An easy way to solve EVERY time travel paradox

Time travel paradoxes. They can trip up any sci-fi fan who spends even a few seconds thinking critically about such acclaimed classics as Back to the Future, The Terminator, and even Harry Potter.

Time travel paradoxes come in many forms, but usually revolve around characters doing something in the past that necessarily influences their future self who decided to mess with the past in the first place.

Or they do something that changes the past, which would change the course of their life, thereby making it impossible for them to have ever traveled in the past in the first place to fix it.

Or crazier still, characters often just don’t think of time as fluidly as they could, so even if they could avoid paradoxes, through a lack of imagination, they fail to solve their own problems. Skynet needs to kill John Connor, as he’s part of the Resistance. So they send a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor. Simple enough.

But when they fail, they send a second Terminator, not to kill Sarah Connor, but to kill 12-year-old John Connor.

And then in T3, they send a Terminator to kill adult John Connor. Why not kill baby Sarah Connor instead of dealing with a John Connor who is increasingly becoming more like the John Connor that is leading the Resistance?

You know all about time travel paradoxes: let’s solve them once and for all! In this article, I’ll share with you my own strategy for resolving any time travel paradox in fiction.

Reliance on headcanon

As a ground rule, this strategy relies on headcanon. Canon, of course, is the “official” facts and laws that make up any fictional universe. Canon typically consists of the published movies, books, comics, video games, etc., in a given fictional series. Fan-made material and unlicensed spin-off products (or just poorly conceived spin-off products) and typically NOT canon.

Headcanon, though, is the canon you carry around in your head. It’s not official, nor endorsed by the authors or creators of said fictional work. It’s your own determination about what is “true” and what is “not true” about a fictional world.

So if you’re courageous enough to fill your head with your own canon surrounding fictional works, let’s dive in!

The Dark Tower’s approach to time travel

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King is one of my favorite fantasy/sci-fi stories, and it has a unique approach to time travel that I haven’t seen replicated in other fictional works involving time travel. I’ll start by sharing King’s view of time travel, then use that as the basis for my own theory of time travel.

In the Dark Tower, our heroes travel between worlds, most notably the Western-fantasy world of Mid-World and our modern, present world—the world you and I live in right now! In the modern world, our heroes travel to several different versions of the world in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. This opens up all kinds of time travel paradoxes, right?

King flips the time travel formula on its head by establishing one important fact: one world, our world, is the keystone world. This is the real world, the true world. All other worlds, including Mid-World, are pale imitations of the real world.

What makes the keystone world different than all other worlds? One thing: time travels in only one direction in the keystone world.

Our heroes travel back and forth through time, but only to a limit. The keystone world ever marches forward, and once a time period has passed, there’s no recalling it. If you want to save the world, and permanently alter it, you have to do it in the keystone world, not the other worlds.

The keystone world eliminates most time paradoxes. Because time only goes in one direction, the time travel doesn’t have to worry about changes in the future affecting changes in the past: there is no past.

All possible worlds exist on the normal curve

King’s view of time travel is close to solving time paradoxes, but it raises other questions. If the keystone world is the only one that matters, then does it make any difference what one does in the other worlds? Can a time traveler’s actions in other worlds even affect the keystone world?

If they can’t, then time traveling is a fruitless endeavor. It should instead by seen as traveling to parallel universes, not traveling in time.

The many-worlds interpretation posits that all possible universes are real. While I don’t give this theory much credence in the real world, I do think it’s acceptable for sci-fi to explore the many-worlds interpretation.

While traveling to alternative universes makes for some great storytelling, it eliminates the intrigue of time travel. The attraction of time travel is that the time traveler can actually change history, in their own world. To explain away time travel as simply travel to an alternative dimension, a dimension that “appears” to be the past but really isn’t, is a cheat.

Is there a way of reconciling time travel with the many-worlds interpretation? I think there is, and this is where my faith is restored in time travel fiction.

This headcanon strategy starts with the keystone world. Assume that in the fictional universe there is one true world, a world were time travels forward, not backward.

For the Terminator series, then, this explains why Skynet couldn’t send a robot backward farther in time after it failed to kill Sarah Connor: the moment had already passed.

Second, this headcanon strategy assumes that the many-worlds interpretation is true. However, not all worlds are equally likely. Some are more likely than others. All possible worlds can be fit to a normal curve as follows:

Image courtesy of the Oxford Math Center.

Image courtesy of the Oxford Math Center.

