I often consider how the me of the future will feel about what I’m choosing to do right now, but more on the scale of “morning alex will be really annoyed that night alex didn’t bother to make a lunch” than on the scale of “how will I feel about this decision I’m making in ten years?” It’s not that I don’t ever plan for the future so much as that in some ways I’ve never quite believed in the future. It’s fuzzy and unpredictable, and perhaps most importantly, it’s not happening right now. Sure, there are certain things I wish I’d done differently because it stands to reason I’d have gotten a different result, but there’s no guarantee it would have been any better.
I think seeing your future self would probably be a bit like the observer effect or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, where it’s impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a particle because when you poke at one of them, you change or lose the ability to accurately measure the other. The net result for an observer is that you can never know what it would be like if you weren’t looking at it. Part of the lure of time travel is to know what happens down the road, but it’s never seemed likely to me that you could look at your future self without changing your current self enough to never become the self that you saw.
Which is where we fracture off into quantum realities running simultaneously in different dimensions, one for the you that saw yourself and one for the self that you saw, or move into the idea of time as a dimension where past, present and future all exist concurrently rather than consecutively, so the you of the future was always the product of having seen yourself in the future. That second option seems to me like a depressingly high degree of predestination, although it could be more like the Oracle in The Matrix telling Neo not to worry about the vase before he breaks it and then predicting that later he’ll wonder whether he’d still have broken it if she hadn’t said anything. I think if I liked what I saw of my future, I’d be worried that I’d mess it up by actively trying to achieve it, and if I didn’t like what I saw it would be demoralizing to do my best to avoid it and still end up there anyway.
As for time travel in stories though, I often like it better when it’s more of a convenient plot device than something anyone is putting much effort into explaining rationally. For instance, I found Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure very entertaining. It would be a truly terrible idea to ever bring important historical figures back through time with you, but science is clearly not a priority here on a scale that prevents my brain from even attempting to think seriously about it. The concept of two teenaged metalhead doofuses dragging Napoleon, Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, and assorted other personages through time in a phone booth on a mission to graduate from high school in order to save a utopian future founded on their garage band is just brilliantly stupid enough to be fun.
Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits also features Napoleon, amongst others, in a comic romp through a series of historical sets with very little real plot or explanation. Six time-travelling dwarves emerge from a little boy’s wardrobe one night and he ends up following him through his bedroom wall on a high-speed adventure during which they visit Sherwood Forest and meet Robin Hood (played somewhat oddly by John Cleese), help Agamemnon face a minotaur in Ancient Greece, and end up on the deck of the Titanic as it sinks. The time travel is very much a scaffold for the epic scope, and in the way of most of Terry Gilliam’s films I can’t say I was exactly able to follow everything narratively as it leapt from one thing to the next, but it is visually remarkable. The sets and costumes have the quality of drawings, almost more like watching the fantasies unfolding inside the kid’s head than a live-action movie. I will say that there seems to be very little concern about what impact one small boy and six dwarves might have as they tumble through history, and it in fact ends with his parents exploding, leaving behind two piles of dust.
Where many serious stories about time travel warn about the dangers of changing anything in the past lest we destroy the future, one of the biggest appeals of time travel is to do exactly that. After inadvertently driving mad scientist Doc Brown’s time-travelling DeLorean back to 1955, Marty McFly pre-empts his parents’ relationship by catching his own mother’s eye. Although he does spend most of the original Back to the Future trying to get his own parents together so that he doesn’t cease to exist, he also can’t help trying to get his dad to stand up to the school bully and stop being so helpless. The central narrative is about not changing the past, evidenced by the way that Marty starts to fade away as the likelihood of his mom and dad hooking up decreases, but the central fantasy is about a teenager finding a way to reach his unhappy parents and change their lives. He manages to both get them to fall in love and teach his dad to stand up for himself in one shot, and when he gets back to his own time, they’re happy and everything is the way he wished it could be before he left.
And then there are the kind of movies that simply use time travel as a vehicle to get the character somewhere that they can tell a story, like Army of Darkness. At the end of Evil Dead 2, Ash Williams, his trusty chainsaw hand, and his 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 are sucked through a portal opened using incantations from the Necronomicon. He ends up in the year 1300 AD, still fighting deadites and dealing with creepy haunted forests. He wows the medieval knights and ladies with his zombie-killing skills, accidentally raises an evil version of himself, and ultimately uses the science textbooks from the trunk of his car to lead an army against Evil Ash and the legions of darkness. Forget time machines in the shape of phone booths or sports cars. Forget explanations about maps and time-travelling dwarves. Just say some magic words from an evil book and then let’s get on with the show! Make sure you say them right though, ‘cause it never goes well to forget the magic words.
Unfortunately past Ash can never remember the magic words, so he brings back one last deadite with him from 1300 and present Ash has to bust open the firearms display case in the sporting goods section of S-Mart and dispatch the evil dead with a Winchester. Shop smart, shop S-Mart!
alex MacFadyen is not a very good shot with a rifle and sincerely hopes that future alex never raises an evil version of himself or ends up working at S-Mart.