Time Tale Sub-genres: Utopias/Dystopias, Counterfactuals, Time Sleep, Time Stopped and the ‘Butterfly Effect’
“There is a tyranny in the womb of every Utopia.”
Utopian/Dystopian Fiction and Time Times
Utopian/Dystopian Fiction and Time Tales sometimes have a symbiotic relationship with each other and there is an entire genre to be found when the two come together. And there are many such tales in both books and the movies, including, for example LOST HORIZON, PLANET OF THE APES and A WRINKLE IN TIME. BACK TO THE FUTURE II could even be said to be a Dystopia, where Hill Valley becomes like the nightmare version of Pottersville in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, only more so. And the problems resulting from Biff’s gambling success in this alternate world have clearly had major and widespread political repercussions for there is a frightening headline about Richard Nixon to seeking a fifth term and vowing to end the Vietnam War by 1985.
Two positive thinking Utopian tales are worth a particular mention here and they are SULTANA’S DREAM and BEATRICE THE SIXTEENTH: BEING THE PERSON NARRATIVE OF MARY HATHERBY, M.B., EXPLORER AND GEOGRAPHER, for both are early feminist narratives. SULTANA’S DREAM is a Bengali feminist Utopia and was written in 1905 by Begum Rokeya, a Muslim social reformer. It is a sort of gender based Planet of the Apes where gender roles have been reversed. Strictly speaking it’s a Time Sleep Tale not Time Travel, and it’s a very short tale too. However, in its brief telling it depicts a world where science better serves society: Here’s the exchange between the new arrival and the lady she meets who tells her of this new world and how it came about:
‘While the women were engaged in scientific research, the men of this country were busy increasing their military power. When they came to know that the female universities were able to draw water from the atmosphere and collect heat from the sun, they only laughed at the members of the universities and called the whole thing “a sentimental nightmare”!’
‘Your achievements are very wonderful indeed! But tell me, how you managed to put the men of your country into the zenana. Did you entrap them first?’
‘It is not likely that they would surrender their free and open air life of their own accord and confine themselves within the four walls of the zenana! They must have been overpowered.’
‘Yes, they have been!’
‘By whom? By some lady-warriors, I suppose?’
‘No, not by arms.’
‘Yes, it cannot be so. Men’s arms are stronger than women’s. Then?’
BEATRICE THE SIXTEENTH is about a time traveller who discovers a lost world that turns out to be a Utopian post-gender society. It was written in 1909 by Irene Clyde, a writer and lawyer, who was transgender. In the story, the explorer Mary Hatherley receives a kick from a camel while journeying through Asia Minor which sends her into another time period and a place called Armeria, which is ruled over by Queen Beatrice the Sixteenth of the title. The Armerians are strict vegetarians and their life partnership, known as a ‘conjux’, appears to be based on love and companionship, rather than sex. Their language, a combination of Latin and Greek, contains no gendered pronouns. Mary forms a conjux with Ilex, one of the leading figures in the kingdom, and even when offered a way to return home by the court astrologer, she decides to remain. However, Mary is able, with the astrologer’s help, to send a manuscript to a friend in our world, who then arranges for it to be published by Irene Clyde.
The key point about any Utopian/Dystopian Tale is that you are not being shown what is, but rather what could be, be that good or bad. And in seeing these alternatives, you are able to re-evaluate your own society and understand it in a new light. In these two stories it just happens to be gender identity and what is now called sexual politics.
“I abhor the idea of a perfect world. It would bore me to tears.”
“If you don’t find a way to make money while you sleep, you will work till you die.”
