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February, 2009 : Feature:

Signals 17

I have a strange job. I get paid to think about science fiction tropes. Usually I get paid to make up my own variation on science fiction tropes. But every now and then science fiction tropes creep into my view of the real world and everything goes haywire.

My most recent haywire began in last year's never-ending election season which, for some reason, felt to me like a particularly excruciating circle of hell. Then, in July, I watched Stargate: Continuum which is one of the movies the Stargate folks are doing instead of airing their spectacular show every week like they used to.

Stargate: Continuum deals, as so many Stargates do, with time travel. In this case, they dealt with alternate universes and the tried and true SF plot of putting time "back on track."

Well, I got to wondering how time felt when it "went off track," and I realized that I might actually know how it felt. If looked at through a science-fiction-timelines-gone-wrong telescope, this entire century might be an alternate timeline.

Follow me here, because these subtleties are what timeline-gone-wrong stories specialize in.

Suppose that sometime in the late fall of the year 2000, we entered an alternate timeline. About 5 p.m. Pacific Time on Election Night, 2000, we crossed from the main timeline to the branch timeline.

At that time on that night, CNN and the other major networks called Florida for Al Gore. An hour or so later, they pulled Florida from the win column for Gore and put it back into undecided. Such things had never happened before in my memory of Election Night political coverage.

In fact, nothing from that moment on was normal. All of the political junkies in America (not to mention the Democrats and Republicans involved, and every single Floridian) spent the next few weeks glued to the television, listening to pundits, and watching recounts and lawyers.

In our universe, the election ended with George W. Bush winning. In some other universe—the branch universe, I thought at first—Al Gore won.

The world changed—and changed a lot.

How do I know about the changes? Well, that's where getting paid to think science fictionally comes in.

In 2007, Lou Anders invited me to write for an alternate history mystery anthology. I decided to write my story set in the branch universe listed above—the one in which Al Gore won the election in 2000. I started the alternate history story as I always do. I made a list of the things that would have changed had Gore won.

Three single-spaced pages later, I stopped. I realized this topic was much too big for a single short story. Besides, the very idea of that alternate timeline scared me. Heck, the idea of the timeline we were in scared me. The fact that the fork that caused history to branch could cause such immense differences scared me as well.

Usually the changes in an alternate history story are subtle. Instead of dealing with Bush v. Gore, I tried something much simpler: What would have happened had J. Edgar Hoover been murdered three months after John F. Kennedy? (For my answer, see "G-Men," in Sideways in Crime, edited by Lou Anders.)

But the timeline that branched off from an Al Gore win in 2000 had hundreds, maybe thousands, of major changes (I quit at #150 on my list—none of those changes small [from the War in Iraq to global warming to responses to {or maybe even the occurrence of} September 11th, just to name a few]).

And the telling changes continued, not just in the world events arena, but in the sports arenas as well. Take baseball.

For those of you who don't follow America's Pastime, it's been a weird few years. The Red Sox won the World Series after an 86-year dry spell. They won, not just in 2003, but in 2007 as well. And when they beat the Yankees in the playoffs, it was the shot heard round—well, not the world, but at least the entire baseball community.

The perennial losers, the Chicago Cubs, nearly made it into the Series in those years as well, prevented only by a very weird circumstance. In 2003, a fan caught a ball on the wrong side of the fence, preventing a much-needed out, which cost the Cubs the game and the National League Championship.

In fact, as I got deeper into this alternate timeline theory, I believed the Cubs were the key to it. When they lost their guaranteed spot in the playoffs in 2008, I thought perhaps I had been wrong, that timeline in which George W. Bush became president was the alternate timeline.

I figured that the Cubs losing (as they were meant to do [and yes, I am a Cubs fan; I just know how the world is supposed to work]) meant that we would rejoin the main timeline.

But I was wrong. Because things have gotten stranger and stranger. Most of the country in the streets to celebrate a presidential victory. Have any of you seen that before? A woman becoming a four-star general. Missed that? It happened in mid-November. And, that same week, astronomers in Berkeley using the Hubble Space Telescope to take a picture of a giant planet 25 light-years away.

