A Concise Breakdown of How Time Travel Works in Popular Movies, Books & TV Shows

As least since H.G. Wells' 1895 novel The Time Machine, time travel has been a promising storytelling concept. Alas, it has seldom delivered on that promise: whether their characters jump forward into the future, backward into the past, or both, the past 125 years of time-travel stories have too often suffered from inelegance, inconsistency, and implausibility. Well, of course they're implausible, everyone but Ronald Mallett might say — they're stories about time travel. But fiction only has to work on its own terms, not reality's. The trouble is that the fiction of time travel can all too easily stumble over the potentially infinite convolutions and paradoxes inherent in the subject matter.

In the MinutePhysics video above, Henry Reich sorts out how time-travel stories work (and fail to work) using nothing but markers and paper. For the time-travel enthusiast, the core interest of such fictions isn't so much the spectacle of characters hurtling into the future or past but "the different ways time travel can influence causality, and thus the plot, within the universe of each story." As an example of "100 percent realistic travel" Reich points to Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, in which space travelers at light speed experience only days or months while years pass back on Earth. The same thing happens in Planet of the Apes, whose astronauts return from space thinking they've landed on the wrong planet when they've actually landed in the distant future.




But when we think of time travel per se, we more often think of stories about how actively traveling to the past, say, can change its future — and thus the story's "present." Reich poses two major questions to ask about such stories. The first is "whether or not the time traveler is there when history happens the first time around. Was "the time-traveling version of you always there to begin with?" Or "does the very act of time traveling to the past change what happened and force the universe onto a different trajectory of history from the one you experienced prior to traveling?" The second question is "who has free will when somebody is time traveling" — that is, "whose actions are allowed to move history onto a different trajectory, and whose aren't?"

We can all look into our own pasts for examples of how our favorite time-travel stories have dealt with those questions. Reich cites such well-known time-travelers' tales as A Christmas Carol, Groundhog Day, and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, as well, of course, as Back to the Future, the most popular dramatization of the theoretical changing of historical timelines caused by travel into the past. Rian Johnson's Looper treats that phenomenon more complexly, allowing for more free will and taking into account more of the effects a character in one time period would have on that same character in another. Consulting on that film was Shane Carruth, whose Primer — my own personal favorite time-travel fiction — had already taken time travel "to the extreme, with time travel within time travel within time travel."

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Reich's personal favorite time-travel fiction, exhibits a clarity and consistency uncommon in the genre. J.K. Rowling accomplishes this by following the rule that "while you're experiencing your initial pre-time travel passage through a particular point in history, your time-traveling clone is also already there, doing everything you'll eventually do when you time-travel yourself." This single-time-line version of time travel, in which "you can't change the past because the past already happened," gets around problems that have long bedeviled other time-travel fictions. But it also demonstrates the importance of self-consistency in fiction of all kinds: "In order to care about the characters in a story," Reich says, "we have to believe that actions have consequences." Stories, in other words, must obey their own rules — even, and perhaps especially, stories involving time-traveling child wizards.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear Christopher Tolkien (RIP) Read the Work of His Father J.R.R. Tolkien, Which He Tirelessly Worked to Preserve

J.R.R. Tolkien is responsible for the existence of Middle-earth, the richly realized fictional setting of the Lord of the Rings novels. But he also did his bit for the existence of the much less fictional Christopher Tolkien, his third son as well as, in J.R.R.'s own words, his "chief critic and collaborator." Christopher spent much of his life returning the favor, dedicating himself to the organization, preservation, and publication of his father's notes on Middle-earth's elaborate geography, history, and mythology until his own death this past Wednesday at the age of 95.

Most fans of Tolkien père came to know the work of Tolkien fils through The Silmarillion, the collection of the former's previously unpublished mythopoeic writings on Middle-Earth and the universe that contains it. That book came out in 1977, four years after J.R.R. Tolkien's death, and for a time thereafter, write The New York Times' Katharine Q. Seelye and Alan Yuhas, "Tolkien fans and scholars wondered how much of The Silmarillion was the work of the father and how much was the work of the son."




In response, "Christopher produced the 12-volume The History of Middle-Earth (1996), a compilation of drafts, fragments, rewrites, marginal notes and other writings culled from 70 boxes of unpublished material."