KINDRED and WHAT THE WIND KNOWS are Time Tales that essentially use time travel as a plot device to explore social issues. WHAT THE WIND KNOWS, the 2019 novel by Amy Harmon, is a fictional interpretation of events in Ireland during the period of 1916 to 1922, covering the Easter Rising and Ireland’s fight for its independence. Anne Gallagher is in the home of her dying grandfather in 2001. Although in the past they travelled extensively together, they never went to her grandfather’s native Island. However, the grandfather, Eoin, requests that she scatter his ashes at his former home in Ireland on Lough Gill. On the trip, Anne rents a boat and rows out on the lough, but as she spreads her grandfather’s ashes overboard, a fog rolls in. Suddenly she is shot and pulled from the lake by a Dr Thomas Smith. Anne then finds herself in the home where her grandfather grew up and realises that somehow she has passed back in time to the early 1920s. This is the era of Michael Collins, the famous revolutionary fighter who campaigned for Irish independence. The events of that time turned out to be a major crossroads in Irish history that, it could be argued, led to what became known as ‘The Troubles’. In fact, Anne gets to know Michael Collins himself and warns him that steps he must take to protect his own life during this period of political unrest.
KINDRED by Octavia Butler is a first-person narration graphic novel set in two time periods. It tells the tale of Dana, a young African-American woman writer who finds herself shunted in time between her California home in 1976 and a Maryland plantation in the pre-Civil war era. As with WHAT THE WIND KNOWS, the time travel aspect is never fully explained, for essentially both are social commentaries on how troubled histories still echo in the present day. In KINDRED, where each visit back to the plantation gets longer and longer, Dana lives and sees first-hand the evils of slavery. Her life in 1976 is very different, but even here unpleasant attitudes to those of mixed-race still exist.
In the movie IN TIME, Time is the new human currency where money is time, for you ‘pay’ in minutes and hours. ‘Time is money’, that famous platitude of life, has now been made literal so when you talk about the cost of living that expression too takes on an entirely new meaning. There’s social commentary in lines such as “For a few to be immortal, many must die” or “Why do you think there are Time Zones? Why do you think prices and taxes go up the same day in the ghetto? The cost of living keeps rising to make sure people keep dying.” There are a few fun lines too, as when someone buys a car and is told that it will be “59 years, plus tax”. IN TIME is ultimately a Bonnie and Clyde/Robin Hood action thriller but it’s an action thriller with a social message around the redistribution of wealth – “The truth is there’s more than enough. No one has to die before their time.”
SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS) written by Lee Je-in and Jeon Chan-ho, is essentially an Endangered Future plot where Gang Seo-hae is sent back to the past to help the computer genius Han Tae-sul in his battle with Sigma, Nemesis. However, there also exists the Control Bureau, a kind of unofficial unit that polices illegal time migrants, that proves to be corrupt and in league with leading Government politicians. As with the American series TRAVELERS, there are hints of social commentary here, but action and mystery on the whole are the focus of the series.
“Time is more valuable than money. You can get more money, but you can’t get more Time.”
“History books that contain no lies are extremely dull.”
Counter Factual and Alternate Histories
Alternate Histories, sometimes called Speculative Fiction or Counter Factual, should only really be classed as a Time Tale when the change from what we know to be reality is caused by a Time Split or Time Travel. LEST DARKNESS FALL (1939) is definitely in the Time Travel category, whereas Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and Philip K. Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE offer essentially challenging maybes and what ifs about the outcome of the Second World War. 2009: LOST MEMORIES, also a Second World War narrative of a sort, is a South Korean science fiction action movie that is set in a universe where the USA and Japan joined forces to fight the Nazis in the 1930s. However, as this change was brought about by altering a previous event in history in 1909, it is a Time Travel Tale.
In LEST DARKNESS FALL, set in 1938, Padway is struck by lightning and he finds himself in Rome in the year 535 AD. After making certain changes, Rome continues to be able to share its knowledge. Darkness does not fall, that is to say the Dark Ages, when much of the accumulated knowledge of the ancients was lost, do not go Dark.
In a more recent example of an Alternate History can be found in YESTERDAY, where the whole world experiences a twelve second electrical flicker and it is at that exact moment that singer and songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus. When Jack awakes, he slowly comes to realise that The Beatles never happened (and neither incidentally did the HARRY POTTER book series) and so he uses his knowledge of the McCartney-Lennon songs to pass them off as his own. YESTERDAY is at least in part a fantastical (and in a way literal) exploration of the Imposter Syndrome, where people don’t believe their talent is good enough and one day think they will be ‘found out’.
