Paradoxes of Time Travel

I have always loved time-travel stories, ever since I was a child. I was a devoted fan of the original Star Trek series for many years, starting around the age of ten, and ever since then I have devoured any story or movie that deals with the idea of time-travel. (One of my favorites in recent years is Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, which I highly recommend if you haven't read it yet. Or wait for the movie version, which will be out around Christmas 2008, I think.)

The paradoxes caused by time-travel in the OUTLANDER books have always intrigued me. Take Jemmy's box, for example:

The note was brief, stating merely that the box had come from a defunct banking house in Edinburgh. Instructions had been stored with the box, stating that it was not to be opened, save by the person whose name was inscribed thereon. The original instructions had perished, but were passed on verbally by the person from whom he obtained the box.

(From A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon, "Epilogue I: Lallybroch". Copyright© 2005 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)

All right. So the box has been carefully preserved for two hundred years. Did it already exist, in some twentieth-century bank vault, at the time Claire was born in 1918? If events happen only once (as the Gabaldon Theory of Time Travel would have us believe) then I suppose the answer is yes. And if the box already existed before Claire was born, does that mean she was somehow fated to go back in time?

And what about the other evidence of the time-travelers' presence in the past? The documented proof that they were in the 18th century exists, certainly, in our own time. The deed of sassine with Claire's signature on it (DRAGONFLY IN AMBER). The newspaper clipping (DRUMS OF AUTUMN). For all we know, the copy of the Lexington Alarm mentioned in ABOSAA -- written in Claire's handwriting with Jamie's signature at the bottom -- may have survived in some historian's files somewhere.

Frank certainly seems to have found some sort of evidence of Brianna's presence in the past, as Bree herself notes in FIERY CROSS:

"I wondered why a man who didn't ride or shoot should take such pains to see that his daughter could do both those things. I mean, it wasn't like it was common for girls to do that." She tried to laugh. "Not in Boston, anyway."

(From The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 20, "Shooting Lessons". Copyright© 2001 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)

What do you suppose Frank found? Bree's marriage certificate, perhaps? And if evidence of Brianna's presence in the past existed in the 20th century long before she even knew she was a time-traveler, does this mean that she was "meant" to travel back in time? Did she choose to do so of her own free will, or because history showed she was there?

The paradoxes of time-travel tend to give people headaches. Enough of my speculations for now. I'd like to hear what you think.


Bedelia said...

Is that the theory in a nutshell? Things happen only once? Cuz this theory confuses me no end. Just when I think I have it figured out, I get tripped up again. Question for you: on one of the other forums, I think LOL, they're discussing Joe and Claire talking about the skeleton and bones that turn out to be Geillis', but since Claire hasn't gone back to kill Geillis, nor has Geillis gone back yet (it's before 1968), how can this be? Or do we just have to wait and see.

****SPOILER***** if you haven't read The Time Traveler's Wife

Karen, I liked it too, but didn't you want to yell during those scenes when Henry visited himself at a different age "But you can't do that - you'll be killed like Roger almost was!"


Karen Henry said...


When I get home this evening I'll track down the relevant bits from the Gabaldon Theory as stated in the OUTLANDISH COMPANION. The only online version I found (on her web site) doesn't include that aspect of it, but I'm sure I read it somewhere. <g>

As for Geillie and the bones...very good point! Yes, that's another of the paradoxes I was talking about. Did the bones exist in that cave in the Caribbean prior to Geillie's first trip back in time in 1968 (in DRAGONFLY)? If not, did they just sort of spontaneously appear there after Claire went back in time a few months later?

Oh, and about TTW: I read it long before I ever heard of the OUTLANDER books, so that was definitely not a consideration for me the first time I read it. But I agree, it's a different approach to time-travel than the one taken in Diana's books.

More later.


Bedelia said...

No,no, Karen really - I've got the Companion - I'll find it - I just needed to be pushed in the right direction. You've got enough to do!


Karen Henry said...


It's no trouble, really. It was bugging me that I couldn't remember where I read that. And now I'm beginning to think that I made it up, or maybe imagined Diana saying it. <shrug>

So anyway, just for the sake of curiosity, I dug out the COMPANION, and found this, on p. 337:

"What I call a fictional 'Moebius twist' effect is a situation in which a character by the action of free choice achieves a result that preserves a personal historical reality, which would not be preserved without the character's intervention."

(From The Outlandish Companion by Diana Gabaldon, "The Gabaldon Theory of Time Travel". Copyright (c) 1999 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)

That's what we're talking about here, I think.


Jari Backman said...

Dear Bedelia,

The bones existing, before Geillis went back would have been a clear indication to the box question.

However, at the time Claire was inspecting Geillis' bones (in Voyager), she already had left (in DIA).

I think that if a person can go back in the time, some of the betts are off. Maybe you create a predestined life circle between your departure and arrival back in time that Karen called fate. And maybe you just can't reason the consequences.

Diana used Roger saving his great-grand..father as an example on Moebius twist. I just wanted to comment (after having read her novels) that actually we are not 100% sure that the boy

- would really have died without Roger
- was Roger's great-grand..father as if the child had perished, the parents could have named a new boy with the same name

Anonymous said...

