To be or not to be is not the question. Instead, the question might be more like, “To be, not be, to have been but have ceased to exist, to never have existed until only recently long ago, to soon never have not been except when one wasn’t, or to not mis-unbe sometimes?” Let’s face it. Time travel is twisty and it injures verb tenses. There’s a simple reason for that. Our brains have difficulty bending in certain awkward poses in order to reach those neurons.
When I think of writing a story with a time travel element, my brain ties itself in knots trying to decide which theory of time travel the characters will encounter. Will they travel back to change the future only to discover that the attempt to alter the past is the very thing that ensured the development of the future they sought to avoid? Is time fluid, so that the future is always in flux and the slightest deviation can have massive impacts? Is the timeline tamper resistant, ensuring that the same outcome will occur even if past events are modified? Do deviations in the timeline create multiple universes? Can my future self travel back and unwittingly trigger a series of events that prevents me from existing, thereby erasing himself? Is there such a thing as a “present” inside a time machine? Would future civilizations use time travel as the ultimate prison by sending convicts into ancient hostile territory to be eaten by dinosaurs? What are the ethics of time travel? Is it morally right to change the past in order to “fix” the future when doing so might negatively impact other people? If it is decided that altering the timeline is wrong, how would we know that someone else hasn’t already messed it up? Would a future Dystopian society poach on the past, snatching victims and bringing them to a terrifying future, thereby causing the collapse of their own civilization by time-napping a pivotal person from their time? When someone travels in time, is the “present” the time the traveler left or is it the time in which he ends up in the past? We always think of the past as fixed and the future as being unknown, but what if the future was set and there were nearly infinite numbers of possible pasts that would all resolve into the single fixed and unchangeable future?
It doesn’t take long before my brain falls off the couch in an undignified manner and needs to spend the rest of the afternoon resting. The English language is no help, either. Attempting to express these ideas leads to impossibly twisted sentences that eat their own tails in self-defense. Villains will offer threats like, “Soon, you never will have existed,” or , “Someday, I will always have gotten away with it, too, since it soon will not have been for those darn kids.” It’s hard not to trip over those lines. After a paragraph full of them, the mind has a tendency to wander off to see what is on TV.
This is why Zombie stories are (almost) always set in the future. The Zombie Apocalypse is never set in the past because deep down, we know better. I mean, the challenge of time travel is the brain bending mental gymnastics one must perform in order to make sense of it all. What is it that zombies crave? Brains. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so. Why don’t we see time travelers running around changing the timeline now? Perhaps it’s because they’re all in the future, shuffling aimlessly in search of brains. If I’m wrong about this, someone from the future will come back and correct me before I post this.
I rest my case.