Classic Time Travel Paradoxes (And How To Avoid Them)

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Author’s Note: I assume that some day, this article will serve as an invaluable guide and warning for our time traveling ancestors-to-be (who will of course be unable to read books and learn these lessons for themselves, either because [a] all the books will have been burned, or [b] kids will have stopped reading books entirely, because grumble grumble, god damn kids, when I was your age, video games, blah blah, detriment to society, buncha hooligans, kids these days, no respect, etc). In the meantime, just enjoy it for all of its delightfully entertaining/convoluted/paradoxical pleasures.

As anyone who’s anyone who’s read any time travel story ever could easily tell you, time travel is a tricky subject. Temporal paradoxes might seem simple and straightforward at the start (no they don’t), but they always devolve quite quickly (linear time-wise) into some sort of trippy, philosophically complicated, timey-wimey conundrum that makes even the most convoluted middle school relationship make sense by comparison. Come to think of it, maybe the reason that all those cool kids in middle school suffer from impossibly complicated and melodramatic romances to begin with is because they’re all too “cool” to read time travel stories in the first place, which would obviously teach them the benefits of temporally linear dating, if nothing else.

I’m looking at you, River Song.

For the most part, any paradox related to time travel can generally be resolved or avoided by the Novikov self-consistency principle, which essentially asserts that for any scenario in which a paradox might arise, the probability of that event actually occurring is zero — or, to quote from LOST, “whatever happened, happened,” meaning that no matter what anyone does, they can’t actually create a paradox, because the laws of quantum physics will self-correct to avoid such a situation. Still, I’m wary of such a loose explanation for things, and so below, I’ve compiled a list of a few of the more popular time travel paradoxes — and what to do to avoid them.

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