This is a probability curve. It’s pretty easy to read. Points close to the center are more likely, or probable, then points farther from the center. The normal curve appears all over the place in nature.

Height is a great example. Most adults fall within a standard range for height: let’s say 5-6 feet. Of course, other heights are also possible for adults, like 3 feet or even 9 feet. But those heights are very improbable and those data points exist at the outliers of the curve.

This same idea, then, can be applied to alternative fictional worlds. Most alternative universes will be very similar to the keystone world. It’s possible that there’s an alternative Terminator universe were Terminators are dinosaurs, rather than machines. But this is very unlikely.

Influencing the keystone world

So far, I’ve posited that there’s a keystone world, a la Stephen King, where time only goes forward. Second, every possible universe exists, but they exist along the normal curve, meaning most alternative worlds will be very similar to the keystone world.

The final part of the strategy involves the element of agency. If alternative worlds exist, then how does time travel make any difference? If characters travel to an alternative world and effect change, what consequence does that have on the keystone world?

Simply: the closer an alternative world is to the keystone world, the greater effect each world has on the other.

Skynet’s self-awareness exists in an alternative world, one very close to the keystone world. In the Terminator franchise, the primary world where we meet Sarah Connor and John Connor is the keystone world: time only goes forward. The world of Skynet is very close to the Connor’s keystone world, so it has a great effect on it. But the effect is not absolute.

When the Terminator leaves the Skynet apocalypse world, they enter the keystone world. When Sarah Connor kills the Terminator, her actions have a strong ripple in the alternative worlds closest to the keystone world, including the original Skynet self-awareness alternative world.

Thinking of alternative worlds as having consequence in the keystone world, then, gives the time traveler some agency. If the time traveler makes major changes in an alternative world, then it’s likely that some of those changes will carry over into the keystone world.

But all those changes might not hold, especially if time has already moved on in the keystone world.

To summarize, you can solve all time travel and dimension hopping paradoxes—and make your fictional works that much more enjoyable!—by following a simple strategy:

  1. Create your own headcanon for that fictional universe.
  2. Designate one of the timelines in that fictional universe as the keystone world, the one true real world where time only moves forward.
  3. Accept that in the fictional universe, all alternative universes are possible, but these alternative universes fall along the normal curve.
  4. The time traveler/dimension hopper can most affect the keystone world when s/he makes changes to worlds most similar to the keystone world, and changes in the keystone world most affect alternative worlds that are already similar to it.

With this strategy, I can now enjoy any time traveling fiction without worrying about pesky paradoxes. No need to let a little rationality ruin otherwise compelling stories about heroes traveling through time to make a real difference in their world!

Feel free to share your time traveling thoughts on this Back to the Future Day!

See you in the future,

Retro Review: Carrie (1976): Were Carrie’s Actions Justified?

I’ve been a Stephen King fan for many years, but it was only recently that I read his first novel, Carrie (1974). Despite being his first published novel, I actually thought it aged very well, and is even better than some of his more recent stuff. King has a tendency to write bloated novels: he gets so absorbed in the minutia of his characters’ lives that he forgets about the overall plot arc, and usually ends his novels in some quick and cheating way.

Carrie, though, was short, sweet, and to the point. The premise of the novel made a perfectly fine horror movie, albeit some small changes to the story.

With the release of the new Carrie, I thought it time to watch the original myself. In this review, I don’t want to focus on the merits of the movie: that ground has been tread before. Instead, I want to focus on one specific question: were Carrie’s actions at the prom justified?

(Full spoilers below)

Retribution on the bullies

For those of you who haven’t seen or read Carrie, but are continuing to read despite knowing there are spoilers–here’s what we’re talking about. Carrie is a quiet, shy high school senior who has her first period while in the gym locker room. Carrie freaks out because, astoundingly, she has never heard of a period before. The other girls make fun of her, throwing tampons at her, yelling “Plug it up! Plug it up!”

Carrie bullied in the shower.

Carrie bullied in the shower.

Carrie’s gym teacher stands up for her and punishes the girls. The focus of the story, though, is prom night. The girls want revenge on Carrie, so they set her up with a prom date and rig the voting so that she gets crowned prom queen.

Carrie's asked out by Tommy Ross

Carrie’s asked out by Tommy Ross.

Unbeknownst to Carrie, some of the kids slaughtered a pig, collected its blood, and stored the blood in a bucket above the prom stage. As Carrie is crowned queen, amidst applause and cheers from her entire school, the bucket of blood is dumped on her.

