Thursday, December 06, 2018

Alternate Timelines

One of my favorite authors, S. M. Stirling, recently launched a new alternate-history series with BLACK CHAMBER, published in July of this year. His website has begun displaying sample chapters from the first sequel, due in spring of 2019. Reading them started me thinking about the effects small or large changes might have on the historical timeline. The POD (point of departure) for the Black Chamber universe—the moment when it diverges from our reality—occurs in 1912, when President Taft dies prematurely and Theodore Roosevelt returns to the White House (instead of Woodrow Wilson becoming President). With no constitutional term limits for the presidency at that time, Roosevelt has free rein to shape the nation according to his principles. Not only the circumstances of U.S. involvement in World War I but the direction of the entire twentieth century will change. The main story line of the novel begins in 1916.

If you could go back in time and alter the twentieth century for the better, what single action would you take? Killing Hitler before he can do any damage immediately springs to mind, of course. However, aside from the ethical problem of murdering a person who hasn't yet committed evil deeds, killing Hitler never works. TV Tropes even has a page on this topic, "Hitler's time-travel exemption." One example: In an episode of the later incarnation of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, a time traveler from the future installs herself as a servant in the household of Hitler's parents. She finally manages to kill baby Adolf along with herself. The nursery maid, however, is so terrified of Herr Hitler's probable reaction to the loss of his son that she substitutes a look-alike infant taken from a beggar woman. So history still plays out with an Adolf Hitler, just not the original one. Nonviolent ways of eliminating Hitler might work, such as preventing his parents from meeting, kidnapping the baby and having him adopted by a nice English couple, or giving young Adolf a scholarship to art school. Would forestalling his political career actually prevent the war, though? Some authors speculate that, given the conditions of post-World-War-I Europe, the Nazi Party would come to power anyway with a different, possibly worse tyrant in charge.

Arguably, the most productive single thing you could do to avert the catastrophic events of the twentieth century would be to go to Sarajevo in 1914 and arrange for Archduke Franz Ferdinand's car to be re-routed so the assassin would never have a chance to shoot him. But would the erasure of the assassination definitely prevent the Great War? The nations of Europe, with their weapons development and entangled alliances, had been building toward that conflict for decades. It's not unlikely that some other spark would have set off the conflagration anyway. Various speculative fiction authors disagree about the ease of altering the timeline. Do we embrace the "Great Man" theory, where the removal of one person makes all the difference? Or do we lean toward Heinlein's position that "when it's time for railroads, people will railroad"? In Stephen King's novel about a time traveler who tries to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy, saving Kennedy creates a major disruption in the flow of history, but not for the better.

Jo Walton's fascinating novel MY REAL CHILDREN takes a unique approach to the theme. The protagonist, as an old woman in a nursing home, remembers two different lives in two worlds (neither of them our own timeline). In one, the more prosperous and peaceful version of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, she suffers through an unhappy marriage. In the other timeline, which verges on dystopia, she has a generally happy life. If she has the power to make one of them definitively "real," which should she choose?

In most of Heinlein's time-travel fiction, he reveals that no change actually occurs, because the traveler's actions simply bring about what was destined to happen anyway. The past as we know it already includes whatever input we contribute—as in, for instance, THE DOOR INTO SUMMER. Some other writers postulate that history inevitably tries to repair itself when "damaged." Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series illustrates the elasticity of the timeline. Claire (a visitor to the eighteenth century from the twentieth) and her husband Jamie can make small changes, but all their attempts to prevent or mitigate Bonnie Prince Charlie's disastrous 1745 campaign fail. The ultimate example of this principle may be "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed," by Alfred Bester. The time traveler assassinates a series of successively more important personages without ever managing to make a permanent mark on the past.

The opposite approach postulates that the slightest change will have vast consequences—the "butterfly effect." Appropriately, Ray Bradbury provided the classic example of this theory in "A Sound of Thunder," when a member of a tourist group traveling to the age of the dinosaurs alters his own future by accidentally killing a butterfly. The trouble with this story, alas, is that if a small change that far back could shift the entire direction of history, by the traveler's present day the alterations would have snowballed to such an extent that his native time would become unrecognizable, not just subtly distorted toward a dystopian outcome. On the same principle, consider the many alternate-history stories whose authors introduce famous people from the past in different roles from their real-life ones. Actually, depending on how far back the POD occurs, random alterations in meetings, matings, and conceptions would ensure that most if not all of those people would never be born. But what fun for writers and readers would that be?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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