Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Time Travel vs. Life Travel

I think it is important to clearly define these terms. When we say “time travel” we traditionally think of a person being able to go backwards or forward to any point in time and to any place on the earth. Marty McFly can go back to the future in his De Lorean. Bill and Ted can collect famous history dudes in their flying phone booth. But that is not the kind of “time travel” we have seen so far on Lost. Lost's version isn’t really “time travel” in that traditional sense. It is more like “life travel.”

I want to call this “life travel” because the traveling is limited to the lifespan of the person doing the traveling. It is not the physical person who is traveling from one place to another place so much as it is the mind or the consciousness of that person -- like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five.

In “life traveling,” Marty McFly can’t go back to meet his parents in 1955, 30 years before he was born, because there was no physical “Marty” in 1955 for his mind to travel in to. Ditto for Bill and Ted, although with those two you have to wonder if there is much of a mind to really travel at all (dude!). In life traveling, at no point does the person travel outside of himself. The travel is all inside – the mind or consciousness travels to different times within their own life.

For example, Desmond’s consciousness can go from 2004 to 1996, as we have seen a few times now. Theoretically, it could also go back to the day he was born, although he would be limited in what he could do as an infant with his under-developed motor and mental skills. But he could not go back to any time before he was born, nor could he go forward to a time after he has died. The traveling is limited to the person’s life span.

I don’t know much about quantum physics, and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but as I understand it, from a molecular point of view (no, I don’t know what that means) a person’s past, present, future is all one. There is no good reason why we should not be able to remember the future the way we remember the past. “Life travel” allows you to not only remember the future, but also to pick any moment in your life and “be” in that moment. Desmond hasn't learned all there is to learn about it yet, but it is possible that he could come to be able to control it.

Of course, with that “memory” of the future, imperfect and incomplete as memories can be, a person can either let things unfold they way they remember them, or they can attempt to change it. For example, when Desmond remembers Charlie dying – as he did several times – he did what he could to change it. I think that the same thing is happening with Ben trying to save his beloved Annie, but on a much much larger scale.


Let’s look at the episodes in Lost where “life travel” first showed up and see if we can understand how and why this is happening. (I'm starting early in season 3, and will add more later on):


We get our first glimpse of Desmond’s new ability when he “remembers” the future. Hurley says something about Jack, Kate, and Sawyer. Desmond says:

“Don’t worry. Locke’s gonna go after them. He said so in his speech.”

Of course Locke didn’t make that speech until later that day, which is when Hurley (and the rest of us) started to figure it out.

Every Man for Himself (S3.04)

In this episode, we see Desmond sitting on the beach looking over at Claire’s tent. He is remembering something that is going to happen -- a deja vu moment -- but we don’t know what. He first suggests that Claire and Aaron leave the tent for a while, so he can make some repairs. When that doesn’t work, he gets a golf club and makes a lightening rod just outside the tent. It starts to rain, lightening strikes, and bam – the disaster he saw earlier (Charlie being struck by lightening) has been averted. “Life traveling” gave Desmond information that he used to change a tragedy.

As if this were not important enough, several other significant things happen in this episode that begin to give us a glimpse into a much larger story on the horizon – the story of Ben and his “life traveling” experience as he changes the tragedies with Annie.

First, it is important to recognize that the Desmond-Charlie storyline is a foreshadowing of the Ben-Annie storyline and that the Ben-Annie storyline is central to the entire series. That assumption will color all these interpretations.

In this episode we learn a little more about Ben than we knew before. Ben tells Sawyer that he has implanted a pace-maker into his chest that will make his heart explode if his heart rate goes above 140. This is just a con, of course, meant to keep Sawyer in line, but also to gain his respect. Ben has some plans for Sawyer in the future, and he needs him to respect him as a conman.

But there is something deeper driving Ben. He comments that the reason Sawyer started behaving was not because he was afraid his heart would explode, it was because he was afraid they would do the same thing to Kate. It was because of love -- a love he tries to hide. Ben mentions this and quotes a passage from Of Mice and Men:

“You work so hard to make her think you don’t care – that you don’t need her… but, “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. It don’t make no difference who the guy is, as long as he’s with you. I tell ya, a guy gets too lonely and he gets sick.”

