Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame poster
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Last weekend we finally saw Avengers: Endgame, which wraps up the Avengers series of movies as they’ve been set up since Iron Man back in 2008, and is basically the second half of the movie started in last year’s Infinity War.

Before I get to the spoilers I’ll say this: Infinity War was basically 2-1/2 hours of set-up, was way overstuffed with too many characters, and Thanos was a pretty limp villain, not strong enough to carry the movie, and with basically unbelievable motivations. Endgame benefits from a much smaller cast (for most of the movie) and more room to breathe, but at 3 hours long also contains a lot of material that could have just been cut, or replaced with better material. Still, it’s a fairly satisfying wrap-up to the story, and has a number of great scenes (which were sorely lacking in Infinity War).

Now, on to the spoilers:

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Handling the Grandfather Paradox

Time travel stories are maybe my favorite type of science fiction story. However, as I get older I find that I have higher standards for what makes a good time travel story. I realized this after recently reading a the novel Man in the Empty Suit and seeing the film Looper, both of which I think are only so-so time travel stories for reasons I’ll discuss.

(Spoilers for both of those stories below.)

What I mean by “a time travel story” is a story where the use of time travel is integral to the plot and its development, it’s not simple an enabler for a basically different story.

For example, the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is not an instance of what I mean by “time travel story”. Time travel is an enabling plot device, but the story itself is a light comedy driven by a clash of cultures, and the time travel is just a means to get into that situation. Similarly, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine leaps into the far future, but again it’s just a means to get our hero to a far-off shore, the fact that time travel was used is mostly immaterial to the plot.

To me, a time travel story at least skirts, and realistically has to somehow grapple with, the Grandfather Paradox. Some sequence of events which threatens to break the protagonist’s timeline so that the story you’re reading can’t happen. Paradoxes and the avoidance thereof are part and parcel of the story.

What frustrates me about many time travel stories is that they play fast and loose with what happens when someone changes history, and don’t explain what their model of changing history involves.

For example, consider Looper (2012): I think this film runs into problems because it has some clever scenes it wanted to depict, but those scenes undercut the whole story.

The film takes place in 2044, where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an executioner. Sometime in the future, time travel will be invented, and outlawed, and the mob will use it to send people back to 2044 to be executed. At some point the mob will send the loopers back to be killed by their younger selves, at which point their “loop has been closed” and they’ll be retired with a big payout, which they can enjoy until sometime 30 years hence when they’ll be picked up and sent back for execution. (There are some motivational problems with the story – why would the mob wipe out the loopers 30 years after they retired? – but I found them easy to forgive, and they’re not my concern here.)

The most chilling scene in the whole film is where Joe’s friend Seth (Paul Dano) fails to close his loop, and his future self (Frank Brennan) escapes. The present-day mob captures young Seth and carves a message into his arm to get to a certain address in 15 minutes, which his future self sees as history has been changed. The mob doesn’t want to just kill young Seth since that may change time more than it can handle, but instead they start mutilating him and cutting off his limbs, which his future self experiences as he travels to the site. When he arrives he is killed.

Young Seth is not killed, but he’s obviously maimed and crippled for life (his legs have been amputated, for example, and his nose cut off). It’s a very effective scene when it’s happening, but how can these changes have been significantly less serious than just killing him? Maybe Seth’s future life was largely irrelevant, but if so, why not just kill him? It’s not explained, so it makes the film feel sloppy at one of its best moments.

The crux of the film is that future Joe (Bruce Willis) comes back, and also escapes his execution. He has identified three children, one of whom will grow up to be “the Rainmaker”, the big boss of the mob in the future, and he wants to kill him before he grows up in order to prevent that from happening, and also save his wife from being killed when he is rounded up. He and young Joe have a showdown over the boy who is the future Rainmaker, and young Joe realizes that this very experience may be what turns the kid bad, so he commits suicide before old Joe can kill the kid’s adopted mother, causing old Joe to disappear.

This paradox basically rips the story apart, because it means that none of what happened after old Joe arrived could have happened, and yet it obviously had to happen. (Secondarily, the film fails to show that young Joe’s sacrifice actually prevented the Rainmaker from developing – the film is missing its denouement, which is critical to it being emotionally satisfying.) The story is fundamentally flawed because even by saying that time travel is subject to the many-worlds interpretation wouldn’t have fixed it, because then young Joe killing himself wouldn’t have caused old Joe to disappear, since old Joe came from a different branch of time. So the story ends up as something of a mess, pretending to use time travel in a serious manner but not treating it very seriously.

Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell, has similar problems. It has a really neat premise (which is why I bought it): The protagonist invented a time travel device (the “raft”) when he was 19, and every year of his personal time he travels to New York exactly 100 years after his birth (i.e., to the 2070s) to have a party in an old hotel with all of the other birthday incarnations of himself. The main version of the character is 39, and he learns when he arrives that his age-40 version will be killed, and that all the older versions of himself have been covering this up, and expect him to solve the mystery and keep it from happening.

It’s a great idea, but it opens up several expectations which the book really has to meet to work:

  1. Who kills his 40-year-old self, and why?
  2. How can his future selves exist if age 40 was killed?
  3. How can he prevent his own death while still appearing to die?
  4. Why don’t his future selves know what happened and how to prevent it?

The book is filled with loops, in which the main character sees or learns about things which will happen in his future, and then duly makes sure they come to pass when the time comes. But it also has some flat-out paradoxes, the cardinal example being when one of his mid-30 selves breaks his nose, and one of his slightly-older selves changes things so it doesn’t happen. So some of his selves have a broken nose, and others don’t. Also, while there “should” be only about 50 of his selves around the party (since the oldest one we see is 70), there are many more, including many from before he invented the raft, and he has no memory of them having been there.

I think the book is trying to go for a many-worlds interpretation of events, but it’s messily handled since characters seem to have memories of events which never happened to them. And the book eventually fails to work out any of the goals I expected it to meet above. Okay, a many-worlds interpretation would address some of them (although we never learn who killed age 40 or why they did it). So the book ended up being a big disappointment because the messy time travel and lack of a structure for how it worked made everything else much less meaningful or sensical.

I think time travel stories appeal to me in part because getting the pieces to fit together is challenging, and figuring out how they fit is fun. So when a story doesn’t deal with the Grandfather Paradox appropriately – or at least tried to – I find it really frustrating. Dealing with it usually means taking one of the following approaches:

  • There are no paradoxes, because everything gets carefully worked out so that everything happens exactly as it always did, despite the presence of time travellers. This can be very difficult to do, but it’s really satisfying when it happens. The original series of John Byrne’s Next Men comic book did this really well. (The later series tore it all down and is therefore not nearly as interesting.)
  • The shadow history approach: There are no paradoxes, but it seemed like there might be because the characters had an incomplete understanding of what happened in the past. The story is often focused on illuminating those things. (Some stories use time travel to retcon something from an earlier story which didn’t make sense, which is a variant of this approach.)
  • Use the many-worlds interpretation. This is perfectly reasonable, but it also means you can’t have paradoxes: Changes to a character’s past don’t affect the character’s present, because they create a new timeline with a different instance of that character. This takes away the “character gets killed, his future self goes poof” effect that some writers like to use, as in Looper. But you can’t have it both ways. X-Men: Days of Future Past (both the original comic story and the film) use this approach. In the film, Logan goes back from the dystopian future to 1973, creates a new future timeline, and then returns to the present in that timeline. But there’s no evidence that anyone in the present remembers the other timeline, other than what Logan told them in 1973.

A good example of a film that handles the Grandfather Paradox well is the first Back to the Future, which works because it strongly suggests that the paradox could be created, but our hero prevails and manages to fix his timeline (even if some of the details get revised in the process). The first Terminator film takes a subtler approach where everything works out the way it was supposed to.

Looper would have had to sacrifice some of its cool scenes to satisfy me as a time travel story. But Man in the Empty Suit I think could have been pretty satisfying if it had stuck close to its original premise and not brought in all the paradoxes – or better, come up with a framework where the paradoxes either aren’t what they seem to be, or are explained due to events the hero wasn’t originally aware of. I kept hoping there was an explanation for how age 40 was killed, yet the character survived. But the writer wanted the story to go in a substantially different direction, which wasn’t the story I wanted to read, and wasn’t the story I felt I’d been promised by the premise.

Too bad, because it started off so cool.

Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Review of the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a fascinating, thought-provoking, and emotional book about a couple who are drawn together because of, and stay together despite, a crippling science-fictional condition one of them possesses. It has its flaws, but I can genuinely say that it held my attention all the way through (and despite its length it’s actually a pretty fast read), and that I’ve kept thinking about it for days after finishing it.

