A Short History of Time Travel: Part Two

Last week, we looked at the way webcomics such as StarslipHomestuck and Girl Genius, each have used time travel as part of their narrative – specifically, the time travel trope known as a stable time loop. But in an alternate reality out there somewhere, that was the topic for today’s post instead – and last week was when we stopped to look at how time travel can result in the future you left looking much different to how you remembered it, upon your return…

Whilst the stable time loop might have literary seniority over the alternate reality form of time travel, the latter is by far the most represented in today’s fiction. This is the time travel famously explained by Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movie series, and is the result of an errant time adventurer changing some key event in the past – which cascades as a series of new events across time, resulting in a markedly different ‘future’ in the traveller’s ‘present.’ Depending on the severity of the narrative, this can range from simple, innocuous changes to drastic, world-altering effects. Some other famous examples you might be familiar with occur in The Butterfly Effect, Abram’s Star Trek iterations, and God, oh so very much throughout the entire Marvel and DC comics canon – and also, of course, in webcomics.

One of the most notorious examples of this in the digital doodles we love so much would of course have to be Tim Buckley’s Ctrl+Alt+Del. Buckley’s comic, which started in 2002, spent about a decade following the exploits of it’s madcap protagonist, Ethan MacManus (oh, hey!), his housemates and later, his family. However, in late 2012 the comic took a sharp turn with a final plot arc that sucked Ethan into a dystopian future (through a time machine built of cardboard, powered by… butter. It’s exactly what it sounds like) where he met his future self – and learned he was the one responsible for the destruction of mankind. The older Ethan had brought his counterpart through time to warn him, then send him back to make sure that future never came to pass:

Or, as Dan Shive of El Goonish Shive would consider this specific usage of time travel:

The plot arc was resolved when, due to the unfortunate death of the older Ethan, Ethan Prime was forced to sacrifice himself in order to close a de-stabilised time portal. By doing so, Ethan created a paradox – by never traveling back to set the events he had witnessed in motion, it was therefore impossible for them to exist. The certainty of the bad future collapsed, erasing that destiny from the comic’s timeline and leaving the surviving cast to continue with their lives never knowing the calamity they had avoided. This is markedly different to the stable time loop, which relies on the fact that past and future both already depend on the time travel having taken place – you can’t fight fate in a stable time loop, and any paradox is impossible.

Sometimes, however, causing a paradox in fact leads to an altered timeline. A great example of this in webcomics was included in the opening image of last week’s article, from Kelly Turnbull’s Manly Guys Doing Manly Things. Here, it is the very process of time travel itself that can cause problems – in fact, the only way the time travellers of the comic have learned to get around the inherent paradoxes they’re constantly creating is… to not think about it. In fact, the Commander sums up the whole idea of time travel pretty neatly:

Do you have any other great examples from the virtually inexhaustible timelines presented in webcomics across the internet? Make sure to drop a link or two in the comments below and we’ll check them out! And if you’re reading this in the future, don’t forget you can also find us on Twitter or Facebook, and until next time always remember: don’t eat the clickbait!

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