Stephen King needs tidy rules for time travel more than most of us. Not because he’s a time traveller (he’s not, okay) but because he’s been writing about one.
In order to promote his new novel, 11/22/63, which is being adapted into a film by Jonathan Demme, King spoke to Wired magazine and, before long, was explaining how time travel works.
There’s a kind of a rule that you’d express as a ratio: The more potential a given event has to change the future, the more difficult that event would be to change. If you wanted to go back and speak to somebody on a street corner so that they were five minutes late to an appointment—that might not be too hard. But if you wanted to stop the assassination of a president, that would be really difficult. The past would try to protect itself.
You’ll have to humour me here because I’m going to try and understand these comments, though I expect trying to do so would be a total distraction and waste of time.
So, er… does King’s ratio make sense? There’s two assumptions here. The first is that the assassination of a president has more of an effect on “time” than Joe Blogs being late to meet his Aunt Gina and I’ve no idea why this would be so. The second assumption is that Joe Bloggs being late or not won’t have a series of trickle down effects that, at some point or another, play some part in the life or death of a president. Has King not heard of The Sound of Thunder?
And these things that the past would do to protect itself… are these not all little deviations to the timeline too? Isn’t time just going to unravel itself?
Clearly this system would need monitoring. Luckily, King has conceived of a watchdog service:
My thought was that every time you go back and change something, you create an alternate timeline. There are these guardians who stand watch over all the time portals, because they understand that whenever you go back, you damage the time-space continuum… to me that’s pretty horrible.
Time portal guardians. Got it.
It’s another ratio: The further back you go, the more precautions you have to take. It would go right to the language—you’d have to be careful about the way you speak; the accents would be different. If you were to return to, say, 1858, you’d really have to prepare ahead of time.
Hang on – so time cares about where in history the person who is making the change comes from? Why? What difference does it make if the time traveller comes from 1972 or 2076? If either winds up in 1900 and starts changing things, they’d both be changing things, surely? Or is King just suggesting that the longer the time trip, the more conspicuous the time traveller would be, and the more “extraordinary” the characteristics that they rub off on the new time period?
Now, the interviewer does ask King:
How closely do you think people will analyze your time-travel mechanics?
And part of his retort is:
People make a hobby of that kind of thing.
Yes. Your readers, Stephen. The people who spend their money on your books. Isn’t at least a little bit nice that they care so much?
I’m not sure there’s much use in drawing up convoluted riles for time travel because, ultimately, they can’t make sense, with the possible exception of the Twelve Monkeys system in which there’s only one, never-changeable time line which has always had, and always will have, the acts of time travel happen within it.
And there we go. An argument about something utterly, pathetically trivial. The real question, I suppose, is how does King use these rules for the benefit his drama, themes and subtext?