Christopher Tolkien didn't just take over J.R.R. Tolkien's duties as the steward of Middle-earth; he more or less grew up in the place, and even provided comments, at his father's request, on the work that would become The Lord of the Rings. The power of J.R.R. Tolkien's storytelling, one often hears, owes in part to the writer's thorough grounding in literary and linguistic subjects like English and Germanic philology, heroic verse, Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and medieval Welsh. Christopher Tolkien, in turn, made himself into what Seelye and Yhuas call "an authority, above all, on the reams of writing that his father produced." You can hear Christopher Tolkien read authoritatively from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien in the videos presented here.

The first three clips from the top come two vinyl LPs released in 1977 and 1988 by Caedmon Records (the proto-audiobook label that also put out Edgar Allan Poe read by Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone as well as Hemingway and Faulkner read by Hemingway and Faulkner). All of their selections come from The Silmarillion, the Tolkien text that would never have seen the light of day if not for Christopher's efforts (and those of Guy Gavriel Kay, who would later become a fantasy novelist himself). But as a tribute to the man's life so rigorously devoted to a body of work that has fascinated so many, what could be more suitable than the video above, his reading of the very end of the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. Christopher Tolkien kept his father's flame alive, and thanks to his work that flame will survive him — and generations of Tolkien readers to come.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Artist Ed Ruscha Reads From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a Short Film Celebrating His 1966 Photos of the Sunset Strip

In 1956, the Pop artist Ed Ruscha left Oklahoma City for Los Angeles. “I could see I was just born for the job” of an artist, he would later say, “born to watch paint dry.” The comment encapsulates Ruscha’s ironic use of cliché as a centerpiece of his work. He called himself an “abstract artist… who deals with subject matter.” Much of his subject matter has been commonplace words and phrases—decontextualized and foregrounded in paintings and prints made with careful deliberation, against the trend toward Abstract Expressionism and its gestural freedom.

Another of Ruscha’s subjects comes with somewhat less conceptual baggage. His photographic books capture mid-century America gas stations and the city he has called home for over 50 years. In his 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha “photographed both sides of Sunset Boulevard from the back of a pickup truck,” writes filmmaker Matthew Miller. “He stitched the photos together to make one long book that folded out to 27 feet. That project turned into his larger Streets of Los Angeles series, which spanned decades.”




Miller, inspired by work he did on a 2017 short film called Ed Ruscha: Buildings and Words, decided to bring together two of Ruscha’s longstanding inspirations: the city of L.A. and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which Kerouac supposedly wrote as a continuous 120-foot long scroll—a format, Miller noticed, much like Every Building on the Sunset Strip. (Ruscha made his own artist’s book version of On the Road in 2009). Miller and editor Sean Leonard cut Ruscha’s photographs together in the montage you see above, commissioned by the Getty Museum, while Ruscha himself read selections from the Kerouac classic.

The connection between their style and their use of language feels really strong, but at the end of the day, I simply thought it’d be great to hear Ed Ruscha read On the Road. Something about Ed’s voice just feels right. Something about his work just feels right. It’s like the images, the words, and the forms he makes were always meant to be together.”

Miller describes the painstaking process of selecting the photos and “constructing a mini narrative that evoked Ed’s sensibilities” at Vimeo. The artist’s “perspective seemed to speak to the signage and architecture of the city, while Kerouac’s voice felt like it was pulling in all the lively characters of the street.” It’s easy to see why Ruscha would be so drawn to Kerouac. Both share a fascination with vernacular American speech and iconic American subjects of advertising, the automobile, and the freedoms of the road.

But where Ruscha turns to words for their visual impact, Kerouac relished them for their music. “For a while,” Miller writes of his project, “it felt like the footage wanted one thing and the voiceover wanted another.” But he and Leonard, who also did the sound design, were able to bring image and voice together in a short film that frames both artists as mid-century visionaries who turned the ordinary and seemingly unremarkable into an experience of the ecstatic.

