Sunday, September 04, 2005

Takes a Lickin', But Keeps On Tickin'

Scott Westerfeld has an interesting post trying to identify the various types of time-travel elasticity in science fiction media and literature, notions of one absolute vs. multiple timelines, and whether or not you can effect change in your own timeline.

In contrast to Ray Bradbury's "butterfly effect," I believe it was Isaac Asimov, who in The End of Eternity, submitted the “wave” theory of elastic time, proposing that the effects of any change would be most noticable immediately after the point of interference/insertion, but would gradually diminish in intensity as you moved past the event. So, killing Hitler would radically alter the 20th century, marginally alter the 21st or 22nd century, and might leave the 23rd century or beyond virtually untouched and have no effect on the 30th century at all. Of course, the largest alterations would carry further forwards, while smaller ones would fade out more rapidly.

Oddly, this reminds me of a recent article I read on the resurgence of the “Great Man” theory of history. The idea that, at any given time, there are about 12 people who are creating the world had falled out of academic favor for some decades, replaced with the notion that economic, social, political trends were shaping events more than individuals, who were simply stepping in to fill roles dictated for them by larger forces. I.e., if you did assassinate Hitler, someone else would have stepped into the power vacuum in Germany and mobilized tensions there to similar effect. However, ironically, George W. has renewed interest in the “Great Man” theory. While the artile wasn’t suggesting W was in any way “great,” it pointed out that in almost-single handedly forcing a war that a) wasn’t necessary and b) wasn’t popular with congress, the people, or the world at large, he has demonstrated how much (catastrophic) effect one individual really can have on the course of history.

The other thing this discussion brings to mind is the way that science filters through into pop culture and effects our fictions even at the most visible layer. The original Star Trek very much adhered to the notion of “one timeline”, which, when broken, was always repaired - the break and it’s correction (as Spock points out in “City on the Edge of Forever”) always part of the design. This holds sway through the TNG episode, “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” in which Guinan senses the wrongness of a universe in with the Federation and Klingon Empire are at war, and impresses Picard on the necessity of repairing the damage. (Picard raises the question, “How do we know this timeline isn’t any more right than any other?” but Guinan steamrollers him into accepting her position.)

But this notion of a single timeline begins to break down with the latter episode “Parallels,” which sees Worf permeating through a variety of alternative timelines until everything culminates in a clusterfuck of thousands of Enterprises from a myriad different universes.

By Deep Space Nine, the notion of one time-line has radically broken down, as withness an episode whose title escapes me, in which Chief O’Brien is constantly teleporting back and forth to a future in which the station is destroyed. Despite the fact that each trip exposes him to radiation poisoning, he makes one final attempt to avert the encroaching disaster, meets himself of just minutes later on, dies, and sends his minutes-into-the-future self back in his stead. Upon his return, he wonders if he really has the right to call Kieko his wife, given that “her” O’Brien died in a timeline that was then prevented from occurring, and is reassured by his best friend that he’s still the Chief, even if his memories are out of whack by a few minutes. Since “most of him” is the same, that’s good enough for government work, what?

Finally, when we get to Voyager’s first few seasons (where my knowledge of Trek ends, as my viewing of Trek did too), time has become elastic, fractal, alterable, permeable, and generally good for twisting into any shape the writers need. The two-part episode “Future’s End” sees multiple versions of characters encountered with no attempt to match cause to effect. Here, a crash-landing in the past has resulted in a boom in 1990s computer technology (seemingly the boom we ourselves experienced - thus the alteration IS the correct time, was always meant to occur, etc..), but the 29th Century timecop that is sent to prevent it is re-encountered twice, once as a sane individual aware of and contributing to the outcome of the episode’s action, and once as a homeless man wandering deranged from the initial crash. Both versions co-exist in the same (final) timeline, and alterations and corrections made in the episode do not erase or negate the mad homeless version’s existence. I quite watching soon afterwards, but kept enough tabs on the show to know that they continued to play with multiple versions of their characters, and multiple co-existing and interacting timelines.

Finally, while I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, I do think that the move from an absolute time to fluid/fractal timelines somehow coincides with blurring questions of individuality and identity unconsciously co-opted from the general zeitgeist. It used to give me fits when Jeri Taylor would tell me “absolutely the holographic doctor is a person” and Brannon Braga would turn around and tell me “absolutely he is not.” They didn’t know themselves, but unconsciously, a lot of that series was about ascribing “personhood” to inanimate, but sentient-seeming, objects, as witness the sympathy everyone gives the doctor when his holographic family breaks down, despite the fact that a simply tripping of a reset switch would have them all up and running again. This inability to distinguish between a long-running program who had achieved self awareness over time and the game-pieces conjured into existence on the holodeck typified the entire series, which, to me, was perfectly appropriate for - and indicative of - an age where a woman driver ran over a biker because her tamaguchi needed immediate food. As tragic as that was, one day I'm sure our robot masters will cite it as a watershed in human/machine empathy.


A.R.Yngve said...


I tend to lean toward the "historical trends shape individuals" view. Specifically: technology shapes us.

Why are so many SF fans nearsighted? Because technology (the printing press, books, computer screens, electric light that allows us to stay up late and read/write) has made us that way.

Our future robot masters will dispute how much WE shape their behavior.

But I'm glad there are several different "schools" of time travel stories... and as long as we don't know the nature of time in the real world, anything goes...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I notice you left out Enterprise in your summary of time travel in Star Trek. I assume that's because you had the good sense never to watch it? Enterprise's timeline was relatively static - or, at least, the show stressed the importance of keeping the timeline static. The "temporal cold war" storyline stated the existence of one true timeline, but also the existence of factions who could, with the appropriate technology, alter it to their satisfaction so long as our heroes (and the "time agents") didn't stop them.

