The Future Is Here
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What are the rules of time travel in the J.J. Abrams Universe?

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This week, we return to the Star Trek universe that J.J. Abrams rebooted using time travel. And meanwhile, Abrams is adapting Stephen King's book 11/22/63. So it's a great time to ask: How does time travel work in the Abrams-verse? If you're in a J.J. Abrams story and you build a time machine, what should you expect to happen?


As usual when discussing J.J. Abrams, it's important to recognize that J.J. Abrams is not one person. He's like a dozen guys, including Bryan Burk, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, J.H. Wyman, and so on. J.J. Abrams seldom does anything without the help of his brains trust, and he often starts projects and then lets others complete them. So when we talk the Abrams-verse, we're not just talking about things Abrams personally created, all by himself.


So how does time travel work in the Abrams universe? Here are some rules we've discerned:

1. You can try to change things, but the universe will always steer some things back on course.

The universe really, really wants some things to happen — think how badly you want chocolate, at around three in the afternoon, when you're still stuck at work for another couple hours. And then multiply that by infinity (the size of the universe) — that's how badly the universe wants certain things to play out in a particular way. Thus, the universe goes to great lengths to ensure the classic Enterprise crew is united in Abrams' first Star Trek movie. And the universe also makes sure that the Incident happens on Lost, the way it always happened. Miss Hawking actually says the Universe has a "way of course correcting."

2. You can travel back in time and change the past, but your original timeline will still exist.

Hence, after Spock Prime has gone back and helped to screw around with his own history, he doesn’t cease to exist or change into the future version of Young Spock. Also, when Walter Bishop and the Observer Child travel forward in time to 2167, they arrive in the original 2167 — not the future of a world that was invaded by the Observers in 2015. Presumably if you lived long enough in linear time, you'd arrive in the 2070 where the Observers had been ruling the world for 55 years, but you can still travel to the other 2070. The future is like a miraculous sandwich, which still exists after you've eaten it.


3. If you get unstuck in time, you have to figure out whom you love

Like Desmond on Lost. Or Felicity on Felicity. Both Desmond and Felicity become unstuck in their own personal timelines, and the only way to become re-stuck is to find their "Constant" — so in Felicity's case, she thinks her constant is Noel, but it's actually Ben. We think. Also, mental time travel is almost always indistinguishable from mental illness.


4. Time can be "rolled back," allowing for do-overs

That's more or less what seems to happen in Felicity, where she gets to go back to the start of senior year so she can be with Noel instead of Ben. The only difference being that she remembers everything that happened after that, including that Ben totally kissed that other girl, and it was not cool — it was so uncool, in fact, that that one kiss polluted an entire timeline and caused temporal regression. WTF Ben. Don't pollute the timeline, Ben — your last name isn't even Linus!


5. If you change the timeline enough, the effects ripple backwards as well as forwards

So when Walter Bishop travels from 2036 to 2167, he erases himself from the past starting in 2015 — because otherwise there would be a bigger paradox than the Observers going back in time and wiping out their own ancestors. (This is mostly because he's bringing the Child Observer, I guess.) Also, when Old Spock and Nero go back in time to the early days of Kirk, some of the stuff that happened before Kirk's birth seems to change — to the point where, for example, Scotty looks totally different, like maybe one parent was different. And some basic stuff about the Federation and ship design seems changed as well.


6. Any phenomenon has a 60 percent chance of making you travel in time

Solar storms, wormholes, H-bomb detonations, falling asleep in prison... it's all possible. Basically, if you're in a J.J. Abrams story, don't turn the hot water in the shower too high, or the steam will cause a trans-temporal cross-reaction that relocates your time axis.


7. Time is a bubble, pretty much exactly made of soap

You've heard of quantum foam? Well, it can have bubbles in it, and they're very soapy and blobby — which is why time dislocations are often highly localized. And why they're so flimsy and see-thru. On one level, time is a fixed thing that always has to happen the same way — but on another level, time is a big custard that's always getting air pockets in it. TIME IS A CUSTARD.


8. Even if you know what's going to happen, you still have to work your butt off to make it happen.

Hence, after Eloise Hawking shoots her unborn son Daniel as a grown-up, and sees his notebook showing that he's going to become the World's Greatest Physicist, she doesn't then decide that it doesn't matter if he plays soccer and breakdances all the time — since she's already seen that he's destined to become the World's Greatest Physicist, no matter what. Instead, she pushes him psychotically to do NOTHING BUT PHYSICS, even when he's in the bath or whatever. Because once you know your inevitable, unchangeable future, you should do your best to overdetermine it.


9. Information is the one thing that can always travel in time.

Sometimes you can physically travel in time but can't alter events. Sometimes you can alter events but things wind up "course-correcting." (Unless you happen to live on Vulcan, in which case you're outta luck.) Sometimes you can jump forward nearly 50 years from 1963 to 2012, and go on a pomo crime spree. But no matter how you travel, the one thing that can always make the trip is information. You can send messages back to the past, or miraculously know about the future if you're from 1963 — but one way or the other, knowledge is the one thing that can reliably travel through time in the Abrams-verse.


Thanks to Rob Bricken for the suggestion!