Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Fun Filled Examination of Closed Time Loops

One of the easiest and most abused science fiction story concepts is the one where some fool filled with good intentions goes back in time in an attempt to stop a terrible crime or prevent a tragedy. During the course of these temporal adventures the main character more than likely does something stupid causing events to unfold much worse that in the original timeline. This usually leaves two possibilities for the conclusion of the story. The main character will again use whatever device that allowed him or her to time travel and attempt to correct the alteration in the timeline returning events to how they originality unfolded. Or, return to their original temporal point and somehow learn to live with the alterations in the flow of events.

Needless to say, so many of these types of stories have been written over the decades that they have become extremely derivative of each other that originality is next to impossible. Especially to a jaded science fiction type like myself whose read more time travel stories that I can remember.

As time travel stories go I'm more of the Terminator/Star Trek/Doctor Who type but I've got to admit that for a short time my wife got me interested in the Starz movie channel series based on the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon. Yes, those books and the series fit firmly in the categories of female romance/adventure but hear me out, because after binge watching seasons one and two I'm going to get metaphysical on the prospects of some time traveler changing history.

Backtracking for those who don't know, the Outlander books and television series centers on the female character Claire Randal who while visiting Scotland in 1945 is “magically” transported back to 1743 when she steps through a large stone. Without getting bogged down into the details at first Claire gets bounced around for awhile learning the ways of 18th century Scotland. What aids Claire in being accepted-- sort of-- by the locals is the fact that she was a combat nurse during the Second World War and is viewed by them as having close to magical healing powers far outstripping the doctors of that time.

Where things get titillating for Claire, and for certain members of the viewing audience, is when she hooks up with a Scottish dude of that time named Jamie Fraser. Given the nature of these books/television series sparks soon fly between Claire and Jamie with the birds and bees stuff getting fairly graphic, soft porn to some extent. I also have to mention part of the drama of the story revolves around the fact that Claire is married to a fairly decent guy who is back in the twentieth century and has no freaking idea what happened to his wife. This is where the story goes full female bodice-ripping romance because of the tension between Claire's conflicting desires to return to her twentieth century husband or stay with the hunky kilt wearing action hero.

The character of Jamie Fraser is a Scottish patriot and is all for pulling a William Wallace/Braveheart on the obnoxious English. But Claire is from the future and knows the growing rebellion will ultimately end disastrously at the Battle of Culloden. So Claire, deeply in love with Jamie, tells him what will happen even though this being 18th century Europe such ravings would almost certainly have caused her to be thrown into whatever passed as an insane asylum or burned as a witch. Jamie, being in love with Claire and impossibly open-minded for someone of that period, believes his lover's warning of impending doom and they begin working to alter the circumstances of the coming battle.

The overall crux of the story, at least in season one and two of the series, involves how the Scots are getting tried of being dominated by the English. With rebellion in the air the Scots are supporting Prince Charles Stuart's claim to the English and Scottish throne. Prince Charles Stuart, also known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, is a descendant of the last Catholic king of England, James II.

It is during the second season we are introduced to the doofus Prince Charles who is in France with his advisers looking to find ways to finance and them execute their scheme to take the throne of England by force. Which is a big task since Prince Charles is an idiot and there are other factors working to undermine the building Scottish rebellion.

While born in exile, Bonnie Prince Charlie was raised to sit on the English thrown. Reports suggest he was a dashing figure who was athletic, charismatic, and supremely confident. All that fine breeding just made him an empty suit with delusions of grandeur. For those who can't tell, no I don't like the privileged chump. He reminds me way too much of someone in this day and age.