Increasingly, Alternate Histories/Speculative/Counter Factual stories have an environmental aspect and these are usually called Apocalyptic Fiction Futures. The reasons why the apocalypse happened ranges from disease, social collapse, technology, war and impact events to alien invasion, monsters, biologically altered human, zombies and even ghosts. The Time Travel element, if there is one, usually centres around going back in time and stopping the catalyst event that caused the change in the status quo.
“I bet the people living in the timeline where Hillary is president are laughing at us.”
SWIDGERS and Alternative History
THE TIME THEY SAVED TOMORROW, book two of the SWIDGERS Time Adventure series, involves an alternative history where World War II was lost. Granny and William discover that their world, the one where the Allies were victorious, was only a possible world. And it was only made possible by the intervention of a Swidger who is now dying. To say any more would be to give away too much of the plot, but what can be said is that Time will eventually have to choose between these two worlds and even though the world Granny and William know came about through the intervention of a Swidger, that does not necessarily mean it takes priority. In fact, the default world is actually the tyrannous and authoritarian world they now suddenly find themselves in.
“I think sleeping was my problem at school. If school had started at four in the afternoon, I’d be a college graduate today.”
‘Time Sleep’ Tales
There is a sub-genre of Time Tales that could be called the ‘Time Sleep’ story where a sleeper for some reason awakes in a different era (these stories are also sometimes called ‘Suspended Animation Tales’). As a plot, it is as old as Sleeping Beauty but specifically dealing with time ‘travel’ it is a scenario that dates back as far as 1771. L’AN 2440, RÊVE S’IL EN FUT JAMAIS (literally THE YEAR 2440: A DREAM IF EVER THERE WAS ONE) is usually rendered in English as MEMOIRS OF THE YEAR 2500. This novel by Louis-Sébastien Mercier features an unnamed man who falls asleep in Paris but wakes up centuries later in a world he hardly recognises. It’s a work that is now seen as the first example in Utopian fiction that is set in the future rather than the past.
Washington Irving’s famous story RIP VAN WINKLE has a similar plot, in that a colonial American meets a mysterious Dutchman who imbibes him with a drink and as a result he wakes up twenty years later and in a very changed world, having missed out on the American Revolution. One of the biggest selling novels of the Victorian period was Edward Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD: 2000-1887, again featuring a slumberous time lapse. In this story, America has become a socialist Utopia. The novel at one stage even inspired ‘Bellamy Clubs’ that propagated and spread the book’s social and societal principles.
A very different take on the falling asleep and waking up in the future scenario is Philip Francis Nowlan’s novel, ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D., for this is the book which eventually led to the swashbuckling hero we know as Buck Rogers. In ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D., Anthony Rogers was in 1927 working for the American Radioactive Gas Corporation when he was sent to investigate an unusual phenomenon in an abandoned coal mine. Here he was exposed to radioactive gas which put him in a state of “suspended animation, free from the ravages of katabolic processes, and without any apparent effect on physical or mental faculties.” These forty winks last 492 years and when Rogers eventually wakes up he finds himself in the 2419. In this new world Rogers joins a gang where the combat skills he learnt in the First World War are put to good effect. Buck Rogers appeared in Amazing Stories, and later on radio in 1932, plus a serial film and several television adaptations.
There are in fact many Time Sleep stories where a protagonist comes out of some sort of hibernation and finds themselves in a changed world. These include THE SLEEPER AWAKES, the 1910 novel by H.G Wells, and THE MAN WHO AWOKE, the novel by Laurence Manning, where Norman Winters puts himself in suspended animation for 5,000 years at a time and when he wakes he has to try and make sense of the societies he finds himself in. Of course, the idea of suspended animation or being cryogentically frozen has been used many times in movies too, notably in Woody Allen’s THE SLEEPER (LUNA: It’s hard to believe you haven’t had sex for 200 hundred years. MILES: 204 if you count my marriage.) Then of course there’s the AUSTIN POWERS series and more recently IDIOCRACY with Luke Wilson as Joe Bauers. These Time Skip tales often turn into ‘stranded’ stories’ or ‘fish-out-of-water’ tales in that once the Time Travel element is established, the situation itself remains unaltered. OUTLAWS, for example, was a television series about five cowboys from the 1880s who, as a result of a freak lightning strike (always a useful catalyst event in a Time Tale), find themselves in 1986. With no way to get back home, the men use their skills to start a detective agency in order to make a living. PHIL OF THE FUTURE, DEMOLITION MAN, FUTURAMA, CATWEAZLE, ADAM ADAMENT LIVES! and IT’S ABOUT TIME also explores this Time Skip concept.
