I recently watched The Umbrella Academy and despite enjoying the show I was really bummed out by the concept of time travel. I know what you are thinking, “it’s the same old problem of timelines and correlation determination; whether it is the casual paradox or the grandfather paradox or the…”—I promise I understand. And it really is fun to think about these things every now and then.
Part of the appeal of time travel fiction is the willing suspension of disbelief it demands of us. We want to see how the creators deal with all the eventualities. And then we love to come together to complain:
It was good overall, but they really messed up in that one scene which then really brought in some weird inconsistency. And it’s so stupid, because they just didn’t have the guts to make a sad ending, thus needed to somehow find a way out of the misery they created for themselves over the last 80 minutes. But now it’s too late, they really spent all the time and money to shoot these 80 minutes so they cannot go back and must decide whether to be consistent and have a bad ending (which is good) or make it a good ending (which in this case is bad).
You know, standard nerd conversations where we look down on the relics of our culture with crystal clear judgement.What makes life great and us happy is the ability to deal with everything that is thrown at us, building strength and wisdom to deal with future events and make the best of it, isn’t it?
These missteps, however, are small compared to the real problem with time travel fiction: what I call “The Problem of the Now.” Above I just got started on a rant about all these things that grind my gears, and I really could go on for a while. But I don’t need to—the problem of the now is already in there: ‘[…]they cannot go back now but must decide[…]’ that is. The real problem with time travel is being stuck in the now and having to take responsibility for the future because we won’t be able to turn back time and change things. Further the problem with trying to escape the problem of the now is that we are not really living when we are striving for a perfect version of the now—by organizing all events in time toward the now we are in danger of completely missing the chance to make a difference.
Time travel fiction might have interesting plots that are fun to think about, and it’s almost always a delight to dive into all the eventualities and attempt to wrap one’s brain around the wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff of space-time. However, I would like to suggest that all time travel fiction at its core really is a reflection on how to deal with the problem of the now. It really is about applied ethics—taking personal responsibility and making good decisions. What makes life great and us happy is the ability to deal with everything that is thrown at us, building strength and wisdom to deal with future events and make the best of it, isn’t it?
Every time we go on said rant, we are really missing the one point of utter importance, the one point that really means something, and is truly practically speaking to our lives: time travel fiction is telling us that we will always repeat the problems we refuse to take responsibility for. And yet, idiots that we are, we run away from that very thing that could ignite passion in us to grow as people and change how we see the world. Instead, ironically, we are hiding in the apathy of theoretical analysis about the very thing that is telling us to stop doing the useless and start on what matters.
So, what does matter? How do I make good decisions? Why should I take responsibility in a world that is heading south? I could really start preaching here, but I do not think it is necessary. Instead let me challenge both of us:
We are all time travelers, only the direction of time stays the same. Luckily, we have brains to dive into all the eventualities. The one thing these eventualities point to is now. There are many futures but there is only one now. The path of the future depends on our solution to the problems we currently face. If we don’t know how to answer them, we can go and rewatch The Umbrella Academy or Looper or …. Just, please, whatever we watch, could we for once focus on how the questions are answered?
The questions to answer have been in this text several times, but I am lazy when I read articles so I’ll make it easy for you in turn:
- Why should I take responsibility?
- What should I take responsibility for? (← What matters?)
- How do I make good decisions?
In addition, here’s a second step:
- Is there a principle connecting all good decisions? What is it?
I personally believe there is a hint in the very name of this organization: “Love Thy Nerd” (see Mark 12:29-31).
I would love to see a world full of people living their lives accordingly—my heart is longing to see nerd culture stand as a paragon to all of society! If that, to start with, means as little as writing an article that only a handful of people will read, so be it.
Just let us start … like … now.