Ever since Carrie was first humiliated in the shower, she has developed telekinetic powers. Upset that she was so publicly humiliated on her senior prom, she exacts revenge on her classmates. She closes the gym doors telekinetically, electrocutes a couple students, which then starts a fire. She escapes the gym and keeps the doors closed while her classmates burn up inside.

Carrie closes the gym doors.

A white-eyed Carrie closes the gym doors.

After leaving the school, Carrie kills two more students who try to run her over. This is where the rampage ends in the movie, but in the book, Carrie takes it several steps farther. She wanders around, blowing up gas stations. She also breaks all the fire hydrants, releasing all the stored water into the streets, so that the fire trucks don’t have any water to use. The book mentions that over 400 people died during her rampage, including half her high school class.

Neither the book nor the movie make any suggestion that the bullying of Carrie is justified. She is innocent in that regard and has done nothing to earn the ridicule, other than being a quiet, slightly distant girl. There are a few in every school.

I return, then, to the central question: was Carrie, an innocent victim of bullying, justified in killing hundreds of people?

The sin of bullying: Treating people as objects

On the surface, it appears the answer is, “no.” While bullying is bad, the crime doesn’t fit Carrie’s retribution. Even if we found a way to justify Carrie’s punishment of those few students directly involved in the incident, do the hundreds of other people, who merely laughed at her, deserve death?

The nature of punishment, though, depends upon our foundation for justice. Who determines right and wrong, and who determines punishment? Before discussing Carrie’s actions, it’s important to understand why bullying is a sin.

Bullying can take many forms: physical, verbal, sexual, mental. A person can be bullied by an individual or a group, in private or in public, by a peer, by a superior, or even by somebody with less status, as in the case when students bully a teacher, for instance. Bullying is multifaceted, and the permutations of how the bullying happens can be thousands. But what is the essence of bullying? What is it really about?

Bullying appears to be about power, about one person having power–and using that power–over another. While there is an element of power to bullying, I don’t think power is the root. Power might be the root of war, assault, domestic violence, but bullying is a bit different. Bullying is more about pride. The bully thinks s/he is superior to the victim, and the bully objectivizes the victim by treating them as an object of humor. The bully takes pride in himself, and uses the victim for his own satisfaction. The bully dehumanizes the victim.

In a way, bullying is akin to idolatry. The bully puts herself in a position of dominance, one she actually does not possess, and she recreates the victim, turning the victim from a person into an object, an object to be used, enjoyed, and discarded. It’s similar to how an idolator fashions a god out of stone: the idolator does not possess this power to refashion and recreate objects in their own image, yet the idolator attempts the immoral recreation anyway.

The students at Carrie’s school think they are superior to her. They know something about a woman’s anatomy that she does not, and they use their knowledge and supposed dominance to recreate Carrie into an object of laughter and scorn.

In the second instance of bullying, the students are mad at Carrie for getting them in trouble. They cover her in pig’s blood, making her humiliation complete. What’s so devastating about this second instance of bullying is how fast Carrie fell: she was on top of the world, suspicious but appreciative to be going to prom, to be asked out by a cute guy, to be crowned prom queen: none of these things she expected. She’s never felt this good about herself in her life, and moments later, feels the worst she’s ever felt.

Carrie's school cheers

The masses cheer for Carrie the prom queen.

That immediate change from an object of admiration to an object of ridicule made something in her snap.

Carrie the prom queen.

Carrie’s perch at the top of the high school social order was short-lived.

The hand of the Lord

In Christian and Jewish theology, any sin is deserving of punishment. The Old Testament emphasizes justice for the downtrodden, and the New Testament confirms that any sin is punishable by death. Maybe not immediately: people are given second chances. But every sin earns a penalty, and that penalty must be paid before a person’s life expires. Because people cannot pay the penalty themselves–the debt is too high–Jesus steps in to cover the penalty. All He asks is for acceptance and obedience in return.

By this theology, then, the students at Carrie’s school, from the student who slaughtered the pig and set up the blood down to the masses who merely laughed at her, all deserve punishment.

The Old Testament is filled with examples of the Lord using rival nations to punish Israel for her sin. Israel is invaded over and over again. The Lord uses the armies of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Canaan, and more to punish the Israelites for their sin.

When Carrie tells her mother about her powers, Mama says the powers are from Satan. Carrie disagrees, saying the powers are her own. It’s certainly possible that in this worldview, the students are deserving of some kind of punishment, and the Lord is using Carrie to carry out that punishment.

