Snake that eats its own tail, for ever and ever - Hindustan Times
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Snake that eats its own tail, for ever and ever

May 12, 2024 01:36 AM IST

Robert A Heinlein’s mind was a playground of paradoxes, time loops, and mind-bending ideas that continue to warp the brains of his readers to this day.

May 8 marked the anniversary of the passing of Robert A Heinlein (1907-1988), a naval engineer turned author who brought “hard” science fiction (sci-fi) to the spotlight, with his stories grounded in science and fuelled by social commentary. Heinlein’s mind was a playground of paradoxes, time loops, and mind-bending ideas that continue to warp the brains of his readers to this day.

Robert A Heinlein(Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Robert A Heinlein(Wikimedia Commons)

Think of the technology in the film, The Martian, or the social questions of The Expanse, and you’re tapping into Heinlein’s legacy. His visual settings are eerily visionary. The moving walkways in airports today can be found in his 1940 story “The Roads Must Roll”. Waldos, a term coined by Heinlein to describe advanced robotic arms, is now essential in surgery, space exploration, and manufacturing. But Heinlein’s ideas aren’t confined to the realms of science fiction alone: The popular adage “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL)”, communicating the idea of opportunity cost, is central to his 1966 novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and predates the Milton Friedman’s There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch by 10 years. Still not impressed? Google where the word Grok — the name Elon Musk has given to his AI chatbot comes from.

Among his most iconic works is the short story All You Zombies, a mind-bending exploration of time travel pondering on the question: What if you were your own mother, father, son, and daughter? Now, if that sounds familiar, you’ve watched the 2014 Spierig brothers film Predestination, where Heinlein’s legacy overcomes the confines of the written word and makes a leap to the big screen. The film stands as a complex and haunting work in its own right, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook wearing a Leonardo Di Caprio look. There is a mysterious criminal, and a temporal cop, both going down a path that forces them to question everything they think they know about time and identity.

The film draws deeply from Heinlein’s bizarre short story and yet expands upon the narrative. In addition to the core paradox, the film fleshes out in depth the wobbly world of its characters and the dilemmas that a time-bending universe would raise. The adaptation is so faithful to the book that scenes and dialogues are picked straight up. Both versions grapple with the same mind-twisting questions: How much is fate, and how much is free will? And if we could change the past, what would the cost be to ourselves? But the film asks these questions more directly and within the precincts of a noir thriller setting. Now, how that works out is for the viewer to decide. However, once you read the story, you do yearn to see its primal simplicity on-screen. In this sense, the story, also a twister-turner, uses the predestination paradox to great effect without dropping a “hint” in every other sentence. We do wish for the Spierig brothers to have had a little more confidence in their audiences, and just let the story do its thing.

This is not to say the film is not telling. It turns out to be one of those rare instances of laudable visual storytelling where despite the story featuring only two characters speaking in great intimacy, the viewers are never affected by the boredom the talking heads syndrome normally induces. Contrarily, it stages its characters to appear mysterious and connected at the same time. For instance, when the character John played meticulously by Sarah Snook calls the barkeep a “son of a bitch”, self-referencing himself and all versions of John in the past and future is a mind-bending use of the time loop.

The film marks its 10th anniversary but is extremely relevant to pop culture today owing to the complex plot principally held together by the metaphor of gender-fluid experiences. It explores queer identities by unbundling how much identity is externally imposed versus internally defined. As Heinlein says, “A person is a person, no matter the circumstances of their birth.” While the story and the film leave us with one dominant thought “if” we have free will, it also stunningly underscores how our lives have meaning regardless of free will. Just like how the characters John and Jane’s actions have emotional weight, however, bound by the overbearing limitations of paradox or fate they may be. It’s also possible Heinlein is warning us about the dangers of time travel, compellingly arguing for us to live in the present and not bothering to delve into altering our past.

Whether you’re a die-hard Heinlein fan or a newcomer to the world of time-travel paradoxes, whether you believe in free will and moral dilemmas, and whether you encounter this puzzle as a short story or as a film experience, it’s bound to stick with you long after the credits roll (or after you turn the last page).

Padmapriya Janakiraman is a national award-winning actor and founder of Padma’s Lit Club, a platform for sharing diverse, women-centred stories and Yash Mittal is a student at Jamia Millia Islamia. The views expressed are personal

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