The Ontological Paradox in ‘The Cellar’ (2020) E01 of ‘Amazing Stories’

Know that love is truly timeless.
Mary M. Ricksen

In the very first episode ‘The Cellar’ of the latest iteration of ‘Amazing Stories’ we are treated to a time-travel story based around a romance that has many resonances with the film ‘Somewhere in Time’ released nearly 40 years ago. It is both a heartbreaking romance/love affair across time and a time travel story (a scientific romance as the now legendary stories of H. G. Wells were designated) that involves significant objects that provide the conduit by which the chasm of time can be crossed.

In Somewhere in Time it is a pocket watch and in The Cellar it is the barometer and the box that ‘Sam’ (Dylan O’Brien) finds in the fireplace, containing the impending marriage photograph in 1919 of ‘Evelyn’ (Victoria Pedretti) and the matches. However, there are contained within each tale a very peculiar ontological paradox. Let me explain further.

The film ‘Somewhere in Time’ is an adaptation of the science-fiction novel Bid Time Return (1975) by Richard Matheson. A young college student (Christopher Reeve) is celebrating the debut of his play when an elderly woman (Susan French) places a pocket watch into his hands and pleads: ‘‘Come back to me.” He does not recognise her and she dies soon after.

Eight years later whilst on a break from writing, Richard (Reeve) chances upon a photograph of the mysterious elderly woman when she was much younger and is captivated by her. He discovers a book on time travel among her possessions and determines to meet her by travelling back in time to 1912. Visiting the writer of this book, a Dr. Finney he learns that it may be possible to return to the past through self-hypnosis but that it may well cause serious physical harm to the body. He immerses himself in artifacts and accoutrements from the relevant period and through sheer will power manages to travel to 1912 where he meets her and they fall in love.

However, during one liaison, Elise asks the time and Richard duly obliges with the pocket watch she gave him but having grabbed his jacket he finds inside a coin from 1972 and with that fatal anachronism he is immediately returned to his own time leaving her with the now infamous pocket watch. So here is our information or ontological paradox: where did the pocket watch come from?! A simple question taken at face value but in time travel nothing is simple.

If we consider for a moment the clock’s worldline ( the path it traces in both space and time, providing its history) we know it was given to Richard in 1972 and taken back with him to 1912, where it was left when he disappeared back into the future, then stayed with Elise until she gave it to Richard in 1972. Such worldlines are called closed timelike curves or CTC’s for short. So where did the watch originate?! In 1912? Yes & No. Yes because Richard leaves the watch and No because Elise did not have the watch until Richard arrived from 1972. In 1972? Yes & No. Yes because Elise has the watch given to her in 1912 and No because Richard hasn’t given her the watch yet!

In ‘The Cellar’ Sam time travels via the storm and the barometer that is in the cellar and which alerts him to the oncoming opening of a time portal. But as Sam has not yet travelled back to acquire the barometer how did the barometer get into the cellar and to the exact spot where Sam time travels? We know that Sam eventually acquires it later on in his timeline when he repairs the barn doors to acquire the barometer as payment in kind.

Even prior to that there is another even more serious ontological paradox one that must effect the very nature of time and both Sam’s and Evelyn’s CTC’s when Sam remembers the password written on the box of matches to enter the illegal drinking den. It is only when he has entered the den that he picks up the matches that he will later need (or earlier need) to enter that club that he has already entered. But how did those matches originate in the fireplace if Sam has not yet travelled back in time to acquire the matches that he can then leave in the fireplace?

It is here that we have the ‘Bootstrap paradox’ made famous by Robert Heinlein in his 1941 (yep as long ago as that) short story (reprinted in 1959) ‘By His Bootstraps’. It remained, almost, the ultimate ‘‘loop in time’’ story until Heinlein outdid himself 18 years later with ‘All You Zombies’.

It is a well spun and tightly intertwined tale of time travel loops and the resultant paradoxes, involving the unpleasant Bob Wilson and visits from other iterations of himself. The story begins with him writing his philosophy thesis on the impossibility of time travel, as in terms first used by Immanuel Kant, time, is only empirically real and does not exist independently among things in themselves. Then suddenly, a Time-Gate opens and our narrator is visited by two different editions of himself , a Joe and then a Diktor, both from the future with conflicting views of what he can do in this future.

Bob Wilson goes through loop after time loop and experiences the same event but from multiple perspectives, but they are crucially his personal perspective alone. His final destination is a far future world reminiscent of that portrayed in The Time Machine where humanity has become similar to the Eloi not through any process of social Darwinianism as in H.G. Wells, but by a different fictional mechanism — long-vanished, alien masters.

This is where Bob intends to confront the older man he met on a previous visit to the future (Diktor), but it transpires that this older man is actually himself and his future is (and always has been) locked in. Bob manipulates the controls of the Time-Gate and arrives at a place that is 10 years earlier than Diktor’s ‘‘now” and establishes himself as Diktor. It is not until these 10 years have elapsed and there is no sign of ‘Diktor’ that Bob/Joe/Diktor realises that all of his actions whether intentional or unintentional have created the very future he was trying to alter: a ‘predestination paradox’.

Bob Wilson does indeed set himself up ‘‘by his bootstraps’’ — his various editions all interact with each other to produce the end result. Although Bob Wilson is repeatedly looped in time, he does, by implication, exit the tangle of loops in time by the end as he becomes the only remnant of human society much like the Time Traveler in The Time Machine. However, there is another paradox, an information paradox.

When Wilson travels to the future he is given a notebook by the older man (Diktor) who Wilson is as yet unaware is himself. This notebook contains the vocabulary of the language spoken in the future. Wilson learns the language, but the book wears out and he copies it to another notebook when returning to the present. So, Wilson is both the person who learnt the language in the future, compiled the lexicon and then copied it when he returned to the past and then was given this book by himself before he had become Diktor. So: who wrote the notebook?

Well Diktor wrote it but how could he if Wilson hadn’t yet learnt the language?! An ontological paradox. There is no starting point and no end point, a true circle in time. Also known as, if you prefer modern scientific terminology an example of the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle, again. In fact, Bob Wilson himself realises that there is something ”peculiar” about this in his own story.

While the paradox in Heinlein’s story does produce a consistent account of Bob/Joe/Diktor’s timeline one massive problem with this ontological conundrum is an apparent violation of the Law of Causality. We are no longer able to say that a past ’cause’ led to a future ‘event’, as the event such as the creation of the notebook and the writing of the password ‘Cabbage’ onto the matches case, may equally have been created in the future before leading to its cause in the past. If the past, present and future are all equal then the ‘origin’ of an event becomes meaningless, in time travel stories anyway.

The knowledge (the notebook) in ‘By His Bootstraps’ and the matches with the password and the photo of Evelyn in ‘The Cellar’ travels from future to past and back without having an actual causal origin external to the CTC. It is ”peculiar” as the narrator notices in Heinlein’s story but it doesn’t violate any logical rules or laws of nature in our universe.

But the watch similarly uncreated in ‘Somewhere in Time’ does violate our laws of nature, for its existence in time on a CTC involves wear that cannot be reversed by travelling from the future to the past. The watch arriving in the past cannot be the same watch that left the future since the watch in the past is changed by the operation of entropy. If time travel makes that watch possible, then travelling in time is impossible and Stephen Hawking was right once again. Hence, we must still call (for the moment), the telling of a love story that involves travelling in time, an Amazing Story. For indeed it is.

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