Science Fiction is full of paradoxes and parallels. Lots of stories rely heavily on the idea that, not only can history shape the present and present shape the future but also that there are simultaneous timelines existing where our every opposite choice exists chosen with subsequent branches from every choice made thereafter. This is probably most famously displayed in both “It’s a Wonderful Life” (though this is hardly a science fiction story) and the “Back to the Future” trilogy.
The happy ending
In “It’s a Wonderful Life” James Stewart’s George Bailey begs for his life to have never happened. George stops a pharmacist from making a fatal mistake; he saves the town by thwarting an evil bank stock holder, provides for his brother and his mother, and eventually saves the town again using his honeymoon money. He takes over running the bank and years later loses eight thousand dollars that he desperately needs. He decides that suicide is a good solution because he has a fifteen thousand dollar policy. Through a series of prayers from friends and family for his well being George’s case is considered by the angels and Clarence the Angel is sent to show George his life without him. After seeing the positive effect he’s had on his town and the awful nature of both his town and family (his brother is DEAD!), he wishes virulently to be alive and walks away with a new appreciation for life. In fact he discovers that life is, ahem, wonderful.
The Back to the Future movies have a somewhat different approach to the idea of manipulating the time stream. I’ll try to keep my review of these movies short as I could probably write a dissertation on the series. In the first movie Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown builds a time machine contained in a DeLorean DMC-12 automobile. His young teenage friend is Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly, gets a call to meet Doc in the middle of the night at the mall parking lot. At this time Marty’s family is barley getting by, his sister and brother are losers, his father is being bullied by Biff (as he has been his whole life), and his Uncle Joey is denied parole. After a crazy event involving a time machine, Libyan terrorists, plutonium, and a pine tree Marty finds himself in 1955.
In 1955 a series of events occurs stemming directly from Marty’s displacement in time he interrupts several events key to his existence: most importantly the parents of his meeting. Through several events which were…most awkward with his teen aged mother making passes at him with liquor and cleavage…Marty is able to get his parents together and go, ahem, Back to the Future.
Once he is there he finds that his world is somewhat different. His brother and sister are successful business people (who still live at home…for some reason). His parents are in shape,
If you're gonna put a time machine in a car then I say put it in the car that will most exactly pinpoint the decade it was built in!--Doc Brown
his mother is no longer an alcoholic, and his father is a published science fiction writer! Biff works for the family, apparently as some sort of indentured servant; and Marty has his dream monster truck. And Uncle Joey! He’s unmentioned which really shows how well-to-do his family now is. Everything is good with Marty’s life thanks to time travel. Except his kids! Something has got to be done about his kids!
Doc shows up in the, now flying, DMC-12 and they go to the future to stop Biff’s grandson from beating up Marty’s son in a generational plot rehash…or so you’d think. Marty rectifies the situation, replicates his chase scene from the previous movie and buys a sports almanac so he can make some money when he goes back to the…past. Doc chides him, old Biff steals the almanac and the DeLorean while Jennifer and Marty find out a few troubling things about their future (Marty’s genes are really strong and besides a useless son they create a really ugly daughter, for some reason split pattern double ties become fashionable in almost four years from the time of this article’s writing and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers one day gets Marty fired on every television and fax machine in the house). Resulting from old Biff going to the past when Marty, The Doc, and Jennifer go to 1985 they find themselves in a radically different 1985 where Biff runs their town and the State and Federal government don’t seem to know or care.
See alternate/parallel timeline
This is the Jimmy Stewart moment of the Back to the Future movies. Time travel has changed the present. Though in the examples of It’s A Wonderful Life and Back to the Future everything gets either rectified to status quo or made better (at least for the protagonists). With the minimal act of old Biff however we see a real potential here for villainy with time travel. It even seems to be the perfect crime- there’s no evidence of the crime occurring. Now, I know all about time paradoxes—as I said I know Back to the Future very well—in fact I know that logically speaking one can’t actually change the past. If you go back in time and stop Hitler from rising to power, for example, there is no Hitler for you (if you exist at all) to go back and stop; therefore your action never occurs and Hitler rises to power…resulting in you going back in time to stop Hitler…so time ends there in an endless loop.
Unless you factor in Schrodinger’s Cat, that is. For those of you wholly unaware of even the most elementary concepts of quantum physics I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version of the theory. Imagine a box that cannot be seen heard, or smelled into. You put a cat in the box. You put a poison gas in the box. Until you look into the box you cannot be sure that the poison has killed the cat and therefore until you see inside the cat is simultaneously alive and dead.
If you leave the theory there than you end up either with a dead cat or a resilient, possibly sick, but all the while live cat. As you delve deeper into quantum mechanics and science fiction you will find yourself in the boundries of “Many Worlds Interpretation”. Many Worlds Interpretation, in the Reader’s Digest version, suggests that for every decision you make reality splits at that point one branch for every possible choice made. When applied to Schrodinger’s Cat this means that the cat is alive in one reality and dead in another. Now, with all that said, you understand the basis for multiverses.
A multiverse, most commonly used in comic books, is a collection of parallel universes sharing some commonalities but have characteristics in histories that make them distinctly different. For example in the DC Multiverse on Earth-30 Superman’s rocket landed, not in Kansas, but in the USSR. The history of events up to that point was as in the mainstream DC Universe (DCU) except with the change of 12 hours. The 12 hour difference (give or take) had baby Kal-El’s rocket landing in Russia resulting in a timeline where USSR wins the Cold War, Batman is a counter-communist terrorist movement (complete with Russian-hat Batcowl), and Lex Luthor becomes the savior of the United States. I won’t spoil the rest of the story for those who haven’t read it but suffice it to say it is phenomenal and worth your money and time.
