Saturday, January 2, 2010

Time Travelers Never Die

Some time travel stories throw a wrench into the gears in your head. Your mind grinds to a halt and you have to read them again, or watch them again, to see if they make sense or if they're cleverly constructed nonsense. Stories like these make us flex our philosophical muscles. Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies" is the locus classicus here.

Other time travel stories are just a heckuva lot of fun. Time Travelers Never Die, by Jack McDevitt, is that kind of story. Shel and Dave inherit time travel technology--a handheld time machine, no less, much like an ipod--from Shel's father, who has gone missing. In their search for him, they travel throughout history. They go to see Galileo, Shakespeare, Aristotle. They check out the library of Alexandria and bring back some lost plays of Sophocles. It's rather like a liberal arts version of a time travel story. Where would you go?

What about the paradox of time travel? You know, all that business about (not) killing your grandfather. Well, McDevitt humorously solves that problem with a little something he calls "the cardiac principle." A researcher makes the fateful attempt to alter the past and create a paradox and she drops dead of a heart attack. Get it? Shel tries it for himself and somehow he's dropped in the ocean. Evidently something is protecting the integrity of the timeline. If you're going to appeal to a deus ex machina, why not be like McDevitt and be up front about it--and have a good time with it, too? But don't think about it too hard. Just enjoy the story!

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