Review: Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson

This was an odd time-travel story. The only thing that travelled back in time, really, was information, but it did so in an impressive way. Giant statues and monoliths began popping up in southeast Asia to commemorate some warlord’s victory… twenty-three years into the future. They result in political instability in the region as well as study in how such things are possible. This ends up being the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecy: scientists figure out how to make these happen and the affected regions start falling apart, making them ripe targets for any warlord who wants to snatch up the mantle and declare himself to be the anonymous Kuin.

This was a pretty high-concept book, and the style was more literary than I’m used to seeing. In some cases, however, I felt it was more literary than it needed to be. Specifically, the author got into a habit of telling events out of order – not because of any time travel, but just because he felt like it. That got a little old, but it was not prevalent enough to make me stop reading.

So, all in all, it was okay. I liked the concepts involved, but the telling of it was not to my taste.

Review: So You Created a Wormhole, by Hornshaw & Hurwitch

This is satirical guide to time travel, and while the first parts of it were quite funny, the second half flopped down into repetition and lame humor.

The first parts included some theories on time travel, mixing farce with science and movies. It also gave us descriptions of the various kinds of time machines, the perils of the various flavors of paradox, and some ideas of what to do if you ever run into yourself or break your time machine.

The second half of the book, however, is a repetitive survival guide. It follows the same formula of what to bring, what to fear, and how to fix your time machine in time periods from the dinosaurs to the future. The first one or two time periods were OK, but after a while it started to get repetitive. Long before the end, I found myself skimming and looking briefly at the crazy diagrams.

So while it started strong, it almost seemed like they ran out of steam and used the Survival Guide section to pad it out another two hundred pages. So, it made for an OK gift, but I wouldn’t spend my own money on it if I had the choice.

It’s Not the Idea

A few years back, I heard some authors complaining about what was apparently a fairly common problem: the fan with an idea. It’s a fabulous, original idea for a novel, you see, and the fan is more than willing to let the author write it for a mere fifty percent of the profits. The authors all laughed knowingly.

Now that I’m on the far side of a few novels, I can see why they laughed. The idea is important, yes, but it’s at most five percent of the work. Far more important is the execution of that idea, namely, the long drawn-out process of actually writing the book, structuring the tale, fine-tuning the language, and finding that snappy opening that draws in the reader. Plus, we’re mostly just retelling the same basic struggles that have been around since the Greeks.

One guy told us about how he had actually followed the fan up to his hotel room, since he was at least a friend of a friend, so that the fan could share this amazing idea in private, far away from any nefarious eavesdroppers. And the super amazing idea? Well, you see… this guy goes back in time and kills his father before he was even conceived. Again, a knowing laugh went around the circle.

From there, the authors segued off to talk about the fastest novel they’d ever written, including their internal edits. Times ranged from three to eleven months, but one author told us about a guy he knew who was popping out a new book every 3-4 weeks, month after month, year after year. He did it all under multiple pen names and in different genres. None of the novels were exactly Shakespeare, but they were all reasonable and sold moderately well.

Somewhat jealous, the other authors shook their heads at this prodigious productivity, making their singular fever-fast novels pale by comparison. “Damn,” one of them complained, “what do you even say to a guy like that?”

From the audience, I quipped, “Well, you see, I’ve got this idea, and for only half the profits…”

Review: Looper

Looper is a good old-fashioned time-travel film, complete with loops and the occasional paradox. Plus, it has two great actors (Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis) letting loose with big guns. So, good story, good acting, and things go boom.

The premise is that Joe (Gordon Levitt) is an assassin for the mob. Except, it’s not so much the mob today as it’s the mob in thirty years. They have access to some illegal time-travel equipment, and to avoid the excellent forensics of the future, they send their enemies back in time to be disposed of here. So Joe goes out to the corn field, sets up at the right place and right time, and when the target appears, bound with a bag over the head, he makes quick work of them. The payment is in shiny bars of silver, strapped to the back of the target. And back in Joe’s time, getting rid of a body is easy – especially a body no one will be looking for for another thirty years.

Nice job, good pay, and powerful connections. There’s only one catch. At some point in the future, the powers that be need to clean up your contract to keep you from testifying about some of those bodies, so eventually, your future self gets sent back, and you’re the one who has to clean it up. That one pays in gold, and you get to spend the next thirty years in wealthy retirement, waiting for the day that they’ll come to close your particular loop.

Well, one day future Joe (Bruce Willis) appears, and he does not want to go gently into that good night. And from there… well, complications ensue.

I don’t want to say anything else, because that would be getting into spoiler territory. I’ll just say that young Joe has very good reason for wanting old Joe dead, and old Joe has a very strong motivation to do something else before that happens. It’s a great dilemma for both of them, both pitting them against each other as well as making them uneasy allies.

The ending caught me by surprise, but looking back, I’m kind of surprised I was surprised. Mostly, I was just that wrapped up in the immediacy of the story I wasn’t able to do the plot analysis to look for the appropriate ending. I’ll say this at least, I don’t think I was the only one surprised. When the credits rolled, the theater was silent. No laughter. No applause. Just contemplative silence.

