Recently I saw the movie Man of Steel. There’s plenty of destruction, people die, New York or some clone of it takes a beating, and everyone wishes things went back to how they were. But they don’t. People have to live with the damage, unless of course they were part of the damage and they died. This contrasts the movie Superman 1 (which I never saw all the way, but I heard enough about it from my parents and others (including Wikipedia) to know how it ends). In that movie, people, including Lois Lane, die. Superman, so upset, flies around the planet against its spin, so fast that he reverses the movement of the earth and turns back time, undoing everything that was done. Now this is one of the most ridiculous methods of time travel I’ve ever heard of. Obviously the movement of time is not dependent on Earth’s rotation, that’s just a measure of time, not time itself. So it’s good to know that the new Superman doesn’t have time travel powers as well.
As far fetched as Superman’s time travel was, all the other forms of time travel we’ve seen in fiction is pretty much just as farfetched, because we don’t really have any idea how to travel through time, except by going forward. With relativity, if you go really close to the speed of light, perception of time changes, and you experience it slower than normal, so a journey of a hundred years only seems like 10, or whatnot. Theoretically. Especially since we’ve never built anything that could take people anywhere near that, and don’t know if we would survive in those conditions. Some people think that if you went faster than light, you would go back in time. But since that’s impossible, time travel seems only in the realm of science fiction or fantasy. After all, if it were possible, wouldn’t people from the future come visit us? Or are we too boring?
But how many of us wish we could? Instead of living with mistakes, taking responsibility for our actions, we could go in the past, tell our younger selves to express love to the girl of our dreams that we were too afraid to talk to, or conversely, go back and stop ourselves from expressing that love and being made a fool of. Go back in time and invest in Apple (and sell stock at the high point). Go back and meet our great great grandparents when they were little kids. Go back and sell Gameboys to barbarians and once they’re addicted, keep them under your control by selling batteries. Go back and witness the signing of the declaration of independence, before they drive you out of there. Change history if you want. Assassinate Hitler. Wouldn’t all of that be fun?
Most time travel tales have unintended consequences for that, though. Kill your grandpa and you cease to exist. Step on a butterfly and the world is completely different. Speaking of butterflies, there’s the movie The Butterfly Effect, which has a man going back in time to try to save his girlfriend from abuse and other fates, but each time, something gets messed up, and his present life, or hers, is not what he wanted. Eventually he just convinces her to move away from him. Kind of sad. These tales are cautionary, asking us to really think that if we changed one thing, if our lives would really be better. Maybe in some cases, like saving the life of a loved one, possibly. But it might not in others.
One thing to think about, if time travel were real, is how it works. Most versions are full of paradoxes. In Final Fantasy 8, Squall goes into the future, then at the end, goes into the past, overshooting his mark a bit. He comes in contact with his orphanage matron and gives her the ideas she needed to create SeeD, which he is a part of. But he already was part of it, even though he helped create it. So how did it start? If he hadn’t gone back, he wouldn’t have been part of an organization that didn’t exist, but he only went back in time because of the events that happened because he was part of the organization. Confusing. Or would it be possible to kill your grandpa, because then you wouldn’t exist to kill him? For people who think about these things, they figure the only way to avoid the paradoxes is through having different dimensions or realities. Going back in time would create a new one for you, while you would disappear from the old one. Being independent from the new one, you could go kill your grandpa, because you came from a different dimension where your grandpa lived long enough to have your parents, who had you. In the multiverse theory of science, there are infinite numbers of universes, which means an infinite number of possibilities, some where you just made a slightly different decision, or someone in the past, or anything slightly different, as well as more extreme differences, where mass and galaxies don’t even exist because the laws of physics are slightly different. Who knows if it would be possible to go dimension hopping? You could go to a universe where the only difference is that you did something slightly different in your past.
Most people are plagued by things they did in the past, and wish they could change them. Anyone who says they have no regrets is either perfect or lying. Other people want to go back to a time when they thought things were better, like in their youth, although if they were to go back and be plagued with hormones again, they would probably think differently. So while time travel is an interesting fantasy and let’s you play ‘What if?’, I generally don’t like time travel stories because it makes things less permanent, makes decisions inconsequential, and can get really confusing. Having stories where characters actually have to deal with their problems, no matter how messy they might be, instead of running away from them, is more satisfying.