Kyle W. Abshire
Returning to the Future: Alternative timelines and Their Consequences
Time travel has been a favorite subject of mine since I began to absorb science fiction. The possibility that time travel could one day become accessible to us, ignites a curiosity in my mind that can’t be controlled. Time travel as a literary tool, allows us to analyze both past and present with a trial and error system of logic. If we are unhappy with our past or present, time travel allows us to look back to the possible time of error in order, to correct it. The possibility of traveling forwards or backwards in time, to view old or new things, is interesting enough but the possibility that a person’s actions in those time periods could somehow change the present or future is exciting. Becoming tangled in the vast possibilities of different futures that depend on the actions of today is often a popular form of storytelling. The reason these types of stories are popular is because they revolve around people’s desire to change their past to better their future. Time travel is commonly used in an alternative narrative, since the implication of traveling through time can have major consequences on other periods in time. The idea that life holds unlimited possibilities, is reinforced by these types of narratives; therefore they are incredibly popular amongst those who wish to change their lives.
House of Bones uses time travel to explain that we might not understand the past as well as we think. The main character travels from the present to the dawn of mankind. He is taken in by a tribe of early men and accepted as a member of their group. Throughout his time in the past, he is constantly making judgements about what is happening around him based on the culture of the present and his preconceived notions of how these early men act. Eventually he is put to a test, by the leader of their group. He is told to hunt down a stalker on the edge of their camp. Upon taking the request, he comes to the wrong realization that he is being asked to kill the stranger. After spending some time with the stranger, he decides it is not in his humanity to kill this other person. He believes that his humanity is to strong and that the tribe will condemn him for not handling the situation in their primitive fashion. However, he is pleasantly surprised when he returns to camp with his prisoner alive. “Kill him, I say. He was just sitting there by his fire, roasting a couple of birds, and he offered me a chunk and- Kill him? B.J. says. You were going to kill him? Wasn’t that what I was supposed-“ (House of Bones 106).
The man realizes that his understanding of their ways of life were based off of the future’s misunderstandings. They are not brutal war mongering monsters. They were in fact testing him, making sure that he was not a monster. “You wanted to see if I was really human, right? If I had compassion, if I could treat a lost stranger the way I was treated myself” (House of Bones 106). The story uses time travel to make us rethink what we may know about the past. Constantly we are learning how truly intelligent mankind has been since its beginning. If we were wrong about their intelligence at one point, why can’t we be wrong about how they interacted with their “enemies.”
One direction time travel is interesting because we are able to compare the new time period to our own and decide if we have made good decisions, as a society or individuals. The Gernsback Continuum gives us an example of traveling backwards in time to learn from it, but the traveler does not actually leave his present to arrive in the past. “But you saw a different kind of ghost, that's all. That plane was part of the mass unconscious, once. You picked up on that, somehow” (The Gernsback Continuum 33). The main character in this story is able to look backwards in time to find to find inspiration or knowledge to better the present. Traveling backwards in time can help us better understand what we think we know already but traveling forward in time can make us rethink the directions we are headed.
The Time Machine written by H.G. Wells tells us of a man who travels so far forward into time that evolution has transformed the human race into, two unrecognizable forms. The Time Traveler’s destination is troubling. In his attempts to classify how the people had transformed into such small carefree beings, he suggest communism as the culprit. "It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness” (Wells 4.25). The time traveler is suggesting that a communist state had supplied the needs of the human race, so efficiently that they eventually stopped trying. The entire human race had become helpless because they needed not to do anything for themselves. Eventually leading to the decline of the human mind and physical stature. The time traveler is able, to compare the extreme future to his former time and make judgements about the direction they are moving in. The Time Machine was the first of its kind. Therefore, it did not get entirely complicated in its address of time travel. Over the years the time travel genre has developed into multi layered stories that are much more complicated than a simple back and forth between future and present.
Mozart In Mirror Shades is an alternative narrative that relies on time travel. Time travel allows the main character to travel back in time to the year 1775. He is employed by a large company, whose goal it is to extract mineral resources from the earth. The dire consequences of this scenario are all too apparent. If Rice has traveled back in time to mine for minerals, won’t they tap the Earth of these precious resources before their present time arrives? The alternative narrative creates a different type of timeline. Time is not viewed as a straight line in this story but more like a branching tree. “So. Jefferson said. This world-my world-does not lead to your future. Right, Rice said. Leaving you free to rape and pillage here at will” (Mozart 227). Rice’s interference in the year 1775, will not affect the future that he has come from. That future is already happening. The past that is being tampered with will only affect its own future, making it possible for time travelers to move through time and interfere without personal consequences. Governments have long plagued our world with their not-so-well planned out actions. Adding time travel to their list of resources might prove to be disastrous.
