Conversations With My Wife: Again, But Sooner

Ask me what I’m thinking about at any random time of the day, and I’ll probably tell you something along the lines of what if I go back in time and retain all of my memories like Jeff Winston in Replay? As a carbon-based lifeform irrevocably trapped into the unidirectional flow of time, I’m almost always thinking about what life would be like with foreknowledge of the future. Since I can’t see into the future from here, I often imagine myself going back and trying again. Sometimes I think about what I could do differently, and sometimes I imagine what it would be like to try to do it all the same, but sooner. I’ll explain.

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Sarcastically speaking, Dom loves when I try to talk to her while she’s making dinner.

Me: Are you busy?

Her: I’m making dinner, but what’s up?

Me: If I went back in time and became my 18-year-old self again with all my knowledge of the future and used that future to woo you into dating me in 1998 versus 2011 would you want or expect me to ever tell you that I was from the future?

Her: *gritting her teeth* Dammit, Daniel…

Jeff Winston didn’t have kids in his original life in Replay, so when he decided to meet his wife again, it was in the hopes he finally could have children. Dom and I have two children, and it occurred to me about 15 minutes before bothering her that if I went back, the odds of recreating my life such that my children are born exactly the way they are now would be astronomically huge. It’s just not possible.

So, were this to happen, I’d have to have a moment of silence for my lost children and just hope they’re continuing on in their own timeline with another version of me.

Catastrophic emotional and mental damage aside, it would be time to find and court Dom. Despite not meeting until we were in our early thirties, we both attended the University of Texas at the same time, lived in the dorms at the same time, etc. So I could have walked around and eventually found her. And after using my intimate knowledge of her likes and dislikes, there would come a moment where I would want to tell her the truth.

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Me: Okay, let’s say I decided to tell you I’m from the future. Would you believe me?

Dom: No.

Me: But I would know everything about you.

Dom: And you used that info to date me? I’d think you were a stalker.

Me: But you would be in love with me.

Dom: Would I? Look, I’m trying to make dinner here.

She had a point. Could I ever really convince her I was from the future? And if so, what would be the fallout of such an admission? What would be the dynamics of a relationship where one person has knowledge of the future? What responsibilities would that person have?

We went back and forth for a while about this scenario, with me playing up the benefits of getting together sooner in life and doing more and having a bigger family and all that good stuff. If we settled on a go-forward plan (to borrow some eyeroll-inducing corp-speak from LinkedIn), it was that were I to travel back in time, I should keep that to myself. Never tell her.

But would that be ethically wrong? To manipulate someone like that? I pleaded my case that honesty was the best policy, but the more we went around, the less it appeared that finding Dom in the past would be a viable endeavor. No matter what I do, it all eventually falls apart.

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There was only one path forward that I could see. And it’s dark

Me: Okay, so let’s say I woo you.

Dom: You woo me.

Me: And I tell you I’m from the future.

Dom: And I believe you?

Me: You believe me. And you’re into it. You’ve bought into the idea that something amazing is happening here, and you fantasize about going through life with someone who knows the future. And then in late 2000, I sit you down and say, okay, now we need to start thinking about how we’re going to stop 9/11.

Dom: You know, when you asked if I was busy, I thought you meant you had a question about the calendar or whether we’re sitting at the table or the bar, not this… *waves hands and spoon uncertainly* …whatever this is.

My wife is often surprised at the things I spend my time thinking about and vice versa. And though I appreciate the beauty of being two different and separate people, I sometimes wish she would indulge me in these scenarios. For decades, the literary world has been full of stories about stopping JFK from getting shot–hell, Umbrella Academy season 2 is all about it. My generation may well write about stopping 9/11, and the next about stopping Trump, and so forth.

Do most people not think about these kinds of things? Are writers just outliers like that?

My final question from the conversation, the one that gestates and eventually turns into a 2,000 free-writing exercise, was this:

Whether JFK or 9/11 or Trump, if you traveled back in time, do you think you have a moral obligation to stop these disasters before they strike? You see, if Dom buys in on me being from the future, she joins her morality to the situation. What if I didn’t act to stop 9/11 and she realizes I knew but did nothing?! Like I said, it all falls apart.

Anyway, what do you think? Do we have a moral obligation?

Let me know in the comments. Or better yet, ask this question to your spouse while they’re trying to make dinner and report back with the answer.

I’ll wait.

person washing fork
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You and I, Arjuna, have lived many lives.

I remember them all, you do not remember.

Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.

