Timeline Elasticity

If any of you follow all my babbling here, you know I think about alternate history scenarios, and alternate timelines to ours based on points where events large or small departed. One of my fiction ideas, started but never remotely completed, was one such based where I grew up. In it, I had certain changes I knew I wanted, then started thinking about what would have had to happen in the wider world to make it so. I could stick to lesser changes, and certainly I could keep it ambiguous. However, I arrived at the change possibly deriving from there having been no Teddy Roosevelt. I knew that was a huge change, but in fact it’s more so than I had realized, based on subsequent reading of history.

Digression from the main topic: TR gave us the Spanish-American War and the advent of the United States as an empire. He really kicked off the progressive movement, a creature of both right and left, and inaugurated massive changes to the size and role of government and collusion with big business interests. Things may have been ripe to lean this way in any event. That’s where the title of the post comes in. Who knows. We might have had no Great War, or no US participation in it. Take that away and you change the economy. It’s more certain there’s no Second War.  I’d originally thought about Wilson being eliminated, but it was TR who put us on a collision course.

The first big thing that impacts is a company that makes fireworks never becomes a munitions company, never becomes as big, never makes the owner as rich, never has residual effects on my family history.

When thinking about timeline changes, you can butterfly up a storm and treat it that all bets are off. You can also treat events as being somewhat elastic relative to what we knew in our timeline. I suppose that’s kind of a temporal-centric outlook, as if we are the One True Timeline. But if it’s elastic enough, then it’s not going to diverge as much as it would otherwise across a wide range of moderate changes.

What I mean by timeline elasticity is that things happen like JFK still becomes president around the same point in time, even with a good bit of change prior to that, even with one or more other presidents having been different. It snaps back, as best it can.

I would think that if you want to use that as an approach when planning out an alternate timeline, then you would have to be consistent. You can’t plead timeline elasticity when people question Nixon being president despite there never having been a Teddy Roosevelt, but wildly diverge on something that would be just as elastic. To put it another way, you’d treat the initial departure as your science fiction gimme and be “realistic” with other details. The “gimme” thing is a concept I got from Allen Steele. He said “you get one gimme” for your story. For instance, faster than light travel that simply exists and you don’t need to explain or justify at length. It’s the impossibility you’ve allowed yourself. But that’s what you get, and the rest follows or is logical.

This whole thing came to mind again in relation to Melody, of all things. I had been thinking it would be entertaining to reference Melody in the alternate timeline, which would be visited in the past, just a few years after Melody’s release in our timeline. I pictured having it be more successful. The thing is, change things enough and does it ever happen? If it does, would we recognize it? Just one thing is the minimum change: Mr. Perkins has an uncle who lost his hearing when a bomb fell on Berwell Street in the war. No war. No bomb. No story. Unless the uncle was destined to lose his hearing and the cause changed.

Now, it’s possible I could invoke some of the changes I want without such a huge point of departure. It’s possible strategic local events could do what I want, and nobody would notice much difference otherwise. On the other hand, the deeper story, including why and how people ended up crossing between timelines, seems to factor in the bigger source of change.

Besides, I still have a chance to use Melody in a story if I want. All I have to do is write a puppy love story based on myself, but in which I’ve seen the movie.

I suppose you could say that A Sound of Thunder was elastic. When the scared time traveling dinosaur hunter steps on a butterfly and changes everything, people are still people and things seems quite familiar. It’s just that the wrong guy got elected and English has changed slightly. Over millions of years of evolution that’s not much.

At least you don’t have to worry about these things if you change something now that matters going forward. For instance, changing physics to eliminate explosives, electricity, and some other details, while also adding subtle degrees of more mystic elements working. I had a similar but more radical idea years ago. If I wrote it now, people would think I was inspired by Dies The Fire. Or possibly Coldfire Trilogy. When I read the latter, I tried to figure out whether the author had been one of my pen pals. I briefly corresponded with a bunch of other aspiring SF&F writers found via the Writer’s Digest Book Club, and told some of them more about my ideas than I probably should have. In some ways, Coldfire was completely different from my biggest idea at the time. In others it was disturbingly familiar. Alas, there’s not really anything new under the sun, in some permutation or another.

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