Get Me to the Church on Timelines

So recently I was asked for my opinion on alternate timelines and alternate universes, particularly as used in comics. This is really a big topic to tackle all at once so I thought I would break it down into two parts. This week I wanted to look at what kinds of alternate universes there are, just so we’re all on the same page, and then next week I’ll give my opinion on the usefulness of each in telling a story.

Let me start by defining what’s not an alternate timeline for the purposes of this discussion, namely anything like alternate history fiction. If we were to accept that definition then all fiction counts as an alternate timeline of some sort and the term just stops being useful. Yes, there are genres of fiction that are deliberately structured to be to our world as some of the following definitions of an “alternate timeline” are to fictional worlds but when you get down to basics you’ll realize all fiction does fit that description to some extent so you just have to ask how much the creators intended for that to be true. If that makes sense.

Let’s just move on.

For a story to have an alternate universe premise it must have two separate worlds that are somehow the same (a shared history, shared characters or something similar) and then make the characters of those two worlds aware of each other. That’s a little dense, I know, but maybe I can clear up what I mean by giving some examples of the four prevailing types of alternate universe.

The first, and probably best known kind of alternate universe is the Baileiesque alternate universe. This kind of alternate universe I’ve named for George Bailey, the protagonist of It’s a Wonderful Life. George’s story is one of the biggest, best known examples of the type in popular culture and most people probably know the story already, how George Bailey was contemplating suicide and callously tells his guardian angel that the people who know him would have been better off if he’d never been born.

So Clarence, George’s angel watchman, takes his charge to a twisted, darkened world where George meets people and sees places that should be familiar but seem to have been robbed of something that made them good and vital. It’s a world where George Bailey was never born.

Baileiesque alternate timelines are always defined by the person who visits them and exist to show them something about themselves. They’ve been used in everything from simple morality stories like It’s a Wonderful Life to iconic science fiction like the Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror. These alternatives are narrative devices that let characters and audiences explore some path not taken and strive to make sure that both audience and character see as much as possible from their “home” world reflected in the alternative timeline.

The second kind of alternate universe is the Narnian alternate universe. These kinds of places are entirely different from the world as we know it, possibly even having different rules governing them from the beginning of time. As the name implies, Narnian universes are best embodied in C.S. Lewis’ fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. They are places of wonder visited by (usually) more mundane people who become something more than they were as a result of their visit.

Unlike Baileiesque stories, Narnian alternate universes serve to build something new in characters, rather than reveal something that is already true about them. Narnian stories are hero’s journeys, rather than opportunities for introspection. As a result there’s as little overlap between people, places and histories as possible between most Narnian alternate universes and the homes of the characters who visit them.

The third kind of alternate universe is an Ultimate universe. The name is derived from Marvel’s Ultimate line of comic books, where that publishing house completely reimagined its heroes with modern backstories and a more tightly written continuity. Characters were reworked to fit new sensibilities or storytelling conventions. Then the whole thing eventually crossed over into the main Marvel timeline before Mainline Marvel, Ultimate Marvel and a few other Marvel ideas got mashed into an incomprehensible mess that’s supposed to be the new continuity going forward.

Confused? I am too.

Let me try and give a better illustration of the Ultimate alternate universe phenomenon. Get on Netflix and watch Star Trek, both the original TV series and the movie Wrath of Kahn, then the two recent J.J. Abrams films. If anyone accuses you of wasting time tell them it’s for science.

Back? Good. You’ve now experienced the Ultimate phenomenon in a very limited case. When Star Trek was rebooted the studio couldn’t resist using Leonard Nimoy to tie-in for all the fans of the classic series. But the way this reboot reinterprets the characters, particularly in the case of Uhura and Spock, and casts the entire crew of the Enterprise as misfits rather than the cream of Starfleet is done entirely to make the narrative more exciting for modern viewers. The very long shadow Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn casts over Star Trek: Into Darkness is another classic hallmark of Ultimate alternate universes and the existence of Nimoy-Spock solidifies the modern movie franchises as true alternate timelines, since they’ve interacted with the original.