As far as the ability to lead and organize a military campaign was concerned, he was worse than just incompetent. Despite his unassailable confidence in himself, objective observers say his intellectual ability was mediocre at best. He had no discernible tactical nor strategic vision on how to achieve his goals. Top it all off this example that inbreeding is still wrong whether it's done by white trash or rich aristocratic snobs, the Bonnie Prince was indifferent to the pragmatic issues of military logistics and how terrain effects the execution of a battle plan. Its been said many times anyone can play at being Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or General Patton. But what really wins battles is the ability to quickly bring enough beans and bullets to the theater of operations to overwhelm the enemy. And as far as terrain is concerned, any commander has to understand that while war has been compared to chess it's more the three dimensional kind.

Just to throw salt on this 18th century Scottish wound, it was recorded that Bonnie Prince Charlie was actually quite indecisive when the shit hit the fan. His usual habit was to walk away when things got tough leaving his subordinates to either sink or swim on their own.

Right from the start Bonnie Prince Charlies' campaign seemed hapless. When a French warship dropped him on a desolate beach in western Scotland in August of 1745 he was accompanied by just seven supporters with little to nothing in the way of weapons or money. A second French ship, which was carrying a small amount of troops, weapons, and money was intercepted by an English vessel and forced to turn back. As the weeks and months passed instead of a solid strategic plan coming together, his generals and advisers couldn't get along.

It wasn't all stupidity and epic defeat, somehow the rebellious Scots were successful enough to launch and overland invasion of England coming within a hundred miles or so from London. Instead of pressing the advantage though, they got nervous and retreated back into Scotland with a well trained and excellently lead English army in hot pursuit.

On the eve of what became known as the Battle of Culloden, the rebellious Scots, called Jacobites by the way, located the encamped English forces and decided to launch a nighttime assault on their position. Such attacks require highly trained troops and precise coordination among leaders, something the Scots were severely lacking to say the least. While it's not my intention to offend anyone, all things being equal the Scots really didn't have a coherent army. They were into the idea that motivated individuals could take on a disciplined army and win just because God or some ill-conceived abstract principle was on their side. Hey, such attitudes can work until the stronger, more disciplined, and better equipped force gets its act together.

The planned night attack on the English encampment began to fall apart almost immediately when one of the leading Scottish generals realized the operation was going sideways causing him to turn his troops around. The big mistake here was that he didn't tell the other group of Scottish forces causing both segments to bump around all night. By morning Scottish forces were exhausted and hungry but there was no place to sleep but the ground and food was nonexistent except what could be begged or stolen from nearby farms and villages.

Spoiled doofus, I mean Bonnie Prince Charles wanted to proceed with the operation as a daytime attack. Something anyone with a couple of extra brains cells in his group said was a really bad idea. Well, Charlie got his way and except for a brief few minutes when the first line of the English forces were breached, strictly by chance not planning, the Scots got their asses handed to them. With this defeat the idea of an independent Scotland was killed until a couple of years ago. Even then the peaceful referendum was defeated and Scotland and England remain a more or less an unhappy couple resigned to a loveless marriage.

Sidestepping back into the Outlander series and the final disposition of Jamie and Claire for those who might be interested. With the coming Battle of Culloden a certified clusterfrak in the making, Jamie forces Claire to return to the twentieth century by again stepping through the magical rock that first brought her. This is where I get off my military history train and slightly ridiculous television show explanations and get back on point about time travel.

As far as I can tell by reading and watching educational documentaries all the big theoretical physicists agree time travel on anything but a submicroscopic scale is impossible. What I don't understand though, and what keeps hopes of time travel alive for those interested in maybe asking Cleopatra for a date is that the equations for time that Einstein developed for his theory of General Relativity say it could easily flow both backwards or forward. Seemingly suggesting a mechanism could be engineered that would allow, say a talking dog and a young kid, to build a Wayback machine. So for shits and giggles lets speculate that some future Einstein, super genius talking dog, advanced artificial intelligence software, or space alien figures out a way. This now brings up the contentious and nightmarish possibility of screwing with the timeline.

Serious nerd side note here, but that's really the only reason I decided to watch Outlander with my wife. Well there is the fact that the lady playing Claire is smoking hot and did I mention the near soft porn aspect of the show?


