Time travel: Future or past?

I saw a poll on YouTube (a post, not a video) where the person asked if people would want to visit the past or future. The future was winning by a small margin. I voted past, and thinking about it now, I think it’s because the past is knowable. It would be a nostalgia trip (depending on how far back I’d go). If I could peek at the future, but not have to worry about some weird monkey’s paw scenario happening, or a Twilight Zone-style twist, then I’d be tempted to change my vote to future. It would probably be depressing, but it would also at least be interesting to see how our world would look in, say, a hundred years. Or even 50 years.

Given the current arc of history, I’m still leaning toward visiting the past, to indulge in a quieter and simpler time (for me).

18 again

Not to be confused with Eurythmics’ 17 Again.

There is a science fiction time travel trope/plot (yes, it’s Time Travel Week on my blog) that goes something like this:

The protagonist is sent back in time, put back in the body of their younger self, but while retaining the memories of their present-day self. Shenanigans follow.

I’ve played with a variation of this for a novel or short story where a middle-aged dude (someone probably 50+) gets sent back to the day of their 18th birthday, waking up in their 18-year-old body and then deciding on what to do to change/preserve the future. The hook would have been something like they know they have an incurable disease or some such and have a second chance to try to change the inevitable course of their demise. Something light and fun like that.

I never did write the story, but it’s been rattling around long enough that I wondered how I would handle such a scenario. This would be too personal for a blog entry, but I can give some broad strokes and raise inevitable questions about the whole thing.

Being put back into my 18-year-old body would mean waking up on the morning of September 19, 1982. I’d be in my bedroom in the family home in Duncan, City of Totems®. At this time, my main activity would be attending Malaspina College in Nanaimo in the theatre program. I did share a small apartment with a classmate there, but came back to Duncan for the weekends, because Duncan was still my home and Nanaimo would never be.

The first thought, once I’d checked out my amazing 18-year-old body (it was not that amazing, really, but it was pretty flexible), would be: Once I get out of this bed, anything I say or do or not say or do could drastically affect the rest of my new, second life. I would be a living version of the butterfly effect. That would stress me out for a bit. Maybe a long bit. I have no idea how well people compartmentalize profound, world-changing thoughts like these.

And while all of my present-day memories would be fully intact, I can tell you I remember not a single thing I said, did or thought on my 18th birthday, so I’d have to get good at acting like I totally knew what everyone was talking about really fast. But what would I actually do, once I settled in? What would be my short term plans? Long term plans? Would I just go with the flow and not plan anything different at all? Would I draw elaborate diagrams trying to plot out cause and effect? “If I do X, I will probably never meet Y”, things like that. It’s hard to say without actually magically going back into my 18-year-old body, so my best guesses would be something like these:

In the short term, I’d eat healthier, get more attractive glasses, a haircut, and start jogging regularly (the regular jogging didn’t start until I was in my mid-40s). This would make me look better, feel better and make me more confident. This could potentially change a lot, so it gets really fuzzy after this. I’d finish that first year of college out of a sense of obligation, but knowing I didn’t finish the second year, I’d have to decide whether to preemptively skip the second year or commit to it and see what happens. I’m not sure which I’d do, but lean toward acting preemptively and skipping the second year right away. But then what? Move to Vancouver in 1983 instead of 1986? Maybe!

On a more mercenary level, how could I use my advanced 2024 knowledge to benefit myself in 1982? There are obvious things, like buy Apple and Microsoft stock. I could solve all of my money issues with just a few wise early investments. That would also change a lot.

As for other people, the big one would probably be my dad. He smoked like the proverbial chimney, and it literally cost him his life, via a massive and fatal heart attack in 1991, at age 58. That untimely end would come nine years after I return to my 18-year-old body. Would I be able to convince him to stop smoking before it was too late? I don’t know, but it would probably add a level of anxiety and dread that would undercut everything else, like having a quietly ticking bomb in the background and knowing exactly when it’s going to go off.