Why is Ben saying this? Surely he wants to impress Sawyer with a bigger-better "don't you read" comeback. But why this message from the book? Maybe Ben is just trying to get Sawyer to let his guard down with Kate so they can be little humping guinea pigs in Ben's ongoing fertility experiment. But I think there is more to it. I think Ben is also giving us a glimpse of his own motivation. No one wants to be alone. Everyone’s gotta have someone to love. He urges Sawyer to express his feelings for Kate because love is important to Ben – Annie is important. He misses her. And he’s lonely.

Not in Portland (S3.07)

This is also a key episode in understanding Ben’s motivation. While it does not further the Desmond “life traveling” story line, it does give us our first glimpse at the lengths Ben will go to save Annie from dying.

Ben has sent Richard Alpert to Miami to recruit a fertility specialist. Juliet Burke has created life where life is not supposed to be. Ben wants her on the island. Why? In later episodes we learn that pregnant women die on the island. Ben wants Juliet to solve this, and he will not let her go until she does. Why is this so important? Is it because Ben has witnessed a pregnancy-related death on the island with his beloved Annie?

Imagine what would happen if Ben lost Annie, but he had the ability to “life travel.” In that case, it would be possible for him to move forward in time, commission some research to find a cure, then travel back in time and use that cure to save the woman he loves. Would something like that even be possible? With "life travel" it would be. But wouldn't something like that be changing fate? I thought the universe has a way of course-correcting so that people stay on their path no matter what.

Yes, but Ben is fighting against fate. He is pushing a doctrine of free will. He is challenging determinism and emphasizing each person's role in shaping their own life. It is a difficult concept to push because determinism has been the prevailing belief on the island for thousands of years. But he has convinced a few people, and he has created a nice little movie to help convince the rest. We get a taste of this movie when we enter room 23.


Perhaps the most intriguing moment in "Not in Portlad" comes when Kate, Sawyer, and Alex rescue Carl from the brainwashing Room 23.

We hear sounds and see flashing lights and we see the following messages appear on the screen:

“Plant a good seed and you will joyfully gather fruit,”

“Everything Changes,”

“We are the causes of our own suffering,”

“God loves you as he loved Jacob,”

and “Think about your life.”

In addition, if you play the video backwards, you here a phrase repeated by different people over and over again: “Only fools are enslaved by time and space”

Each of these messages is meant to convince the brainwashee that THEY are in control of their actions – they are their own free agents --- their life is determined by their actions, not pre-determined by fate.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these messages:

“Plant a good seed and you will joyfully gather fruit,”

Obviously, you will reap the rewards of your own actions. What you put in to your life will determine what you get out of your life. You are in charge, not fate. This is the positive side of the coin.

“Everything Changes,”

Things are not predetermined and nothing is written in stone. You can change the past, the present, and future. Despite what Ms. Hawking said, you can save the man in the red-shoes and keep him alive. The course-correcting universe does not decide what will be. You do.

“We are the causes of our own suffering,”

Again, you reap the rewards of your own actions. This is the negative side of the coin.

“God loves you as he loved Jacob,”

A very important message to throw in to the brainwashing. This message of absolute human agency is contrary to what Jacob taught. But God supports your agency. He loves you and let’s you choose your path. He doesn’t choose it for you. He loved Jacob, but Jacob fell out of grace because he believed that the universe determines the course of your life. That was a false belief, so he fell out of favor with God. But God loves you like he used to love Jacob, and he supports your free agency.

“Think about your life.”

You control your life. It is up to you. And, if you think about it enough, you will have a clearer understanding of your past, present, and future. This can help you make the best choices and plant the best seeds now.

“Only fools are enslaved by time and space”

This is the ultimate goal for people on the island, to learn how to “un-stick” themselves in time and space. Not everyone is able to achieve it. And once achieved, not everyone is able to control it. But it is possible.