173 works by Ruscha can be viewed on MoMA's website.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why You Should Read Dune: An Animated Introduction to Frank Herbert’s Ecological, Psychological Sci-Fi Epic

A vision of humanity's future without most of the high technology we expect from science fiction, but with a surfeit of religions, martial arts, and medieval politics we don't; pronunciation-unfriendly names and terms like "Bene Gesserit," "Kwisatz Haderach," and "Muad'Dib"; a sand planet inhabited by giant killer worms: nearly 55 years after its publication, Dune remains a strange piece of work. But applying that adjective to Frank Herbert's highly successful saga of interstellar adventure and intrigue highlights not just the ways in which its intricately developed world is unfamiliar to us, but the ways in which it is familiar — and has grown ever more so over the decades.

"Following an ancient war with robots, humanity has forbidden the construction of any machine in the likeness of a human mind," says Dan Kwartler in the animated TED-Ed introduction to the world of Dune aboveThis edict "forced humans to evolve in startling ways, becoming biological computers, psychic witches, and prescient space pilots," many of them "regularly employed by various noble houses, all competing for power and new planets to add to their kingdoms." But their superhuman skills "rely on the same precious resource: the spice," a mystical crop that also powers space travel, "making it the cornerstone of the galactic economy."




Herbert sets Dune — the first of five books by him and many successors by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson — on the desert planet Arrakis, where the noble House Atreides finds itself relocated. Before long, its young scion Paul Atreides "is catapulted into the middle of a planetary revolution where he must prove himself capable of leading and surviving on this hostile desert world." Not that Arrakis is just some rock covered in sand: an avid environmentalist, Herbert "spent over five years creating Dune's complex ecosystem. The planet is checkered with climate belts and wind tunnels that have shaped its rocky topography. Differing temperate zones produce varying desert flora, and almost every element of Dune's ecosystem works together to produce the planet's essential export."

Herbert's world-building "also includes a rich web of philosophy and religion," which involves elements of Islam, Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, all arranged in configurations the likes of which human history has never seen. What Dune does with religion it does even more with language, drawing for its vocabulary from a range of tongues including Latin, Old English, Hebrew, Greek, Finnish, and Nahuatl. All this serves a story dealing with themes both eternal, like the decline of empire and the misplaced trust in heroic leaders, and increasingly topical, like the consequences of a feudal order, ecological change, and wars over resources in inhospitable, sandy places. At the center is the story of a man struggling to attain mastery of not just body but mind, not least by defeating fear, described in Paul's famous line as the "mind-killer," the "little-death that brings total obliteration."

The scope, complexity, and sheer oddity of Herbert's vision has repeatedly tempted filmmakers and the film industry — and repeatedly defeated them. Perhaps unsurprisingly Alexander Jodorowsky couldn't get his plans off the ground for a 14-hour epic Dune involving Pink Floyd, Salvador Dalí, Moebius, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. In 1984 David Lynch managed to direct a somewhat less ambitious adaptation, but the nevertheless enormously complex and expensive production came out as what David Foster Wallace described as "a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop." Dune will return to theaters in December 2020 in a version directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose recent work on the likes of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 suggests on his part not just the necessary interest in science fiction, but the even more necessary sense of the sublime: a grandeur and beauty of such a scale and starkness as to inspire fear, much as every Dune reader has felt on their own imagined Arrakis.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear Neil Gaiman Read A Christmas Carol Just as Dickens Read It

gaiman dickens

Image by New York Public Library

Last Christmas, we featured Charles Dickens' hand-edited copy of his beloved 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. He did that hand editing for the purposes of giving public readings, a practice that, in his time, "was considered a desecration of one’s art and a lowering of one’s dignity." That time, however, has gone, and many of the most prestigious writers alive today take the reading aloud of their own work to the level of art, or at least high entertainment, that Dickens must have suspected one could. Some writers even do a bang-up job of reading other writers' work: modern master storyteller Neil Gaiman gave us a dose of that on Monday when we featured his recitation of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" from memory. Today, however, comes the full meal: Gaiman's telling of A Christmas Carol straight from that very Dickens-edited reading copy.




