Time travel has been moving in and out of my life this summer. There were two books I read and one series I watched that had me thinking again about this topic. Time travel has long been an interest of mine. I posted here two days ago about the right to be forgotten online and rereading it this morning I see a connection in that revisionist history to time traveling to change the past.
I kept a journal in college that I filled with quotations that caught my fancy. There were many from the literature courses I took as an English major, but there were also ones from history and philosophy classes. One that has stuck with me over these many years is “You can’t change anything without changing everything” which I credited to Blaise Pascal.
Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French scientist, author, and Christian philosopher who is best known for his work, “Pensées” or “Thoughts.”
The book is a classic but, probably like my own book that will be a classic one day, it was first published posthumously.
Pensées is an edited compilation of the notes that he had made for a book he planned to write. Scholars call that unfinished book “Apology for the Christian Religion.” The religion doesn’t much appeal to me and though I looked into the book in college, I’m sure I never actually read it.
I looked back into Pensées this summer because I wanted to find context for that quotation. I couldn’t find it. I found lots of other Pascal quotes I know and appreciate:
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
But I didn’t find the quote I was looking for. An online search for it showed those words being used by people but the only credit I could find was to William James.
Still, the quote is important to me. It is why I try not to have regrets for the choices I have made. I don’t mean clearly bad choices, foolish like buying a loser stock or eating two more slices of pizza. I mean not regretting things that in my timeline would change everything – that decision to go to a certain college; moving to a new home; taking a new job; choosing a spouse. Changing any of those things changes an almost infinite number of subsequent events in ways good or bad that we can never predict.
Changing the past is a major plot driver in time-travel fiction. Overwhelmingly, changing the past changes the future (or the time traveler’s present) in ways that were unintended and generally bad.
Maybe the line of Pascal’s that connected with me this time around is “You always admire what you really don’t understand.” I don’t understand much of the science of studying time (I’m not sure scientists really understand it either.) but I am fascinated by it. I’m convinced we need and want to time travel and so it appears in many books, movies and on TV.
Albert Einstein said that “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
The big book I read this summer is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. which had been recommended by several friends who know I like time travel books.
I am a slower reader these days, or rather, I read in shorter blocks of time. I no longer spend an entire afternoon in a chair reading. I am more likely to read for twenty minutes before falling asleep or even more likely to listen to an audiobook while driving or walking.
I wish I had the audiobook for this 800+ page novel because it took me two renewals from the library to finish. But I’m glad that I read it.
You can tell from the title that this concerns the assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas of President Kennedy. King is certainly not the first or last person to think about what if he could have been saved. Other common revisions to our timeline are history-changing things like killing Hitler.
I like that the novel does not rely on any sci-fi technology for the protagonist to travel back in time. I also like the idea that each time he (or anyone) goes back and changes anything, it leaves a mark. Also that each trip back resets the timeline and whatever you might have changed the last time is back to what it was before.
In King’s version, the past is obdurate, stubbornly refusing to change. Time even makes attempts to stop the protagonist from making changes. It is said that history does not repeat but it rhymes. (A line often credited to Mark Twain but probably not of his invention.) King seems to follow that idea.
The plot center on Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school English teacher in Maine, who is given the time travel secret by Al, who runs the local diner. That diner is a time portal to 1958 and only to one day in that year. When you return through the portal, only a few minutes in the present of June 2011 have passed. Al is dying and wants Jake to continue his mission to go back to 1958 and work his way to that day in 1963, and along the way determine if Lee Harvey Oswald was really the lone shooter. And then stop him. Al is convinced this will change the world in many positive ways.
I won’t give spoilers about the success of that mission, which Jake does accept after a few shorter time excursions that do seem to work.
There is a mini-series on Hulu of the novel. I watched it. It makes a lot of changes to King’s story, but if you’re unwilling to read that big book, maybe you can watch the series.
As I said, these what-if scenarios occur in both our own lives and in the lives of characters in fiction. What if America and the Allies had not won World War II? That is one that played out in Philip K. Dick’s novel (and a Netflix adaptation still running) The Man in the High Castle.