Speaking of, at my 10th high school reunion in 1992, I asked an old friend and classmate how his younger brother (who would have been 24 or so at the time) was doing, only to find out he’d died from a brain aneurysm in January of that year. Awkward and depressing. But with this foreknowledge, could I have saved the younger brother by letting him know what was to come? Not to mention, how do you even convince someone of something like this without coming across as a total lunatic? Establish a pattern of correctly predicting the future to prove you’re the real time-travelling deal? Probably. And because I couldn’t bring any fancy 2024 tech back with me, I’d have to rely 100% on my memory. What if I misremembered a “prediction” and got some aspect of it wrong, damaging my credibility? Complications!

In a way, it wouldn’t feel exactly like reliving my past because all of my actions would be constantly altering bits of my previously known future, making them less known and different. That could be liberating, in a sense (a clean slate), but also terrifying. What if something significant didn’t happen, as I’d expected it to? What if it became clear that things were heading in a new and unknown direction, and I clearly had no control over any of it? Would I want to relive all those years (40+) again without being able to mentally prepare for what comes next? If everything comes down to generally unknowable fate, I could end up with a worse life instead of a better one, but it would be even worse than that, because I’d know about the better life I did have, then lost. There’s a classic Twilight Zone twist. All it needs is Rod Serling to come out and pontificate on what a sap I was to leave my known life on the gamble of something better. Be happy with all you have, etc. (Serling died of lung cancer because he, too, smoked like a chimney.)

Still, I’d at least be rich from all that Apple and Microsoft stock. And this time I’d keep my Amiga. And I’d dress at least a little better.

That other time travel story idea, Part 77

I am a sucker for time travel stories. Every time I’ve sworn off writing them, I write another. It’s almost to the point where stating I won’t write any is the actual trigger for writing one.

I’m definitely not writing any more time travel stories.

With that out of the way, why am I such a sucker for them? A list!

  • I am always intrigued by “What if?” scenarios and time travel is the perfect fit for this kind of speculative approach
  • Time travel is bonkers, so you can make up your own rules, then have fun playing around within those rules (bad time travel stories don’t set rules, or break them randomly, which is even worse)
  • It never gets old imagining how screwed-up things will get with time travel, because time travel always screws things up. Think about it–when did you last read a time travel story in which everything went exactly as hoped?
  • I like the Groundhog Day potential to keep repeating a scenario in hope of avoiding a big screw-up. What do you change? What changes will have an effect?
  • Many time travel stories are framed around a very fundamental question: Are you happy with your life? Quite often when the protagonist gets thrust into time travel they make decisions both affecting the world (“Do I try to stop the Kennedy assassination?) and decisions affecting themselves, usually in an attempt to right a wrong, or to otherwise change things they are not satisfied with, be it a failed relationship, a bad career move or something else.

The last point leads me to the time travel story I’ve been mulling over. I have the skeleton, but no real details yet. The skeleton is:

  • Person aged 40-50 (ie, with substantial life experience) gets the opportunity to go back in time, likely to just after they graduated from high school or shortly after, so age 18-20.
  • When they go back, they retain all of their current memories.
  • Once they go back, they cannot come forward again. (Or can they?)

I’m not sure what the rules of this particular universe would be, but I wanted to explore the chance to have a re-do on life decisions, while also examining how your life would feel when you already have knowledge of what’s ahead that spans entire decades. It’s fun to imagine you’d buy up Apple stock in the 80s when it was cheap and be a millionaire in 2015, but would you really do that when you had to live through those 30 years the same as anyone else? Would you grow tired of trying to take advantage of your “insider” knowledge? Would it backfire? How bendable is time?

Actually, I fibbed when I said I only had a skeleton, because one of the unused ideas for this year’s NaNo was based on this exact concept, but the hook was the person being able to travel through time has terminal cancer and tries to use the time travel to rid themselves of it. I never got further than that, idea-wise, and I’m unsure on whether having such a specific hook is a bad or good thing.

But I do want to tackle this particular flavor of time travel sometime. Then future me can read over the story and say, “Why’d you write that?” and I would wittily respond, “It was time.”