You also left out Star Trek: First Contact which, for all that it's my favorite of the films, really annoyed me on the time travel front. I can't be the only person who found it frustrating to watch our heroes stage-manage one of the pivotal events of their history while constantly impressing on the locals the importance of their belief that this event was genuine and unrehearsed.

Lou Anders said...

hi Abigail,
I stopped with Star Trek about two-thirds of the way through Voyager, no longer able to stomach it. I was a journalist for Titan Publishing at the time, writing for Star Trek Monthly and just felt too dishonet recommending such drivel. It was around the time that a message from home showed Tuvok's wife saying "we miss you and we pray for you at temple" that I threw up my arms in disgust. You miss him? No you don't. You're a fucking Vulcan. You don't have emotions! You pray? To who? Ack!

However, I did watch the Enterprise pilot. Couldn't stomach it and haven't watched Star Trek since. I'm very big on the historical/cultural importance of the show, but how the mighty have fallen.

As to First Contact, despite having done the Making of book for that film, I'm pretty ambivalent. I don't like the notion that when we encountered the Vulcans we were pretty primitive - it's a revisionist bit of continuity from the earlier idea that we met as equals. And it's time Star Trek quit riffing/ripping off "City on the Edge of Forever" already.

I did hear about a "Time War," but don't know any of the details. Sorry, I feel about Star Trek like I feel about cigarettes, i.e., I am an ex-smoker.

Adam Roberts said...

I always read your blog Lou, and think very highly of it, but this entry is one of your best. I think you're on to something big here. I wonder if this shift between a privileged 'one time line (it's mine, and it's special)' view of time and a wildly relativist 'millions, or maybe an infinity, of time lines, (mine not special, maybe I'm not even in most of them)' doesn't mirror that Copernican moment that shifts from (1) to (2).

(1) The Earth (where it just so happens *I* live) is special, and the center of the universe.
(2) The Earth is insignificant, cosmically, one of billions.

Attempts to resurrect (1), via the Anthropic Principle, seem to me unlikely and yet are really popular right now. And that's not surprising: it's hard to live in the Total Perspective Vortex, much easier living in a house-sized mental cosmos.

Wasn't there a Cambridge physicist who argued that the wave/particle problem can only be solved if we assume alternate universes are real ... the two slits experiment in which the streams of photons produces an interference pattern on the screen suggests that these streams must be interefering with something, and since there's nothing in our lab for them to be doing that, it must be another universe ... can't think where I read that.

The point, presumably, is that the prevalence of one or other theory (I mean of one time line or many) in popular culture will correlate to a broader cultural mood of people feeling siginficant and worthwhile, like one of the Great Men that run history, or else feeling insignificant and bashed about by forces they don't understand. Or to be more precise, I suppose it'll be a factor of that, distorted by the consideration that many-timelines gives you more story options, which in a story-hungry medium like TV might tip the balance.

Lou Anders said...

First, thank you very much. That's high praise, coming with you. In fact, I've delayed posting a response because I don't have a sufficiently erudite response - you have already very eloquently codified what I was grasping at. And I think you are correct about the Cambridge physicist.

However, it occurs me that a parallel perspex-shift occurs in comicbooks. Back in the 50s, you had our superheroes as the center of the universe - providing inspiration throughout time and space. Remember Brane Taylor, the Batman of 3000 A.D., who was inspired to become the Dark Knight after watching "micro-film" of the exploits of the 20th Century Batman. There was another Batman of a farther future, and even a Batman from another planet, inspired by watching our hero through a telescope. In the 90s, this shifted to the elseworld series, which cast (mostly) Batman in different alternate realites.

Adam Roberts said...

Yes; good points on Batman ... a lot of this has to do with the Crisis on Infinite Earths megastory, doesn't it? I mean the difference between pre- and post-Crisis comics isn't so much whether there are alternate timelines in them, but whether there is consistency between all the different stories and versions of Superman, Batman, whoever. We fans love consistency, don't we; and we hate (or fall derisively with hoots of laughter) upon inconsistency and continuity errors (I'm taking it as axiomatic that the Crisis story was actually all about clearing up inconsistency and regularising the megatext). It might be a worthwhile exercise for we fans to wonder why we value consistency quite as much as we do. It's not the most adult thing in the world: my 3-year old gets very upset if either of her parents are inconsistent in the application of rules like bedtime, or even if we change the bedtime stories she loves by a tiny amount. But don't you, as an adult, have to accept that the world is not a very consistent place?

I may be wandering absurdly from the point here. I suppose what I'm suggesting is that the advantage of a single reality model of the universe is consistency; and the many-universes models outrages our sensibilities at a deep level because it violates consistency ...

Lou Anders said...

I would bet that the value placed on continuity is akin to the impulse for verisimilitude. The more consistent the continuity, the more likely the world portrayed to be "real." There may even be a quasi-religious impulse at work here, as witness the attempts to prove or disprove the Bible with archeological evidence.

A.R.Yngve said...

Adam wrote:

" It might be a worthwhile exercise for we fans to wonder why we value consistency quite as much as we do. It's not the most adult thing in the world(...)"

You're on to something there. Why can't we cope with a little inconsistency?

SF writers are forever heckled by the anal-retentive type of reader: "According to my calculations, sir, the Ringworld will collapse from structural failure after 12.2 years; why have you not addressed this issue in your latest book?"

The proper reply is "WHO CARES? It's FICTION, man!"

So many readers are more hung up on SCIENTIFIC inconsistencies, than psychological/character inconsistencies. Why is that?