Gabaldon's time travel aspect of the story has been such an intellectually challenging puzzle for me, as well. After completing ABOSAA, I now have another puzzler to add to my list of questions about the Gabaldon theory of time travel, and this involves Jamie. Now we know that DG emphatically states (in various sources) that Jamie will NEVER be a time traveler; he is a man of his time and he will physically stay there; HOWEVER, we DO know that Jamie has dreams. In these dreams, he has seen the reverend's study with the tall windows, he's described what Claire identifies as a "telephone," and other things in Claire and Bree's future lifetime. Does this mean that, perhaps, there is another way of time travel...that is, is Jamie, in his spirit essence, traveling in his dreams? His physical body is not traveling to the future, but he is "seeing" or "experiencing" things in a future lifetime in his dreams. Hmmmmmm....
The only concepts of time travel, as this point in the series, that seem to be certain are:
l. The time travel gene is genetically passed
2. The stones may be a marker or may be an actual vehicle of time travel. Travel is also related, but not limited to, feasts of sun and fire.
3. Gemstones do play a role in protection during time travel.
4. You can go back and forth through the stones more than once, but it can prove to be fatal.
5. You cannot exist in two different time periods AT THE SAME TIME.
6. You can only exist ONCE, regardless of the time period.
7. DG states in the Outlandish Companion that she prefers, as a writer, to give her characters free will and free choice; therefore, (and this is just my opinion here), I think that the actions of Claire, Roger, and Bree are a result of their free choice or a decision that they chose to make, and the consequences of those free choice actions are recorded in the past -- for example, I do not want to believe that Bree was predestined to go into the past, I prefer to believe she CHOSE this path, and as a result, she left a record of her past. Notice that she did not find, in her research, any records of her own existence in the past (or at least DG didn't tell us if she did)...if she had found a record of her existence in the past in the reverend's boxes, then that would definitely have put a different spin on the situation...she would have then maybe felt compelled or predestined to go to the past.

Since DG states that eveything happens only once, then it should follow, (even though it doesn't make sense in our "real world time") that the box of letters and the bones of Geillis existed only once, but the order of time was out of sequence. (How can a box of letters with Claire's writing when she hasn't even been born yet? Well, that's the Gabaldon flip flop time model, that only she will be able to explain....after all, it's fiction....isn't it?

One more thing..I wonder what DG's model of time looks like. We tend to think of the concept of time as linear or a straight continuum. (i.e., one day follows the next, never to be repeated..)
With time travel, the time model may be a zig-zag, or a spiral, or a circle, or something completely different from our limited,narrow concept of linear time.
Anxiously waiting for that next book, and hopefully more answers to the puzzle.

Anonymous said...

With all my ramblings above, I forgot to mention that I absolutely loved The Time Traveler's wife...a very unusual twist to time travel and a truly beautiful love story. Although the next book I'm going to recommend is not a time travel book, I think those who enjoy Diana Gabaldon's writing as a true art form will also enjoy Elizabeth Kostova's novel, The Historian. A young woman discovers secrets of her family's past connection to a dark, evil force...the writing is rich in historical detail and blended beautifully with myth and mystery and romance...perfect reading for a long, cold night.

Karen Henry said...


Thanks for that detailed analysis. <g> I especially liked your comments about Bree. I agree, I would much rather believe she made the choice to go back in time of her own free will.

Here's another one to ponder: The fire in ABOSAA was caused by the combination of ether and matches, anachronistic 20th-century technology introduced by Claire and Bree. It's possible that the fire might never have happened at all without the time-travelers' insistence on trying to recreate these 20th-century inventions in the past. (And when I made this point on Compuserve recently, Diana's reaction was, "Exactly.")

So what does that mean for Brianna? She went back in time to prevent J&C from dying in a fire that, it turns out, might not have happened at all if not for the presence of the matches that she herself created. (And the ether, too, but Claire might have done that on her own and the house still wouldn't have burned down. Ian's striking of the match was the direct cause of the fire.)

Like I said, these paradoxes can give you headaches if you think about them too much! <g> But they still intrigue me.


Bedelia said...


Re: the matches. See this is what so intriques me about the TT issue in particular and Diana's writing in general. She plants these seeds so far in advance of ever using what grows from them. And she doesn't plan out her books, she says. But I've never read any series of books like this where you don't see at least 1 of the setups - she surprises me everytime. And even tho O was just for practice, she has answers for every time travel question we throw at her. Amazing.

Mitzi H. said...

I am also curious to find out what Frank might have found in regards to Bree going back. I don’t see where there could have been too many records of her time in the past. The only written document we know of is the shipping list of passengers, but there must be additional documentation and I do believe that he found something convincing.

I also think Frank would not have a problem finding Jamie and Claire in the colonies, if he looked. And I think that if he looked for Jamie and Claire in the colonies, then he would have found Bree too. Between the land Jamie owned, the amount of goods he sold or traded and his and Claire’s activity in military actions, not to mention the amount of publicity Claire received after Mulva’s death, there had to be some documents that survived the Revolutionary War.

As far as any documents on Bree, my best guess would be the deed to the property that she and Roger probably gave Jamie when they left. But there could be other small things such as; A bill of sale for the purchase of her horses in Scotland and in the Colonies or her bond servant Lizzy, Newspaper clippings regarding the birth of Amanda, Court records is she testified against Bonnet, Old letters between the families, And maybe even a copy of Jamie’s Will he left with Farquard Campbell.

I hope we’ll get to find this out in Echo, but I have a gut feeling that we may not know the truth of it all until the last book is written.


Gin914 said...

Frank saw the miniatures that Brianna painted. Maybe she has a distinctive style that he immediately recognizes as hers.

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