- Of Time Loops and DerivativesChristopher Nolan's Interstellar and the Logic of the Futures Market
As will be obvious to the most casual viewer, speculative fiction of the twenty-first century has been characterized by an extraordinary proliferation of apocalyptic narratives, all featuring the end of the world as we know it. Sometimes the end comes through a gradual fraying of the social fabric, as in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower series (1993; 1998) or Edan Lapucki's California (2015), until society is reduced to a Hobbesian world ruled by roving bands of thugs, arsonists, and cannibals. Or maybe it's a nuclear conflict that initiates Armageddon, as in Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2007) or the Hughes brothers' The Book of Eli (2010). Some visions of the end, like Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam trilogy (2002–14) or Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (2009), feature a biogenetic-induced ecological catastrophe. In others, various threats to planetary survival mutually reinforce one another; in John Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand series (2009; 2011; 2015) or Omar El [End Page 277] Akkad's American War: A Novel (2017), for example, the social tensions brought on by climate change lead to civil war. And sometimes the reasons for catastrophe are never fully articulated; we never learn whether biogenetics, germ warfare, or global warming is ultimately to blame for the global pandemics of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012) or Emily St. John's Station Eleven (2014). This short list of titles barely scratches the surface; contemporary visions of a coming Armageddon are myriad, most of which feature a catastrophe brought about by human activity.
This proliferation of apocalyptic narratives is hardly surprising; at a time when human life, along with that of numerous other species, appears menaced by numerous threats of our own making, one can hardly wonder that the cultural imaginary should obsessively ask how it will all end. And if the popularity of apocalyptic narratives is symptomatic of a heightened sense of planetary precarity, we can hardly overstate the role of capitalism in this state of affairs, as global finance creates a system of perverse incentives that give rise to a series of growing social and natural crises, even as it weakens the various political agents that might mitigate against such threats (Klein 2006; 2015; Malm 2016; Moore 2015; Vogl 2017). If Fredric Jameson is correct in his famous assertion that we can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, the popularity of apocalyptic fiction appears to offer a corollary: if we cannot stave off the end, then we are compelled to imagine it over and over, in endless permutations (Jameson 2003).
Although much could be said about the popularity of apocalyptic visions and their relation to contemporary finance capital, this essay will focus instead on a more hopeful genre, a subcategory of speculative fiction that employs time travel as a narrative means to avert a catastrophic disaster through a rescuing intervention that comes from the future. This plot device constitutes a new twist on an old theme. Science fiction writers have long been intrigued by the symmetry of mathematical models of time—a symmetry that would appear to show that time travel could move either forward or backward, at least in theory. However, mathematical symmetry is belied by a problem of logical causality known as the grandfather paradox: if one were to travel back in time and kill one's own grandfather, one would immediately cease to exist. In the twentieth century, time-travel narratives tended to be [End Page 278] dominated by various permutations of this theme: in Ray Bradbury's famous "Sound of Thunder" (1997), for example, a time-traveler's misstep in a primordial swamp lands on a butterfly, and suddenly all of the protagonists disappear. And of course, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly nearly vanishes when he inadvertently intervenes in his parents' courtship.
In contrast to these earlier narratives, which face backward to the past to engage a logical paradox that challenges continued existence in the present, the time-travel narratives of more recent years tend to be...