BEHOLD AND TREMBLE
The Mad Missourian, Ben Wheeler returns!
A tome of terror and nightmare beyond your reckoning! IT IS THE NECRONOMICON AESTHETICA . Bound in the twisted and flayed flesh of critics and penned with the blood-tear ink of underpaid and overworked artists, this book will be the end-all and be-all of entertaining fiction analysis. This is not to be an explicit guide to a paint by numbers towards something poor, generic and, Lord forgive me for saying this, derivative. This is a guide to promoting excellence of story telling, to look at, disagree with or consult like a road map where you already know the way, but you want to make sure.
Read ON brave delver of the darkest literary arts!
You sit in your high-backed chair. You love this one. Bones hold up the skin-covered seat. Copper nails keep it comfortable and taut. You burn oak and pine in your fireplace, and smell smoke curl into the room. Some of the sparks fly out onto the back of William Twist. The hunchback does not feel it, not properly, but at your kick, he flaps his back until all risks of fire goes.
The night is cold, and the moon has been hidden all night by clouds and the floating fortress island of Undeaux. You draw your robe of faun wool around you tighter and stare deeper into the flames. What story shall you write next? Something science fiction, perhaps. Another fantasy is always a good time. Something long? Something short? Something with depth? Something light-hearted? Ah! So many choices flit around your mind.
Your muse does not respond to you. Her proud eyes are focused on the flames and the burning logs. Her hands idly comb the long tresses of her black hair. She used to be so vivacious! She used to sing to you, with your head on her lap and petting William Twist, back when he was adorable and freshly decanted from the flask you forged him in. Wait that might have been a dream you had.
You sigh. Time slips away faster every year you live. You will never die, but only this era has been so artistic. You don’t want to waste it. What shall you do when the molt comes on you, and you become the next you? Will you brood on the moon for one hundred years? Perhaps another age of vampirism or an age of crusading. You really do not know, and the molt is far from you, yet.
Time sticks in your mind. Your muse has stopped her self-care and now stares at you. Her features become youthful and her eyes piercing. Time travel! Yes! You can do it! Loops and children seeking an end to an unbreakable mobius strip of paradoxes! She opens her mouth and sings. Yet, before the first notes passed her lips, thunder interrupts her siren’s call.
Landing on the balcony, a man falls from the sky on flaming wings. He lands hard, but jumps up as if he had merely tripped over a misplaced stair. He pulls the goggles from his face and a fire extinguisher from a pocket. Of course, the pocket is much too small to hold the fire extinguisher, but no one is going to tell him that. Who knows what he’s stuck in there while giving reality the bird?
He walks up and hands you a letter. The address is your person and it comes from a man who you never thought to hear from again, Scrofula.
“My dearest surviving student. It came upon me that, just about now, you are thinking of writing a time-travel story. How did I know? Not fifteen seconds ago, my birds started to sing backwards. They always do when someone I know is meddling with time. I swear, I’ve heard “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor!” backwards more than forwards. Besides that, I have had a hell of a time, I raided a Scholomance I thought abandoned. The high-necromancer switched my head with my ass. My ass is unhappy and I’m unhappy. This isn’t the type of centaur I lust after. Life is pain, sometimes.
Time travel is torture. You might think to me, in fact you are since the mind worms are still reporting your thoughts to me, ‘Scrofula, you abomination of reversed ass and “man”, what is wrong with a time travel story?’ Well, let me tell you.
First, in all the multiverse, there are exactly three good, complicated time travel stories, one story that involved simple time travel and then one that actually involves a mix of time travel with dimension hopping, but is really just complicated dimension hopping.
Second, stories involving cliomancy are not proper time travel, and don’t mistake it for it. While you can reach out to touch the future with math or economics or whatever ITUMBO OF NIGHT forsaken thing, it is not time travel. It is not actually touching the future, since causality is being enforced, and there is NO chance of a paradox. The error is rare, but the use of it is more common than rare. I lectured about this in the past. Merely press the knob at the back of your neck and twist it three-quarters to the left, then again to the right. I recommend sitting down for this one.
Third, do not mistake the ability to create a complicated narration with the ability to create a time travel narrative. They are two different animals and can interfere with each other. Even relatively simple plots can be complicated to hell by the inclusion of time travel. A complicated narrative is even harder to pull off than a simple one.
Think of it like CUBING the difficulty of a story completely outside its potential benefit to the story. It’s literally putting your story on the line to be torn apart by someone with common sense, or someone with no sense but half a second of brain function, or someone who is deaf-mute but their dear, sweet mother is signing the story into their palms in a touching display of motherly affection. She is telling her that your story is terrible because you left a few time paradox loose ends. Listening to a deaf-mute giggle should be a joy, but, really, it fills you with shame.
Let’s talk about the good stories you can access. Some of them are quite impressive time investments. The first is the easiest, and that’s the Back to the Future series. Here’s how the loops look.
