VOYAGE HOME when Kirk in 1986, needing money, sells an antique pair of spectacles which were bought in his future by McCoy and given to Kirk for his fiftieth birthday. This mean that McCoy in the future will buy the very gift he’s already given in order to give it again. Then there’s the antique pocket watch the elderly lady gives Richard Collier in SOMEWHERE IN TIME. This is the very watch he gives to her when he goes back in time to meet when she was younger. And so the question then arises, ‘Were the spectacles and the antique watch ever actually manufactured or do these exist only within the Causal Loop?’ This question also raises the issue of who actually wrote Lucy’s journal in TIMELESS? And, if you pursue all this further, who is in STAR TREK: THE VOYAGE HOME that invents Transparent Aluminium?

Well, you could spend a lifetime figuring out these kinds of questions and still end up where you started. Which is a sort of Time Loop in itself. Perhaps the easiest way to bring it to a close is simply to say, ‘It exists because it is’. And if, after that people are still asking, ‘Yes, but what is its source? Where did it come from?’ simply tell them, as one character does in THE TECHNICOLOR TIME MACHINE by Harry Harrison, “If you must have a source, you may say that it came from the same place that the missing side of the Möbius strip has gone.” And as Eric Morecombe always said to Ernie, ‘There’s no answer to that!’

In the Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, Professor Yoon Tae-y has a speech about her motivation for studying time travel and the feasibility of time travel itself:

 

“Hawking proved that time travel is not possible through his hypothesis called the chronology protection conjecture. But he adds a condition: ‘If negative energy exists, time travel must be possible.’ That’s why I studied the Dirac sea… All objects move in the direction of the applied force. But only negative energy moves in the opposite direction. The research I was doing was on using negative energy to open a wormhole. (Pointing to computer screen) And this is the command program I was using back then. But in the card you gave me, I found a similar program. Of course, I know this doesn’t make any sense and that it can’t be logically explained, but a similar program to the one I was researching.”

 

The implication is that the Time Card, at least in part, will help her in the development of time travel that will lead to the Time Card itself. A half-causal loop?

A bizarre sort of Causal Loop can be found in the cult Time Tale TIMECRIMES. There’s a deranged pursuer about, so you go back in time an hour or so to escape him, only things in this new timeline lead you to having a more frenzied state of mind and once more you encounter that pursuer. So you go back in time again, becoming even more unhinged as that mad man is running about. You find that the situation now leads to you to become even more mentally challenged and this scenario is repeated until – you’ve guessed it – you are that deranged pursuer.

The Causal Loop then can be used in Time Tale as a fascinating puzzle to challenge the mind, a study of identity, as a comic subplot or even as a horror story. The latter, when done well, explores and exploits the genuine human fear of being trapped in a vicious circle from which there is no escape. A rather nihilistic metaphor perhaps for life itself.

The Time Traveller has been called ‘retro-causality engineer’, which may sound like someone who looks after an old Victorian sewage system but is in fact a quite reasonable description. But can retro-causality ever be reasonable? Isn’t causation essentially the cement of our universe? Perhaps so, but the scientific question that does arise from the concept of the Causal Loop is the nature of The Big Bang. Could The Big Bang also have been The Big Collapse? That is to say, if our Universe comes to an end through gravitational forces compressing matter back to the infinite singularity from which it was born, would it then be reborn? Is the Universe itself a Causal Loop? An infinite elastic yo-yo that has been expanding and contracting forever and ever and ever. Have we lived this life before and, in fact, an infinite number of times? And would that explain things like déjà vu and precognition? If you know the answers to any of these questions, please pop them on a postcard and send them to: Professor Brian Cox, The Royal Society, London, because he doesn’t know for sure either.

What can be said about these questions is that just to be able to contemplate the concept of the Causal Loop reminds us that we, as human beings, are different to every other creature on Earth. Clever as dolphins and chimpanzees are, they would never in a million years be able to fully understand and appreciate the final episode of DARK. Not, of course, that all human beings have been able do that.

