There He Goes …

“Any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and – Duration.” ~ H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895

The grandfather paradox is such a morbid thought question. And even as a scientist I’ll be the first to admit scientists and science fiction writers can conjure some pretty dark humor from time to time (see: Cat, Schrödinger’s). But have you ever really thought about the meaning of the grandfather paradox? It means you go back in time and murder your own grandfather before he has a chance to bring your parent into the world. Is that messed up, or what?

The paradox itself is pretty simple: If you dispose of one of your forefathers before you’ve been conceived, then how can you even exist in order to go back in time and commit the crime in the first place? After all, one of your parents was never born, so how could you have been? The paradox has other names, of course, and there are various ways “around” the problem that have been explored to death, as it were, but think about the human part of this for a second. I think that that’s something lost in a lot of science fiction literature.

My own grandfather wasn’t killed, thankfully. He passed away in 1975 while working on a storm door on the back porch. He was sitting there on the decking, cross-legged, screwdriver in hand, trying to fasten a hinge. He simply fell over sideways and … died. There are worse ways to go.


Granddaddy was a good-humored man. Thin, balding, long-faced and mellow, he was the epitome of the easy-going Southern working man, a true shade-tree mechanic who actually did work on cars under the shade of … a tree … an oak, to be exact. But as that shade started to get long, and the wet Alabama heat started to fritter away, he’d retire to his front porch, a sweaty glass of sweetened iced tea in hand. As a youngster, I’d sit next to him, watching cars and pedestrians pass on the street out front.

One time a man sporting blue jeans and a white T-shirt moseyed by on the sidewalk.

My grandfather nodded, said, “There he goes.”

I tilted my head. “Who?”

Granddaddy pointed. “Him.”

“You know him?” I said.

He never answered. He just cracked a wry smile and sipped his tea. Later in life I learned the expression “there he goes” is slang from my grandparents’ generation, a form of martini dry humor from folks born around 1900.

Now, fast forward to 2012. Suppose I rewired the DeLorean or phone booth in my backyard. If I turn its knobs and dials so it’s ready for a flight to 1969, Earth, North America, United States, Alabama (I’m sure there’s an app for that) I just might find myself strolling along that same roadway, prompting my own grandfather to nod at the older me, so he could then tell the younger me, “There he goes.” And he’d be right.

My point here is to offer advice: All of the time travel paradoxes are well-known, and if you try to explain those logical twists and contortions in your fiction, you’re going to bore your reader. If you want to write time travel fiction (and I urge you to do so) you need to embrace the element that binds all good fiction: character. Without it, why would we write in the first place?

I’ve got my blue jeans on. Now, where’d I put that white T-shirt?

Copyright © 2012 Alan Keith Parker. The content of this blog is copyrighted across all time and space.

44 thoughts on “There He Goes …

  1. Well said. My First post apocalyptic book over at is entitled American Rebellion Book 1 of the Revolution and my second book will be coming out next month in the same genre. My third book in the series will have elements of time travel so I appreciate your insight on that subject :)

    1. Thanks for reading, and I’m glad my post helped. If you go back in time (pun intended) to my blog posts last year I offer up a variety of writing tips. I came close to landing a high-profile agent in 1999 (you know, the kind in Manhattan, with name recognition, cocktail parties, etc), and learned a lot from that experience.

      The topic in “There He Goes” stemmed from a discussion over a story about a space elevator where the author went into way too much detail about the engineering. I was telling a friend about that over lunch and he said, “Who cares? Just tell me enough to know how it affects the characters.”

      Again, thanks for reading. And good luck with your trilogy.

      1. I’m really glad you liked it. Been thinking about that, the inspiration thing. Writers need inspiration and encouragment as often as possible. It can be lonely working in the arts. I’m glad I was able to help, even if a little bit, in that regard.

  2. Pingback: There He Goes … | birdmanps

  3. Time travel fiction is the best. We all fantasise about fixing up our past despite the dire warnings which is why we will all lob on to SF when a good story comes up. You mention HG Welles, he was the best of the best. But Silverberg, Asimov and Kuttner did a good job of it. And I loved Heinlein’s The door close me eyes, wave a hanky soaked in Chanel 5 and I’m revisiting my recent past. No chance of killing grandad or stuffing up my life. :) Good post. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    1. Thank you so much. I cut my teeth on Asimov and Bradbury. And Clark and Heinlein. And of course no list is complete without L’Engle, or Connie Willis, or Kurt Vonnegut, or … wow, there’s just not enough time to write a complete list, is there? ;-)

  4. I agree completely with you here, character always trumps explanation (although of course it shouldn’t be neglected). As long as it doesn’t break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, I believe you can go as nuts as you like.

    The grandfather part added a nice, personal touch to the whole thing. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. The important thing is to follow two worn-out cliches: Write from the heart, and write what you love. If you love space elevators or generation starships, it’s going to show in your writing, and the reader will have no problem latching on to that. I really believe that. But I also love small, shiny objects, so what do I know? :)

  5. Love this =D I just read ‘The Fabric of Reality’ by David Deutsch, which explains that the grandfather paradox isn’t really a thing with current thinking about space and time.. but I still think there’s a lot of scope for exploring the idea in fiction.

    1. Yeah, if you start delving into the physics of time travel, you start seeing all kinds of weirdness, like static time, flexible time (or flex time if you have a good employer), mutable universes, branching universes, universes that are not mutable but would like to be.

      It’s hard to say, especially at 3:40 AM, but I think my essay makes an assumption of one universe with a timeline that’s plastic or mutable, and it’s possible that this whole blog belongs in fantasy rather than science fiction. But it would’ve taken pages and pages of blog posts to tackle all that and, well, time ran out ;-)

      Thank you for reading. It means a lot to me!

  6. Good advice. I tried very hard not to let my time travel novel get bogged down in the paradoxes, and I think I succeeded. And wouldn’t you know I’ve had some readers disappointed that I didn’t go there. What’s a time travel fan to do?

    1. You could always take several time travel trips and re-write your novel over and over to please everybody :)
      I rather like the paradoxes. They’ve always seemed like good metaphors for all the uncertainty in life.

    1. … that should have been a reply to your list of authors.

      I’m afraid I’m not quite clear what your grandfather meant by “there he goes” – it’s slang for what? there goes me from a past life?

      Forgive my Antipodean ignorance.

      1. “There he goes” was a form of good-natured teasing that grownups did to kids to make the kids think it was someone the kid should know.

        It’s one of those sayings that requires you to hear it out loud to make sense of it. I guess it’s a tone of voice thing.

        Does that help?

      1. I’m shocked! He’s now my favourite SF author, and I grew up with Asimov, Clarke et al. I prefer him to Iain M. Banks, who can be too close to the horror borderline for my taste.

      2. There have been times — off and on — when I was simply not paying attention to the SFF genre, so there are some modern classics I haven’t delved into yet. The good news is that there are modern classics I haven’t delved into yet! :-)

  7. Pingback: The Adventures of the U.S.S Starburst: An Exercise in Absurdity (Part 3) « Excursions Into Imagination

  8. Without a good character, no one would read about time travels even if they were true. I remember watching the old version of the movie Time Machine and still recall the main character’s passion about raveling into the future. No, no more good stories these days, right McFly?

    1. The good characters (and therefore good stories) seem like they’re harder to find, but they are out there.

      Time travel is, at its core, a wish. And regardless of whether you travel by in a velvet chair on steampunk machine, TARDIS or Delorean, that’s just the mechanism to get at what the character wishes for: to right a wrong, or to relive a romance.

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