And on a far less serious journey, I was charmed by Michael J. Fox’s movie time traveling back and forth to the future.
One thing I observe is that both in fiction and science traveling to the future seems less possible than traveling to the past.
Then more recently, a friend recommended that I read Recursion by Blake Crouch. This novel is also about revising timelines, this time with some heavy-duty technology.
In Crouch’s version of time, memory makes reality. The time-traveling journeys here rely on the traveler’s memories of event. The changes cause what is known in that world as FMS – False Memory Syndrome. FMS is not the author’s invention. Though the term is not officially recognized as a psychiatric illness, the premise that memories can be altered by outside influences is accepted by scientists – though it is not caused by time travel. FMS haunts people with memories of a life they never lived.
At first, the successful tests of their technology seem innocent. Who wouldn’t want to re-experience sweet memories of first love or the birth of a child? Who wouldn’t want the chance to change something bad that happened, like an accident that killed someone you love?
What makes the FMS in the novel different is that friends and family of the afflicted also remember portions of the false lives.
These kinds of alternate-reality or revisionist histories can be very appealing because they play on our own desires to be able to somehow safely correct the past.
Despite my interest in time travel, I have not been invited to a time travelers’ party. The few purported “real” tales of a “time traveler” that I have read are not very satisfying. I don’t believe that Yoda was a time traveler.
Have I ever met a time traveler? Unfortunately, no, as Stephen Hawking asked, “Where are they?’ My answer is that if they have come back to out time from a future time, they cannot interact at all with us. They can make no changes. They are simply observers.
As Pascal said back in time, “Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain.” Luckily, my wife taught French, so I know that means “It is not certain that everything is uncertain.” Was he thinking about Time?
Has all this reading and watching changed my beliefs about Time? Perhaps yesterday (or tomorrow) never was.
I just started reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. The choice was not intentional. I had the book on reserve and it just became available. A coincidence. Unless there is no such thing as a coincidence.
It’s not a time travel novel but it is an alternate history. In the novel, Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to that aviator hero Charles A. Lindbergh. Historically, Lindbergh was a fanatical rabid isolationist who wanted to avoid war. In the novel, negotiates an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler. His administration also embarks on an agenda of making America great again which includes anti-Semitism.
Roth based his novel on the views of real-life Lindbergh who was a spokesman for the America First Committee. That was a pro-German propaganda group, which opposed American aid to Britain in its war against Germany. Lindbergh was no fan of FDR and he resigned his commission in the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 after President Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views. FDR said privately that ” I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.”
As in other novels, the setting is Roth’s hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I was also born in Newark and grew up nearby – a connection with Roth that started me reading his books.
This novel is also being adapted for a forthcoming mini-series on HBO that was filmed this year in New Jersey. I’ll read the book first. No audiobook, so give me some time and I’ll report back.
4 thoughts on “Time Travel, Pascal and Novel Synchronicities”
I think a lot of people would like to change their history or timelines. People born in poverty, cancer patients, parents who give birth to a child destined to die within days or months of birth. I wonder how those stories are handled. Seems like the books and writers you mention look to explore time travel through either major historical events or big themes. Is that the case? Also, what about the stories of those who can never imagine a different life, say people with mental illness or mental limitations. I am just wondering if any writer’s have explored those lives.
I think you’re correct that time travel stories tend to focus on big events of history – but the King book is actually filled with subplots of smaller corrections to timelines. The outcomes tend to be the same – what is changed in that person’s life at that moment is an improvement but doesn’t guarantee a better future.
One unusual take on this genre is The Time Traveler’s Wife which is really a love story about a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel but the time and place is out of his control and happens unpredictably. Much of the story concerns his wife who had to deal with his disappearances. She compares herself to Penelope, waiting for Odysseus. It explores how love changes over time and, I suppose, the transience of love. The novel was made into a film and I believe it was also done for TV.
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