Fan’s Survival Guide to Time Travel

When it comes to science fiction, nothing causes as many heads to itch as time travel.  On top of being confusing and foreign to our minds, many ideas and theories about time travel exist.  Sometimes these enter as sub-plots or as fancy dialogue. 

In the end, however, time travel follows a few simple rules.   Otherwise the storytelling would be broken.  In other words, to have a conistent story-line, these rules have to be followed.  (Yes, this means Star Trek’s time travel is in some cases not consistent.  Go figure.)

I had a vision after my alarm clock went off and before I woke one morning about these three simple rules.  Now I share them so you can survive and follow any time travel storyline.  (Exception: any Star Trek episode featuring the temporal starfleet shtuff.)

What time travel is not

  • NOT: A way to end the universe. 
    Stories toting around the possibility of creating a self-eliminating paradox, or upsetting the natural balance of cosmic forces, resulting in an implosion the likes of which unbefore seen in the universe are all bunk.  I mean seriously, the TV show would have trouble airing the last 7 episodes of the current season if the Universe gets destroyed.
  • NOT: A way to switch to alternate realities. 
    (There are no multiple time lines.)
    There is a whole bunch of fantasy written about infinite possibility being expressed in infinite alternate realities.  Thus, every choice contains infinite possible outcomes.  Some dare to mix this with time travel as another possible choice.  So if you alter the course of events in your own reality by time travelling, you in essence create a new branched reality by leaving and not affecting the old one other than by being absent.  This is all fancy talk to confuse people and doesn’t affect what I am about to say.  Although I won’t argue the point exhaustively, trust me on this one.  Plus, the whole alternate reality thing pretty much takes any level of coolness out of free will, so its bunk and lame anyways.


  • Time is a continuous, progressive force.
  • There is one reality.  Time travel within this reality keeps to the system of cause and effect.

Three Laws of Time Travel

  • When you travel in time, your existence in one time ends and begins in another time.  Travelling in time creates a space/time discontinuity, or an exception, to the principle that time is a continuous, progressive force.  The consequence of this fact is that you cannot create a paradox which prevents yourself from being born.  By travelling into the past, you may eliminate your future self from being born.  But your time travelled self is now discontinuous or disjoined from your future self. 
  • Instead of only being able to alter future events, you can alter the future and the past.
    In normal existence, you can only affect the outcome of the future by your choices in the present.  In time travel, you can affect the outcome of both the future and the past (relative to the time before time travelling) by continuing to make choices in the present.  The difference being that time travel allows you to go to travel to what you relatively call the past, and make that your new present time. 
  • Degree of impact caused by time travel and altering events is correlated to the distance of time travelled.
    Any event can lead to the butterfly effect, whereby a butterfly beating its wings in Japan can lead to massive weather changes in North American.  For small events to have wide sweeping consequences, all that is needed is for time to progress naturally and amplify the event through chain reaction cause-and-effect.  (Or more likely, time and cause and effect will mute the effects.)

Time Traveller’s Conundrum

Because of law #3, your mere presence in the distant past can inadvertently drastically alter Reality from the way you remember the present before you time travelled. 

Presuming that the goal of time travel is to slightly alter your current present in some advantageous way, the time traveller’s conundrum is to minimize interference or unintentional changes by minimizing time travel in totality (i.e. minimize both the number of trips and the distance of trips.)

This is why Skynet has acted based upon a personal directive to only use time travel sparingly and into the immediate (<20 yrs) past.  Note that only 2 years before its own creation (in SSC, year 2007), Skynet may have many agents.  In 2 years, it is unlikely to inadvertantly stop Skynet from being built.  (Albeit, the Connors have a good chance of intentionally doing so.)

Mankind has an advantage in the time war.  Man exists in the past and will always survive there, while Skynet must ensure it does not accidentally prevent its existence from happening.  (By sending others in time travel, Skynet does not experience a discontinuity to protect its existence from never happening.)  Moreover, Skynet is dependent on mankind for its creation, giving mankind a second advantage.

Interpretting the Laws

Q:  I travel back in time, shoot myself as a child, then back to the future, which was my present time before I time travelled.  What happens?
A:  The discontinuity of time travel protects your self murder from killing you.  Your future self never exists, but you exist because your existence is a discontinuous exception. You show up in a future almost completely unchanged.  The only changes concern your personal life.  None of your friends ever met you.  Your parents think you are crazy.  Your memories with them as a child only happened in your discontinuous personal reality.  Of note, this would be a great way to “erase” your past in order to become a spy without a personal identity.

Q: Why doesn’t Skynet time travel into the distant past to ensure its survival?
A: Skynet’s goal is to personally survive.  It must be wary of the time traveler’s conundrum and manipulate past events only enough to ensure its survival.  In other words, its motive is egocentric.  If it truly wanted to ensure that its machine race survived, it would send cyborgs into the far past to build a factory and a new Skynet long before mankind can resist.  However, that new Skynet would mean its own demise and death; as it is alive and self-aware, it would rather chance elimination than destroy itself with certainty.

