Seems to me we need a break from our exhausting (to me, anyway) discussion of civility, one in which I find myself engaged deeply in discussion with some of the blog’s worst offenders (Lee, “Mike Toreno”) because I feel like I have to consider them thoroughly, give them every chance, before tossing them out, if that’s what I’m to do to keep order. Oh, the fundamental fecklessness of liberal democracy! Perhaps I should just conjure a virtual Gitmo for them, and to hell with due process! One of my friends, a liberal Democrat (in the big D sense) through and through, says I’m guilty of WASPish diffidence, and perhaps I am…
We need some escapism. Let’s talk time travel.
Yes, I know Stephen Hawking says there’s no such thing (his proof: that there are no time tourists from the future — that we know of, I would add), and I figure he’s probably right. That doesn’t keep me from being a sucker for it as a plot device — “Back to the Future,” the H.G. Wells original, variations on the H.G. Wells original (such as the enjoyable thriller/romance “Time After Time,” which starred Malcolm McDowell as H.G. himself), and on and on. Not that it’s always satisfying: “The Final Countdown,” aside from having one of the least relevant titles ever, is probably the most disappointing movie I’ve ever seen. For two hours you build up to the 80s-era USS Nimitz getting ready to go up against the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and then the battle is prevented by a plot evasion as cheesy as, “… and then he woke up.” All because the producers lacked the budget to stage the battle, I suppose. The earlier scenes, such as when the F-14s splash the two Zeroes and the confrontation between the Japanese pilot and the historian, are pretty decent though…
I’m always a little embarrassed to admit this, but one of my favorite novels to reread when I want to relax my mind is Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South. Why embarrassing? Well, when you explain the plot — “It imagines what would have happened if the Confederacy had had AK-47s” — you sound like an idiot. But it really is GOOD.
Let me hasten to add that I like the more reputable A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court much better, and have ever since my first reading as a kid. But the Turtledove book is still enjoyable.
In real life, we all engage in a bit of time travel to the best of our means. We all think back to moments in our past when we might have done something differently. This ranges from bitter recrimination (“What I should have told him was…”) to tantalizing wistfulness. I suspect most guys have experienced in their heads some version of Steppenwolf’s “All Girls Are Yours” fantasy.
You run into trouble with such imaginings when you try to make them believable. First, there’s the device — time machine? bump on the head? For that matter, if it’s a machine, how does it work? It’s generally best not to explain it in too much detail. Michael Crichton made that mistake in Timeline. His characters explain that what they have discovered is actually travel between universes in the multiverse, which somehow magically ACTS like time travel in that if you leave a note for yourself in one universe, you can read it 600 years later (or what SEEMS later) in the other. I could explain further, but it gets more ridiculous the more it tries to be serious. Doc Brown’s “flux capacitor” is much more believable, and more fun.
Then, what are the rules — is history mutable, or not? And if not, why not? And let’s not even get into the grandfather paradox. And if you go back to a point within your own life, can you see your younger self as a separate individual (in which case you might have a lot of explaining to do to yourself) or are you back inside that earlier version of yourself, only with what you now know in your mind, like the Steppenwolf back with all his past loves?:
At the sour and aromatically bitter taste I knew at once and exactly what it was that I was living over again. It all came back. I was living again an hour of the last years of my boyhood, a Sunday afternoon in early Spring, the day that on a lonely walk I met Rosa Kreisler and greeted her so shyly and fell in love with her so madly…
Anyway, I’m thinking of all this this week because I rented the first two episodes of “Life on Mars” from Netflix. Premise: Cop in Manchester, England, in 2006 gets hit by a car, wakes up as a cop in 1973.
Promising. You’ll recognize it as the “Connecticut Yankee” device — physical trauma, followed by the time dislocation, which the protagonist can’t explain and at least at first doesn’t believe in, but has to come to terms with. In this case, the hero keeps hearing voices and other sounds that persuade him that he’s in a coma in 2006, but then he is beguiled by the richness of irrelevant detail in his 1973 existence. He keeps thinking, Why would I have imagined that?
I’ve enjoyed it so far, but ultimately it falls down on an important measure for time-travel fiction — the evocation of the visited era. The writers of the show seem unable to go beyond bell-bottoms and vintage cars. Their notion of the difference between being a cop in 2006 and 1973 is that back then the office was a lot grungier, and the cops liked to slap subjects around and disregard proper procedure. Oh, and it took longer to get stuff back from the lab.
Which, I’m sorry, is pretty inadequate… I was in college in 1973, and people were just as insistent upon rules and standards then as now (despite their really, REALLY bad taste). And ultimately, watching this show, I don’t really FEEL like I’m back in that era. And I realized why when I watched a bit of the “making of” video — the writers and others who made this flick were too young to remember that date, which still seems pretty recent to me. The protagonist would have been 4 years old in 73, and the writers and producers seem to be his contemporaries.
Not only that, but they get their idea of what the 70s were like from watching cop shows of the period. In other words, since Starsky and Hutch bent the rules, that’s what real-life policing was like. Sheesh.
The soundtrack’s pretty good, though. The sequence in which the cop is hit by the car and goes back happens to the strains of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” (hence the title):
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
… first on an iPod, then on an 8-track.
I’m going to watch the next disc; I’ve got it ordered. To see if he wakes up or whatever. But I’ve seen time travel done better…