Gaiman read to a full house at the New York Public Library, an institution known for its stimulating events, holiday-themed or otherwise. But he didn't have to hold up the afternoon himself; taking the stage before him, BBC researcher and The Secret Museum author Molly Oldfield talked about her two years spent seeking out fascinating cultural artifacts the world over, including but not limited to the NYPL's own collection of things Dickensian. You can hear both Oldfield and Gaiman in the recording above. But perhaps the greatest gift of all came in the form of the latter's attire for his reading: not only did he go fully Victorian, he even went to the length of replicating the 19th-century literary superstar's own severe hair part and long goatee. And School Library Journal has pictures.

The story really gets started around the 11:25 mark. Gaiman's reading will be added to our list of Free Audio Books. You can find the text of Dickens' classic in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in December 2014.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why the University of Chicago Rejected Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s Thesis (and How a Novel Got Him His Degree 27 Years Later)

vonnegut drawing

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Commons

Kurt Vonnegut has been gone a dozen years now, but in that time his stock in the world of American literature has only risen. Just a few months ago we featured the newly opened Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library here on Open Culture, and we've also posted about everything from his writing tips to his letters to his drawings. And we've featured his conception of "the shape of all stories" as originally laid out in his master's thesis at the University of Chicago, where between 1945 and 1947 he performed anthropological research into the Native American-inspired Ghost Dance religious movement of the late 19th century. "The fundamental idea," wrote Vonnegut, "is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads."

None of this flew with the anthropology department. In an essay in his book Palm Sunday Vonnegut explains the unanimous rejection of his thesis, "The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks," due to the fact that "it was so simple and looked like too much fun. One must not be too playful." Opting not to have a second go before the committee, the still-young Vonnegut — with his harrowing experience in the Second World War only a couple of years behind him — decided to take a job as a publicist at General Electric instead. In 1950, while still employed at GE, he would first publish a piece of fiction: "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" in Collier's magazine. "Years later," says the University of Chicago Chronicle's obituary for Vonnegut, "the university accepted Cat’s Cradle as Vonnegut’s thesis, awarding him an A.M. in 1971."

"This was not an honorary degree but an earned one," said Vonnegut in a 1973 interview, "given on the basis of what the faculty committee called the anthropological value of my novels. I snapped it up most cheerfully and I continue to have nothing but friendly feelings for the University." Indeed, Vonnegut called his time as a Phoenix "the most stimulating years of my life." Generations of readers have found in Vonnegut's work — not just Cat’s Cradle, the one that finally got him his academic credentials, but other novels like Mother NightBreakfast of Champions, and of course Slaughterhouse-Five as well — some of the most stimulating writing to come out of postwar America. And yet Vonnegut, as he writes in Palm Sunday, continued to regard his first master's thesis as "my prettiest contribution to my culture." The more successful the creator, it can often seem, the more dear he holds his failures.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

 

Discover the Stendhal Syndrome: The Condition Where People Faint, or Feel Totally Overwhelmed, in the Presence of Great Art

Clutch imaginary pearls, rest the back of your hand on your forehead, look wan and stricken, begin to wilt, and most people will recognize the symptoms of your sarcasm, aimed at some pejoratively feminized qualities we’ve seen characters embody in movies. The “literary swoon” as Iaian Bamforth writes at the British Journal of General Practice, dates back much further than film, to the early years of the modern novel itself, and it was once a male domain.

“Somewhere around the time of the French Revolution (or perhaps a little before it) feelings were let loose on the world.” Rationalism went out vogue and passion was in—lots of it, though not all at once. It took some decades before the discovery of emotion reached the climax of Romanticism and denouement of Victorian sentimentality:

Back in 1761, readers had swooned when they encountered the ‘true voice of feeling’ in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel La Nouvelle Héloïse; by the end of the decade, all of Europe was being sentimental in the manner made fashionable a few years later by Laurence Sterne in his A Sentimental Journey. Then there was Goethe’s novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which made its author a celebrity.

It’s impossible to overstate how popular Goethe’s book became among the aristocratic young men of Europe. Napoleon “reputedly carried a copy of the novel with him on his military campaign.” Its swooning hero, whom we might be tempted to diagnose with any number of personality and mood disorders, develops a disturbing and debilitating obsession with an engaged woman and finally commits suicide. The novel supposedly inspired many copycats and “the media’s first moral panic.”