One of Russia’s most popular home grown Time Tale movies was IVAN VASILIEVICH CHANGES PROFESSION (1973) directed by Leonid Gaidai (in the United States the film has sometimes been sold not surprisingly under the title IVAN VASILIEVICH: BACK TO THE FUTURE). It tells the tale of Ivan Vasilievich who ‘Time Swops’ with Ivan the Terrible. In 1973 it was one of the most attended movies in the Soviet Union, with more than 60 million tickets sold.
These stories are often dismissed as pulp fare and pure entertainment, and nothing wrong with that, but apart for its dramatic and comic potential, the ‘fish-out-of-water’ premise can resonate deeply with people who, in their own life, see themselves as outsiders. Plus, of course, the ‘fish-out-of-water’ concept allows comparisons between society’s cultural values then, or whenever, and now. And sometimes if it is an imagined future, that future comes true. THE MAN WHO AWOKE, written in 1933, is set in a world that has had a sexual revolution, suffers from global warming, and where there is a form of Artificial Intelligence and even Virtual Reality. Time Tales really can be a peek into the World of Tomorrow.
‘All my life,’ he said, ‘I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region — not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind — where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs, the rise and fall of nations, the destinies of empires, the fate of armies and continents, are all as dust in the balance.’
“Time is not a liner flow, as we think it is, into past, present and future. Time is an indivisible whole, a great pool in which all events are eternally embodied and still have their meaningful flash of supernormal or extra-sensory perception, and glimpse of something that happened long ago in our liner time.
A Life Experienced in a Single Moment
What’s real, what isn’t? What’s past, what’s future? What’s waking, what’s dreamscape? These are the kind of questions raised in movies such as JACOB’S LADDER, THE JACKET, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS and ALL THAT JAZZ. One way of answering them is to say that at the moment of Death, the life of the protagonist – past, present, imagined future, dream world – is somehow experienced in a single moment and in cinematic terms this becomes the duration of the film itself. In this way of thinking, when Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is fatally injured in Vietnam in JACOB’S LADDER, his dying struggle to stay alive become hallucinations of thoughts and images of his past life and imagined future – the life that never was – and these, all mixed up, become the basis of the movie.
Indeed, there is some clinical evidence that your life does indeed pass before you as you die. Following the brain monitoring of an eighty-seven year-old dying man, clinicians analysed the recordings of the 30 seconds before and after the man’s heart stopped beating and these suggested that in his final moments he experienced changes in different types of brain waves, including alpha and gamma brain waves. Writing in the journal Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience, researchers said that “given that cross-coupling between alpha and gamma activity is involved in cognitive processes and memory recall in healthy subjects, it is intriguing to speculate that such activity could support a last ‘recall of life’ that may take place in the near-death state.”
THE JACKET has a similar feel to JACOB’S LADDER, only this time the protagonist is a Gulf War veteran who seemingly has ‘died’. The veteran, Jack Starks, played by Adrien Brody, now suffers from amnesia and while on a road trip is wrongly blamed for a shooting and so ends up in an asylum. His treatment in the institution is a jacket, which when worn gives the veteran flashbacks and visions that he will die in four days. It is partly based on the 1915 novel by the American writer Jack London called THE STAR ROVER (published as THE JACKET in the UK).