Forgive my poor drawing and inaccuracies to the plot. Do you know how hard it is to draw with hooves flailing about and braying like an ass? The first diagram is the loops as shown by the movie. The second, below it, shows Marty’s perspective. While this is simplified, you can see how the loops change based on the perspective of the audience, Marty is proofed against the changes in the world, and returning to the future is a new and wonderful thing. Whatever loops we, the audience, perceive or diagram out, Marty has ONE CONTINUOUS experience.
Many people like to perceive supposed breaks in the rules or strange things. However, it’s not so simple. First, the timeline in Back to the Future is ruthless in its enforcement of its rules and events. Things that are fated to happen, happen. Second, the existence of the potential paradox can change until characters decide to overcome their flaws and change for the better (or worse). While things are fated to happen, they are up in the air until they do happen. Lastly, the future is always up in the air, but since paradoxes are done away with (Specifically, Marty being born), the future is always the natural extension of what DID happen and self-correcting.
The rules are simple, self-enforcing, and easy to properly describe. Any complications are the result of overthinking. If you think of Time as a blind idiot enforcing its rules whenever possible, the potential paradoxes that arise from TIME SHENANIGANS slowly disappear once you realize that it’s Marty’s perspective that matters, not our observation of his perspective.
The next is The City Beyond Time by John C. Wright. Here’s a representation of the loops.
“Time Travel! When do we want it? It doesn’t matter!”
What a mess! Essentially, this story is about the failure of Time Travel through various means. Paradoxes pile up on top of each other and cause reality to glitch. Of course, reality is self-correcting enough that death is the only proper answer to the logical paradoxes. In this manner, the story applies to Back to the Future Rules, but with its own flavor. Time Travel is a temptation of itself.
Characters have the choice to bring others into the time travel city and add to the paradox pileup with multiple copies of the same person. Eventually, it hits a hard stop. The paradoxes cannot continue, and because of how the rules of reality work in story, they have a cost. This cost is put off for as long as possible. What’s more, more paradoxes can be added to the pile if the character makes the wrong choice. However, once the main character makes a different choice, the paradoxes instantly resolve themselves and the main character enjoys linear time for the rest of his life.
Unlike most stories, the paradoxes here are true paradoxes, not flirting with variations of the grandfather paradox. Murder and calumny are rife among the time traveling community. What’s more, in both Back to the Future and our next example reality self-corrects in an immediate manner. In this story, reality only self corrected when the paradoxes were not continued. Much like a drug addict losing his supply, the body collapses and the hangover strikes pretty much instantly. This is slightly different from Back to the Future, as the future starts to correct itself in a relatively slow, obvious manner.
The last example, and greatest in sustainable complexity (that is, not that the City Beyond Time is not complex, but it is not sustainable) I have ever seen. This, is the beauty of Homestuck. Hideous, writhing, full of teen angst, even this representation is utterly poor at communicating the complexities. In fact, I can’t do it. I tried. It can’t be done with any normal sized file. In fact, all infographics are completely and utterly unreadable.
Essentially: There are multiple time-space continuum spanning time loops, shenanigans and variations going on at the same time, like some sort of fractal Time-Mandelbrot set. The rules are enforced by having any character who steps outside the specific time loop they are predetermined to go die. This is not possible unless a character specifically goes for it through the influence of another character, or they have some knowledge or ability that allows them to do it.
Thus, the game/universe self-enforces against time-paradox clones (because there is one hard-coded timeline running around) but not against the ‘alpha’ timeline version. There are ways to get around this, mostly by becoming a ‘new’ character in some manner, but the laws are pretty iron clad. Because all infinite choices are possible, and may happen, but don’t, the longer one stares at the finale, the weirder it gets.
Lets say Time Travellin Dave goes back in time, but makes a choice that is incorrect. Essentially, he interferes with something that HAS TO HAPPEN for the timline to work. All of a sudden, there’s a dead Time Travellin Dave running around. Or, lying there, bleeding out, rather.
Lets say he goes back in time to manipulate something, but then see he’s doing something else at the same time. Later, at a reasonable hour, he goes back in time and does the thing he saw himself do, keeping the loops going. No dead Daves running around.
Let’s say there is a Dave who should be dead. He abuses various game mechanics, becomes a new person with different goals and abilities and purpose within the timeline. It was always fated that this would happen, but that new Dave still had to go through the horror he did and then return to the past to undo the evil that is an evil puppet sprite spirit guide. He gets to live, but it’s very up in the air at many points.