If we can feel such exaltation, disquiet, and fear when in the grip of romantic passion, or when faced with nature’s implacable behemoths, as in Kant's Sublime, so too may we be overcome by art. Napoleonic novelist Stendhal suggested as much in a dramatic account of such an experience. Stendhal, the pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle, was no inexperienced dreamer. He had traveled and fought extensively with the Grand Army (including that fateful march through Russia, and back) and had held several government offices abroad. His realist fiction didn’t always comport with the more lyrical tenor of the times.

Photo of the Basilica of Santa Croce by Diana Ringo, via Wikimedia Commons

But he was also of the generation of young men who read Werther while touring Europe, contemplating the varieties of emotion. He had held a similarly unrequited obsession for an unavailable woman, and once wrote that “in Italy… people are still driven to despair by love.” During a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1817, he “found a monk to let him into the chapel,” writes Bamforth, “where he could sit on a genuflecting stool, tilt his head back and take in the prospect of Volterrano’s fresco of the Sibyls without interruption." As Stendhal described the scene:

I was already in a kind of ecstasy by the idea of being in Florence, and the proximity of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in contemplating sublime beauty, I saw it close-up—I touched it, so to speak. I had reached that point of emotion where the heavenly sensations of the fine arts meet passionate feeling. As I emerged from Santa Croce, I had palpitations (what they call an attack of the nerves in Berlin); the life went out of me, and I walked in fear of falling.

With the recording of this experience, Stendhal “brought the literary swoon into tourism,” Bamforth remarks. Such passages became far more commonplace in travelogues, not least those involving the city of Florence. So many cases similar to Stendhal's have been reported in the city that the condition acquired the name Stendhal syndrome in the late seventies from Dr. Graziella Magherini, chief of psychiatry at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. It presents as an acute state of exhilarated anxiety that causes people to feel faint, or to collapse, in the presence of art.

Magherini and her assistants compiled studies of 107 different cases in 1989. Since then, Santa Maria Nuova has continued to treat tourists for the syndrome with some regularity. “Dr. Magherini insists,” writes The New York Times, that “certain men and women are susceptible to swooning in the presence of great art, especially when far from home.” Stendhal didn’t invent the phenomenon, of course. And it need not be solely caused by sufferers’ love of the 15th century.

The stresses of travel can sometimes be enough to make anyone faint, though further research may rule out other factors. The effect, however, does not seem to occur with nearly as much frequency in other major cities with other major cultural treasures. “It is surely the sheer concentration of great art in Florence that causes such issues,” claims Jonathan Jones at The Guardian. Trying to take it all in while navigating unfamiliar streets and crowds.... "More cynically, some might say the long queues do add a layer of stress on the heart.”

There’s also no discounting the effect of expectation. “It is among religious travelers that Stendhal’s syndrome seems to have found its most florid expression,” notes Bamforth. Stendhal admitted that his “ecstasy” began with an awareness of his “proximity of the great men whose tombs I had just seen.” Without his prior education, the effect might have disappeared entirely. The story of the Renaissance, in his time and ours, has impressed upon us such a reverence for its artists, statesmen, and engineers, that sensitive visitors may feel they can hardly stand in the actual presence of Florence's abundant treasures.

Perhaps Stendhal syndrome should be regarded as akin to a spiritual experience. A study of religious travelers to Jerusalem found that “otherwise normal patients tended to have ‘an idealistic subconscious image of Jerusalem’” before they succumbed to Stendhal syndrome. Carl Jung described his own such feelings about Pompeii and Rome, which he could never bring himself to visit because he lived in such awe of its historical aura. Those primed to have symptoms tend also to have a sentimental nature, a word that once meant great depth of feeling rather than a callow or mawkish nature.

We might all expect great art to overwhelm us, but Stendhal syndrome is rare and rarified. The experience of many more travelers accords with Mark Twain’s 1869 The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, a fictionalized memoir “lampooning the grandiose travel accounts of his contemporaries,” notes Bamforth. It became “one of the best-selling travel books ever” and gave its author’s name to what one researcher calls Mark Twain Malaise, “a cynical mood which overcomes travelers and leaves them totally unimpressed with anything UNESCO has on its universal heritage list.” Sentimentalists might wish these weary tourists would stay home and let them swoon in peace.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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