Only fools are enslaved by time and space

No one wants to be a fool, right? So how do you do it? What is the process? There are two main parts to this -- time and space-- and while they certainly interconnect, it would be best to understand them separately.


First, to be enslaved by time means that your consciousness moves only forward, slowly, second-by-second, from birth until death. It is just the normal day-to-day aging process that fools like us are used to. Your mind is always only in “the now.” You may have memories of the past – imperfect and incomplete as they may be -- but if you are enslaved, you cannot “un-stick” yourself from time. You cannot move your mind forward or backward from the now. We have seen Desmond and Minkowski (“I was just on a ferris wheel”) become “unstuck” in time, although neither of them could control it. It happened as a result of their exposure to the electromagnetic qualities of the island, or perhaps to a force-bubble-type-thing that surrounds the island. Either way, we know that they have “life traveled.” Although since they have not learned to control it, the may possibly still be "stuck" (and Minkowski's death only sets an end point for his life traveling ability -- it is still possible for past Minkowski to life travel, if he could somehow find a constant and learn to control it).

Now, there is also reason to believe that "un-enslaving yourself in time" can also mean prolonging your life – stopping, or severally slowing the aging process. This has not been confirmed, but it has been suggested with Richard Alpert, who looks the same today as he did 30 years ago when he first met Ben. Ben says, “you do remember birthdays, don’t you Richard?” So it is possible that a person who is “un-enslaved” by time would live much longer, thus increasing the life span within which to “life travel.” But they are still mortal, and can still be killed...

...and surprised. The future does not always happen the way someone remembers it. You can plan for only so much, but since human agency is still a factor, and there are so many paths, and the universe is constantly course-correcting, the unexpected can (and does) happen all the time.

I think something like this happened with Colleen and Sun. Colleen believed that Sun would not shoot her, because she remembered Sun not shooting her. But in that moment, Sun made a different choice, and it surprised everyone.

We also see this – in a far less tragic example – with the jeweler Ms. Hawking. She is surprised when Desmond says he will take the ring. That isn’t how it was supposed to happen. It’s not how she remembered it. But after the initial shock wore off, she relaxed and resigned herself to fate as if to say, “Go ahead and take the ring – it won’t matter. You won’t use it. It is not your path.” But more on Hawking later.


But what does it mean to be enslaved by space? This has to do with physical location – where you are. A person who is enslaved by space can only ever be exactly where they are. They can walk, or run, or take another means of transportation to move from one location to another, but this takes time (the other enslavement). To be un-enslaved or “un-stuck” in space means that you can move from one physical location to another in no time at all. We have not really seen any clear examples of this yet, but I think we have been given a few glimpses.

There were several times in season two when Walt instantaneously appeared in places he was not supposed to be. This, in fact, was one of the main questions Ms. Clue asked Michael when he mentioned they lived half a world away – did he ever see Walt when they were apart like that? Has Walt ever appeared in a place where he shouldn’t have been? Walt was special, and – although never properly trained on how to achieve this on the island – was intuitively sensitive to the whatever abilities are required to "unstick" yourself in space. This doesn't necessarily mean he could "life travel." Remember, unsticking yourself in time and space are two different things.

When Harper appears to Juliet to pass on a message from Ben, she seems to have appeared out of nowhere and then disappear just as quickly. We know that Tom was able to travel off the island – he told Michael that “some of us” are able to do that. Maybe he traveled by submarine, but it is also possible that he could unstuck himself in space.

We have also seen Jacob’s cabin move from place to place when Hurley came across it. It also was not where it was supposed to be when Locke went back with the hope of talking to Jacob.

It may be possible for a person to be able to unstick themselves in time, but not space (or vice-versa). But imagine how powerful a person would be if he could unstick himself in both! That is when a person would have the appearance of traditional "time travel" but it is still two separate processes. And while we are aware that the island has special electromagnetic qualitites, we still do not know exactly how either one of them is possible.