Now, like virtually all time travel tales, yes, there are a couple of plot holes, but I didn’t spot them in the moment. Rather, it was only later, thinking back on it that I started to wonder why such and such had not happened. But during the film, I was hooked.

So, I’ll give it four out of five stars, and I’ll probably try to pick up the disc when it drops to $12.

(This is the first movie review I’ve posted here, presumably more will follow. They’ll fill the Friday book review slot when I haven’t finished that next book. Yes, I’m a slow reader.)

Traveling the Closed Loop of Time

I don’t see so much time travel fiction these days. Maybe I’m just blind. It’s possible that we’ve simply outgrown it in our various genres, but I kind of miss it. In particular, I miss the variant of time travel stories that I call “closed loop” stories.

The closed loop is both a way around a number of paradoxes as well as being one of the biggest paradoxes of all. Instead of going back and killing your great grandfather, you go back and become your great grandfather – remember, that mysterious gentleman that came from nowhere in particular? You haven’t changed history because that’s the way history was in the first place. You didn’t take your great grandfather’s place. You were always your great grandfather.

I’ve seen dozens of these, from books like Asimov’s old End of Eternity to movies like The Terminator or Somewhere in Time. I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the 1984 film The Terminator -SPOILER ALERT- and point out that Kyle Reese comes back in time only because John Conner sent him, and John Conner exists only because Kyle Reese went back and got John’s mother Sarah pregnant. It’s a fairly clean closed loop. It works fine in that all the causes loop back upon themselves so that history unfolds the same way every time through the loop. It has no messy paradoxes of killing your ancestor or anything like it.

Except for one problem: how did the loop get started in the first place?

It’s fine and dandy when Reese comes back to father John, because that’s the way it’s always been. Well, what about the first time through that timeline, when we have not yet sent Reese back? Well, then we’re pretty well screwed.

Sure, Sarah Conner doesn’t have to fight off any Terminator because he hasn’t come back either, but on the other hand, she’s stuck at home with her roommate cursing the various boyfriends that stand her up on a Friday night. She never gets pregnant, or at least, she doesn’t carry Reese’s child, and John Conner is never born. Instead, his sister Jane was the result of a binge night down on Tiko Blvd. They live on for a couple of years and are wiped out when Skynet starts World War III. Skynet never has to deal with the victorious John Conner, never sends the Terminator back to kill Sarah, and goes on to explore the galaxy and become the villain in some other species’ movie.

Another example of how this lack of start for the closed loop causes a problem is in the film Somewhere in Time. In that film, an old woman gives Christopher Reeves a pocket watch. That starts him on a train of research that leads him to travel back in time to meet that same woman in her youth, and during that visit, he leaves the pocket watch behind. I call objects like that watch timeless or eternal objects, because they keep travelling through the loop over and over, never being created or destroyed. Cool watch, eh?

What we really need then, is an alternate version of the story to explain what happened the first time through that led to “history is as history was” closed loop. With one possible exception I’ll mention at the bottom, I’ve never seen one. Now, I have seen a couple of closed loops where the heroes get some idea of what’s going on and break out of that loop, but we never seem to see them getting started.

For fun, let’s take a look at what such an alternate version of The Terminator might look like. Let’s suggest perhaps, that Sarah Conner’s date that night didn’t stand her up. His name is Jack, and while he and Sarah aren’t destined for the long haul, she does get pregnant and name the son after this man, i.e. Jack Conner. Jack’s dad runs a gun store and is a bit of a survival nut, so he urges Sarah and little Jack to get out of the city before Skynet has its day. Jack Conner grows up to defeat Skynet, but in hopes of a destiny end-around Skynet sends the terminator back to kill Sarah. Jack, of course, sends Kyle Reese back to protect his mother Sarah.

Only this time, Jack’s dad has an unfortunate episode. While shopping for some weapons, the Terminator kills Jack’s would-be father, right in his gun store. You remember that scene, don’t you? Sarah then falls in love with Reese right on schedule but decides she doesn’t like the name Jack – Jack, after all, being the name of the gun-nut asshole who just stood her up. She chooses the name John instead. And from there, the closed loop continually repeats. Kyle comes back with news of John Conner, saves her, and fathers John again.

Of course, the repeat doesn’t make for a good film, which is probably why we never see how these closed loops get started. In fact, other than a few time travel geeks like myself, I don’t think anyone would particularly enjoy that kind of repetitive story, but well… I am one of those few time travel geeks, and I obsess about it.

So let me tell you about a movie that seems to have been made specifically for time travel geeks like me: Primer. This is something of a spoiler since we’re already talking about time travel, so the cats out of the bag: Primer involves time travel. They get into that aspect fairly quickly, but in a very roundabout way. I’ll just say that the time travel in Primer is really smart and uses a mechanism unlike any I’ve even run into before. And it’s sort of a closed loop. And we kind of see it happen, and yet I’m still not sure it’s technically a closed loop. It’s… well, let me just say that Primer is both the most imaginative and most confusing time travel story I’ve ever run into. I’m not sure I can honestly say I understand it even after three or four viewings.

So, what closed loop time travel stories have you run into? Do you have a favorite? Anything I should take a look at it and then go back in time to include in my original posting?