Connie Willis talks BLACKOUT (Part 6)


Connie Willis continues talking about her new book BLACKOUT, with further thoughts on the appeal of time travel and the storytelling potential thereof and a list of her favorite time-travel paradox stories.
(Read earlier dispatches from Connie Willis here)


One of the reasons I love to write about time travel is that it’s the best game ever invented, far superior to the three-dimensional chess people in science-fiction stories are always playing. Time travel’s got four dimensions (or more), and the variations they make possible are infinite.
You can mess with history–change it, fulfill it, cause never-thought-of consequences, jumble up the pieces (MEMENTO) or split it off into separate strands (SLIDING DOORS.) Or you can make fun of the whole thing, which William Tenn devoted his entire career to, with hilarious results.
And you can play mind-twisting games with the time travel paradoxes. If you go to the past, you change things, but if you change things, then the future you came from will be different and you couldn’t have come from it. This is called the “grandfather paradox,” from the idea that if you build a time machine and use it to go back in time and kill your grandfather, then you would never be born and would never have built that time machine and killed your grandfather, but if you didn’t, then you were born and you could, but if you do, then…
In “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” by Harry Harrison, the hero decides to try to use the grandfather paradox to murder his wife, with unintended–and very funny–consequences. Charles Harness’s hero has a go at the paradox and the stock market in “Child by Chronos,” and David Gerrold’s THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF tried every variation possible of it. Robert A. Heinlein even figured out a way to give birth to himself with the aid of time travel, and be both his mother and father (“All You Zombies”) and writers discover more twists on it every day.
There’s also the closed time loop, or “chicken and the egg paradox,” which goes like this: You go back in time and tell Einstein “E=MC2,” and he “discovers” it, which is how you knew about it so you could tell him, but in that case where did it come from in the first place?) Writers like Samuel Mines (“Find the Sculptor”) and Frederic Brown had great fun messing with the implications of the time worm, and you’ll have just as much fun reading their stories.
Here are some of my favorite paradox (and paradoxical) stories and movies:

  • “All You Zombies” by Robert A. Heinlein
  • “By His Bootstraps” by Robert A. Heinlein
  • “Child by Chronos” by Charles Harness
  • “The Little Black Bag” by Cyril Kornbluth
  • “Me, Myself, and I” by William Tenn
  • ME, MYSELF, I (a totally different story)
  • “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” by Harry Harrison
  • “The Yehudi Principle” by Fredric Brown
  • “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” by Harry Harrison

Connie Willis