A short history of Time Travel (part One)

Time travel is, by far, one of the most popular and most intricate systems of technological chicanery in science fiction. It has so much potential for great storytelling but because of this, the rules can sometimes get… a little complicated:

But, fear not the timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly stuff! Today (or in the future, I guess, depending on when you read this) we here at Digital Strips are going to give you a quick guide to your most common types of time travel: getting put in a Stable Time Loop or branching off into an Alternate Timeline.

Stable Time Loop is, like the name implies, a relatively solid means of time travel and definitely the lesser used of the two options discussed today. Free from the paradoxes that so worried Doc Brown in Back to the Future, characters who find themselves within a stable time loop often discover that all things happen for a reason – and that reason, was them all along. A classic example is the Terminator  movies – in which baby John Connor is saved from a murderous robot from the future, the parts of which are then used to engineer better and better electronics that eventually grow sentience and attack humanity. Humanity fights back, led by John Connor who, after all, has experience fighting the machines. Seeing their imminent defeat at his hands, the machines send a Terminator back in time to eliminate John Connor before he can grow up to be a threat…

Nice job closing the loop there, you silly machines.

This means of interacting with time travel is a very old one in literature, often historically expressed in terms of fighting prophecy. The tale of Oedipus is one of the earliest: when a father learns his son is predestined to kill him he decides to off the kid first – he botches that and the escaped kid grows up not knowing his true parents, putting him in just the right position to kill some random stranger on the road as an adult: a stranger who turned out to be his biological father. This story, and others like it, are often used as a part of moral tales intended to encode the reader/audience into accepting their fate and not fighting against their ‘destiny’ (read: you peasants are supposed to stay peasants and I’m destined to be your Lord. No, really, trying to overthrow me just wouldn’t work out for you, trust me).

The idea that you cannot fight fate, and that every struggle the characters of a story face ultimately has little stakes since their success or failure is predetermined, is one that has to be handled carefully in modern fiction. To avoid their negative implications, stable time loops are often used for a bit of ‘flavour’ in media such as webcomics – establishing elements of technology or character that doesn’t invalidate their struggle through the narrative. Prominent examples include a small arc in Girl Genius where a whimsical SCIENCE! experiment summons an ancestor of the series’ protagonist, who is pleased to discover the power and influence his family comes to hold in (his) future. Once he goes back to his original timeline, he sets about ensuring events come to pass as such. Although this is now canonically part of the Heterodyne family’s rise to power, it’s an element of backstory that doesn’t impact the main plot – and the struggle of its protagonists – in any way.

By contrast, Homestuck of Andrew Hussie’s MS Paint Adventures has a variety of stable time loops present in the story, some of which are relatively inconsequential and some of which are highly impactful on the overall narrative. In fact, there is a whole wiki page dedicated to breaking down the time shenanigans present in the comic and detailing where and how they impact the story. Elements worth noting are the reveal “Lord English’s” (villain) name came about as the result of a stable time loop, and more consequentially in the way Dave and John use their powers to advance through the plot by ‘retconning’ events and creating specific short time loops at whim. By giving his characters the power to mess around with time, Hussie integrates elements of the ‘predestination’ effect in his narrative, whilst manipulating that to actually give his characters agency within the story.

Finally, an example of a stable time loop in webcomics that does run the entire narrative can be found in Kris Straub’s (now completed) Starslip. The loop(s) occur(s) predominantly in the latter half of the comic, after the soft reboot that refocused the series on time travel instead of parallel dimensions as its main form of sci-fi, but smaller versions of the stable time loop were introduced early in the comic’s run as well…

Starslip, strip #183

Towards the end of the comic’s run, it is revealed that the entire plot has been revolving around a stable time loop: one where the loop itself causes a time paradox that destroys not only the villain, but the entire ‘Deep Time’ organisation that was hunting the protagonists in the comics’ present. Straub elegantly sidesteps the problem of paradoxes within stable time loops, which generally don’t exist given one can’t change the sequence of events, by exploring the creation of a stable time loop. In Straub’s approach, the point of stability for the loop does not actually occur until thirteen years after the final events of the comic: in Straub’s words, “Deep Time will disappear from the continuum, but they remain for now, like light from a star that exploded millennia ago.”
By setting the point of stability so far in the future from the events of the comic, Straub withholds knowledge of the loop’s existence from the readers until the consequential events of the comic have been completed. Instead of knowing the characters definitely are going to prevail, the uncertainty lets us enjoy the narrative struggle towards the climax of the tale.

So that’s a brief look at the theory of stable time loops, and a couple of quick examples of the webcomics that have used the trope effectively. Do you know of any other great webcomics out there that deal with time travel themes? Make sure to let us know in the comments or over on Twitter and we’ll talk about it next week when we travel to the future and bring you another of the classic time travel tropes: the Alternate Timeline. But intil then, always remember: don’t eat the clickbait!

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  1. Pingback: A Short History of Time Travel: Part Two | Digital Strips: The Webcomics Podcast

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