Unlike Narnian and Baleiesque alternate universes, which exist primarily as narrative devices, Ultimate universes exist to allow a popular story that has grown out of hand or out of relevance to take the highlights and rebuild the story and characters into something new and easier for new audiences to get into. At least, in theory.

The final kind of alternate universe is the quantum alternate universe or the more commonly used term multiverse. You know how I said Baileiesque universes show how the world would be if one thing were different? Quantum universes assume that all the different things that could happen did happen and each has its own universe. Basically, a quantum universe is the ultimate attempt to answer “what if?”

Now the thing that makes multiverses tick is that lots of people travel around in them – there’d be no point, narratively speaking, otherwise. The alternate possible universes are open to everyone, so they don’t have a character building purpose as a set piece. Rather they are almost always the central lynchpin of the plot, the thing that makes everything else interesting and effective. The many alternate universes in a quantum universe is somewhere between MacGuffin and Deus Ex Machina, driving the plot forward and bringing it to a close.

So these are the four broad types of alternate timelines that exist in modern fiction. How good or useful are they? Tune in next week and we’ll hash that out – but if you want the short version it’s “depends.”

World Building: A Project Sumter Timeline

I thought I’d throw together another little world building post for you, this time focusing on Project Sumter and it’s history. If you’ve ready any of the fiction here you’ve probably gathered that Project Sumter is a government organization dedicated to enforcing the law among people with unique talents (read: superpowers) and keeping their existence secret. It’s also the largest legitimate employer of talents in the United States.

You probably also know that many of the rules that govern the Project are extrapolated from the rules governing a man known as Corporal Sumter, who was given his strange title and most of his assignments by no less than President Abraham Lincoln.

Believe it or not, Project Sumter was originally about Corporal Sumter, not Double Helix.

So there’s actually a very detailed timeline of what happened between Lincoln’s election in the mid-1800s and the Enchanter’s first arson in the early 21st century. I still hope to use a lot of that material, but here’s a semi-redacted version of that timeline (and honestly, what else would you expect from Project Sumter?)

April 12 – 13, 1861 – Fort Sumter is besieged and surrenders to Confederate forces.

April 15, 1861 – President Lincoln declares a state of insurrection.

June 22, 1861 – A cadet at West Point lifts a cannon that had fallen on another student in a training accident. He not only lifts it off the other cadet but slings it over one shoulder and moves it across a courtyard, a feat of strength that cannot be explained by simple adrenaline. This cadet gains something of a reputation.

July 8, 1861 – Word of the Herculean cadet makes it’s way back to President Lincoln, who sends for the man, later be known as Corporal Sumter.

July 10, 1861 – After meeting the cadet in person, the President decides to terminate his commission in the Army. He fears that allowing a superman to lead in a war that is at least partly about the respective status of races will send the wrong message. Corporal Sumter reluctantly agrees and all records of his enrollment at West Point are destroyed.

January 10, 1862 – A Confederate officer at the Battle of Mill Creek is observed being shot several times without apparent injury. When a cannonball strikes him and falls off like a dead fly Union soldiers become unusually concerned.

January 12-20, 1862 – Rumors of an invincible Confederate officer begin to circulated through the Union’s Western Theater of Operations.

February 3, 1862 – A letter reaches Corporal Sumter, sent by a friend from West Point, telling him of the strange officer on the other side of the lines. The Corporal in turn writes to President Lincoln, detailing the situation and asking if he can still serve the Union in some way. The President will later claim the letter was never received. The truth of this claim remains in dispute.

March 3, 1862 – With no answer from Washington, Corporal Sumter departs for the West on his own.

-Further details on the period between 1862 and 1865 are classified Top Secret. Further detail only available to those cleared for codewords CORPORAL SUMTER, SHENANDOAH, FOG OF WAR, BUSHWACKER and SHERMAN’S BANE, talent indexing numbers 0001 – 0005.-

May 18, 1865 – President Johnson thanks Corporal Sumter for his service and signs his discharge papers, ending his official service in the Union Army.

1865-1940 – The family of Corporal Sumter, Shenandoah and Sherman’s Bane remain under quiet surveillance by those members of the U.S. Government who are entitled to know what they are capable of.

Summer, 1940 – British intelligence reports intercepting communications regarding people with strange abilities, particularly power over ‘frost’. These reports are corroborated by soldiers returning from Dunkirk.

