By Shawn StJean
The Seventies were to be a long decade, verging well into the next, that preoccupied itself with time travel–possibly because the present looked more worth escaping than ever. The Sixties had ended, and no predicted revolution after all. At Kent State and Jackson State Universities, Spring 1970 arrived amid hails of gunfire and youthful blood. Our leaders had all been killed off, or had fled the field. Vietnam extended itself into America’s longest and most wasting war since the 1770s. Over in Britain, holdover hippies sent their North American cousins The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and Pink Floyd’s interminable “Echoes,” but we kids had the freakish and edgy X-Men rising in popularity even over The Avengers, featuring its man-out-of-time leader, Captain America. Apocalyptic disaster films like The Towering Inferno filled the panoramic screens of theaters, until Jaws and Star Wars stuck us with the expensive blockbuster, and Science Fiction enjoyed its dark, silver age: Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Escape from New York, and even Back to the Future assured us of a bleak, dystopian future over the horizon.
Still, as in most American storytelling, the underlying message, even in this era of pessimism, remained (with apologies to The Who,) that the kids will be alright. No matter how many individuals have to die, the species will survive—and thrive. In fact, the pages of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Everybody Dies,” as the cover of X-Men issue #142 falsely declared, showed us that even death can be nullified by time travel, that in war no one needs to die. But at the same historical moment, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was being erected, in one of those fundamental nexuses of popular versus political culture.
Time travel functions as sci-fi’s ultimate Platonic/Romantic plot device, designed to dramatize the power of free will: “No Fate but what we make.” The mode is, ultimately, only kids’ stuff: a sort of apology that grown-ups make to children—or the children within ourselves—for screwing the world up so badly. It signals our wish and our intention to do better. A long history of racial hatred (whether signified by machines against the human race, or white humans against humans of color—allegorical “mutants,” in Marvel-speak) stands as one of our most shameful legacies, gladly retracted if we could. But, ultimately, such retraction can only be a gesture: not just because it can’t happen in the physical universe, but because it can’t happen psychologically.
Sophocles knew this, 2500 years in the past. His great protagonist, Oedipus, receiving the famous prophecy warning him against patricide, flees Corinth. But rather than resolving not to kill anyone, in his hubris he slays an unknown traveler at a crossroads (archetype of free will, whether here, in Ford’s 1940 The Grapes of Wrath, or half-a century later in Ron Howard’s Cast Away.) Thus, in attempting to escape his destiny, by his own hand he brings it to pass, in one of literature’s quintessential dramatic ironies. He fails to learn, “The worst things will turn out well, if they are taken well.” And in 1982, a defense super-computer-system named Skynet failed in exactly the same fashion. By sending its agent, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, into the past to kill the mother of its adversary, Skynet actually forced fugitive Sarah Connor to become the warrior woman who could train her son, John, to eventually defeat it. It created its own destroyer. Oedipus Rex and The Terminator share the same fundamental structure: By attempting to subvert the limitations/consequences of living in linear time, we actually conjure the very specters we most desperately fear into existence. This is not that different from the average human being, backing off a cliff to avoid a snake. We manifest our reality: we create with our minds what external reality cannot. Any attempt to alter the past collapses upon itself.
Thus, no honest Time-Travel story can function without paradox, on either the plot or the character level. A Wolverine (here I’m referring to the film adaptation that premiered this week) who can change the past and return to a utopian present in which Jean Grey still lives, for example, would never need to return to the past in the first place, nor would he be a man who could possibly appreciate his “revised” life as much, never having lost Jean. The nonsensical closed-loop ending is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s common to all of us: we’ve all said things we would have expressed differently, given a second chance, and done things we would gladly take back. On the other hand, we can never change and grow if we don’t ram ourselves up against our own limitations, and make mistakes. The only time travel possible is to live as we were made, one moment at a time, crawling into a future and trying to earn the good will of those who await us there, not apologizing to those left behind.