*Warning Spoilers for ’11/22/63′, ‘Erased’ and ‘Steins;Gate’*
Time Travel is one of those sci-fi concepts that has become so ubiquitous it’s essentially its own genre at this point. There’s even three different time travel shows coming to TV next season (that I’m aware of). A comedy called ‘Making History’, an action series called ‘Timeless’ and an adaption of the crime, ‘fish out of water’ novel, and later movie, ‘Time after Time,’ which stars the father of time travel stories himself, H.G Wells.
So what’s the appeal? I mean time travel plots can be some of the most confusing science fiction out there. They have all these difficult rules and concepts like alternative dimensions, time phantoms, becoming your own grandfather, the list goes on. So why do we enjoy them so much that we need yet another adaptation of ‘Time after Time’? (wasn’t the excellent 1979 movie enough?)
Before I answer that let’s break down the genre of Time Travel a bit. Most time travel stories are not about well, time. Our concept of time is basic necessity of modern life. We wouldn’t have a global society if we didn’t agree on things like time zones and Greenwich mean time. Sure America can get away with measuring length and weight differently than most the rest of the world, but imagine if we did the same with time? No, everyone has to agree that a minute is sixty seconds or everything falls apart.
And yet Einstein has taught us that time is relative; things like gravity and distance radically change the speed at which time passes. A minute on a planet circling a black hole might be closer to a year on earth. That is mind blowing; I can barely grasp it. And most time travel stories don’t want to touch it. Instead what Time Travel stories are really interested in is causality. The idea that our actions matter and led to certain outcomes. Are things destined to be the way they are? Or could they have happened differently?
If you think about it there are essentially only two time travel plots (…well, maybe three, the third being whatever the hell is going on in ‘Dr. Who’). Each plot is a different answer to the question of causality. There’s the ‘alternative dimension’ story (‘Sound of Thunder’, ‘Back to the Future II’, etc) that says, ‘yes, things could have happened differently, here’s how:’. And the ‘Loop’ story (‘The Shinning Girls’, ‘Looper’,etc) that says ‘No, things were meant to be this way and there’s no changing it, and furthermore any attempt to change it is just going to make the that thing happen’. Most Time Travel stories are either one of those two, or more commonly these days a combination of both.
The ‘Loop’ story is particularly interesting because it’s wrestles with this idea of fate. It’s essentially a modern update on old ancient Greek tragedies like Oedipus. In the anime ‘Steins;Gate’ a group of eccentric college geeks discover a cache of time travel documents and use them to subtly change their current lives. Halfway through though it’s revealed that they ‘pushed’ themselves onto a different ‘timeline’ one where their friend Mayuri is destined to die. The main character Okabe travels back in time again and again to prevent Mayuri’s death only to cause it or change the location or prevent it for a matter of hours. Just as Oedipus is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, regardless of what action he takes or preexisting knowledge he possesses, Okabe is destined to watch his friend die.
Another recent example of this is the Hulu series ‘11/22/63’ based on the Stephen King book by the same name. In it James Franco’s character, Jake Epping, inherits a dinner that lets him travel back to 1960 for some reason. He also inherits a mission to prevent the assassination of JFK. In the series ‘Time pushes back’ against time travels; suggesting that time has some stock in making sure events happens a given way. It tries to dissuade Jake’s actions by creating obstacles and adversaries like throwing random cars at him or having a whiny manifestation of time moan at him ‘You shouldn’t be here’ . Whenever there’s a physical manifestation of time like that trying to prevent our heroes from time traveling, that’s a variation of the ‘loop’ story, a literal take on our struggle with fate.
In ‘11/22/63’ Jake ultimately must succumb to his loop which turns out has nothing to do with JFK. I won’t spoil it, but the loop is pretty mishandled, both an arbitrary plot point and key element at the same time. In fact ‘11/22/63’ is an example of how not to blend the loop and alternative dimension narratives. Jake never really wants to change the world, and in the end doesn’t, because the results of doing so are so horrible and because ‘time’ as a force always wins.
Acceptance like Jake’s is the most common way loop stories end. In ‘Steins;Gate’ Okabe escapes of his loop by putting back all the subtle changes he made to the timeline and thus accepting fate as it should be. But that’s not all he does. He also sacrifices himself, taking a stab wound for the girl he loves, so he could both perverse events and change the timeline (it works in context). This is the other more interesting way characters break the loop and achieve the ‘Alternative Dimension’, though noble sacrifice.
The Anime ‘Erased’ is all about changing fate through sacrifice. It’s also a great counter to ‘11/22/63’ because it deals with a lot the same themes. Like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’s’ protagonist, Satoru Fujinuma, has the ability able to travel back in time for seemingly no reason. Also like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’ is focused on accurately recreating a recent time period: in ‘Erased’ it’s 1980s Japan rather than 1960s America. Where ‘Erased’ diverges and improves on ‘11/22/63’ is intimate scope. ‘Erased’ is focused on only the life of it’s protagonist and not on changing history.
When we first meet Satoru in ‘Erased’ he’s a numb outcast who has difficulty connecting with people and is working as pizza deliveryman. His ability to time travel, known as ‘Revival’ is triggered only when something bad is about to happen and sends him back several minutes to prevent the event. However every time he acts, he pays a toll, like getting into a car accident while preventing a truck from hitting a little boy.
We find out that a series of child murders occurred in Satoru’s home town when he was a kid. It left him with a profound sense of guilt because he was the last person to see the first victim, a fellow classmate, alive. The consequences of these murders bleed into the present and Satoru breaks his ‘revival’ ability to send himself all the way back to middle school in the 80s, hoping to prevent the murders from ever happening
In the 80s Satoru sees his middle school life with the world weariness of adult. He notices problems that went over his head before, like the physical abuse of a quiet classmate and the sacrifices that his single mother made for him. Unlike Jake from ‘11/22/63’ Satoru has no road map for stopping the murders and is in the body of a middle schooler, so he’s unable to use force to prevent the crimes. Instead Satoru does his best to forage a community between the potential victims, hoping that if everyone stays together they won’t be isolated long enough for the murderer to act.
Satoru still finds himself stuck in loops, but through slowly trusting and revealing his insights to his childhood friends he creates connections that have ripple effects in the future. Furthermore middle school was the moment that Satoru’s social isolation began. He witnesses this trait in the little girl he’s trying to save and by befriending her he starts to change himself. By the end of the series Satoru still pays a terrible price for meddling with time, but one that he is now strong enough to survive and thrive after.
Ultimately that is what we seek with our time travel stories, the idea that our pasts our malleable. That we can change events and escape the ‘loops’ of fate we find in ourselves trapped in. ‘Erased’, like the best time travel stories though, show that it is not fate and the past that must be changed but ourselves. It takes years of sacrifice for Satoru to break his loop, but a better alternative world is waiting for him once he was does.
As Charles Yu points out in his beautiful novel ‘How to Live Safely in Science Fictional Universe’: “Everyone has a time machine. Everyone *is* a time machine. It’s just that most people’s time machines are broken. The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped. People get trapped. But we are all time machines.”