Zweig's Second Law and the Sandbars in the Timestream

Zweig's Second Law: "The way time travel works:  Barring divine intervention, a time jump has a 90% chance of taking you to the twentieth century, and a 9% chance of taking you to the time of the dinosaurs."

Dani Zweig was a Usenet regular back when many of the Fifth Worlders were also Usenet regulars, and he had Opinions on many things, including time travel in comics.  This specific law was more related to time travel engaged in by characters native to The Future (i.e. Legion of Super-Heroes, most sci-fi time travel stories), so it lumps a bunch of stuff in the 20C together.

A somewhat more general cliche of comicbook time travel would be that the vast majority of time travel ends up in one of three places, from most to least likely: World War II, the Age of Dinosaurs, or the Wild West.  The last two could switch places depending on how many cowboy comics the company has published, of course.  The fourth most likely is less a specific era as it is "the protagonist's personal past," which goes back to my earlier essay on the Many Worlds hypothesis.  Pretty much any other class of destination is equally possible but unlikely, barring a regular series set in that time (i.e. if there's an active Legion of Super-Heroes title, then travel to their time becomes much more probable).

So, the nagging question: why such a limited set of popular destinations, out of all of the wonders time has to offer?  Doctor Who may end up in Cardiff in the present day an awful lot, but at least when he leaves he goes all over the past, present, and future.

As with many questions about fiction, the real answers don't always work as in-story explanations (Doctor Who ends up in present-day Cardiff because it's cheaper to film that sort of thing, but the in-story explanation was a time rift thingamabobber).  Still, it's worth examining them in this case, because often they do work as in-story explanations.

The Real Reasons for Limited Destinations in Time:
  1.  Dinosaurs are cool.
  2.  Punching Nazis is cool.
  3.  Cowboys...once were cool.
  4.  Cross-era crossovers can be fun.
Sure, you can have dinosaurs created in a lab, or go looking for modern neo-Nazis to punch, but there's something extra-dramatic about being in their home turf.  The stakes are higher, because instead of facing a couple of escaped experiments or a handful of idiots with tiki torches, the protagonists are surrounded by dinosaurs or Nazis or cowboys and can't as easily fight their way out of things.  As for point 4, if you have a popular title set in another era, time travel is the most straightforward way to set up a crossover.
The Inevitable Apocalyptic Consequence of Time Travel

When the time travel destination is actually chosen by the protagonists, the real world reasons work just fine.  "Let's go kill Hitler!" is one of the first thoughts of anyone given access to a time machine, as is "I wanna ride a dinosaur!"  Less likely but still plausible are "Why does this WWII German Field Marshall in an old newsreel look just like me?  I'd better fire up the time machine to go check!" or "Wouldn't it be neat to meet Conan?"  (Answer: while it might be neat to meet Conan, it would probably turn from neat to "oh crap" very very quickly.  The Hyperborean Age has little patience for fools.)

That still leaves all the cases where the time traveler didn't actually intend to go to when they ended up, either because they had zero control over the process, or because they meant to go somewhen else but ended up in WWII (Age of Dinosaurs, the OK Corral, etc.) anyway.  Sometimes the writer will bother explaining it in the story, but usually it's just a case of, "Well, we gotta end up somewhen, this was when we ended up!"

The following is intended as an all-purpose explanation for situations where the writers can't be bothered, but it annoys you how un-aimed time travel keeps going to the same handful of eras: sandbars in the timestream.

No, the other timestream.
For our purposes, the "timestream" is whatever visual or narrative device is used to allow for the passage of personal time for a time traveler, and provide for navigation hazards that can be dealt with via frantic working of controls or other activities.  "Regular spacetime" is the everyday humdrum world of talking gorillas and jetpacks and time advancing at one second per second (give or take).

Any sufficiently large release of energy on or near the surface of the Earth in regular spacetime will create a rough patch in the timestream, a metaphorical sandbar.  Those navigating with purpose need to be aware of these and compensate, but rookie time travelers may founder upon them and drop into regular spacetime unexpectedly.  Those who have simply been shunted into the timestream will keep going until they run out of temporal impulse, and sandbars will tend to suck away a lot of that.  How far they travel past a sandbar will depend on how forcefully they'd been pushed into the timestream, and how much of that temporal momentum they have left when they hit the sandbar.

WWII takes place just before a bunch of atomic bomb blasts, so time travelers going into the past will tend to stall out in the early to mid 1940s.  The Tunguska blast is a good sandbar for explaining Wild West arrivals, especially if it was of mystic or alien origin in the setting.  And, of course, if you have enough oomph to make it back hundreds of millions of years, tripping over the K-T boundary event will tend to drop out into the late Cretaceous so you don't tumble back so far that there's no breathable air at your arrival point.  If the setting has an Age of Magic that ended in Atlantis sinking, that burst of energy means you're likely to land during the final years of the Age of Magic.  If there's a comic set in any other distant past era, eventually there will probably be a large explosion, and that can be your sandbar.

Similarly, if you're going forwards in time, any worldwide cataclysm such as an atomic war will lead to emergence in the post-apocalyptic hellscape if you're not careful, even if you were aiming for the utopian far future.  A Time Institute in that future could set up a beacon of some sort to make it easier to skip over the atomic war, or they could create an artificial sandbar to prevent any time travelers from getting past the hellscape unless they really know what they're doing (after all, who wants to be bothered by n00b time travelers from the past?).

Always listen to Ivanova.
Specific events may become such popular destinations for intentional time travel that the energy of all those time machines creates its own sandbar, dumping every novice time traveler into Dallas to watch the Kennedy assassination, or resulting in a thriving gift shop just before the K-T impactor.  Some sort of trapper of time could even create a tarpit that dumps unwary time travelers into the heart of the Hiroshima blast and thereby disposes of potential rivals.

In any case, the non-random nature of random time travel becomes a case of time travelers tripping over the "Boom Tomorrow," whether they want to go there or not.

In case you're curious, here's the other two of Zweig's Laws, as enumerated by our own Greg Morrow:

"The triumph of Evil is always accompanied by ugly, skimpy and non-functional clothing, an exponential increase in power, and a total failure of intellect." -- Zweig's First Law

"Characters with super-strength don't *do* inertia!  Or leverage." -- Zweig's Third Law

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, inhabitor of a body ill-suited to evil outfits, occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
Zweig's Second Law and the Sandbars in the Timestream Zweig's Second Law and the Sandbars in the Timestream Reviewed by Dvandom on Thursday, November 30, 2017 Rating: 5
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