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Tales of Suspense, Adventure and Data Structure Manipulation!

October 17, 2013

Several long posts in the works; in the meantime, have this:

Bob, just out of the shower and still drowsy, gets a call: his dad just died. Stunned, he calls a few of his other relatives. 30 minutes later, he shows up at work, to meet his boss: “You’re late again, Bob. You had two warnings. That’s it – you’re fired.”

And so forth. If this is a story about Bob, these are high emotional stakes: Bob’s probably having one of the worst days of his life right now. This is his personal apocalypse, and we’re immersed in it, feeling every blow.

Zoom out. A thousand people in the city got the same call that morning. It’s a virus outbreak! Bob might still be one of the protagonists – the character the audience is supposed to identify with. He’s having a bad day, maybe the worst day of his life, sure – but he’s expected to get over it and somehow help the trained virologists through a series of contrived plot twists and stop the epidemic from spreading further.

Zoom out. Maybe there’s no virus outbreak. But there’s a giant asteroid heading for earth! In this kind of story, Bob might still be the everyman character who’s having a really bad day. And he will still get drawn into the plot somehow. We may be supposed to feel sorry for him, or the story might play what’s happening to Bob for laughs, but either way, there are bigger things at stake here! Get a grip, Bob!

Drama is not scale-invariant. Depending on the scope, an individual goes from the center of the universe in the story, to a piece on a chess board, to a bacterium under the microscope, and ultimately becomes completely invisible.

This, in short, is the problem I have with most time-travel stories.

Once your story widens its scope so far that the very substance of space and time takes center stage and there’s a series of delicate (or not-so-delicate) manipulations to make the “right” universe, the one where everyone goes the way it “should” be, be the “right” one (whatever that is supposed to mean), the characters and the world they inhabit become set dressing. You have put the entire universe in a neat little box, labeled it “the universe where Tim dies”, and then you zoom out and look at the tree of all possible timelines and how they branch, and you start rearranging things until you can’t see “the universe where Tim dies” in the part of the timeline that you care anymore.

In short, you are now writing a story about rebalancing a tree data structure. There happen to be people and so on in it, and you may even care about them, but at this point the scale and the stakes are so all-encompassing that it’s hard to really care, and all that’s left is a bunch of neat abstractions.

I like abstractions. I like writing abstractions, and writing about abstractions. I have written a multi-part series on multiple variants of the half-edge data structure on this very blog! And these kinds of stories tickle the part of my brain that likes abstractions and manipulating them.

But they also leave the part of my brain that is social and thinks about humans and their relationships oddly cold and unsatisfied, and I think that’s an inherent problem of this type of story, and I don’t think it can be fixed.

From → Thoughts

  1. movntdqa permalink

    The last “Futurama” episode did a good job on that imho (and it wasn’t their first time-travel episode). The focus of that episode was a human relationship the whole time.

    And so did the TV show “Fringe”. There’s a lot at stake, but you don’t stop caring for the characters. Also, the good/bad universe separation gently fades away with time, which is nice.

    What would be your examples of movies/books doing a good job or doing poorly with the human component of the time-travel topic?

  2. felix permalink

    you actually care about that? ;)

    (will you be at the house this year?)


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