The main villain travels back in time to fight the ancestors of various eldritch abominations who made themselves gods of the emptiness between universes who played their own game like the main characters of the main stories. That’s the first and largest loop, since it leads directly into his creation trillions of years and multiple universes later. His sister becomes both a ghost and another ghost paradox clone except with whacky powers who WAITS through all this for the end of the timeline, where they trap him in a black hole in the ghost and memory haunted emptiness between the stars where the multiple universe spanning Green Sun once floated in the void. Meanwhile the ghost becomes a real girl and helps various characters go to the… future to fight her brother before he becomes the main villain but then he traps them in a time paradox weapon that somehow travels to before the fight occurs, yet after the fight in narrative…
Well, I’m simplifying things. But you see how insane the narrative can get based on the liberal use of time travel by various characters across universes. Yet, at the end, everything is explained, squared away and murdered if extraneous. Essentially, the writer spent a great deal of time on the rules and how those rules interact with the world, plot and characters within. Unlike the simplistic world of Back to the Future and the wild universe of the City Beyond Time, Homestuck stands as the shining example of plot relevant and affecting time travel done right. You can tell by how confusing it is, yet, once taken at the whole, it starts to make sense.
The next example of time travel is the extremely simplistic Time Machine, but it shares its distinction with a number of pulps, including Dire Planet and Lost on the Last Continent. Unlike other examples so far, this is more of a ‘vision of the future’ than an explicit story about or involving time travel. In a linear, non-looping fashion, the protagonist shoots to the end of time, having adventures along the way. In other words, the various time events are a setting, rather than a proper plot device. In another way, it’s more like a car than what the three examples above have. Ironic, considering that Back to the Future and Homestuck involve time travelling cars.
In the pulpy examples, the protagonist usually is less of a nerd and has a trusty sword and a love interest. Usually, they jump to a certain point in time and then get stuck there thanks to shenanigans of a villainous nature. When there, they rarely change the timeline (that is, they are a part of the timeline, not changing it) and go with the flow from one action sequence to another. It is time travel as a ‘Call to Action’ of sorts.
Lastly, we have Steins;Gate. Now this is an anime that involves heavy time travel, but I believe, rather, that it is dimension hopping to a specific point/location in that timeline. The rules are pretty light. Basically, the protagonist is in a timeline where certain things are fated to happen. The timelines are clustered around certain events, and the protagonist cannot break them. As he leaps, he seeks some sort of way to break a certain event he and the audience find tragic, but has to leap out of the cluster of timelines and universes where it happens.
I say it is not time travel because the key isn’t his own choices or leaping to the past, but events the universe revolves around. He is leaping through the continuums to FIND a universe that allows for the tragic event to not happen. He is stuck in a cluster where it is destined to happen. It is better to say, he is leaping through fate-lines to find one that suits him. I would think that the longer he did this, and if he did it far enough, since I assume there are walls against going too far away from the original timeline and their choices, he’d reach a fate where he’d be a completely different man and completely different lifestyle. He’d still be the protagonist, of course, but one who’s an office worker, not mad scientist, for example.
There is also The Girl Who Leaped Through Time. That particular one is more resetting the timeline to a certain point. It allows her to have fresh choices to pull from. Notably, the story is more about the main character accepting her life and life events than a proper story about time travel. As you know, I’ve always said character drama isn’t the same thing as the setting its in. However, it’s a good examination of how characters interact with time travel, rather than the time travel itself.
Either way, looking on these examples to guide your hand is quite important to managing one’s loose end time shenanigan stories. Certainly, if I bothered to read bad books, I am sure I could give you numerous examples of how NOT to do it, but honestly I just don’t want to ruin my palet on them. I don’t want you to learn bad habits like weird incest paradoxes or something like the Time Traveler’s Wife, which is a long form essay on husbanding your wife from a child to adulthood. It is as good an example of how utterly disgusting such things can get. Yes, it is adorable to have fated lovers by some hootenanying reason, but for ITUMBO OF NIGHT’s sake, let them be the same age! UGH.
Another bad example is Doctor Who (I can hear pitchforks being sharpened) as timelines shift and change on a whim of the writer. Things can be wiped from existence multiple times, brought back, left alone and turned inside out. Sometimes there are rules to how you affect reality after time travelling. Other times, it doesn’t matter. Either the Doctor is fated to do those things, or he isn’t. Fate isn’t GOOD TIME TRAVEL! THERE ARE RULES! YOU MUST FOLLOW THEM! I WOULD RATHER TEAR OUT MY OWN EYES, ALL OF THEM, WITH A CHAINSAW MADE OF FLAMETHROWERS THAN STAND THAT TERRIBLE, BAITY, POORLY WRITTEN, TEA DRINKING-
(There are several more paragraphs, but, based on the smell and the blood stains, Scrofula began vomiting blood and whatever he ate last, rendering them unreadable. Tacos. Classic Scrofula)
Ultimately, you must take great care that no loose ends are left open nor characters unused. Rules must be forged for time travel, and kept to the letter. You remember when I carved “RESPECT THE SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF” into your back? It must be your every energy to keep it going. The second you make a mistake, it will come back to haunt you. And by haunt you, I mean an angry lynch mob angry at you for offending them. Like this mob who is looking to eat me alive for criticizing Doctor Who. I must now ride my ass half to escape. It would be a dream, if not for the insatiable appetite for carrots.
I will send you a letter on Time Travel devices and how to use them at an unexpected date that will, of course, make perfect sense in hindsight. AS IT SHOULD BE
Your dearest uncle,