Flashes Before Your Eyes (S3.08)

So at this point, we have been given some glimpses of “life traveling” and have been introduced to a few motivational themes for anyone (i.e. Desmond, Ben) who might want to prevent a tragedy with their “life traveling” abilities. Now it is time to understand what that person would be up against.

First we learn how Desmond remembers the future. His memory is flawed – he only remembers bits and pieces – and sometimes he remembers wrong (he remembered the wrong night in the pub – the events were correct, but the night was wrong).

Second, we meet Ms. Hawking at the jewelry store while Desmond is shopping for wedding rings, and she provides a wealth of information about The Universe -- the thing that makes free choice inconsequential, because things are going to happen the way they are supposed to happen and you simply cannot change that.

Her first words to Desmond are:

“Never done this before, have you? I can always tell the first timers.”

On the surface, this is understood to mean that Desmond is a first-time ring shopper. But the dialogue is smart and has a double meaning. It can also communicate that this is the first time Desmond has “life traveled.” Ms. Hawking is not just a jeweler. She is much more. A seasoned “life traveler” herself, she has taught many others, and can easily spot a newbie.

When Desmond says, “I’ll take it [the ring],” she is initially surprised.

“No you won’t,” she says. “This is wrong. You don’t buy the ring. You have second thoughts and walk right out that door.”

Desmond is amazed at this, especially when she calls him by name. How is this done? Ms. Hawking replies with this matter-of-fact prophesy:
“I know your name as well as I know that you don’t ask Penny to marry you. In fact, you break her heart. Well, breaking her heart, of course, is what drives you in a few short years from now to enter that sailing race to prove her father wrong. Which brings you to the island, where you spend the next three years of your life entering numbers into the computer, until you are forced to turn that failsafe key. And if you don’t do those things, Desmond David Hulme, every single one of us is dead.”

I call this “prophesy” because it predicts the future. But it’s not really a prediction so much as a recollection of what has already happened – because in that weird quantum physics world, past, present, and future are all one.

But the most interesting question is how does Ms. Hawking know all this? Who is she?

When I first watched the episode, I thought she was a manifestation of the island – that this was all happening in Desmond’s head, not in real life. But since then through seasons 3 and 4 we have learned much more about the reality of “life traveling” – enough to suggest that Ms. Hawking was, in fact, a real person who really met Desmond in that jewelry store in 1996.

But as to who she really is, we can only guess. Besides what she says, the only other clue we have is a picture of she and brother Campbell (the monk who took in Desmond and introduced him to Penny and, indirectly, Charles Widmore) sitting on brother Campbell’s desk

My theory is that Ms. Hawking and brother Campbell are two of those few people who have freed themselves from the enslavement of space and time. They were “Jacobites” – followers of Jacob who lived on the island for hundreds of years. They left when Ben came to power and imprisoned Jacob. Now they are two of a handful of displaced “Jacobites” who are working in the outside world to free Jacob from Ben’s imprisonment. They have seen how this will happen, and they know the important role that Desmond will play (they also know how Ben plays the game and what he does to potential threats), so they have stationed themselves at different places (un-enslaved by space) and different times (un-enslaved by time) in Desmond’s life to guide him and protect him along his path.

Going back to the jewelry store, at first Hawking seems angry that Desmond is not returning the ring to her. But then she relaxes, shakes her head and says, “oh, you’re going to be difficult about this, I can see,” as if she has come across this many times before – like a wizened old Yoda who has wasted too much time with foolish neophytes who believe that they can choose their own path instead of accepting the path that fate has chosen for them.

To teach Desmond an important lesson, she takes him outside and points to a man wearing red shoes. Desmond doesn’t understand what is happening, and he doesn’t really believe it. He suggests that this is all in his head, and that Ms. Hawking is a figment of his subconscious. She simply laughs that away.

Desmond then launches into a speech about how he loves Penny and she loves him and he’s going to spend the rest of his life with her. Ms. Hawking matter-of-factly explains, “no, you’re not,” at which point a scaffolding collapses and kills the man in the red shoes.

