With so many good shows (Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Steins:Gate, Haruhi Suzumiya), that uses time-traveling as a major plot-device, I can’t help but to make a dedicated post to talk about this theme and how much I like it.
Whether a fictional work uses the time-traveling theme is rather easy to spot. Although the following might sound quite obvious, I do like to try putting it in words so there’s a hard definition.
The theme is usually accompanied by either the sci-fi or fantasy genre. Any person or object that moves from an event at a specific date to another can be called time-traveling under certain conditions (next paragraph). Note the word ‘moves'; a story can be told in non-chronological order, but the characters themselves don’t move from one period of time to another; the storytelling order is only how the story is presented and not something of the story itself.
Moving to a scene that happens in a previous date is impossible by regular means. Unless the scene is a flashback, it’s time-traveling. Moving to a scene in the future is more complicated, as fictional work don’t tell the story second by second; instead, skipping mundane events is highly preferable. Time-traveling into the future is only applicable if there’s evidence that the person or object in question was not present in the period of time from the moment of time-traveling, to the moment the person or object traveled to.
In fiction, time-travel is usually one of the harder themes to implement, but if done right, could turn the story into a real brain-twister. That’s the reason I like the theme so much; the paradoxical feeling you get when reading the story and the realization that careful planning is needed to achieve such a feat. Of course, it is possible to have very easy and straightforward implementations of time-travel, but the result pales compares to when you challenge yourself to write a coherent, non-contradictory story time-traveling story. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is an example of a show which has a relatively simple time-travel story, Haruhi Suzumiya has a much more complicated one and Steins:Gate, although not flawless, has to be the crème de la crème of time-traveling. I bet there’s a show or two which has even more brain-killing cause and effect action, but since I’ve not watched it, I can’t comment on it either. Do tell which show it is.
There are many different theories behind time-travel and its interesting to see how each show implements its own form of time-travel. The butterfly effect is pretty much commonly agreed on, but how the different time-lines interact and what exactly the result is of time-travel differs from one show to another. Haruhi Suzumiya’s author Nagaru Tanigawa defines in his work ‘A Study In August‘ (courtesy to Ultimatemegax for the translation) three forms of time-travel that has to do with his question of time-paradoxes. Although it’s an interesting read, it’s far from complete as there are many different variations possible with all the factors considered in:
- Whether the time-traveler and/or other people can retain their memories (especially applicable if it’s traveling to the past).
- Whether the time-traveler replaces himself in the target time-period or not.
- Whether the time-traveler can choose where he appears in the target time-period.
- Whether history is mutable and if so, whether the old history still exists in some way or not.
- Many, many more…
To take the three shows I mentioned previously again as examples; in Madoka Magica, only the time-traveler retains her memories and the old time-line is erased from existence. In Haruhi, there’s one and only one chain of events that stretches into infinity on both sides that cannot be changed. Even if one travels back in time, whatever that person does, nothing will change in the future. Moreover, a person traveling through time will not replace him or herself in that time-period, instead, a meeting between the two is possible. Steins:Gate is a funny one as it uses multiple kinds of time-travel and they tend to make a paradox. First of all, in the show it is possible to send objects as well as people (although not living ones for the latter) through time. By doing so history will change accordingly because of the effect the time-traveled object will have. Nobody will ever realize the change happened because everyone loses his/her memory of the previous history. But it is also possible to send one’s memory through time. This way, that person can retain his/her memory of the previous history. A new history is made logically, because that person will perform different actions because of his different memories.
Time is such a weird phenomenon that makes it very suitable for fiction. To be honest though, I don’t think time-travel will ever be possible. In fact, I don’t think time even exists in nature. Time is created by humans as a measurement system to very effectively organize our world. The thing is that nature doesn’t care how long a second is nor any other time unit; the world just progresses in a certain way without any notion of time. The only way to travel through time in this case would reverse the laws of nature and accelerate the process like crazy. You can’t possibly jump to a certain time period in the world, because that would imply that, somewhere, the state of that world is saved. Unless there exists multiple worlds, which I find pretty ridiculous alone, hopping around time in an instant sounds pretty impossible.
But that’s all theory. Who knows that one day…reloading the world from a previous save point would be possible.