Tuesday, 1 October 2013

ALF #19: "Turn Again, Turn Again, Time In Thy Flight"

("But you can't rewrite history! Not one line!")


ALF #19 is the title's first time-travel story, in which Shaman takes his daughter into the past - along with Snowbird and Puck - to try and discover how Lucas Stang's demon problems first kicked off.

It's also the issue in which we learn Elizabeth Twoyoungmen is the subject of a millennia-old prophecy. This is actually the least interesting aspect of the issue, so we'll deal with it fairly briefly. Prompted by her father, Elizabeth reaches into his medicine bag, and pulls out a tiara that transforms her into the sorceress Talisman. In theory, this is a useful idea, because it takes the standard trope of alienated family members learning what they have in common and compresses it into a single panel: Elizabeth is now a magic-user like her father.  In practice what happens is that Talisman is so powerful and ethereal she's impossible to relate to, and Shaman spends the whole issue alternating between freaking out over his daughter's transformation and refusing to help her with it.  "No time to explain now!" is a fucking awful thing to say to your daughter (estranged or otherwise) when she clearly needs help adjusting to an utterly unexpected life-changing event.

But then Shaman doesn't come off well here across the board. He hands the medicine bag to Elizabeth without warning her that if she isn't actually Talisman looking into the bag will drive her insane.  That seems like a pretty important thing to point out, but Shaman's only comment is the fact his daughter hasn't just had her mind sucked away into nothingness is further proof that Snowbird has the right person.  Once Elizabeth has become Talisman, and Shaman has taken the group into the past, he then commences lying to people - mainly by omission, but directly to Snowbird - about what their mission is.

Snowbird, you see, thinks they're there to stop Ranaq the Devourer from achieving corporeal form in the first place; to stop him gaining the foothold into the real that led to the supernatural egg-based battle in the previous issue. Shaman assures her this is the plan, but it isn't. Shaman doesn't believe the past can be changed, and is just hoping to learn the circumstances of Ranaq's arrival to more usefully battle him in the present.

This is more or less in keeping with the original Marvel policy on time-travel, which stated that one could not change the past to alter the future. Rather, an attempt at time-travel creates a new reality, one which then operates entirely independently.  Shaman's non-interference policy is presumably intended to ensure he and his companions can return to the same Earth they left behind.

The problem here of course is that it's obvious nonsense.  I'm not talking about the multi-dimensional approach to time travel; that seems as sensible a way as any to handle the idea in a setting multiple authors. Nor am I particularly interested in exploring whether total non-interaction following a trip into the past would get one around the reality-hopping issue - though one would think it wouldn't, since the new dimension should be created by the act of travel itself, not by what happens once that act is finished.  There's no need to look at that too deeply because the idea of total non-interaction is so obviously ridiculous in the first place.

What needs to be understood here is that what causality considers interference bears no relation to what the human mind considers interference. Heisenberg's observer effect tells us that, as does basic common sense. The world they return to must be different to the one they left - it is inescapable.  The best one can hope for is a world indistinguishable from the one they left behind.

None of this seems apparent to Shaman, who seems relatively unconcerned with the idea of his companions fighting Ranaq, so long as none of them actually defeat him (that honour goes to the young Lucas Stang, who banishes Ranaq and so ensures the rematch one hundred years later).  That's an insane solipsistic approach to time-travel - what matters must be ensuring the event they came to witness goes ahead. Yes, that goal can be considered as an attempt to avoid a Grandfather Paradox, but really, that's just further evidence of why the Grandfather Paradox is so unworkable in the first place. Any reasonable conception of the idea has to include it being paradoxical for a time-traveller to succeed in changing what they want changing, and that immediately dilutes the laws of causality with the petty drudgery of the human mind.

It is simply not workable that what a time-traveller can do should be determined by what they know.  The past cannot possibly become more flexible in areas the time-traveller is less expert. Going back to change what we ate for breakfast yesterday should not be harder to do than going back to change what we had ten years ago just because we don't remember the specifics of the latter. The past is mutable or it is not, and in the case of Shaman's excursion, the former is clearly the one that holds.  Some attempt to bypass this fact by arguing time is like a jigsaw puzzle that always works out in the end (Pratchett specifically states that this is how things work with the Discworld, but that strikes me more as an attempt to avoid having to come up with anything more complicated, which; fair enough), but that won't cut it either.

Let's say I write two letters to my young self, one free of useful knowledge and another mapping out the mistakes I've made in the last twenty years, and place them in identical envelopes. Then I choose one at random, head back into the past, and post it. The argument that both letters are "destined" to be somehow intercepted or destroyed is very unpersuasive, but the suggestion only the "useful" letter would meet that fate is less sensible still.

No, if the past can be reached at all, if we really can traipse our way back down the highway of causality and poke at what we find there, the Grandfather Paradox cannot hold - one of the reasons I like Marvel's time-travel policy as much as I do, though it's been some time since it was rigorously maintained.  Shaman's touch-but-don't-stop policy simply doesn't cut it.

Still, by the end of the issue everyone's back in the present. It may even be the same present. We can dispense with all this noodling about the nature of time-travel and get down to something simpler, like how do deal with vengeful women turning people into gold. How relaxing that will be.


This story takes place in approximately real time. Plus, obviously, the past.


Monday 15th April, 1884.



Contemporary Events

The Siege of Khartoum enters its second month, and Adolf Luderitz prepares to place his South-West African holdings (now part of modern-day Namibia) under the protection of Imperial Germany to deter British aggression.

Standout Line

"Time travel is one of the few things I haven't tried." - Puck.

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