Henry DeTamble is the man with the condition: From time to time he unwillingly disappears from wherever he is and reappears at some other time and place. Nothing comes with him – he arrives naked – and he has no control over when it happens or where he ends up. He has a tendency to travel to places near where he was in “normal time” at that point in time, or near where his wife Clare was, and he typically travels into the past, although not always. Henry’s condition is genetic. His parents were both musicians, although his mother died when he was young and his father was disconsolate from that point on, leaving Henry largely on his own, growing up among American punk culture in the 1970s and becoming a librarian in the 1980s. His condition can be life-threatening, as appearing stark naked in some locations without warning (say, in the middle of a freeway) can be quite dangerous. Henry is a running freak, since, as he points out, his survival frequently hinges on his being able to run faster or longer than other people.

His wife, Clare Abshire, is the daughter of a wealthy family in Michigan. She meets Henry for the first time when he appears in a field near her house when she is six years old, and they become friends during his irregular visits throughout her childhood. Henry, on the other hand, first mets Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, when she runs into him at the library. She of course knows a lot about him, while he’s extricating himself from a bad relationship and has never seen her before.

The novel is the story of their romance, and how they each cope with his condition: Henry’s problems are obvious, but Clare has to deal with his regular disappearances, not know where he’s gone, how long he’ll be, or what condition he’ll be in when he returns. The story is narrated by Clare and Henry each, in the present tense, and with sections detailing the date and their respective ages at the time (important due to Henry’s travels). The first half of the book focuses on Clare meeting Henry, and Henry meeting Clare. The second half concerns their married life and destiny.

Niffenegger has pretty cleverly worked out the timeline of Henry and Clare’s lives, and everything holds together in a consistent fashion. She does a fine job of addressing the paradoxes of time travel, positing a universe in which the past cannot be changed, nor can the known future, and the characters discuss this philosophically from time to time. While she keeps things simple by not having the characters lie to each other (at least, not to purposely try to change things), the intellectual character of Henry’s condition works well and is rewarding.

The book seems mis-named, however, since the story is really more Henry’s than Clare’s: Henry is a more fully-realized character, he’s the one who is more squarely in danger, and his reactions seem more visceral and believable. Clare always seems like a bit of a tabula rasa, an extension of Henry but not a lot more than that. She’s an artist, but that has almost no impact on the story. While The Time Traveler’s Wife implies that the book is about how Clare deals with Henry’s condition, it’s really about how Henry deals with Henry’s condition, and how he tries to shield and protect Clare, and help enrich her life despite his handicap. This is not to say that Clare is selfish or unlikeable, she’s just not as well-drawn as Henry.

(I kept finding it very odd that Henry is a big fan of the American punk rock scene, since I hate punk rock. But, oh well!)

The book’s plot is fairly straightforward, as it becomes clear that in 2006 something is going to happen, and the larger story concerns the couple living their lives as they head towards that time. But there are many episodes along the way which provide the real meat of the story: Clare falling in love with Henry as a teenager and trying to seduce him, Henry being overwhelmed by Clare when he first meets her, Henry meeting Clare’s family, Clare meeting Henry’s father, their marriage, Henry trying to find medical help for his problem, their attempts to have children. Many of these have some really clever elements to them: The wedding in particular is quite cool.

Despite Clare’s shortcomings as a character, the relationship between Henry and Clare is very powerful, especially since Henry is such an emotional character, deeply conflicted about many of his relationships, but wholly devoted to Clare. By the book’s final third, their love and their pain are both crystal-clear and fully drive the events which close the book.

I was disappointed in the ending, though. I think Niffenegger missed an opportunity to surprise and delight us in the ending, and thereby craft a better story. I’ll comment more about it after a spoiler warning down below.

Is the book science fiction, or fantasy? I say the former. While Henry’s condition has no scientific explanation, the spirit of the book is one of rational exploration of the bounds and ramifications of Henry’s condition. Well-regarded SF novels such as those of Vernor Vinge (Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon The Deep) have similarly-implausible premises, but take a rationalistic approach to working with them. More than the scientific nuts-and-bolts of the backdrop, I think that sort of attitude makes a book solidly science fiction, rather than fantasy.

Despite its flaws, The Time Traveler’s Wife really is a terrific read, a very good example of crafting a “high concept” story, and I think much more successful than its near-contemporary in “mainstream fantasy”, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It may not get my highest recommendation, but I think you’ll be glad you read it.

Spoiler comments about the ending follow:

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