time travel paradox

I’m currently re-reading the delightful Connie Willis time travel novels “Blackout” and “All Clear.” The books are two parts of one story inhabited by a cast of characters so large, I had to keep track of them by writing their names on a bookmark with lots of arrows connecting them, because many of the characters turn out to be the same person visiting different time periods under assumed names.  Willis left clues strewn here and there that might have helped out a reader who can keep lots of clues at the front of their mind, but I am not one of those readers. I was two-thirds of the way through the second book before I figured out who Douglas is, though it should have been obvious.

The story is set in England during the buildup to the Second World War.  The three main characters, Merope, Polly, and Michael, get stuck there when the time travel network breaks down.  The novel’s opening chapter is set in The North of England in 1940 where Merope is already on assignment, then bounces back to Oxford in 2060 where the time travelers are based, to introduce Michael and Polly and explain a few things about time travel.

I generally don’t have a lot of room in my library for time travel stories. I get how compelling the idea is, but it’s entirely ludicrous if you give it any thought at all. Just as a for instance, the time travelers in this story are all students of history who travel back in time to witness key moments: The evacuation of Dunkirk, the London Blitz, and so on. At the time the story opens, historians have been doing this sort of thing for forty years. Then the time-travel network breaks down and Polly, Michael and Eileen get stuck in the past. To help them figure out what’s gone wrong, they go looking for other historians who traveled back in time to study the same time period, but can’t find any.

Which is ridiculous.  If it were ever to become possible for people to travel back in time to witness key events in history, such as Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address, then Lincoln would have been surrounded by a mob of time travelers. And it wouldn’t be a mob of only historians; every poet, every actor, anybody with enough money to be able to afford time travel and had as much as a half-hearted desire to see Abraham Lincoln would go back.  You wouldn’t be able to swing a dead cat anywhere in the vicinity of Lincoln without hitting a time traveler. You’d have to get there weeks early to stake out a spot if you wanted to have any hope of being within earshot of Lincoln. If time travel were possible, the battle of Gettysburg would turn into time travelers fighting for a front-row seat.

Same with the London Blitz. Polly, Michael and Merope should have easily been able to find a time traveler to help them out. Maybe not one they knew personally, maybe not even one who traveled from the time they came from, but certainly in all the decades and centuries that followed there must have been thousands, probably more like tens of thousands of time-travelers who traveled back in time to see the Blitz. London would have been lousy with them; it would be a must-see destination for time travelers. Willis’s lost historians should have been able to find a time-traveler by tapping ten random people on the shoulder.

But they don’t because in whatever universe this is, the only people interested in traveling through time are undergraduates at one university in England, and in the forty years since time travel was invented there have been only two or three time travelers who visited England during the Blitz before the three main characters of these books. I enjoyed them enormously anyway.

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