The following is a guest post by Mike Nees, whose story “The Shifts” appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.
How many times have I wished that I could revise the past? More than I can count. And yet, it’s not until the late 19th Century that anyone seems to have fantasized about a mechanism through which one might do this. No shortage of ancient tales explore other aspects of time’s relativity; Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish stories all send figures into distant futures, for example, where time has passed without them. So why did it take so long for anyone to explore the idea in reverse?
Did God know in advance that Adam and Eve would eat from the tree? I think it’s a very different kind of story if so, and I can see how one would get caught up in the question. Omnipotence is the kind of conceit that I’m happy to indulge in a good story, provided I’m allowed to scrutinize it, and the author is willing to think it through. Like time travel, it requires the author to make bold predictions about how reality works. I love to see what authors do when out on these limbs.
So let’s say we create a protagonist and send her back in time to stop a disaster. No matter how modest our literary intent, we have to make some bold decisions. Does our hero find that fate is unbendable, and that everything—including her own time travel—is the predetermined course of a clockwork universe? Or does she discover the opposite scenario, in which her every actions triggers a butterfly effect of staggering consequence? I think these are the two extremes that we see most often. Both fascinate me, personally, but both have some significant trappings.
On the deterministic end, we risk revealing our own crass sense of omnipotence. We risk writing the Architect scene from the Matrix sequel, in which the audience is expected to have their minds blown by a pompously delivered diatribe about how our decisions have no meaning. I have no business saying that to a reader whose struggles I don’t know. And yet, I would argue that a skilled author can pull it off to great effect. Ted Chiang invokes this premise in “Story of Your Life” to contemplate the nature of grief. Kurt Vonnegut does it in Slaughterhouse Five to criticize America’s self-assuredness.
Whenever an author speculates on something unknowable, they expose—above all—themselves. We see their fingerprints riddling the worlds they’ve created. In fiction, that can be a problem. But sometimes we crave a glimpse of God’s fingerprints—even if they are those of a lesser God. A mere, mortal author.
Mike Nees is a case manager for people living with HIV in Atlantic City, where he also hosts the city’s Story Slam series. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Typehouse Literary Magazine, matchbook, and Heavy Feather.