Like Marty McFly made everyone understand in the Back to the Future movies, change the course of events and people in the future could literally vanish from existence. On that same vein, change the course of events and you alter the outcome of wars and other types of historical occurrences. The one thing from both Star Trek and Stargate that makes sense in a metaphysical sort of way is that no one should be able to play God with existence. In Star Trek the guys and gals from Starfleet wisely understand you simply don't go that route...most of the time. As for Stargate, well there are more than enough episodes where the bumbling Air Force fools did play with the timeline and got screwed in the process.

Here is where I put on my layman's history hat and suggest there might be another factor that prevents any hypothetical time traveler from altering history. Pulling from both the actual history of the Jacobite Rebellion/Bonnie Prince Charlie escapades and the scenario offered by the Outlander television series, anyone wanting to change history would have to fight some pretty strong preconceived notions and societal norms. Both Jamie and Claire worked hard to alter the chain of events leading to the Culloden disaster but failed miserably.

While I am in no way a military history expert it does seem to me that the strongest armies, in this case being the English forces fighting the rebellious Scots, almost always win. Yes, Vietnam is the exception that immediately comes to mind but geopolitical factors prevented the United States from exerting its full strength in that conflict. Terrain was also a factor and it was overwhelmingly on the side of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. Looking at the American Civil War while the South scored some early and impressive wins, once the Union forces got fully organized the Confederacy was thankfully defeated and ground down to dust.

Could the Jacobite Rebellion and the Confederacy pulled an upset by an early win? The Scots had their chance when they were only a hundred miles or so from London. And Robert E. Lee certainly had his chance for a quick victory at Antietam and later at Gettysburg but was repulsed both times. It would seem that they could have but I simply don't know enough to be sure. This goes back to the real winners of battles, logistics and knowledge of how to use the available terrain to your advantage. I have some nebulous idea that something would have happened or developed that would have prevented either of them from achieving their goals.

From what I have read, the one event that does seem to have been decided purely by chance was the Battle of Midway. Without digressing into another bout of military history the way I understand it U.S. Navy planes caught the Japanese fleet off guard as their aircraft were on the carriers being fueled and loaded with bombs. From that point on, Japan was never able to mount a major offensive operation. From what I've read the Battle of Midway has been war gamed many times over the decades with the real life outcome not the usual result. But this brings us back to my original idea, it might have taken several years but the industrial strength of the United States would have eventually defeated the resource poor Japan. Yes, I'm including the eventually development of the atomic bomb and its use in that assessment.

What this all boils down to is the eternal debate about determinism and free will. Do we as individuals have any real choice in our actions or are we just puppets playing out a story set in stone? That debate has gone on for thousands of years and runs the full scope from purely philosophical to involving physics. I frankly lean towards the side of determinism, with maybe room for real choice on the strictly personal level. That being whether or not I order pizza for lunch today or go get a nice tuna sub.

What would be totally cool though, is if some intrepid time traveler somehow reads this rambling rant and decides to drop by and tell me what they believe from his or her own era. I promise I won't screw with the timeline by telling anyone else. Come by early enough and I'll buy lunch for us both.


The Bug said...

That first paragraph is 1963 (Stephen King) in a nutshell. Very interesting theory.

I read the first few Outlander books (or maybe just two?). I might have to get back to them. My problem with historical fiction is that I get annoyed with how women are treated & I hate when I know how it's going to turn out.

Pixel Peeper said...

I, too, was reminded of "1963" while reading the beginning. We watched about three or four episodes, got sidetracked (read: not enough time) and never went back to it. Now I wonder if it's still on. And now I want to see Outlander, but we don't have Starz. I'll have to check if Netflix or Amazon has the series.

We watched Timeless, which was fun to watch (and dealt with the issue of history being changed by actions taken in the past). It was cancelled, but is supposed to come back now after all.

Fun to think about, this time travel stuff!