August 2, 1941 – The newly formed Office of Strategic Services, combining previously received reports from British Intelligence with documents scattered through Army records, concludes that precedents already exist for how the Army should deal with potential talented soldiers should the US be drawn into the new World War.

August 18, 1941 – The OSS sets out a proposal, later approved by the War Department, that creates the basic administrative apparatus of Project Sumter and recommends a total of six individuals who are believed to have talent that the Project could attempt to recruit.

October 2, 1941 – Daniel Wells, grandson of Shenandoah, is located by Project Sumter and reveals that his grandfather’s talent has not been passed down, although all the research Shenandoah did on his abilities has. The Project offers Wells a supervisory position and he accepts.

October 5, 1941 – Agent Wells approaches the granddaughter of Sherman’s Bane and offers her a position with the Project. She is given the codename Clear Skies and later becomes a member of the Women’s Army Corps.

October 20, 1941 – Corporal Sumter’s great grandson is located but declines to participate. No other members of the family demonstrate the original’s incredible abilities and Project agents return to Washington empty handed.

November 12, 1941 – Project Sumter’s headquarters is officially established in Charleston, South Carolina.

December 7, 1941 – The Imperial Japanese Navy launches a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

December 8, 1941 – Sumter’s great grandson arrives in Washington D.C. with a changed heart, seeking admission to Project Sumter. Within eight hours he is in Charleston, being sworn into Project Sumter.

December 23, 1941 – U.S. forces on Wake Island surrender to the Japanese after successfully resisting invasion for a little over two weeks. A long debate at Sumter HQ comes to an end and Corporal Sumter’s successor is named for a recently lost stronghold, just like his ancestor. Sergeant Wake’s file is officially opened in the Project records.

-Further details on the period between 1941 and 1946 are classified Top Secret. Further detail only available to those cleared for codewords CLEAR SKIES, CHIEF STILLWATER, SERGEANT WAKE, SAINT ELMO, COLD SPIKE and JACK FROST, talent indexing numbers 0006 – 0009, 0036 and 0044.-

September 22, 1947 – With the War Department recently dissolved Project Sumter’s administrative fate is left up in the air. After much debate, with the newly minted CIA pushing hard to be given control, the Project is instead made an independent body. No longer a branch of the military, it begins the long process of working out new long term goals and identity.

September 25, 1947 – A fundamental shift in Project structure occurs when the three seniormost talents, Clear Skies, Chief Stillwater and Sergeant Wake, decide to retire now that there is no pressing military need for their services.

-You actually need clearance to know what clearances you need to read about the Cold War. Seriously.-

April 18, 2004 – Double Helix, talent indexing number 3729, is taken on a field stress test by Senior Special Agent Darryl Templeton and Special Agent Eagle Ear. He discovers a pair of cold spikes who, it is later concluded, were part of a breeding program trying to foster talented bloodlines. It marks the beginning of a very troubled career with Project Sumter.

August, 2004 – It is believed that the talented serial killer Lethal Injection committed his first murder in this general timeframe.

February 12, 2005 – Lethal Injection’s killing spree begins to make news. Project Sumter determines these grisly murders are probably caused by a talented person and goes to Condition One.

March 8, 2005 – Teresa Ortiz’s father is killed by Lethal Injection. She will later be adopted by Javier Herrera, with the financial and legal support of the Oldfather Foundation.

May 17, 2005 – A hacker shuts down the Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, Arizona and prevents Lethal Injection from escaping Project agents. Lethal Injection is killed while resisting arrest. Analysts from Project Sumter determine that the hacker was a talented individual who was actually in the airport terminal, directly manipulating electrical circuits. A file is opened and the talented hacker is codenamed Open Circuit. The Project correctly surmises this is Circuit’s first crime. It will not be his last.

So will I ever go back and tell you what happened in those missing years? Surely there were plenty of freaky goings on during the Second World War and the Cold War, along with the Civil War, yeah?

Oh yeah.

But those are stories for another time. For now, I hope you enjoyed reading a little bit about the background of the story we’re telling right now. Tune in Monday for the next instalment of Water Fall, until then may you have as much fun with your world building as I do.