Q: How could John Connor have sent his own father back into the past?
A: I have to admit, I don’t have a straight-forward answer on this one.  It is possible that the first John in the future did not have Kyle Reese as his father.  Simply put, Sarah always wanted to name her son John.  She did so and he became the future leader.  Time travel then altered the outcome of who the father of her first son would have been.

While this may be an unaswered mystery, exploring this issue helps to answer the next question.

Q: Is it possible for the humans to win the time war against Skynet, by preventing its creation?
A: In a word, yes.  But one of the many themes of Terminator series is the inevitability of human self-destruction.  It is easy to blow up a Skynet computer.  That doesn’t mean someone won’t inevitably build another one.

But the Spirit of this questions asks, can humans have ultimate victory and stop Skynet for good?  To answer that, I will begin to speculate.

My theory is that the victory of this time war is in John Connor’s survival.  By attempting to eliminate him before being born and making John Connor aware of the future threat, Skynet made a tactical error.  This empowered the surviving humans in the past with the ability to proactively prevent its existence.  This also created a loop of cause and effect as it were: in the future, Skynet sends people into the past.  Their past actions ripple forward and alter Reality up to the present.  Skynet then adapts and tries another strategy. 

Because Skynet limits its time travel to less and less distant destinations (in terms of distance travelled through time), John Connor actions in the before Skynet time are linked with the choices Skynet makes in the after Skynet time.  Thus, Skynet is running out of time to catch John Connor in the past.  Consequently, John Connor travelling 7 years into the future severly hindered Skynet’s ability to counteract his existence in the past by limiting the amount of time left to catch him in the past (from 9 to 2 years) and by throwing SkyNet “off his trail.”

Thus, my speculation is that time travel has created a causality loop between Skynet’s future choices and John’s reaction to these choices in the past.  As SkyNet continues to try new strategies of time travel as its personal Reality keeps changing every time it sends someone in the past, John experiences time.   There is a finite set of time until Judgment day.  Therefore, the cause and effect of time travel is spiraling to a conclusion: will John Connor survive these years?  If he does, Skynet has a back-up plan to ensure its victory through other malicious time travel.  Therefore, the only way for Skynet to lose is for John to prevent it from being built.  Pretty heavy, huh? 

Please, post comments and questions.  I’d be happy to field any other time travel questions from other Hollywood movies, using the handy 3 survival guide rules for time travel to explain.


6 Responses to “Fan’s Survival Guide to Time Travel”

  1. thissalesmanslife Says:

    My head hurts

  2. goldenvikingjch Says:

    very eye opening and wow you went into deep thought and maybe you did get a strong vision on time travel. be great to see you argue this concept with scifi nerds at one of the game conventions in the good ole usa
    id pass it on to steven hawkins for his input
    good job professor cox

  3. My head hurts too and my eyes are boggled, but good stuff here!

    The thing I was looking for here though, Andy Good obviously existed in the “Skynet future” but now that Reese has gone back in time and killed him what do you think that does? Nothing? B/c the first time around he didn’t have the disadvantage of Sarah Connor burning his original Turk down? So now, the hands have basically shifted as to who will actually build Skynet to the Japanese?

    Based on all this it would seem that the future keeps looking progressively better and brighter for mankind with all the Connors shenanigans. As in, perhaps our flashbacks that Reese gave us would be like a worse case scenario and with every bit of tampering the Connors do it gets better?

  4. nerdchieftain Says:

    The Connor shenanigans as you aptly put it definitely are altering the course of the future from that point on. There is no doubt that they can safeguard the future against the skynet. They can keep it from happening in the way they remember from the future, before they change it.

    The greater question is can they keep mankind’s war-like tendencies from destroying itself. Is Skynet an inevitability of human evolution? This would seem to be the premise set up by the T2 movie and how in SSC, Skynet still gets built… just later.

    So the question, which is up to the writers, comes down to how the spiraling down time loop will conclude. Besides good storytelling, we have to consider leaving the possibility of sequels. Consequently, I doubt Skynet will lose unequivocably.

  5. nerdchieftain Says:

    New Q: What about Back to the Future? Marty almost prevented his parents from falling in love, and therefore almost wiped himself out of existence. What about discontinuities protecting people?

    A: Well, this is obviously an exception to our time traveller’s guide. Note, however, that the theme of time travel being dangerous and possibly deadly to its users by way of paradox meant the time machine had to be destroyed. This is the ultimate conclusion of the story, time machine desctructo. This further raises questions about the doc’s new time travel machine, the train.

    Nonetheless, not following these rules creates problems for sequels or a series spin-off. We won’t get to see “The Adventures of Jules & Verne” any time soon.

  6. your rules left out The Most Important Law of Time Travel:
    –If you time travel with Summer Glau, then the previous rules don’t apply.

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