We've always known there were planets orbiting all those bright stars. We'd just never seen one of those planets before.

And we certainly hadn't photographed one.

It feels like the world has lurched sideways. And I'm sure that lurching feeling is what being yanked into an alternate timeline feels like.

It might also simply be middle-age. Because when you're raised in certain realities, then changes to those realities—in fact, multiple changes occurring rapidly—feel odd.

But let's assume I'm not suffering from incipient Middle Ageism. Let's assume that at 5 p.m. on Election Night, 2000, we entered an alternate timeline.

Would we want to change it back?

That's part of the plot of Stargate: Continuum, the part that started me along this road.

First, let's deal with the difficulties of steering the timeline back to the original line. If, indeed, we are the branch timeline, how do we reconnect with the main timeline?

Should we convince Al Gore's people to count every ballot in Florida? Do we go back farther and force the media to run some negative news stories about George W. Bush or tell Al Gore not to act like the impatient smart nerdy kid in all the debates? Do we go to 1992 and force Bill Clinton to pick a different running mate?

And then where would we end up? How would we know we're reconnecting with the old timeline? How would we know that we're not creating yet another alternate timeline?

In alternate history SF, we all seem to believe Ray Bradbury's butterfly effect, which he postulated in "Sound of Thunder." If a time tourist steps on a butterfly in the past, then the entire history of the world will change.

Really?

So that Cubs fan, the guy who reached over the fence and grabbed the ball, was he trying to get a souvenir from a playoff game or was he trying to change the world?

And when actress Jeri Ryan of Star Trek: Voyager fame filed some really nasty (and, she thought, private) allegations about her husband, a personable, up-and-coming Illinois Republican named Jack Ryan, was she trying to get the best terms she could have for herself in the divorce or was she trying to change the world?

Because those allegations sank Jack Ryan's political career, and allowed an unknown Chicago politician named Barack Obama to run for a United States Senate seat virtually unopposed.

Is time so rigid that a single change will break the timeline? Or is it so fluid that nothing short of a nuclear attack will make a difference?

Entire books get written about this. Everyone from science fiction writers to actual real historians play this game. You'll find alternate history in every SF magazine—and you'll find the historians' speculation in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 's "What If?" column. Historians—and science fiction writers—love to speculate.

But that Stargate movie brought me back to reality. Imagine if somehow someone gets from the President Al Gore timeline to ours, and decides to "fix" our timeline. Would we let this time meddler do such a thing—if we believed he could? Would we lock him up? Would we fight him?

Or would we not care at all? Would we even remember as our timeline joins the other branch? Would we remember the past eight years?

Red Sox Nation would be angry, I can tell you that much. And so would all those people who celebrated in the streets on Election Night, 2008.

Time isn't so easily messed with. And history teaches us that our perspective on events depends solely on whether we're part of the winning or losing side.

It might be as simple as the baseball cap you wear. If you're a Yankees fan, the last eight years have been hell. Red Sox Nation enjoyed the last several seasons.

Although, come to think of it, 2008 wasn't that good for them.

Just like it wasn't good for Republicans. Or investors. Or homeowners.

Maybe the key to saving the timeline, whatever that means, isn't catching the right baseball or telling Bill Clinton to choose a more charismatic running mate. Maybe the key to saving the timeline is simply hooking up with the unhappiest people in the branch timeline.

The winners are going to imprison any time meddler, just like they did in the Stargate movie. The losers are going to do their best to help the changes occur.

Provided, of course, there are such things as alternate timelines, and the time meddlers, and the Right Way For Things To Be.

Because, even though I write about such things, I'm not sure there are. I kinda prefer things the way they are. Messy, muddled, confusing—and surprising.

History teaches us a lot of things.

Mostly, it teaches us that using what we know as a predictor of the future usually doesn't work.

And, I think, that's a good thing.


Copyright © 2009, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at www.kristinekathrynrusch.com.

COMMENTS!

