It was purely on a whim that I started watching Nine: Nine Time Travels (나인: 아홉번의 시간여행), and all I can say is YES! As in, FINALLY! — a time travel story that spends most of its energy broaching topics closely pertinent to the question of time and also near and dear to my heart — namely: Free Will vs. Predestination; Counterfactuals and Causality; the simultaneity of the present in all instances; and the progressive/sequential nature of the experience of perception. In the end, the subtle idea that the passage of time is merely a perceptual illusion; that every moment of our lives presents us the challenge and opportunity to make choices; and that the choice we make now shapes every subsequent now that we experience; it is an idea I find intriguing and very appealing, and this story presents and handles it beautifully with considerable pathos and humor.
Nine‘s greatest strength is that it anchors its story on a fundamental reality of the human experience: because we can experience regret which makes us sometimes wish we could get a do-over, the fantasy of time travel can have real meaning for us. For in that fantasy resides the dream that we might actually get to make a different choice, or guide others into making better, wiser choices. In fact, I cannot think of a single instance in my life when I have wanted to relive a happy and satisfying moment. There are many, however, when I have wanted to change a moment that brought fear, pain and sadness. If I could not change it materially, I at least wanted to alter how I experienced it after the fact – i.e. eradicate my memory of it to make it seem as if it never happened…
The story’s foundational allegory is rooted in the recurring metaphor of the ‘fruit of knowledge’ which comes up in the protagonist’s conversations with his friend, as well as in his narrations. This allusion to the “fruit of knowledge of good and evil” from the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis plays on the danger inherent to the ability to travel back in time and change the nature or outcome of events. In the biblical story, God places Adam and Eve in Paradise and gives them everything. They may have whatever they desire except the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Well, we know how that turns out. So in Nine the “fruit of knowledge” functions as a metaphor for the paradox that is both human hubris (the presumption to pursue and attain god-like understanding) and human frailty when faced with temptation. It’s a fantastic metaphor: you are given an object that promises to allow you to play God, but you know you cannot use it without unleashing some gnarly consequences – both for yourself and for others. What do you do? Show me the man who would resist entirely and I will be looking at a truly enlightened soul.
The storytellers here have the wisdom to not treat time travel as an ex machina gimmick and they don’t get bogged down on the logistics of the how and why (and ever so rightly!); they are not here to sell the idea that time travel is possible. Rather, the story focuses its resources on exploring ethical conundrums concerning what motivates our choices and how we deal with the consequences of those choices; how much our investment in the choices we make inform subsequent decisions; and what all these together signify in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. I especially love that because the hero fails to change the central, horrific event that drove his brother’s quest for the ‘Time Machine’, the story can become primarily about how people choose to respond to terrible occurrences, the degree to which they will exercise their own will to take responsibility and whether they will choose to see that responsibility-taking as an opportunity for atonement or simply resist it as punishment.
I think that an additional secret to Nine‘s success is that it keeps the ripple effects of each interference with the past within fairly modest, and therefore manageable, bounds. I have often seen, especially in American sci-fi stories whose spiel is that maintaining the desired universal normal — i.e. the normal that we know, defined in primarily material terms — all hinges upon a single event – a fork in the road, as it were. The stakes in these cases are often of a planetary – even galactic – scale, putting them beyond the scope of an ordinary individual’s threshold of empathy. At the foundation of this premise is the idea that time is basically a series of vector trajectories – its progress forward comparable to that of a bowling ball rolling down an infinite incline full of bumps, indents and obstacles that represent possible points of deviation. The time traveller’s mission in stories like these is usually to identify the moment of unwanted deviation and return to a preceding instant in the ball’s itinerary where he can redirect its trajectory as desired. But with the stakes so far beyond our capacity to contain psychologically, we in the audience can usually only observe the proceedings from a safe, uninvested distance.
Nine, on the other hand, has the sophistication to conceive of all presents as simultaneous from a common vector – a bit like the seeds on a mature dandelion head; and all these presents are possible and in fact real. The time traveller is simply able to move between them, retaining his memories and awareness of each alternate present he has visited in his past, all within the narrow confines of our normal myopic view of what we perceive as real. Furthermore, the cataclysms in Nine that result from our time traveller changing something in his past or in the past of those close to him are constrained to the lives of a very few people, making it much easier to empathize with a particular individual’s fate and thus grow invested in the unfolding drama.
The reason for this is that Nine interprets the concept of a ripple effect quite differently than conventional sci-fi does. In both cases, the defining event is like a pebble dropped in a pond which then creates a series of ripples that propagate outward in a circular (or spherical) pattern, the outer circumference growing larger (i.e. its period augmenting) over time even as the wave amplitude (or depth) diminishes. In essence, the wave is deepest and strongest at its smallest circumference immediately adjacent to the propagating event and shallowest at its widest circumference farthest away from the center.
In conventional sci-fi, it is the breath of this outer edge that matters: the bigger its circumference, the farther reaching (and usually dramatically devastating) the effects of the narrative event pebble. In Nine, however, it is the effect of the wave’s changes in amplitude (depth) and period (frequency) that is taken into consideration. So, closest to the event pebble where the amplitude is greatest (and the period is smallest), the effects of the pebble event are most significantly felt; farther away – both in distance and time – from the event pebble, the more diminished the amplitude (and the more augmented the period) and the less consequential the effects. This reading of the ripple effect is more consistent with the empirically verifiable behavior of fluid dynamics than the conventional sci-fi reading otherwise known as the Butterfly Effect.
It therefore so happens in Nine that there are eventually five individuals who become aware of the alterations in reality wrought by the time traveller; and they happen to be the five people most directly connected to our narrative event propagator, the time traveller. I think it very clever of the storyteller that for at least one of them — the best friend — nothing concrete in his life changes: he has the same wife and children through each alternate reality and he continues quite constantly in his career as surgeon and in his life as best friend. But this is true for him because neither he nor the time traveller make any decisions that lead to different outcomes in his life. Our hero, picking up where his damaged brother had left off, and given his sustained awareness of the alternate realities of the present, is the most affected and also the most troubled, followed by his beloved and then eventually by his nemesis. The rest of the world undergoes the large and small reality alterations without even noticing that anything has changed. This dynamic underscores the idea of how much perception is informed by awareness: those who know that there exists a mechanism that makes it possible to alter their lived reality are also able to discern these alterations when they occur by experiencing the changes in their memories.
And of course, I love the ending. Ultimately, the drama’s greatest strength is that it is structurally consistent and the logic of the “time travel” bears out throughout the story. This meticulous consistency offers some reassurance that even those elements that may not seem to make sense at first viewing are nevertheless meaningful and that their significance can become apparent to the viewer in retrospect or with repeated viewing.
There’s a really good discussion doing on over at dramababble about the finale and particularly the final scene. The discussion is all the more engaging because both Maybee and Jamok’s observations about the drama’s closing underscore the entire story’s structural integrity. I will go ahead and publish this post as is, reserving the privilege of editing and altering it as my ideas develop and mature with time. For the moment, I just have to register my delight with this fantastic bit of ethical fiction starring Lee Jin Wook, last seen, with great enjoyment, in the quirky and kinda fantastic Someday, and the refreshingly bright Yo Joon Hee who – sadly, I think – only really gets to shine in the final episode.