27 February 2009

Déjà vu, all over again

Oh and tell me if you want to catch
That feeling of redemption...*

For no obvious reason, whilst doing the washing up, it recently occurred to me how common in fiction is the theme of “trial and improvement”. This is where a character (or, much less often, group of characters) have the opportunity to refine their responses to a situation through repeated reruns – improving the outcome by progressively learning from mistakes. It's the sort of topic which Ray Girvan, over at JSBlog, does so much better than I ... but hey, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and so on.

Trial and improvement is one of the many fictional structures which originated (so far as I am aware, anyway) in science fiction. Algis Budrys' novella Rogue moon is an example: the protagonist, investigating an alien environment, repeatedly dies, is resurrected, tries again using knowledge acquired. (For any SF purists reading this: resurrection is an oversimplification, but will do as a short hand for my purposes.) An episode of some TV series like The outer limits or The twilight zone (apologies for the lack of exact attribution; I was eleven years old at the time) had a pair of time travelling “editors” from the future running, reversing, subtly altering, rerunning a domestic dispute to fine tune a desired future outcome. Ray and I have spent many an hour debating whether this sort of transference from genre to mainstream is or is not a good thing (and for which side of the transaction), and whether or not the label should transfer along with the concept, but it certainly takes place.

The best known mainstream manifestation is the film Groundhog day, in which Bill Murray's character, Phil, starts off selfish, egotistical, callous, self serving, unsympathetic, miserable, but after living through one day thousands of times becomes sensitive, caring, and (the pay off) happier – winning, in the process, the love of Rita.. The Dickens favourite A Christmas carol could be taken as a forerunner (as an aside, Bill Murray played the central character in Scrooged, a retelling of the A Christmas carol story.), as could Dante's Inferno, but both lack the repeated “action replay” quality.

These examples all have personal redemption as the goal towards which refinement leads: analogous, in some ways, to the cycle of incarnation ascending towards perfection in Hindu and Buddhist belief.

There is an obvious connection to, but distinct difference from, “parallel universe” or “alternative history” fictions. The reruns could be seen as analogues of numerous simultaneous quantum universe segments, except that the protagonist successively builds up experience gleaned in each and applies the resultant learning to succeeding instances. This transfer of experience doesn't occur in parallel universe scenarios. Neither of the Gwyneth Paltrows in Sliding doors, for example, is able to benefit from the experience of her parallel self; each must plough their own furrow. Nor is Gully Foyle, in Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! in the same mould; though he is shaped and changed by his quest, and so achieves redemption, his is a linear journey of transformation and not a refinement by repetition of the same time segment.

Ian Watson's The Bloomsday revolution takes the same “repeated day" mechanism as Groundhog day but changes the outcome. While Phil seeks escape from the cycle, he achieves it only as a byproduct of progress to socialisation; for Bloomsday's players, escape from the cycle is itself the outcome and comes as a result of breaking, not learning, rules. Ursula K Le Guin's The darkness box is a more mythic, less explicit fiction; it is by no means clear that any escape or redemption takes place, although nor is it clear that they do not. Repetition, in The darkness box, is the subject and not the mechanism.

Kate Atkinson's Human croquet is a different approach again. Here, the repetitions take place within a dream space as Isobel, the protagonist narrator, lies in a coma. The end point is neither redemption nor escape, in the usual sense, but a coming to terms with both adulthood and reality by a troubled adolescent personality struggling to integrate family secrets, prejudices, ambivalence, complexity and repressed knowledge.

The time traveller's wife (for introduction to which I am indebted to Donna Kirking – thanks, Donna) appears, at first sight, to be unrelated. There is no repetition of one episode, over and over again; the two central characters, Clare and Henry, repeatedly meet in different combinations of ages. Clare is six years old when she first meets the 36 year old Henry; she is in her teens when he dies, though she doesn't see him die until after they are married. I nevertheless classify this along with the other “trial and improvement” fictions because, by repeatedly meeting in new combinations of innocence and experience, Clare and Henry shape each other towards the people who will eventually share a life. Henry can be seen as an equivalent of Groundhog Day's Phil, “improving” through the repeated necessity for relearning Clare.

None of this has gone anywhere; just a form of talking to myself about something that interests me. Redemption used to be a religious preserve; now it's secular, crossed from SF into generic literature.


  • Kate Atkinson, Human croquet. 1997, London: Doubleday. 0385405960

  • Alfred Bester, Tiger! Tiger! (aka The stars my destination). 1956, London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

  • Algis Budrys, Rogue moon. 1980, London: Fontana. 0006154093

  • Charles Dickens, A Christmas carol, in prose : being a ghost story of christmas. 1843, London: Chapman & Hall.

  • Richard Donner, Scrooged. 1988, USA: Paramount Pictures.

  • Ursula K Le Guin, The wind's twelve quarters. 1976, London: Gollancz. 0575020709

  • Audrey Niffenegger, The time traveller's wife. 2004, London: Jonathan Cape. 0224073087

  • Harold Ramis, Groundhog day. 1993, USA: Columbia Pictures Corporation..

  • *Tanita Tikaram, "World outside your window" on Ancient heart. 1988, WEA. 2292438772.

  • Ian Watson, "The Bloomsday revolution" in Slow birds and other stories. 1987, London: Grafton. 0586071431

5 comments:

Poor Pothecary said...

Thanks! Of related interest, I just dug out of the archives a lost blog post from 2001, which looks at a specific of this theme: the odd situation where two different authors, Leon Arden and Richard Lupoff, wrote works using the repeated-day motif, and both think they were uniquely plagiarised by Groundhog Day. See Déjà view.

Dr. C said...

It always helps if you are particularly naughty before the redemption, i.e. the Prodigal Son. However, you can go beyond naughty, a la Milton's Lucifer. One thing you didn't mention, and I wonder if it is included, is the mandatory journey as formulated by Joseph Campbell. In the case of Science Fiction, there is (going out on a limb here) always a journey, if not in space, then in time. Gully Foyle, in "The Stars My Destination" (sorry, Felix) is the proto traveller. It is interesting that the modern American fashion of taking a victory lap (e.g. Obama on the train to Washington) puts the journey after the redemption.

Poor Pothecary said...

Yes, I also think it's a variant on the Campbell Cycle (see diagram). It has the crossing of the threshold into adventure ... loop starts and repeats and repeats ... then coming back out again with the boon (self-knowledge, redemption, getting the girl, maybe solving the problem of why the loop exists). A Campbell Cycle with the Initiation phase (puzzles, trials and helpers etc) played out repeatedly.

Poor Pothecary said...

Just thought of another example: Run Lola Run, which reduces the loop to three iterations, with some information passed on to the next. That rather suggests a loose relationship of the time-loop story to that of the three-wish or multiple-wish story (whether in folkore or more sophisticated forms like The Monkey's Paw, Bedazzled or even The Butterfly Effect). Those too offer iterations, usually leading to a progressive mess, with gaining wisdom (i.e. "leave well alone") as the outcome.

Dr. C said...

Whenever I hear about three wishes I hear Robin Williams in Alladin doing his genie monologue.