Ms. Hawking acknowledges that she knew in advance that this was going to happen, but she tells Desmond that it wouldn’t matter if she had tried to stop it. And it is in this moment that we hear the most important speech ever spoken so far in the show:

“Had I warned him about the scaffolding, tomorrow he’d be hit by a taxi. If I warned him about the taxi, he’d fall in the shower and break his neck. The universe, unfortunately, has a way of course-correcting. That man was supposed to die. That was his path. Just as it’s your path to go to the island. You don’t do it because you choose to, Desmond. You do it because you are supposed to.”

Choice vs. Fate. Desmond is not convinced (and to be honest, I don't know how this plays out with the taxi driver and his path, but I won't convolute the issue with more speculation - I'll chase the rabbit down that hole another time).

Desmond tells Hawking that he is going to propose to Penny and she is going to accept – that he can choose whatever he wants.

With a wise shrug Hawking says, “You may not like your path, Desmond. But pushing that button is the only truly great thing you will ever do.”

Ultimately, she gives up trying to convince him, and leaves him to his fate, trusting completely that what is supposed to happen will in fact happen. And it does.

Choice vs. Fate

Even with the new “life traveling” wrinkle introduced in season 3 and developed further so far in season 4, this is really nothing new to Lost storyline. This tension between choice and fate has been central from day one. Do things happen by chance, or are they meant to be?

Locke believes things are pre-determined, that he is “meant” to do things. Yes, his faith has ebbed and waned, but ultimately he believes in fate.

Jack, on the other hand, believes in choice. He believes that his actions and his actions determine the difference between what happens and what does not happen, and he thinks that Locke is a fool for thinking otherwise.

We have seen what happens when Jack continues down that path – he makes it off the island, grows that awful beard, and contemplates suicide. But he eventually comes to his senses and realizes his mistake – that he was not supposed to leave the island – that there is a destiny for him that brought him to that island in the first place – a destiny he has fought against his entire life. He realizes that needs to return.

This tension between choice and fate is also the key tension that we will see between Ben and Jacob. Jacob and his followers – people like Ms. Hawking – respect fate and accept all that the universe has pre-determined, even those terrible, tragic, unfortunate events. But Ben is angry at fate. He doesn’t like his path, or the path fate chose for Annie, so -- like Jack -- he is pushing the doctrine of choice, as we can see in the freaky brainwashing film of room 23. Ben is determine to change what is “meant to be” by any means necessary. And Ben, with his ability to travel freely in space and time, is a man of very powerful means.

We see this on a smaller scale with Desmond. Like Ben, Desmond has a difficult time accepting this idea of fate. He wants to choose, but ultimately he does exactly what Ms. Hawking predicts. He breaks Penny’s heart. But instinctually, he still wants to protect people from the bad things the he sees in their future. When the guy comes into the bar with the cricket bat and takes a swing and the bartender, Desmond steps in front of the blow, slightly changing what was supposed to happen. And when he is back on the island and sees Charlie die, he goes to great lengths to save him over and over again.

As a result of Desmond’s actions, we see that choice can delay fate, at least temporarily. And it may have gone on much longer had Charlie not chosen to accept his fate. Perhaps this is a foreshadow as well. Perhaps in the end, we may see Ben finally accept fate and stop fighting what is meant to be. Maybe it will be a decision that sends he and Annie to an earlier time on the island – a time where they can live together and die together and have their remains discovered years later in a cave by Jack, Kate, and Locke.

Maybe. But right now he is still fighting, very much like Desmond, but on a much larger scale. The life he’s trying to save is his one true love. Does that make him a villain? (no, murdering and lying and manipulating does).

Ben vs. The Universe

Back to main page.


Jacked Bauer said...

your theories are great... you bring up walt... and it just dawned on me.... is Abaddon grown up life/space traveling Walt?!

Redheaded Zombie said...

Thanks. No, I don't think Abaddon is Walt. I don't think the life-travel, time-travel thing works that way.