Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Stumbling Across the Stream of Time

Time, according to a perhaps apocryphal physicist, is what keeps everything from happening all at once. It is not like the other dimensions, for reasons that I am not qualified to discuss theoretically, but which are fairly clear to us in everyday terms. I could easily rewrite my recent, laughably bad predictions here, but I cannot go back and rewrite them.

Many genres of Romance play with time, Alternate History most obviously but by no means alone. Fantasy deals with it whenever a tourist in Fantasyland stumbles across Eldritch Runes, which are sometimes a mere warning ("Doors Man was not meant to open"), but more often a Prophesy. This - continuing our extemp stealing from Diana Wynne Jones - will usually prove to be more elliptical than my election forecasts, but no more accurate.

I stumbled into Time from my dislike of magic. I hate spells or amulets that merely imitate the effects of industrial-age technology, and magical swords take the challenge out of swordsmanship. Yeah there are workarounds. I still don't like it. But you gotta have something kinda sorta magical in a fantasy, so for Catherine of Lyonesse I came up with a Renaissance mathematician and astronomer, who among his period widgets has a mirror that - sometimes - shows the future.

Like any spirited princess, the young lady pays the inevitable unauthorized visit to his study, where she sees the inevitably ambiguous foreshadowing of Things To Come. My excuse for pimping a manuscript still sitting on an editor's desk, however, is that I'm really pretty happy with how I - or the Mathematicus Regalis - explained it all:

"The glass shows things that may be. By the nature of the case, it cannot show what will be. Permit me a demonstration, Altesse." He walked towards her, and in spite of herself Catherine backed away. He merely opened the armoire and took out an hourglass. Turning it over he set it down. Fine white sand streamed through to form a little pile at the bottom.

"The river of time resembles the flow through this hourglass," explained d'Epaulier. "In the hourglass, sand begins in the future, as it were, waiting to mark what is yet to be. It falls through to the bottom, and there marks what has already come to pass. Likewise our fate comes from the uncertain future, is determined at the eternal present, and plunges into the immutable past. Here, Altesse. Come closer and look." Catherine nervously approached until she stood beside him.

"As each grain of sand passes through the neck of the glass," he said, "it passes from what might be to what is, and has been. As for fate? Watch the grains. Each, passing the present, falls to the place destined for it. Yet precisely where, the wisest of men could not say."

Catherine watched the hourglass. Grains streamed through the neck onto the growing pile at the bottom. Some lay where they fell atop the pile. Others slid or danced down the side before coming to rest.

"People misunderstand Fortune, Altesse. We who study the heavens have a saying: The stars impel, they do not compel. You, Catherine de Guienne, do not have a single, predestined future. Indeed, you have an infinitude of possible futures. You might become a saint. You might become a shepherdess." D'Epaulier chuckled. "Neither of those outcomes is likely, to be sure. The greater chance is that you will be Queen of Lyonesse."


Taking another look at the passage I see that even with the best of intentions I have misled you, my handful of loyal readers, once again I said I would stay away from politics. I lied.

Girl meets kingdom. Girl loses kingdom. Girl wins kingdom. Sorry - with me, there's just no escaping politics.


Anonymous said...

Well, you know what they say: what do you call it when two or more people decide on dinner? Politics.
Ferrell Rosser

Anonymous said...

The problem is that if you accept that more than one thing could happen, than more than one thing could have happened. The purpose or pattern to history can only work if we accept strict mechanical causality without deviation, or suggest some mystical force that will move us back onto the intended path if we stray. Providential history without having to deal with a God with some odd commandments.

And if we step outside the bounds of providence than psychohistory runs into trouble. Certain stuations may crop up regardless of small changes, but those small changes could have drastic effects latter on. A single quarrel from a crossbow ended the life of Richard I of England, and put his brother John on the throne. John has neither Richard's charisma nor his military skill, and as a result a number of fun bits of English history happened under his reign. The Magna Carta is the mos obvious of these events; but during this time period England was placed under a ban of all religious ceremonies and John was excommunicated. No one seemed to mind all that much, and the situation was only resolved when the Pope threatened John with a Crusade.

Now suppose the shot misses, Richard lives and goes right on fighting and annoying people. Maybe he avoids the confrontation with the Pope, or maybe he has a similar confrontation for different reasons (not implausible, given some of Richard's attitudes). If the later occured...well the possible ramifications for the development of England and by extension northern Europe would have been staggering. And what about the Magna Carta?