Bob Fosse’s ALL THAT JAZZ, a thinly disguised biography of the director and choreographer himself, the Fosse character, Joe Gideon (Roy Schneider), is haunted by an Angel of Death (Jessica Lange) as he undergoes a heart operation. But it’s not a linear narrative. Past and present are all mixed up. And neither are they real in the sense that the medics take part in the surreal song and dance numbers, and so, as Joe lies dying on the operating table, the film could be seen as a series of flashes of dreaming and memory from his final moments that his brain has very creatively turned into a musical. I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is the story of a lonely Janitor who decides to commits suicide (not a spoiler, the clue is in the title) and his thoughts as he dies, or is deciding to die, are the basis of the film. They are not memories as such but rather a jumble mix of what might have been in an imaged life. The song that runs through I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is Lonely Room from Rodger and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! The lyrics need little explanation as to why they were chosen:
‘But when there’s a moon in my winder
And it slants down a beam ’cros my bed
Then the shadder of a tree starts a-dancin’ on the wall
And a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head.
And all the things that I wish fer
Turn out like I want them to be,
And I’m better than that Smart Aleck cowhand
Who thinks he is better’n me!’
In such tales as these, Time, as it were, measured in the dying moments of a man’s life in real time are expanded into a diegesis that becomes the length of the movie. And this can be seen in other films as well. On the face of it DON’T LOOK NOW is a supernatural story but it can be read that when John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) fell from the platform in the church, he didn’t survive and so the figure in red is more like a Phantom of Death that has come for him. Though it should be said that this is not a conventional reading of the film but it is consistent with the inconsistent non-linear presentation of Time.
Strictly speaking, these movies and others like them are not Time Tales in the Time Travel sense. Instead, they are built from the real human experience that people talk about where a lifetime appears to flash before your very eyes. There is even the old joke that the former British Prime Minister John Major was so boring, “that if Mr Major died and his life passed before him, it would be doubtful if he’d even be in it.” These tales are included here because the idea of a single moment being expanded in Time is a Time Distortion of sorts, and so worth discussing.
Here’s another movie worth mentioning in this context, namely BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO in which Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, who, now the war is over, begins a new life as a sound engineer working on sound effects on a strange Italian movie production. However, as the story progresses, Gilderoy becomes more and more detached from reality (and Time) itself. The movie can be read as a living purgatory, where Gilderoy is in fact dead and this bizarre new ‘life’ creating gory torture sequences that never seem to have an end is his punishment.
In this area where characters become unglued or detached from Time, it is also worth pointing out film such as ARRIVAL, THE FOUNTAIN, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and even INTERSTELLAR. Here Time is not linear and The Past, The Present and The Future, all exist to some degree in the same transcendent moment. Such stories have elements of the spectacular, but ultimately they are reflective, thoughtful and complex. And most definitely very, very weird.
“Time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was — only is.”
“The purpose of art is to stop Time.”
Centring an entire plot around the concept of Time Stopped would be, for obvious dramatic reasons, not that easy but The Guests episode of THE OUTER LIMITS written by Donald S. Sanford is worth a mention. In the story, a drifter called Wade Norton (played by Geoffrey Horne), finds an old man dying by the side of a remote country road. Wade picks up the man’s pocket watch and takes it to a nearby mansion with the intension of seeking help. However, those living there appear oddly uninterested. Wade then tries to leave through the front door, but finds himself being forced backward upstairs where he discovers an amorphous jelly-like alien being who, it is revealed, is keeping the inhabitants of the large house suspended in time in order to understand the nature of humanity. And this experiment could last an eternity, for, as the creature says to Wade, “I have more Time than forever.” On returning downstairs, the drifter attempts to flee but discovers the windows are blocked and doors lead back where he started.
Inside the pocket watch there was a picture of a young woman and this same woman then leads Norton to an escape route, a gate adjacent to a cemetery plot which is accessible from the mansion. However, she also tells him that if she leaves all her years will catch up with her and she will die. Wade chooses to remain in the house with her but, realising he will be trapped among them for eternity, the young girl exits through the gate and, without protection from the passage of time the alien offers, withers and turns to dust. Yet the creature in seeing this has discovered two important aspects of humanity: love and self-sacrifice and as a result the mansion returns to its true reality, an enormous alien brain, and then disappears leaving the drifter behind.
