"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Heroes Five Years Gone: Triumph of Time-Travel and Comics (no spoilers)

For some reason, people who are supposed to know about fiction and narrative and what makes good storytelling have trouble taking comic books seriously. As recently as 1999, when I was President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, comic book writing was not deemed a satisfactory qualification for membership. That's still the case. I never understood the problem - do pictures along with text somehow render the text invalid?

Heroes comes from the comic book tradition. In fact, a comic book, based on the visions of a character who can paint the future, animates the series. Monday night's episode - "Five Years Gone" - is about as fine a time-travel story as I've ever seen on television. Well, ok, maybe it's not quite as good as Harlan Ellison's "City on the Edge of Forever" in the original Star Trek series, or "Yesterday's Enterprise" from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But it's pretty close, and unlike those standalone episodes, it weaves in elements of Heroes we have been seeing almost from the beginning of the series.

Time travel's no easy cookie. If you do it right - if you respect the paradoxes of time travel as really happening - you're asking your readers or audience almost immediately to enter a realm in which headaches come along with the thrills, as people in your story meet their future selves, and your audience must struggle to understand how the future self isn't changed by the very meeting with the past self...

And that's just the beginning - especially for Heroes, which not only has a time-travelling Hiro, but Heroes with all kinds of other fantastic powers, like adopting the looks of others, reading minds, and, the most powerful of all, adopting all the powers of the other super heroes.

"Five Years Gone" dished out then dealt with these problems with style and pretty rigorous logic, positing a world gone wrong, and all-too-humanly flawed heroes struggling against all odds to pull time and the world inside-out and perhaps back on track again.

If there were one or two tin notes - like a thread of this story a little too close to X-Men - that's ok, because the overall effect, and so many characters and plot twists, were so good.

And Heroes made good on some of its crucial implications from earlier in the year. That's not only good television, and all too rare in a TV world in which series come close to veering irredeemably beyond control, but good time-travel telling - in books, short stories, movies, comic books, or any realm.

Useful links:

short essay: The Enjoyable Trouble with Time Travel

my time travel novel: The Plot to Save Socrates

my radioplay, performed live at the Museum of Television and Radio, starring Mark Shanahan

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The Chronology Protection Case, Edgar nominee 2002, best radioplay


MC said...

I tried and failed at time travel(in novel form) when I was 18, so I know how difficult it is to pull off effectively, and when I see or read it done well, I can truly appreciate the work that went behind it.

Paul Levinson said...

The Plot to Save Socrates took me about 3 times longer to write than any other novel ... and I'm now writing Unburning Alexandria, and loving it, but I've got to be careful in every scene to make sure I don't haver a character tripping over a paradox...

It is great fun, though.

MC said...

Well, it is fun if you plan it right... there is nothing worse than being 40 thousand words in an noticing the thread that will unravel the whole story around your feet.

Paul Levinson said...

I never let that bother me, as one or two of my critics may have pointed out ...:)

But, actually, if the story feels as if it's threatening to unravel, my advice is just keep writing, and often you'll find yourself on firm ground, and then you can go back and strengthen the gaps...

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