Mostly I like that last scenario because the opportunity to have a Crusade in England during the early 13th century, with all the legends we have about that time, is just too good to miss.

I guess that's why I can't take prophecy very seriously, unless it's the self-fulfilling kind. Every moment could be a Seldon crisis, an opportunity for history to laugh in our collective faces and send us spinning down new roads.

Carla said...

I like the hourglass metaphor. Explains it very well, in a (synologous)16th-century context.

Rick said...

Ferrell - I had never heard that, but it is brilliant.

Carla - Thanks!

Doug - Thanks for making my head explode. :)

Your final point is a crucial one; every moment can be a Seldon crisis. In alt-hist the jargon term is butterflies, as in the beat of a butterfly's wings can cause a typhoon next month.

Oddly, alt-hist usually breaks its own rule, and the Point of Departure (POD) is usually Gettysburg, not some skirmish somewhere during the Mexican War.

In some sense, though, I can imagine the time stream as running along contour lines. Sometimes the banks are steep and diversion is unlikely. At other times it runs in a broad plain between natural levees, and a minor disturbance can radically redirect its course.

Your little Richard I riff hints at a world in which Robin Hood and/or Ivanhoe is historical fact.

Anonymous said...

My favorite butterfly wing moment is what if some m'lord back in England had accepted a certain G. Washington's request for a commission in the British army circa 1760's.

Now, could another American general have won the Revolutionary War? Quite possibly, Arnold comes to mind. Would Arnold or whoever have resigned his commission at the end of the war? Ah. Now we may have a typhoon.

Anonymous said...

"Oddly, alt-hist usually breaks its own rule, and the Point of Departure (POD) is usually Gettysburg, not some skirmish somewhere during the Mexican War."

That just begs for for an alt-history story in which someone crucial to later history gets killed in a minor skirmish in the Mexican War. Or better yet - someone who in OTL got killed in a minor skirmish in the Mexican War, lives in the alternate time line & makes a crucial difference.

One of the things I liked about Steve Stirling's Draka series is that the POD was Britain capturing the Cape Colony during the US war of independence rather than a few decades later. Something rather obscure to non- South Africans.

Rick said...

Another interesting butterfly in the same period. A young man of borderline nobility applied to be an officer in the Royal Navy, even though he was not British. He was from Corsica of all places. I forget the details, but he ended up as an officer in the French royal artillery instead.

Something drifts through my mind about the Emperor, after the surrender of Philadelphia, being transported to exile on St. Helena aboard HMS Hannibal, 74, commanded by Captain Sir Napoleon Bounaparte, later Lord Hounslow.

Jim - The Cape Colony is indeed a nicely obscure POD to most Anglosphere readers.

The understandable problem with the reverse you outline is that anyone killed in an OTL minor skirmish is probably obscure, so not evocative to the reader. Unlike the ever popular technical violation of having alt-famous people who should have been butterflied away entirely.

To make it work well, perhaps you need some episode that is feels obscure, but is nevertheless moderately well known, or at least vaguely familiar.

Anonymous said...

My own personal theory is that people create their own lives by building up a chain of events and then all those chains of events intertwine to build up a tapasty of history. Sounds poetic, but I've always thought of it as the "tailor theory of history". While these historical patterns usually slowly evolve, every once in a while events, trends, and personalities combine to change that pattern. Sometines, for example, the introduction of a new invention (at the right time), promoted by the right person, can change the world. Without the invention, without the popular attitue, without the right person to promote it, nothing happens. You need all three elements to have a "Sheldon Crisis", and if you don't have all three elements, then nothing happens. Well, nothing that changes the course of history. If Napoleon hadn't been there to capatolize on the chaos of the revolution, or if the chaos of the revolution hadn't existed for him to capatolize on, or if he had been sent to Louisisana instead of Italy, then history would have been very different. You could apply that to any point in history; if all three elements are there, then the potential to change history exists; if they don't, then history evolves instead of making revolutionary changes. Anyway, that's my personal theory of history.
Ferrell Rosser

Rick said...

A lot of weaving metaphors come into time and history, going back to the three Fates. Time lines, picking up the thread of a tale, and so forth. A complex story weaves a tapestry.