I was only nine or ten when I picked up Replay for the first time. In the decades since, I’ve read it over and over again in the hopes of becoming a better writer. It has taught me how to be direct with my language, how to be honest with the motivations and desires of my characters, and most importantly, it showed me (and continues to show me) that stories can be more than just entertainment; they can make your reader feel something.

Prior to reading my first big boy book, I was content to devour anything written by Judy Blume, Louis Sachar, and Bruce Coville. If there was a finer book than My Teacher Fried My Brains, I hadn’t read it. I had always been aware of my parents’ bookshelf, but the titles had always seemed so imposing. ShogunThe Satanic Verses, IT. Okay, IT is not that imposing, but still. These books were dense and full of big words I didn’t understand.

Replay, though, seemed instantly accessible. I turned to the first page and there it was.

Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.

It might have been the best and worst of times, and the clocks might have been striking thirteen, but I consider Replay’s opening line to be one of the best in literature. There is so much contained in this one little sentence, and it is as tragic as it is mundane. We join the story just as the main character dies. At ten years old, I had yet to read a book where anyone dies, let alone at the very beginning of the story.

Replay is the story of a middle-aged guy who dies and wakes up as his 18 year old self with all of his knowledge still intact. He has to relive his life knowing what will happen, not just to himself, but to the world. He tries to avoid the bad moments and recapture the good, but as he finds out, the future isn’t set. Just by having knowledge of it, of thinking he knows how it will go, he changes his replay in ways he couldn’t have imagined. He lives another life, only to die again of another heart attack.

Wash, rinse, and replay.

Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.

Whenever I tell someone about Replay, I usually just parrot the synopsis and hope they find it interesting enough to purchase the book. However, to really tell you why this book is my favorite, we have to go beyond the sex, drugs, love, and loss of Jeff’s various replays. You see, on a superficial level, a man counting cards in Vegas or betting on the Preakness is just as entertaining as Peter trying to mail his little brother. There are a lot of books, and a lot of sci-fi, that are just pure entertainment. Just really cool things that happen to really cool people. And explosions.

Replay is different. I didn’t realize it until the very end of chapter seven. For the first third of the book, I was pretty entertained. Jeff gets into some crazy stuff (crazier if you’re a ten year old boy with no reckoning of the adult world), but it wasn’t until this moment that I realized something incredible: I was having an emotional response to a story. It was like a moment of sudden self-awareness. I saw beyond the narrator to Ken Grimwood sitting at his typewriter. I saw him crafting the story, moving pieces here and there, trying to elicit an emotional reaction.

After that moment, everything changed.

Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.

I tell people I like to write love stories disguised as Science Fiction, and I owe that all to Replay. Though time travel is a common SF element, the emotional journey Jeff takes throughout his many lives seems to be unique. (I wouldn’t see it again until decades later in The Time Traveler’s Wife.) It’s all well and good to have virtual reality and robots and endotech, but there has to be an element that reaches out to the reader and squeezes their heart in their chest.

Transferring emotional content from the writer to the reader (or trying to, anyway) has shaped the content of my novels and will continue to forever. Xronixle would not be the same if X didn’t have a misguided love for CVeneer would have been all visuals if not for the misunderstood relationships between Deron and Rosalia, and Rosalia and Ilya. In Perion Synthetics, I wanted to focus on the relationships between humans and synthetics more than the novelty of anatomically correct sex robots.

Replay was the first book to show me that emotional transfer was possible through storytelling.

The possibilities, Jeff knew, were endless.

There is so much to learn from this book beyond what writing is about. So much of my personal style is derived from Grimwood’s that I often read this book, or just chapters, before I start writing something new, or when I’m stuck. If I can’t start a chapter, I’ll load up my Kindle and read a few from Replay, just so I can remember that yes, writing is easy, so long as you are direct and honest.

Here are some other things I’ve learned from Replay:

  • Flaws give a character depth
  • The narrator is as much a character as the characters
  • Sex is a natural part of human existence, no matter what the American Family Association says
  • Chapters should end with a smooth taper or powerful bang, never ambiguously
  • Respect the emotional connection between the reader and the characters
  • Write freely

All of this said, Replay is not just a book to inspire readers to be writers. It is entertaining and thoughtful, exciting and poignant. I tell everyone who hasn’t read it that they must read it now, which reminds me:

If you have not read this book, you must read it now.

Order the book from Amazon.

Read more about Ken Grimwood at Wikipedia.

If you’ve read the book, what was your favorite part?