The great storyteller is rarer than the great writer.”

Morton Janklow, literary agent to Jackie Collins and President Reagan

 

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“What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.”

T.S. Eliot, in LITTLE GIDDING

 

Time Cycle

When is a Time Loop not a Time Loop? When it’s a Time Cycle.

SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (also known as SISYPHUS) written by Lee Je-in and Jeon Chan-ho, takes its name from Sisyphus (who is sometimes called Sisyphos) a character in Greek mythology. Sisyphus was the founder and king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth) who was chastised by the gods for cheating death twice. His punishment was to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to then roll back down again as soon as it neared the top. And poor Sisyphus was tasked to do this labour for eternity (this is why actions that are physically intensive yet futile are often described as ‘Sisyphean’). However, the aspect of the Sisyphus legend that seems to interest the creators of SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH is the repetitive nature of cycle.

The Sisyphus figure in SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH could be said to be ‘Sigma’, also known Seo Won-Ju/Seo Gil-Bok and played by Kim Byung-chul. Sigma is a psychopathic and revengeful figure who learns to hate the world and everyone in it. His former classmate at primary school (elementary school in USA and elsewhere) was the computer genius Han Tae-sul (Cho Seung-woo), whose coding eventually leads to time travel. At first the young Han Tae-sul was kind to the boy Seo Won-Ju, but, when Seo Won-Ju blows up his own father with sodium and water, not surprisingly Han Tae-sul tells him to keep his distance. From then on, Seo Won-Ju follows the life and career of his old classmate and as the years go on Seo Won-Ju grows ever more envious of Tae-sul’s considerable wealth and success. And a Nemesis is born.

The plotting of SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH becomes multilayered and complex but the long and short of it is that Sigma/Seo Won-Ju in the future takes control of the time machine (known as an ‘uploader’) that the genius Han Tae-sul will come up with.  Sigma, it seems, in the future will send a nuclear bomb back in time and thus create a nuclear apocalypse, though of course the wicked Seo Won-Ju himself will always take precautions and so will survive. It becomes apparent that the psychotic Seo Won-Ju main aim is simply to witness devastation and death. And, since he now has control of a time machine, he can do this again and again with ever increasing sadistic smiling pleasure. His other gratification in all this is seeing Han Tae-sul repeatedly lose.

However, for this to happen on each cycle Seo Won-Ju has to make sure that Han Tae-sul gives him the computer code that will result in time travel. And his bargaining chip is always Gang Seo-hae (Park Shin-hye), a time traveller who Han Tae-sul falls in love with. The dilemma is put starkly: “Will it be the world or the girl?” Furthermore, there exists the Control Bureau, a Government operation policing time traveller, and on each occasion the Time Cycle happens, the head of this organisation passes on notes to Sigma/Seo Won-Ju as to how next time he should act so as to keep the cycle going. And there are those who would cal that cheating.

So is all this a Time Loop or a Time Cycle?

In a traditional Time Loop, the characters are trapped or at least have found themselves in the Time Loop unwillingly. And the protagonists in this scenario usually know they are in a Time Loop. Also, in Time Loop Tales, Time doesn’t not move on – how can it when it’s in a loop? But in SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH there is no sense that Time doesn’t move on in the future and Sigma is not in any way trapped in a Time Loop. Nor does Sigma have to achieve some task of other to escape the loop, which is also a popular story trope. No, all Sigma wants to do is simply witness other people’s pain again and again and again, and, perhaps more importantly, beat Han Tae-sul every time. In a way then you could say it is arguably Han Tae-sul who is the true Sisyphus figure not Sigma. Or if it is Sigma who represents the rock pusher, then it’s a psychotic and sadist Sisyphus who relishes pain and loss in others.

“Own time, or time will own you.”

Brian Norgard

 
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Never restart a journey and use the same road that failed you before.”

Dennis E. Adonis

 

The Time Re-set

If you’ve ever played the game Kerplunk, with all those marbles are piled high in a cylinder supported only by plastic straws, you’ll know that it is often just taking out one straw that causes the whole marble mountain to collapse. Well, the Time Rest is a little bit like that straw.

