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This video is sponsored by the YouTube Red
Sci-Fi Series "Lifeline".

For ages I've been wanting to make a video
analyzing time travel in fiction – not the

magical or physical mechanisms by which the
time travel is supposedly achieved , but rather,

the different ways time travel can influence
causality (and thus the plot) within the universe

of each story.
Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead!
Let's start with Ender's Game by Orson Scott
Card – time travel in this book is actually

100% realistic: the characters experience
slower passage of time when they travel close

to light speed, allowing just a few days or
months to pass for those traveling while years

pass on earth or other planets.
It's traveling forward through time like we
normally do, but at different rates.

This kind of time travel doesn't "change the
past" or allow characters to make different

decisions than the ones they already did – it's
all one consistent historical trajectory.

The original Planet of the Apes film is similar,
where astronauts experience extreme time dilation

and then crash land on a strange ape-ruled
planet that (major spoiler) turns out to just

be earth in the distant future.
But what about actual time-travel time travel?
Well, I would say there are two big distinguishing
features between different types of time travel

in fiction.
The first is whether or not the time traveler
is there when history happens the "first time

around" – that is, is there a kind of "self-consistency"
where, since time travel takes you to the

past, when the past happened the first time,
the time-traveling version of you was always

there to begin with?
Or does the very act of time traveling to
the past change what happened and force the

universe onto a different trajectory of history
from the one you experienced prior to traveling?

And the second distinguishing feature is:
who has free will when somebody is time traveling.

Like, whose actions are allowed to move history
onto a different trajectory, and whose aren't?

One of the simplest time travels is "do-over"
time travel, where you essentially get to

re-play history starting exactly as it was
at a certain point, with the only caveat being

you remember your experiences from already
having tried various possible future timelines

(while no one else does).
It's essentially like playing a video game
where you can start a level over with the

foresight of what you did wrong the first
time.

For example, in Groundhog Day Bill Murray's
character relives the same day over and over

again, and though he can make different choices
each time, he always starts back at the same

point (except with new memories of his previous
choices).

That is, until he figures out the one exact
set of choices that frees him from the loop.

I consider "A Christmas Carol" to be in this
vein, too, even though it may not seem like

time travel.
But because Scrooge gets to visit the future
of his current timeline, even though he has

no ability to affect the timeline directly
while "visiting", he can still change his

actions in the present based on what he learns,
essentially getting a “do-over.”

The video game Braid is built on the idea
of “do-overs”, where you get to rewind

a few seconds and try something different
(though there are some things that are immune

to going back in time and don't "rewind",
which is what makes the game interesting).

Braid also has another kind of time travel,
where you go back to your past as a separate

individual, and the past version of you is
there with no free will, just doing exactly

what you did the first time around, while
"time-traveling you" can change the course

of history.
This is also how the video "Clock Blockers"
by the Corridor Digital youtube channel works.

And then there's time travel where the very
act of going to the past or future creates

a fully new trajectory of history because
time-traveling you weren't there the first

time around, and now you are.
This includes the typical "anything goes"
time travel movies like Bill & Ted's Excellent

Adventure, Back to the Future, Star Trek First
Contact, and so on, where you can kind of

instantly jump back and forth to any point
in time you want, potentially resulting in

multiple versions of yourself.
From a causality perspective, anything you
do in the past (and even just the act of going

back in time) redirects the course of history
onto a new timeline – in Back to the Future,

Marty's interference with his parents falling
in love results in the timeline of history

being redirected towards a version of the
future where he doesn't exist and so he starts

to disappear from photos and real life.
And even after correcting that major deviation,
his interactions with his parents while he's

in the past result in them being very different
people when he returns to his present time;

he accidentally caused history to progress
in a slightly different direction.

The movie ”Looper" is similar, but there's
a little more circularity because when you

jump to the past, you cause history to branch
onto on a trajectory where, in the future,

the younger you also goes back in time the
same way you just did.

Both you and your past self still have enough
free will to change that forward course of

history, though, which results in weirdness
like you getting new memories when your past

self does things you yourself didn't do, or
if they lose a body part, suddenly you'll

lose it too, replaced by an old scar on your
own body.

So, changes to the present affect not just
future timelines, but also future timelines

that wrap back around to the present!
The indie film Primer is in the same vein,
except that it takes the plot device of time

travel to the extreme, with time travel within
time travel within time travel, time-traveling

characters interacting with other time-traveling
versions of themselves, bringing time machines

with them to the past inside other time machines,
and so on.

But beyond the complexity, there are two things
that make Primer stand out: first, time travel

to the past isn't an instantaneous jump, but
actually takes time: to go back 6 hours, you

sit in the time machine for what feels like
6 hours.

And time travel can't take you back to a time
before a given time machine was initially

activated, since of course, the machine can
only be taking you back in time inside it

if it's turned on, so the first time it was
turned on is the farthest back in time you

can go.
There's a nice logic to it.
Which brings us to perhaps my all time favorite
of all fictional time travel: Harry Potter

and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
It's an "instantly jump back in time" kind
of time travel that doesn't actually generate

any new timelines.
It manages that because in this universe,
while you were experiencing your initial,

pre-time-travel passage through a particular
point in history, your "time-traveling clone"

was also already there, doing everything you'll
eventually do when you time travel yourself.

For example, Harry and friends are saved from
dying by their time-traveling selves, the

first time through that timeline.
It makes so much sense – if you go back
in time, you really and truly were present

at that point in time all along!
This also means that during the period of
overlap, the time-traveling you has no actual

free will, since everything you do has in
some sense already been done, which Harry

comprehends when he realizes he has to save
his past self because he was already saved

by his future self when he was in the past.
I think I love this kind of time travel because
it manages to be logically consistent: it's

time travel to the past where you can't change
the past, because the past already happened.

And there's only one timeline – the one
in which time travelers arrive from the future,

do stuff, and at some later date, leave to
go to the past.

Logical consistency is a primary thing that,
you may have noticed, I think lays the foundation

for good time travel stories – not because
logical consistency is important in an of

itself, but because, most of the time, in
order to care about the characters in a story,

we have to believe that actions have consequences.
If everything is just a meaningless series
of events, then we almost don't have a story.

So it's really helpful if there are rules
by which the universe of the story functions,

whatever those rules may be.
Speaking of actions with consequences, I finally
got the kick in the pants I needed to make

this video from my friends at the Corridor
Digital YouTube channel.

They've asked me to help promote their new
YouTube Red Original Series, "Lifeline”,

which, minor spoilers ahead... is a sci fi
action thriller with time travel in it.

What kind of time travel, you ask?
Essentially, if somebody dies in the future,
that sends a message back to the present,

which allows people to jump forward to just
before the time the person dies and change

the trajectory of history from that point
onwards, averting their death.

But as you might imagine, things eventually
go awry.

Anyway, you can check out the first episode
of Lifeline for free on the Corridor Digital

channel or by following the links onscreen
or in the description . And fun facts: I actually

know the Corridor guys from back before MinutePhysics,
when I was doing special effects for the "freddiew"

channel.
We also all grew up in neighboring towns in
Minnesota and even competed against each other

in high school sports , though we didn't know
each other at the time.

But enough trivia – go check out their
show!

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Time Travel in Fiction Rundown

39 Folder Collection
張凱鈞 published on November 5, 2018
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