A fun, brief speculation about Back to the Future, pt II.
A couple of my more abiding interests are anachronisms (the subject of my dissertation) and time travel (a lifelong fascination). These two things have combined recently in an academic article I’m working on which combines the too and brings in a little alternate-history fiction for good measure. In this article (which, happily, is nearly finished) one text I get a lot of mileage out of using is Back to the Future, part II (henceforth, BF2). Now, I don’t share my time-travel thoughts on here as often as I thought I would when I set up this blog–I had originally intended to make an entry for every story in Jeff and Ann Vandermeer’s wonderful anthology The Time Traveler’s Almanac. The reason is this: since time-travel literature is an academic interest, most of the time I end up wanting to put my time-travel thoughts into an academic publication. But sometimes the thought is silly enough, or too insubstantial for such a publication, that I feel free to share it here, instead. This is one of those thoughts.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, BF2 begins right where BF1 ends–literally: There’s a shot-for-shot remake of the last scene from the first movie that starts off the film. Semi-mad scientist Emmet J. Brown (Christopher Lloyd at his christopherlloydiest) travels to the future with American everyteen Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue–but the film quickly sweeps her under the rug, not quite knowing what to do with her). The aim is address some vague problem with Marty and Jennifer’s kids in the far-flung future year of 2015 (imagine it!).* Of course, this jaunt to the future is just to set up the real conflict of the movie, for while in the future, Marty gets the idea to buy an “old” sports almanac so when he goes to his own time he can make a little money gambling. Doc reprimands Marty, saying that’s not why he built the time machine, and they go back to their regularly scheduled hijinx.
*(Yes, I tell this exact joke in the academic article I’m writing.)
But the reprimand has been overheard by series antagonist, Biff Tannen. In the first movie, Biff was the bully that terrorized Marty’s parents in high school, until temporal shenanigans turned him into a harmless goof. Well, that harmless goof has grown up and turned bitter, and he seizes on the idea of the some time-travel-assisted gambling so, unbeknownst to our protagonists, he steals the time-traveling Delorian, travels to 1955 (the same timeframe as the first film), and gives the younger version of himself the sports almanac, thus changing history.
Now, in the Back to the Future cosmology, it takes time (ha ha) for changes to take effect, and in this delay, Biff gets back to the 2015 he left, allowing Doc and Marty to reclaim their time machine without realizing anything is amiss. But when they get back to 1985, they arrive at an alternate 1985 where Biff has spent decades amassing wealth and power. Hill Valley is now a nightmare hellscape where Biff’s casino dominates the landscape, the schools have been burned down, and Billy Zanes roam about unsupervised. The film is now about counteracting Old Biff’s change and obviating the alternate timeline he created.
The Summary is Now Over
So in the course of writing the article and thinking long and hard about BF2, a thought occurred to me: What if Biff’s alternate timeline had been allowed to continue into the twenty-first century?
In the cosmology of the Back to the Future movies, there is only one timeline. Altering the past does not create new, branching pathways–it rewrites the subsequent moments of the one and only linear temporality. So when Doc and Marty burn the sports almanac in 1955, Biffworld does not still exist somewhere. It’s gone. And it’s a good thing–and not just because because Rich Biff is an asscrown (the king of all asshats)–but because if it were allowed to continue, Biff’s timeline would likely have resulted in the destruction of the entire universe.
Think of it this way: eventually, the same people who published Gray’s Sport’s Almanac, the book Biff uses to build his fortune, would set about to publish Gray’s Sports Almanac. Now, you’re an editor publishing what will be the definitive compendium of sports statistics for the last century–do you know what would be fun? What would be the real cherry-on-top for your book?
If you got that guy who made millions through sports gambling to write a foreword for you.
Now, if Biff got that call, do you think he would turn it down? Hell no! He would think it was secretly hilarious–like he was getting away with something. And it’s not exactly like Biff shrinks away from public attention.
Okay, so, joke at the universe’s expense aside, now Biff actually has to write the danged thing. Except Biff Tannen doesn’t do his own work. It was one of the first traits we learned about him in BF1: Biff got George McFly to write all of his reports at work. When they were in high school, Biff got George to do his homework. Biff isn’t going to write this foreword–he’s going to pay or bully someone else to do that.
But you know what? That sounds like a lot of work. Or an unnecessary expense. After all–you’ve got this book from the future, right? It’s served you well so far? Why don’t you just copy the foreword from that? Because, according to the cosmology of the Back to the Future movies, once the wheels are in motion for Biff Tannen to write the foreword of the eventual Gray’s Sports Almanac, the anachronistic copy of Gray’s sitting in Biff’s safe will quietly update to reflect that new future. So all he has to do is copy it out, line by line, and send it in.
Now, you may be wondering–if he never actually originates this hypothetical foreword, where would the foreword come from for him to copy? This is actually a very common paradox in time-travel literature. It’s referred to as the Bootstraps Paradox. The phrase “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” was an old phrase to refer to an impossible task that you had to do without any assistance–the image being that if you pull on the tops of your boots hard enough, you can lift yourself over the fence that’s standing in your way. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, this pithy description of an absurdity has been unironically accepted as the idea that one can alter one’s dire personal circumstances through nothing other than a plucky, can-do attitude (and thus that poor people are at fault for being poor, since they’ve never even reached for their bootstraps!). But that’s neither here nor there.
In time-travel literature, the Bootstraps Paradox refers to a logically impossible, self-starting, perpetual cycle. If you give young Shakespeare a book of the Complete Works of Shakespeare and he builds his career by copying what’s in that book, then his career output will eventually be collected into the Complete Works that you eventually travel back in time to give him. But… where did the original book come from? The most famous example of this is Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps,” in which a man is manipulated to start time-traveling by an older version of himself, who only has access to time-travel technology because when he was younger, an older version of himself led him to it. Et cetera.
The thing about Bootstraps Paradoxes, they generally depend, in some small measure, on a predeterminist cosmology–by which I mean, a universe in which altering the past is impossible. Predeterminism becomes those inflatable bumpers they have for children in bowling alleys–keeping the ball from going irretrievably into the gutter. We know that giving Shakespeare the Complete Works will work, because it already has. The end.
But history is mutable in Back to the Future. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have this alternate timeline to speculate with right now. But that means we don’t have the predeterministic safety-seal on our universe, making sure that Biff’s shenanigans won’t knock out any load-bearing pegs. Without predeterminism, the question of “where does the original Shakespeare come from?” question is not benign.
Biff will read his foreword in order to copy it. But the foreword will only exist when he has copied it. But he can only copy it when it already exists. But the book comes from the future in which he has already written it, so it must, therefore exist. So it is there to be copied. But since it is copied, it is not originated, and it cannot exist. Et cetera.
This is exactly the sort of thing Doc warns Marty about, should any of the time-travelers meet their doubles in their travels–a chain of events that could result in a collapse of the space/time continuum. And it could quite conceivably have happened, had Doc and Marty not obviated that timeline. So averting 1985A is about more than depowering Biff, bringing George McFly back to life, and getting Marty’s mother, Lorraine, into a more livable timeline (this message brought to you by the National Council for Lea Thompson Appreciation)–Doc and Marty weren’t just making their own existence more comfortable, they were saving the existence of all. Because if Biff’s narrative had progressed, it would have led to the end of everything.
I mean, every story leads to the complete heat death of the universe if you allow it to progress long enough. But it doesn’t need to be such an asscrown about it.