Feb 5, 04:35 by IROSF
"Signals 17"
Feb 5, 08:27 by Marti McKenna
Kris, this happens to me whenever I realize I'm riding in a car and playing on the Internet on my phone. I love living in the future, and I'm damned glad to be living in *this* future at the moment. :)

Thanks for another excellent article.
Feb 5, 16:32 by Matt Leavitt
I'm sorry, but I found a number of things wrong or misleading about this article, and though the author may be an excellent fiction writer, this particular essay is very weak in my opinion.

First of all, I honestly have no idea why the author references the Red Sox, or the Yankees, for that matter, in the first place (btw, the Red Sox won their first world series in 86 years in _2004_, not 2003). Now, where a single catch for the Cubs *might* be able to affect their season, the Red Sox won the 2004 and 2007 World Series based on an entire year's worth of events. It's not like one butterfly squashing would have prevented that from happening. Now if you're talking about the Buckner-ian 1986 World Series, then that's a whole different matter, but the author clearly wasn't.

Also, the reference to Obama winning his Senate seat simply because Jack Ryan withdrew from the election is spurious. Obama was already leading that election in most polls even before Ryan pulled out. So it's not like Obama wouldn't necessarily have been Senator (or President) if those allegations against Ryan weren't made. Actually, most likely, it didn't make a difference.

This entire article even seems a little bit self-serving, where the author 1) implies that she is not a Red Sox fan, and says that 2008 "wasn't a good year" for the fans, even though the Red Sox did actually make it to the ALCS -- not to mention the fact that the Red Sox/Yankees really have nothing to do with the topic at hand, and 2) she barely talks specifics about (or reviews) the Stargate movie which seems to be the impetus for writing this article, and yet still has time to plug her own short story in this essay.

Though the topic of alternate history may have been a good one, and her discussion of a Bush/Gore alternate timeline was worthy of the article, I found the rest of the article to be just blasť.

Oh, and by the way, it is "Star Trek: Voyager" with a colon, and it is "a United States", not "an".
Feb 5, 16:52 by Marti McKenna
Thanks for chiming in, Matt. Typos fixed. :)
Feb 6, 02:46 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Wow, Matt. You took this really personally. It's whimsical and was never meant seriously.

One serious point: the Republicans never placed a viable candidate against Obama in that election after Ryan left. Even Obama says that the election didn't test him the way that, say, the primaries against Hillary Clinton did. That's all I'm referring to. Not whether Obama could have beaten Ryan. (Obama probably could have--he's an amazing politician.) But that the Repubs didn't have a chance after Ryan quit.
Feb 8, 19:22 by Todd Treichel
Although it's true that the Red Sox championships were culminations of long sequences of events, it does not follow that they would be immune to the Butterfly Effect. The idea is that the one small change leads to another, and another and so on, and after a while the changes start to look pretty significant. So if, for example, Gore becoming president changed something seemingly unrelated, say, the economy, or something in the life of some player or executive, and that led to some modestly different decisions, or different preparedness to compete, and those led to bigger decisions directly affecting who was playing for the Red Sox and how they performed, then the pennants would be at risk.

Anyway, the 2004 title hinged four times on the outcome of a single game, the 4th through 7th games against New York, so it's not hard to cook up a scenario in which something changed that series.

We're supposed to be exercising our imaginations, here.
Feb 9, 22:00 by Dennis McCunney
I'd pass on the whole "change the world" aspect, and make it more personal. Assume you could go back in time and change something to make your own life turn out differently. Perhaps to do something you didn't do, or not do something you did do, and whose consequences you regret. Would you do it?

I've thought about it on occasion, and I'm not sure whether I would. While I'm not entirely satisfied with the way my life has turned out (and who is?), the person I am now is the sum total of my choices and life experiences, and I'm reasonably pleased with the person I turned out to be. I'd be a different person if I meddled. Would I be better? Would I be worse? Would I even like the new me if I met him? I have no idea, but without some reasonable way of estimating the consequences, I'd be reluctant to meddle.
Feb 10, 00:39 by Lois Tilton
DMcCunney - you mean like this - http://www.abyssandapex.com/200901-letter.html

Mar 23, 08:51 by Don H
You don't have to "spend your time" worrying about any of this. See, time doesn't exist. http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jun/in-no-time

There's more if you just look for it.

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