The Time Re-set is, in a way, at the opposite end of the spectrum to Causal Loops and Times Loops in that the Time Re-set is that one single action that re-sets time, and can, if so constructed, wipe out those Loops or anomalies that time travel has created. For example, in LOOPER, that single re-set action is the death of Young Joe by his own hands, thus resulting in Old Joe and the nightmare loop simply vanishing, and in DARK, it is Jonas and Martha telling Tannhauser’s son and family not to drive over the bridge, that results in their own non-existence. In SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH, not giving Sigma the computer coding he needs re-sets time and the rockets in the sky that are about to create an apocalypse simply disappear along with Sigma’s gunmen. These may seem simple actions in a way,  but these lynchpins, as it were, have been carefully constructed into the complex plotting in such a manner that they are often the only way that’s Time Re-set can be achieved.

In the Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, there’s a reset not that dissimilar to DARK. As in DARK with Adam, there is an older version of the main protagonist. In ALICE, the Older Park Jin-gyeom from another time dimension becomes known as The Teacher and walks around in a monk-like black cloak. The Teacher tells his younger self, “I can control Time, but I am still getting strangled by Time.” Well, that’s old age for you. Anyway, the Teacher says that his gift to Park Jin-gyeom will give him the “chance to reign over Time”, but the younger Park Jin-gyeom does not want this and vows that he will “put everything back in its place.” And he means it. “I’ll save everyone who died because of you first,” adds his younger self, “then I will kill you. You started it, but I will end it.” It is in fact the self-sacrifice of the mother that ultimately is the reset, but it is the pain on the faces of her sons that leads her to the act that ultimately ends time travel, her own existence and that of her time travelling sons.

ALICE (AELLISEU) is not as neat as DARK and there are numerous inconsistencies. If all time travellers disappear, why doesn’t Yoon Tae-yi (the mother of Park Jin-gyeom in a different timeline) also vanish, after all she has been a time traveller? In fact, Yoon Tae-yi’s mother was also a time traveller and so Yoon Tae-yi should not have even been born. Park Jin-gyeom continues to exist as well, but as an architect rather than a detective. But how can he? ALICE (AELLISEU) primarily wishes to explore the Oedipal Family Triangle and the final scenes where mother and son meet are very affecting, but it is at the cost of plotline consistency.

In the film comedy FREQUENTLY ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT TIME TRAVEL, a funny and engaging Time Tale about three lads in a pub discussing Time Travel, it is, appropriately enough, the spilling of a pint of beer on the notes of one of the lads which is the Time Re-set button. It’s a clever plot that took, to borrow a word coined by the movie itself, a great ‘imagineer’ to build.

Explaining the complexities of the cult classic DONNIE DARKO isn’t easy because anyone who tries always comes up with their own version of what has happened. What you can say is that it is a movie about creative destruction (that’s what the writer claims anyway) and in the moment at the end of the movie when that the aircraft engine lands on top of Donnie Darko and kills him, Time is indeed Re-set and a better world is hopefully results.

DONNIE DARKO offers a fresh start and essentially that is what happens in TRAVELERS as well. It is a simple email that says ‘DON’T SEND TRAVELER 0001’ that Re-sets Time. Not a Time Loop, but simply a new beginning. Everything in that timeline, and from the viewer’s point of view that is pretty much everything in Season One, Two and Three, is negated.

What the Time Re-set plot does is concentrate the mind on those choices made at certain key moments in life. All lives have them, the road taken, the road not taken, and the one, as Robert Frost famously put it, “less travelled by”. What was yours? Did you marry for love or money? Accept the right job at the right time? Buy the house you really wanted or the one that was cheaper? If you could go back, would you press the Re-set Button? Well, whatever the answers, what can be said is that it’s the Time Tale is able to explore them in literally fantastic ways.

 

 “Every sunset is an opportunity to re-set”

Richie Norton

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