One of the ways we influence history is to impose a story line on it. Because the past is a chaotic mess until we make a narrative out of it, a cohesive structure of events - threads. But then we have defined how we will respond to future events, because we will see them in the context of past events. And possibly not the right ones.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting speculation for an alternate history story:

The participants in this forum discussion are talking about whether spark gap radio could have been developed in the 1700s. See the 6th post in the series.

Anonymous said...

Try again. the Blogger software cut short the URL

Just put in the whole thing & delete the linefeeds.

Jean-Remy said...

I know this is a rather old post to respond to, but I only discovered this (great) blog recently, and just had to throw something in for reasons that will become obvious.

I was particularly interested by

Rick said: "In some sense, though, I can imagine the time stream as running along contour lines. Sometimes the banks are steep and diversion is unlikely. At other times it runs in a broad plain between natural levees, and a minor disturbance can radically redirect its course."

I am building a sci-fi story in which time travel is possible. Handwavium yes, but somewhat elegant (wrenches shoulder patting self on back--ow) as it is built into the same handwavium that allows for FTL travel: FTL travel is merely time travel to an era just post Big Bang universe: smaller physical distances = faster relative travel but subliminal in "absolute" (and doesn't necessitate an alternate dimension). Of course a massive ship moving through organizing matter that far back would have consequences such as completely changing the course of creating galaxies. I get around causality issues with the ship needing to be yanked back into normal space from its own time: you can't go into your own future, but someone from the future can reach out to you. Altering the past only creates a parallel universe and hence the original time the ship came from in unaffected.

(Starts singing in Welsh)

Anyways, a ship trying to hit Hyperspace (no one realizes that hyperspace is actually the past until the accident happens) arrives a couple thousand years in its past (rather than 15 billion... not exactly a 'near' miss) is in a position now to change the past. Their own future sees the destruction of humanity, they'd like to change that. They know they can't go back in their personal future anyways: since it was an accident, no one knows when/where to "fetch" them. They are able to cold-sleep through the eras, and as they attempt to make slight changes to history, slight enough that the course of history is essentially the same, without the whole "humanity getting wiped out" part, they discover that only a very few select individuals can actually alter the course of history enough to make a lasting change, and only when the time period is one of sufficient social instability for them to have an effect.

For example, Napoleon would never have become Emperor if:
1/ he wasn't Napoleon and
2/ If France hadn't been in the midst of a profound social and political upheaval.

If we look at history, we can pick out good men that missed being great simply because what I would term the "social momentum" was too great for a single person to alter: Napoleon III and the Second French Empire, which was as much of one as The Holy Roman Empire, and we know the saying concerning that one. On the other hand, even when the social momentum falters, the absence of greatness does not cause a radical progressive shift: At the fall of the Roman Empire, the loss of momentum and the absence of a Caesar just saw a sort of sputtering indecisiveness, a slow and uncertain period of coasting about. Perhaps the Age was Dark not because of a sharp decline, but simply because of the lack of forward progress.

The POD being Gettysburg is still not convincing. I don't think a battlefield is where history changes. Caesar did not become emperor at Alesia, he did it when he crossed the Rubicon. Napoleon did not lose at Waterloo, he lost when 500,000 experienced soldiers of the Grande Armee died in the winter debacle in Russia. Hitler did not lose WWII at Stalingrad, he lost it at Yalta.

I do think that without the times to make one great, a great person cannot shine.

Jean-Remy said...

One disadvantage in reading the blog backwards is I just found an earlier post that deals exactly with that theme (Futurology: The Perils of Prophesy). Well I guess it doesn't really invalidate my previous post but merely asserts what my particular view on the theme is, that people and event are impossible to disassociate.

I tend to have a very centric view of pretty much everything and a huge suspicion of extremes and absolutes. Nature v. Nurture? You can't have thought without the genetically evolved brain, you can't have personality without human interaction. Socialism v. Capitalism? The latter unrestrained by the former will create a tyrannical oligarchy as fast as the former unsupported by the latter. Great man v. Extraordinary times? The latter puts the former into a position to change the latter.

Absolutes are wrong. Including this one.

Rick said...

Absolutes are wrong. Including this one.

I could not agree more!

You covered your own points thoroughly :-) but I'll pause to note your good observation about Hitler and Yalta. Especially since the 'Murrican Right has created a mythology in which Yalta was a great betrayal, yada yada yada.