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Narratological Problems in Time-Travel Fiction

At a Humanities Center colloquium, Spanish professor Dale Pratt shares his research on time-travel fiction and its paradoxes.

A man is flying with a time machine

Time travel in fiction literature has its paradoxes, and BYU Spanish professor Dale Pratt is finding them and explaining their significance.

At a Humanities Center colloquium on the campus of Brigham Young University, Pratt shared his interest and research in time travel.

According to Pratt, there are two types of time travel: chronoperception, where a person is dreaming of alternate realities, and chronomotion, where there’s a physical time travel with a time machine.

“Chronomotion gives us causal turmoil because of its paradoxes,” said Pratt. “We can avoid paradoxes by saying it was just a dream.”

But when it’s not told as just a dream, readers have to face the paradoxes.

Pratt explained that narrative fiction can be analyzed in terms of discourse and story. Discourse is the text and how it’s presented by the narrator. Story is what is extrapolated from the discourse. “So we can have the same story with different discourses,” said Pratt.

Often readers focus more on the chronology of the story than the order presented by the discourse.

Pratt shared the viewpoint of Jonathan Culler: “Culler offers an alternative view. What would happen if we put the discourse over the story?

“It’s like the things happen because they work into a great story. That’s why things happen – because a writer wants to have a good story he or she makes all of these things occur in the discourse.”

Pratt went on to explain many paradoxes with time-travel fiction. For example, if time travel occurs in discourse and goes back to alter the story, then the syntax of reality is fractured. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly goes back and meets the Doc and his parents before he was born. “That’s weird. These relationships can be altered and that alters reality. What a mess,” Pratt laughed.

Another problematic question with time travel is: What happened to reality? In Frequency, through a series of events, John and his father change their history. “But is he a different person?” asks Pratt. “Who is that person who has resulted from a different history?”

He continued, “If we’re writing fiction, we have to be able to talk about reality in a different way.”

Pratt concluded with an overview of where he is with his understanding of time-travel fiction. “The questions I’ve gotten down to are: What type of story is it? Does the story change? What is the role of freedom in a tale? If there’s no choice, then what are we reading the story for – what is the story about? And how much does the universe value an individual’s choice, as in can a person go back and change what someone else has chosen?”

Humanities Center colloquia help stimulate conversation between various disciplines. For more information on Humanities Center events, visit their website.

—Stephanie Bahr Bentley (B.A. English ’14)

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