Circular causality

My friend Jon and I were talking over dinner this evening about the theme in Science Fiction stories of “circular causailty” triggered by time travel. In its most common form, this theme shows up as an invention that exists in the future and is brought back into the past by a time traveler, thereby causing the future invention to exist.

Nowadays most people are probably familiar with this concept from James Cameron’s “Terminator” series of films (and more recently TV serial). In the second film of the series, we find that the computer chip which causes machines to be sentient was “invented” by the scientist Miles Dyson (played by Joe Morton) who had actually lifted all the ideas from a computer chip that had traveled back from the future.

Long before Cameron was throwing these concepts around, Robert A Heinlein wrote “The Door Into Summer”, originally published in 1956, a novel in which an inventor travels thirty years into the future through suspended animation, discovers that ideas he had been vaguely thinking about are now ubiquitous inventions, and then sets about time-traveling back to the past to recreate those inventions, in order to make sure the future turns out right.

There are other stories with this general theme, but I think those two may be the most iconic. In my opinion this entire concept breaks an important implied contract with the reader. Allow me to explain.

Sci Fi generally starts off with some non-real premise – time travel, parallel universes, an encounter between two intelligent species, an unexpected mutation. A world is then rendered that is quite consistent within the ground rules of the initial premise. This is why Sci Fi can be so useful as political or social allegory – it removes us to a “safe” alternate place to allow frank discussions of technological hubris, prejudice, xenophobia, overpopulatin, and other issues that may be more easily assayed with the dispassion that comes from distance.

What disturbs me about the concept of circular causality is that it does something else entirely: It destroys the distinction between “human mind” and “the world outside the human mind”. Where do these inventions come from, if not from human minds? They are, after all inventions. The authors are clearly not suggesting some sort of deity at work. Rather, the inventions seem to spring full blown from the Æther, a kind of heavy handed Deus ex Machina imposed by the author for plot convenience. By presenting us with a logical impossibility, the author gives us no self-consistent premise from which to push off.

When it resorts to this kind of transparent intellectual fakery, Sci Fi runs the risk of losing its immense allegorical power. When an author posits an invention that invents itself, he leaves us an allegory that uninvents itself.

5 thoughts on “Circular causality”

  1. The earliest science fiction story I know of dealing with paradoxes from information from the future affecting the past is Oedipus Rex, from 400 BC. Similar themes show up in All You Zombies…

  2. Ah Douglas, I knew you would be the one to respond to this post. 🙂

    It’s interesting to compare the two stories I described to both Oedipus Rex and “All You Zombies”.

    I agree that Oedipus Rex is certainly an early example of playing with the future, but not necessarily that it is an example of true paradox. Sophocles is positing no human thought or invention emerging out of a time loop. Rather, his theme seems to be the impossibility of avoiding one’s fate. As is true in all Greek tragedy, by definition the Oracle will never give you sufficient information to avoid your fate – otherwise it wouldn’t be your fate, and the Oracle would never have proclaimed it. In fact, I would argue that the theme of Oedipus is not what a man can know of the future, but rather what he does not know, and in fact cannot know.

    As for “All you Zombies”, I agree that it is a wild ride (perhaps the ultimate wild ride) of looping causality. But I wouldn’t classify it as science fiction. Rather, it is a pointedly over-the-top philosophical fantasy, more in line with Borges than with most of what was being written by Heinlein and his contemporaries.

    And I don’t mean that as criticism. What makes for good fantasy is different than what makes for good Sci Fi, because their purposes are different.

  3. Thanks Troy. I only got around to reading your forthcoming last week’s comment next week, and I felt at first that I didn’t quite agree. But then I learned something the week before last that I hadn’t known yet next week, and now I finally understand your point.

  4. I’m glad we see eye to eye. Of course, I will have already known how you have already reacted to what I will have said.

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