Saturday, September 10, 2011

Four Color History?

Looking for some short reading material, I picked up The Big Lie, by Veitch and Erskine. The basic premise is a woman uses the Large Hadron Collider to travel back in time to try to stop the World Trade Center attacks on September 11. (Don't ask.) Her efforts are derailed by her husband and his co-workers who are utterly convinced that even if her story of hijacked aircraft was true, the towers couldn't possibly come down due to aircraft strikes.

Patriotic, isn't it?
I'm not going to rate The Big Lie as September 11th fiction, because I don't find the Truther movement to be compelling, and the story is really in service of that. What I find more interesting is the use of the Futile Time Travel trope. I've never cared for this trope, because the time traveler always turns out to be something of a dolt, despite the fact that they've managed to master time travel. And this instance is no exception. Rather than calling in a bomb threat or pulling the fire alarm or even actually starting a fire in the building, our intrepid time traveler from today (2011) decides to show people on her iPad what's going to happen to them if they stay put. And she doesn't go to the NYPD or the FBI - she goes straight to her husband's office, in a risk management firm in the World Trade Center.

To be fair, these sorts of stories are hard to tell. (And this particular story has the added burden of using time travel to lay the groundwork for a conspiracy narrative.) You have to explain how someone who knows exactly what terrible tragedy is about to happen can't manage to stop it. And the easiest way to do that, is, frankly, to rob them of the sense to do the obvious, despite the fact that they have all of the information they need. Now this particular story also throws in the added complication of having the time traveler arrive in the past later than she intended (which is a trope all it's own), so she's rushed and supposedly not thinking straight. But this brings up another issue with time travel. If you can hop back to a point where you are effectively in two places at once, and you realize that you didn't get it right, why not just try again? If you honestly think you can alter history, a la "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," you basically have all the time in the world.

I don't know if the average reader is going to be more concerned with the storytelling style than the content of the story, like I was, but I found the cliches and tropes that they used to be distracting. When you're trying to tell a story that you feel is important, how you tell it matters. Because the tropes they used tended to break suspension of disbelief, the basic preachiness of the story became evident, and that weakened the impact. While I'm not sure how else you'd tell the story they were laying out, I don't know that I'd have used a speculative fiction format. The idea that one could go back and prevent it all from happening is an enticing one, and I almost think the story would have been better if it had been allowed to succeed, although this may have opened a can of worms the writer would have found difficult to contain. In the end you have a typical (if slightly paranoid) comic book story, although the heroine is perhaps a little less competent than we'd come to expect.

1 comment:

Keifus said...

You may have mixed up your time travel genres. The Bill and Ted version of time travel is the one where you can go back, but you can't change the way events unravel, even though you can contribute to them. In that version, you have a plot that allows recursion, but you still have to end up with what actually happened, and there's a lot of room for creativity in that. (Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is a well-regarded example, but I don't think it's my favorite.)

In fact, I think this one's a really old trope. In the old versions, it was people taking great lengths to avoid destiny, only to find, of course, that those actions are what set the ordained events in motion.

[Not a surprise that the comic there did a crappy job of it. (And is Uncle Sam giving the tower on teh right a good rogering or what?)]

The Back to the Future version (aka the Terminator version) is the one where you keep editing to change how the future plays out. Agreed that it's weaker. Larry Niven (long before he became a crank) wrote a great short story called All the Myriad Ways, which made a point of how allowing all possible futures really diminishes the value of everything.