Carrie covered in blood

A shocked and humiliated Carrie, covered in pig’s blood.

It should be noted that Stephen King is a Christian. While he says he’s not interested in “organized” religion, he does include a lot of Christian themes in his writings. I once heard somebody say that horror stories are modern day morality plays: the immoral masses (kids who drink, fornicate, bully, rob, rape, or commit any number of other sins) are killed off one by one by whatever monster is the star of that film. Usually the only people to survive horror stories are the “righteous,” those teens or adults who have a strong moral compass and don’t comprise like other characters.

Carrie in the burning gym

Carrie calmly walks through the burning gym.

In this worldview, then, Carrie’s actions may be justified, even if they seem harsh at first glance. Carrie’s story is a justice fantasy for anybody who’s ever been bullied: the bullies, from the greatest to the least, get the punishment they deserve. But our analysis doesn’t end here: we still must discuss the overt religious themes present in Carrie, most notably in her religious mother.

Mama: the religious “fanatic”

Carrie’s mother, called by Carrie “Mama,” is what many people term a “religious fanatic.” She prays a lot, quotes Scripture, preaches fire and brimstone, and evangelizes door to door. All of the reviews refer to Mama as a fanatic.

But what exactly does this mean? Just because somebody is devoted to their religion doesn’t necessarily make them a fanatic. Just because somebody spends a lot of time thinking about spiritual matters doesn’t make them a fanatic either. This term is meant as a diminishing term: it’s something reviewers use to look down upon Mama. Mama is the bad guy, the ultimate bad guy, even more so than Carrie’s bullies. Mama is not a character we are supposed to relate to.

What exactly is it about Mama, then, that makes her so hated? It’s not so much that she’s a devoted Christian: Carrie is also a devoted Christian, but nobody terms her a religious fanatic. Mama’s religion, though, seems to get in the way of common sense. Mama says that Carrie’s period is punishment for sin, the sin visited upon all women by Eve’s original sin, intercourse (in Mama’s theology: she quotes from some book that’s not in the Bible to back up this theology).

Carrie and Mama pray.

Mama prays with Carrie.

Mama also seems abusive to Carrie: Carrie receives not only verbal abuse from Mama, but is frequently locked in the “prayer closet” until she repents of her sins.

Carrie's prayer closet

Mama drags Carrie into the prayer closet.

While Mama’s sins against Carrie appear unforgivable, everybody has sin. At some point every family member sins against another. What’s most troubling about Mama, then, is not that she spends a lot of time thinking about God, teaching (her) Christian principles to Carrie, or even that she sins against Carrie from time to time. Mama’s sin is this: she’s missed the boat completely when it comes to Christianity.

Christianity is about forgiveness. Christianity acknowledges that sin is real, and certainly nobody is justified in their sin: all need repentance. But Mama does not know the word forgiveness. She only acknowledges sin, then seeks punishment. True Christianity is about acknowledging sin, acknowledging the punishment that we all deserve, and then acknowledging that Jesus took that punishment for us.

Mama seems only to have read the Old Testament, not the New Testament.

Carrie still believes in Mama

When Carrie returns from the prom, she washes the pig’s blood off then finds Mama. She cries before Mama, saying, “You were right: the people did laugh at me, just like you said they would.” At first, it appears that Mama is sympathetic to Carrie: she even hugs her daughter briefly. But then she lets go, and starts in with her theology again. Carrie requests over and over for Mama to hold her, to comfort her. And Mama does, but only until she can grab a knife and literally stab Carrie in the back.

Mama stabs Carrie in the back.

Carrie’s life is now in danger. She attacks Mama, defending herself and ultimately killing Mama. Carrie’s house implodes, and Carrie seeks refuge in the prayer closet, dragging Mama in with her. Carrie presumably kills herself, perhaps in recognition that she, too, is now a sinner deserving of death.

Carrie realizes that she’s become her mother. Mama could only see sin and punishment, not forgiveness. When Carrie snapped, she could only see the sin of her classmates. She knew they deserved some sort of punishment, but she took it too far. She also forgot about forgiveness. At the end, she decided the wipe the earth of her and her mother.

Bullying is a sin. That much we know. And all sin has some consequence, deserves some punishment. That we also know. But Carrie’s punishment went too far. Not because death was inappropriate for the crime, but because there was always a better option, a more difficult option, but a better option: forgiveness.

Movie rating:

4/5 (movie is worth owning and seeing again)