Governments of our time and past have done great and horrible things. Usually the later of these is done with the intention of completing something great. The idea that our Governments make decisions that have negative or positive impacts on our lives sometimes is too much for us to handle and revolts take place. Past Watch the Redemption gives us a taste of what it would be like if a future government tampered with our past, to affect our present and their future. “Though Tagiri did not put her own body back in time, it is still true to say that she was the one who stranded Christopher Columbus on the island of Hispaniola and changed the face of history forever” (Card 15). Past watch lays out a scenario, that we are currently living in a time that has been affected by the future. The stories main character Tagiri, has affected our past by preventing Columbus from landing on mainland North America. “Some said that it was like correcting a painful hernia in a brain-damaged child: In the end, the child would still be severely limited, but it would not suffer as much along the way” (Card 15). The implication that we are living in an already altered timeline is intriguing. We as a people are constantly looking for ways to correct our past, but this story asks the question: What if our past has already been corrected?
Dr. Who is a British television show that deals with time and space travel. The main character Dr. Who, is an individual that lives outside of the scope of time the way that humans do. Therefore, he is able to move forwards and backwards in time to tamper with time lines. In the episode The Fires of Pompeii, Dr. Who and his companion travel to Pompeii before Mt. Vesuvius erupts, to soak in some rich culture of the past. While they are there, Mt. Vesuvius begins to show signs of erupting and they are faced with the moral dilemma, whether or not they should warn everyone of their impending doom. After spending some time in Pompeii, they have come to notice otherworldly events taking place in the town and decide that the volcano’s eruption might be linked to alien interference. Therefore, they decide to delve into the volcano in an attempt to change history. In their efforts to stop the eruption they discover a large alien monster set to destroy man kind growing inside of the mountain and come to the horrifying realization that the only way to stop the monster, is to enact an actual eruption. In there efforts change history and save lives, they have come to the realization that the volcano must be initiated by them to save the world. The attempted tampering with time travel is always a draw to these types of stories but when a twist like this is thrown in at the last minute, it really catches peoples imagination. In the 1980’s Back to the Future was released and made a highly complicated level of time travel popular.
The Back to the Future Trilogy runs through several different versions of time, as its story unfolds. Marty McFly is taken back in time with a scientist to simply have a look around. While in the past Marty causes catastrophic changes to his own future and is tossed into a whirlwind of time travel that sends him to the near but distant future, western America, and back to the eighties. In Back to the Future II one scene shows how truly complicated alternative timelines can become. “Marty has traveled to the past and tampered with his parents past only to discover upon his return to the present that his own future has a negative outlook. He then travels to the future to change it and returns to the present. The present is now somehow changed because of something he did in the future and he is forced to return to the past once again. In the past he sneaks around to readjust everything back to normal. However, while he is in the past he is forced to sneak around being careful not to run into his self who previously visited the past” (Back to the Future II). Each time Marty travels through time he finds a situation that could be tweaked, to improve his life. However, each time he does this, a larger problem manifest itself in either his past or future. After Back to the Future film began to express time travel in many different ways. 12 Monkeys focused on the psychological damages that time travel might inflict on an individual.
12 Monkeys was released in 1995. The film depicted a prisoner of an underground society, who is forced to travel backwards in time and collect information about the spreading of a deadly disease that chases all of humanity below the surface of earth. The main character is placed in a time machine and sent back in time. Routinely he is pulled back to the future-present to hand over all information he has collected. Unfortunately, the process of traveling through time severely disorients the passenger, causing him to act out on a public street and end up in a mental institution. The psychiatrist from the past do not believe his explanations of time travel and inevitably convince him that the future is simply a mental construct. Every time he is pulled back into the future-present, he is once again reassured of his reality and his mission. (12 Monkeys). The takes a realistic look at what might happen to a person who claims to have traveled through time. Most time travel stories do not struggle with the psychological side effects that time travel may inflict. However, 12 Monkeys looks into the potential mind transforming attributes that would encase a traveler through time, and their ability to explain their extravagant situation. Although the time travel in this story is known to have negative side effects, the traveler is more than willing to participate because it will inevitably help humanity.
The common desire to be able to change one’s path in life, causes alternative narrative story lines to become popular. Mozart In Mirror Shades and Past Watch, delve into the possible implications of government time travel and interference. Mozart puts the government in the past through their search for limited resources. The search for these resources, leads to the destruction of the natural culture and progression of the world in the eighteenth century. Past Watch gives the government a more noble cause, to correct atrocities that led to unacceptable futures. The book takes a deep look at how we develop our societies and how strongly major events influence us years after their appearance. The Garden of Forking Paths takes a more philosophical look at alternative narratives. The Garden describes, how truly close we are at all times, to changing the world. Each moment in a person’s life is a fork. Decisions that are being made change where we are going. Time is an ever-changing presence that we are constantly affecting. Back to the Future shows us just how deeply complicated alternative narratives can become. Marty McFly is thrust into a world of time travel, to improve his own life; Only to impact it so negatively that the entire world changes around him. The overwhelming message from these stories, is that time travel is dangerous and can lead to the collapse of an entire civilization or the world. However , we love this type of story. They are increasingly popular story lines that catch our imagination. These types of narratives serve as an outlet for us to fantasize about ways to change our own stations in life.
Back to the Future Part II. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Universal Pictures, 1989. Film
Card, Orson Scott. Pastwatch: the Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Tom Doherty Associates, 1997
Dr. Who, The Fires of Pompeii. Colin Teague. BBC Wales, 2008. Film
12 Monkeys. Terry Gilliam. Universal Pictures, 1995. Film