There are several Time Tales where Time is stopped, for example, THE MAGIC BOOMERANG, CLOCKSTOPPERS, and BERNARD’S WATCH, though in these stories time is only stopped on a temporary basis. In the Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, Park Jin-gyoem has the power to stop time. Where this ability came from isn’t clear but perhaps it’s because his mother went through the Door of Time when she was pregnant with him, for, as The Book of Prophecy says, “The child born while opening the Door of Time will end up controlling time.”
Anyway, when Park Jin-gyoem’s life is threatened, Time stops. And that’s not his only gift. Without the aid of the Time Card that Alice Time Agents carry, Jin-gyeom is still able to leap through time and space, usually at moments of danger or high emotion. However, Park Jin-gyoem seems to have very little control over where he lands or in which timeline. And this lack of control leads to some fascinating dramatic encounters.
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 says to his younger self towards the climax of the story, “I can control Time, but I am still getting strangled by Time.” The Teacher adds that his gift to Park Jin-gyeom offers the “chance to reign over Time.” However, this is a power the younger Park Jin-gyeom does not want for he has seen the tragedy time travel brings and so he vows to end it all. “I will put everything back in its place,” he says “I’ll save everyone who died because of you first. Then I will kill you. You started it, but I will end it.” Actually it is the self-sacrifice of the mother which ultimately leads to the reset, but it is the pain that the mother sees on both their faces which moves her to act selflessly and so end time travel and the existence of her sons with it.
In the SWIDGERS Time Adventure book series, there is a character who claims to be able to stop Time. To say too much would be to give away the plot, but within the story this gift is misused and selfishly so. We must move on in life. We must grow up. The inspiration behind Book One of the SWIDGER series is J. M. Barrie’s PETER PAN. It’s always useful to remember that the subtitle of Barrie’s play was THE BOY WHO WOULDN’T GROW UP. Originally the word was ‘couldn’t’ but Barrie then realised that by making it Peter’s choice with ‘wouldn’t’, would result in it becoming a modern tragedy.
“We never can just stop time. Or take moments back. Life doesn’t work that way, does it?”
“Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, it is impossible to live anymore complacent in the world as it is.”
The Malleability of Time
It should be said that not all Time Tales are about time travel, time stopping or time displacement. There are stories where characters suddenly age in their bodies but remain at the same mental or sexual age (BIG, GOING ON 30) or in fact ever don’t age at all (THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY). There are also tales where a character’s life is lived continuously through history as themselves (INTOLERANCE, THE NAVIGATOR: A MEDIEVAL ODYSSEY) or as themselves but with shifting chameleon-like identities (ZELIG) or as themselves but becoming a different gender (ORLANDO). Or even indeed not lived at all (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE). There are stories too where time goes backwards (TENET) or leads to a life lived backwards (THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON). None of these stories are Time Travel Tales as such, but instead they play with the malleability of Time itself.
“If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong”
“Remember, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.”
Chaos Theory and ‘The Butterfly Effect’
A tenet of Chaos Theory is that the outcome of a series of consequences is always dependant on its starting point, as in the famous observation ‘the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the jungle can cause a tornado in Kansas’. This concept originated with an American meteorologist called Edward Lorenz who in 1961 said that one flap of a seagull’s wing would be enough to alter the course of the weather elsewhere. Someone along the way then made this idea a bit more poetic and it became a butterfly’s wing. Anyway, Ray Bradbury’s time travel story A SOUND OF THUNDER explores this particular principle. In 2055, Time Travel has been commercialised and there is a company called Time Safari Incorporated that offers excursions into the past. On a trip to the late Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, all one innocent time traveller did was accidentally tread on a butterfly, but even this small seemingly insignificant single action had consequences and these led to a different present when the traveller returned to his own time. When he is later informed he cannot go back and put right the world he has changed, well, that’s when the sound of thunder is heard. The implication being that he is now unable to live with himself and his clumsy foolishness and so takes his own life.
The movie THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (2004) explores a similar idea, but at a more personal level. In this story, a traumatised man is able to re-do certain parts of his past experiences, only when he does, it results in vastly different alternate futures. And these are often worse than his present situation. As Jonas says in DARK: “We change a grain of sand, and with that, the whole world.”
