Time and Divergence

I run an online Star Trek RPG known as the USS Joshua Norton, and for those of you who aren’t familiar with this form of role play game, it’s pretty much a continuous work of collaborative writing. Like a Tabletop RPG, a game master (or rather the command team in this case) lays out a plot line for the characters to encounter and fills in details like major events that occur and additional characters needed to flesh things out. Which is to say that as someone involved in creating these plots, I spend some time thinking about the established lore of Star Trek.

While talking with crew on telegram (You should be using telegram, it’s a great program. Go download it on your phone, I’ll wait.) the topic of time travel came up. Not surprising, really, given that it’s been a theme touched upon since the original series — one of the best known episodes is City on the Edge of Forever after all — and it’s been a popular topic ever since then. Even outside Star Trek, time travel is often touched upon, with one of the best known classics being H. G. Well’s The Time Machine.

One debate that comes up if you delve into the topic much is whether time is stubborn and tends to stay mostly the same even if you try to mess with it, or is it fluid and susceptible to ripples from the smallest change. I read a story once that involved a guy trying to stop his own death, but the universe was so determined to not change the time line it sent a little asteroid right through his forehead where a bullet originally went to kill him. (If anyone knows the title and author of this story, please remind me in the comments!) The other extreme is the originator of the term the butterfly effect, A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury, where a guy steps on a butterfly and changes everything when he’s returned home. Doctor Who likes to dance between these two with its talk of fixed points in time intermixed with wibbly wobbly balls of timey wimey.

Star Trek seems to lean middleish, though more towards Sound of Thunder, but I believe that all these theories don’t have to be at odds. Start by looking at how Star Trek has handled divergent time lines, particularly Mirror, Mirror and the JJ ‘verse, one major event can split off a noticeably different alternate time line. From there, consider that at any given moment there are any number of situations occurring where there are multiple potential outcomes: for example someone steps off a curb and there may be a car coming or not, if there is a car the driver could react or not, maybe not even see that there’s someone there, the speed of the car upon impact can affect the chance of the hit person surviving, as well as variables like health, which people are on scene to render aid if anyone, which doctor is at the emergency room to offer care. If we assume that each of these variables caused a fork, that these options — and more than we didn’t list — played out by spawning a new time line, that’s a whole hell of a lot of time lines spawning every moment of every day.

How does this mesh with Sound of Thunder and Time Is Stubborn? Well, with every outcome producing its own time line, both scenarios play out as well as everything else in between. It’s just a matter of which line you observe as to what you are inclined to believe. There are bound to be time lines where all observed divergences are Sound of Thunder type ripples, and others where everything stays on the straight and narrow path of things not changing at all because the universe finds a way to nudge it all back on course with creative solutions. Statistically speaking, most time lines out there are going to be exactly what we’ve been shown in the Star Trek universe: a mix of predestination Paradoxes, time being stubborn and falling back into line when events are nudged back close to what they were before, and the smallest events changing causing the largest differences.

I want to write-up an entry on the Norton’s LCARS about time travel, but I suspect that it’ll take some more thought before I can craft something of particular use to my crew. I may revisit this topic again another week.