Thursday, February 18, 2010

Don't Mess with the Time Stream

I love a good time travel story. When you think about it, A Christmas Carol is a time travel story. And, of course, there’s H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, in which the protagonist takes a trip into the far future and almost gets eaten by Morlocks.

Introduce time travel into a story and there are all sorts of fun things you can do. The hero can alter history, as does the main character in L. Sprague de Camp’s classic 1939 novel Lest Darkness Fall. (A wonderful book—I think I’ll talk about it a bit more in depth in next week’s post.)

Or the hero can discover that he can’t change history. There’s an old Superboy story (from Superboy #85—cover dated December 1960) in which the Boy of Steel flew back in time to 1865, intending to stop Lincoln’s assassination. But it just happened that Lex Luthor was hiding out in the past. Luthor thinks Superboy is after him, so zaps Superboy with some Red Kryptonite, immobilizing him until it’s too late to save Lincoln.

The story has a really neat touch at the end—when Luthor realizes he’s prevented Superboy from saving Lincoln, the normally ruthless criminal is almost overcome with guilt.

Anyway, that was DC Comics’ way out of explaining why Superboy (and later Superman), a character who could easily fly fast enough to move back and forth through time, couldn’t change history and prevent disasters before they even happen—something always happens to prevent it. You simply can’t alter fate. (Of course, Superman does fiddle with time in the 1978 Christopher Reeve film, but what the hey.)

There’s at least one set of time travel stories in which it is possible to change history, but doing so is a really bad idea. It’s a science fiction adventure series written in the 1980s by Simon Hawke. Collectively known as the Time Wars, these 12 books are filled with complex but well-constructed plots, good characterizations and some truly exciting action set pieces.

The premise is this: In the 27th Century, wars are fought by sending soldiers into the past to enlist in armies of different times. A complex point spread system, based on how many soldiers survive for how long, is used to adjudicate international disputes.

But there’s always a chance that someone will mess up and do something that actually changes history. That would cause the creation of a parallel universe, which might eventually rejoin with our universe and destroy all of creation.

The main characters are part of an elite commando team that fixes history whenever something goes really awry. For instance, in the premiere Time Wars novel, The Ivanhoe Gambit, someone kidnaps and kills Richard the Lionhearted, intending to take his place and fix what he sees as Richard’s mistakes. So the good guys have to find the fake Richard, kill him, and then send in their own fake Richard to live out the real Richard’s life the way it was supposed to be lived.  Got all that?

One fun aspect of the early books in the series was how it mixed historical literature with real history. In The Ivanhoe Gambit, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is considered a true story (more or less) and the good guys operate in the past by temporarily taking the place of Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and other characters from that novel. The Time Wars books that follow give the Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Prisoner of Zenda the same treatment.

In later novels, that conceit was largely left behind, though the author always managed to have some fun mixing classic fiction together with real history. In The Nautilus Sanction, our heroes are searching for a hijacked 20th Century nuclear sub that’s been equipped for time travel by a terrorist. They find the sub in the 19th Century but are captured—along with Jules Verne and a Canadian harpooner named Ned Land. Gee, where do you suppose Verne got the idea for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? Well, in The Nautilus Sanction, we get to find out.

But Verne can’t write his novel until he’s rescued from the time traveling terrorist. That only happens after a lot of intrigue, a cameo appearance by Jean Lafitte and a climatic battle involving lasers, disintegrators, and nuclear hand grenades inside a hidden volcano base.

The entire Time Wars series maintains that same level of wild fun. The plots by the villains to change history involve stuff like genetically engineered monsters, giant robots and clones. In one novel, a military installation in the 27th Century is attacked by genetically engineered soldiers who are only about six inches high. In another, one of the time commandos gets into a shootout in Tombstone involving both six guns and laser guns. Eventually, trouble with a time traveling mafia called the Network and a war with a parallel universe add to the commandos’ many troubles.

Sadly, these novels are out-of-print, but used copies are pretty easily available online. It’s important to read them in order, though, because the whole saga ends up unfolding in a manner that brings it all to a satisfying conclusion by the time the series comes to an end.

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