In DIMENSION (2007) what is altered, or rather what something can be altered by, is three inches. God, for whatever mysterious reason, gives the owner of a hardware store the power to change the lives of his customers by the measure of three inches. The story is a reminder, if we need it, that the littlest things can sometimes lead to the biggest consequences.
It’s a frightening thought however, that every action, that every distance, no matter how small, has the capacity to alter everything. Ultimately we couldn’t live our lives if, before we went about everything we did, we considered the potential long term consequences. There’s similar practical problem for those who are existential philosophers, for if you don’t believe in anything, everything and every action needs to be thought through. Anyway, consequences are what Time Dramas specialise in. They allow us to go back or forward and see for ourselves what would or shall happen. And that’s one of the reasons of course why they are so popular.
In the Swidger world Back Story, a Malevolent Energy fractured Time and the Universe, putting them, as Hamlet would say, ‘out of joint’. Yet the Cosmos fought back with beings tasked with putting Life, Time and the Universe once again in sync. And these beings are Swidgers. They are only able to make tiny adjustments to our Timepaths, small changes, one at a time. But, as the saying goes, ‘Every Little Helps’. And that is the main theme of SWIDGERS: the smallest good, can put right the biggest of wrongs.
Of course, writers have to be creative in coming up with ways protagonists can know the result of their interventions. If you intentionally alter a past event, how is it that you can be certain of the consequences before they have even taken place? In fact, part of the appeal of Time Tales is how this puzzle is dealt with. Swidgers have a special relationship with trees. Without giving too much away, it is through two particular trees that have come together through inosculation. Inosculation is the natural phenomenon where trunks, branches or roots of a pair of trees grow together. It is biologically similar to grafting and such trees are referred to in forestry as gemels, from the Latin word meaning ‘a pair’. When this grafting of inosculation is done intentionally by landscape gardeners it is sometimes referred to as ‘pleaching’. In Book Two, THE DAY THEY SAVED TOMORROW, William and Granny are guided to such a tree, The Pleach Tree, which, again without giving too much away, is a great help in their Time Adventure.
If there is no tree to help you then another solution is some sort of Historian. In TRAVELERS (using the American spelling of the series), Philip gets ‘update’ downloads of the ever changing future both via his computer, and bizarrely his eyes and brain. But these updates are only for him, for Protocol 2H tells him he must never reveal the contents of these updates to his team, no matter what the circumstances. Also of course in TRAVELERS, there is the fact that the most recent arrivals from the future can tell the team what changes The Mission has already achieved.
In QUANTUM LEAP, Sam Beckett has help from the project’s supercomputer, Ziggy (by way of a hologram, Al) and this to some degree is able to tell him the historical consequences of his actions. On the other hand, Marty in BACK TO THE FUTURE partially gets round the whole conundrum of possible futures by having a photograph in his pocket of him with his family in the future. It’s at those points in the story when Marty is seemingly unable to complete his task that people in that picture begin to fade one by one. This idea of fading images is also used in TIMELESS in an episode with JFK where a coin briefly shows the face of Richard Nixon. The historian in TIMELESS, Lucy Preston, can’t actually say for sure what will happen but her knowledge at least offers a guide to the potential consequences of the team’s action. But if historians, photographs and supercomputers are not available then there’s always the possibility of a trip to the local library and that might offer some help.
“Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time – past and future – the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.”
“Stories are a communal currency of humanity.”
Stories Within Stories
There are tales where a character is reading a book, or watching a film or engrossed in a television series or even listening to a song, and then, through a strike of lightning or whatever, becomes part of that fictional world. Tales where a character enters and becomes part of a made-up world, particularly a well-known or established fictional world, is sometimes called a Meta-fiction or an Inter-textual narrative. The films THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO and PLEASANTVILLE are examples of this. Here, it’s not so much the past that these characters become a part of, but rather a specific fictional world set in the past. That said, is the difference in practice or in story telling terms that different? And does it matter? If not, these stories become Time Tales by default.
“Not only is the past of a person with no memory inaccessible; his ability to think about the future is imperilled. Time travel, then, is ultimately – and paradoxically – an exercise in remembering. And without that capacity it simply cannot exist.”