The DC Multiverse is currently ordered in a 53 Earth System as illustrated in the epic and historic “52” maxi-series. The main Earth is called Earth-Prime and it exists at the bottom of an inverted-triangle. All of the other Earths (Earth-1 to Earth-52) stem from and rely on Earth-Prime’s existence. As I stated, the DC-Multiverse is an inverted triangle, or pyramid, if the Earth-Prime is removed all the other universes collapse into entropy around it. It is sort of a quintessence universe in that way. The Marvel Multiverse is organized in a very different way. The Marvel Universe we all know and love is Earth 616 and if you can think of a number there is a universe to correspond with that number. The Marvel Universe does exists on a spectrum but that spectrum is not ordered in any perceivable way. For example The Fault resulting from the end of “War of Kings” and encompassing “Thanos Imperative” that is a massive tear in 616 that acts as a tunnel to the “Cancerverse”. A hole that leads from “616” to “Cancerverse” does not pertain to an order that I can follow.
Marvel has done quite a bit with the Many Worlds Interpretation directly where as DC has usually done so indirectly, accidentally, or not at all. Specifically I would like to talk about the tangled web that is Nathaniel Richards/Kang the Conqueror/Iron Lad/Immortus/Rama-Tut. There are some clarifications I have to make before I start talking about Kang. Depending on the moment in time that you are dealing with this individual that I will refer to, mostly, as Kang depends on the name uses—his nom du voyage as it were—at the moment the Young Avengers were founded he was a teenager who was time lost and became Iron Lad, in his personal old age he will be Immortus, and so on.
In Marvel 616 there are two men, probably, named Nathaniel Richards. It’s actually a bit of a mystery. There is the time-hopping universe-tramping Nathaniel Richards, father of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) of the Fantastic Four and there is Nathaniel Richards who grows to become Kang the Conqueror. For all intents and purposes we will say that they are:
A) Not the same person (there is some debate)
B) Related, with Kang being named after Reed’s father Nathaniel which…
C) …Makes him probably Reed Richards’ brother, or nephew to some degree, or direct descendant
Also Kang boasts a lineage to Victor Von Doom (Dr. Doom) which means that he possibly is:
A) Descended from some descendants of both Doom and Mr. Fantastic that had a child together
B) Descended from Kristoff Vernard (Von Doom) the heir presumptive (though cryogenically held in stasis) to Dr. Doom in which case he would hold a biological and adoptive heritage
C) A liar
Kang utilizing his bean bag ray.
Kang goes through time conquering (hence the name) different places and establishing empires. When he was first introduced as Rama-Tut he had time travelled to ancient Egypt and was something of a tyrannical Pharaoh keeping advanced technology in The Sphinx. After a run in with a time-hopping Fantastic Four he was forced to retreat using his time travelling thingamadoo into some next time. He wasn’t seen again until he had an encounter with the Avengers as Kang.
As Kang travels through time so do his alternate choices, or they did for a while. Kang himself split as he caused more timelines eventually leading to quite a number of Kangs all vying for the same role in the time stream. This is a great illustration of Many Worlds Interpretation. Every time Kang attempted anything using time travel it resulted in a split between a successful Kang and at least one other version. This eventually came to a point where the egocentric Kang decided to kill the alternate versions. To that end eventually one rose to the top, presumably the prime Kang but who could really know? From there on Kang was careful not to create these alternate versions when he traipsed through time.
Kang is probably the preeminent example of time travel in comics. There are others of course. Superboy was a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes who resided in the 30th Century. Being a part of the Legion helped Superboy learn how to be Superman and Superman in turn inspired the Legion to be formed. Booster Gold traveled back in time from the 25th Century and became a major hero of the 21st (formerly 20th via suspension of the present) and saved all of time. Cable was born in the present, raised in the far flung future, lived his life in a sooner future, returned to the present, raised a a girl named Hope incrementally through the future, returned to the present some 16 years later (by his reckoning), and died (for now). Rachel Summers was born in an alternate time line, brought into our time line, and actually raises Cable (her brother…or half-brother depending on your definition) in the far flung future which is also her personal old age. The Flash (Barry Allen) has children in the future, who have a child (Bart Allen), who lives in the present as Kid Flash. It gets very complicated—always so complicated but Kang, good old Kang, he is representative of time travel with quantum theories.
As complicated as time travel in science fiction becomes it seems that there is a generally recurrent theme of you cannot, or should not, change the past. Quantum Physics seems to support this in the Many Worlds Interpretation insofar as no matter which event transpires somewhere the opposite, or shades of grey in between, has occurred. The paradoxes of time travel are often overridden by the presumption of fate. For example it is fated that Booster Gold will team up with Rip Hunter (his own son, but Booster doesn’t know that) to stop Mister Mind from destroying the multiverse but in order to do that he has to travel to the past and have a son—but he has the son after he travels to the past and after he stops Mister Mind. The proof of Booster’s success is that he was born in the first place. The only answer is fate; it’s the only thing that could explain the conundrum.
It’s all very difficult to swallow, I understand that but I’ve been trained over the course of my life to wrap my head around these things and accept them. The most important thing is to remember that when dealing with time travel you should never try to change the past because you don’t know what kind of future you’ll end up with. Also when you drive that car towards the drive-in movie screen remember you won’t hit that mural of the Indians, you’ll probably hit a real charge of Indians in 1885. You’ve gotta think Fourth Dimensionally.