This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #56, on the subject of Temporal Observations on the book Outlander.
Yesterday I finished reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon; my Goodreads review of the book is here for those who want to know something more than my temporal anomalies considerations of it.
I am often asked whether I would consider doing a temporal analysis of a book (although television shows are the more common question), and I have elsewhere explained why not. This is only a brief look, based on a single read-through. I should also caveat that it is the reading of the first book in a series of at least three (I have a copy of the third but not the second, and am contemplating whether to obtain the second somehow), and it is evident that our time traveler has not finished mucking about with history. This is not a thorough analysis; it is simply a brief overview of some of my observations.
Also, I am informed that the book (possibly books) has (have) been turned into some sort of video presentation, although I am not clear whether it is a movie or a cable television series (or one of each?). This is not that; I have only incidental knowledge of that.
The story begins really just before World War II, when Claire marries Frank Randall and they visit the Scottish Highlands for an interrupted honeymoon as the war begins and both of them become involved, he as a soldier, she as a nurse in field hospitals. This beginning is simply given as background to explain how they happen to be in the Scottish Highlands within days of the end of the war, finishing their disrupted nuptials. Frank is a history professor, and Claire is thus exposed to much about his ancestors and the events of the area of which she is not particularly interested. She is collecting plants and learning about herbology to some degree, and when one of the residents shows her a stone circle–well, we have a number of events the culmination of which is that she is up there alone, apparently touches the wrong stone, and is hurled two centuries into the past. Here she encounters the people and events who had previously been dull history lessons. One of those is Jonathan Randall, identified as Frank’s six-times great grandfather, a British officer of notorious reputation who died during a war still a few years ahead shortly before his son was born. This Randall proves to be a horrible person, a rapist and homosexual rapist and sadist, and a murderer who has managed to pin his murder on a young Scottish prisoner who escaped between his first and second flogging, Jaime Fraser. In order to escape Randall’s efforts to arrest Claire, who escaped being raped by Randall shortly after her arrival (before she knew what was happening), Claire marries Jaime. She uses her nursing skills to work as a doctor (knowing far more than most doctors of the era, but hampered by the lack of modern medicines and so relying on the local herbalism), saving numerous lives including Jaime’s more than once, escapes being burned as a witch alongside another woman who is burned but whom she realizes is also a traveler from the future (by virtue of the smallpox vaccination scar which becomes visible when the woman pulls down her clothes while on trial).
She is concerned about whether she has severely altered the future. She killed a young British soldier to save her husband, and in a later effort to rescue him she caused the death of Jonathan Randall, her husband’s ancestor, before the conception of his first child. Yet as a Jesuit priest to whom she confesses observes, she will have had as much impact on the future in the many lives she has saved through her medical efforts. From a moral perspective, the possibility that this would change the future should not figure into the question of whether she should help people; the fact that it became necessary to cause the deaths of two people in defense of her family should equally not be a moral concern for her, as God does not condemn us for doing out of such necessities that which would otherwise be wrong. Those, though, are the moral and religious concerns. The temporal concerns are a much greater worry.
The particular one is of course that having caused the death of Jonathan Randall she must logically have prevented the birth of Frank Randall, her future husband. That does not prevent her birth–but it does mean she did not have a honeymoon in a place where he could explore his family history, and did not visit that particular stone circle at that particular time to be thrown back to this century. It gives us effectively a grandfather paradox, in which she has undone the causes that brought her here, probably creating an infinity loop. Yet we have a complication here: the witch, the woman she befriends only to discover too late that she is also from the future, sends her the message “one-nine-six-seven”, which means that that woman comes from a future twenty years past that from which Claire came, and therefore future history must continue beyond the disappearance of Claire Randall.
The more difficult way to resolve this is to suggest that somehow the events of the future bring Claire to the same place at the same time; that is, she did not marry Frank but immediately after the war for some other reason completely obscure to us she came to the same part of Scotland, met many of the same people, wandered into the same stone circle and was sent back from the same moment in the future to the same moment in the past. It is obvious that the probabilities are immensely against this–and it does not fully resolve our situation. The complication that arises is that once in the past she recognizes both Jonathan Randall’s name and his face precisely because she was married to his similar descendant Frank Randall. Take that out, and Claire’s reactions will be entirely different. She is also likely to have different knowledge and different experiences, although there is still good reason to believe she would have been a nurse in field hospitals during the war, so in the main issues she would be the same.
The easier solution is that this is not time travel at all, but some kind of multiple dimension theory. As we have elsewhere noted, in such cases the traveler duplicates himself but no one at the point of departure ever determines that time travel has occurred–the traveler has simply vanished without a trace. However, in this situation that is moot: we apparently have rifts to another dimension, and sometimes people fall through. There are still problems involved if history is altered (the witch must have come from some universe to reach this one, so this probably is not divergent dimensions) because the two universes are put out of synch with each other, but for this story it might work.
The more general problem is of course the number of lives she has saved. We have discussed the genetic problem, the fact that one change in who marries whom will ripple through a population and alter thousands of lives in the next generation. Although the Fraser clan in Scotland is some distance from Claire’s ancestors (and perhaps her trip to France removes them farther), it only takes one Scot marrying one Brit, or failing to marry one Brit, within the next century or so potentially to undo Claire’s entire family such that she would never have been born.
Since the book ends with the subtle announcement that Claire is carrying Jaime’s child, we know that they have impacted the gene pool.
Again, the better solution is that this is not time travel, but a hop to another dimension. It is not impossible that the changes she has made to history will not undo her own life or her trip to those stones, but the improbabilities have reached incredible levels. Someone call Douglas Adams; we need something one of his characters invented.
Of course, Claire’s interactions with people also change the future, and so do Jaime’s, since the life he is living is very different thanks to Claire. We can only guess what lies ahead, but we know that the couple is bound for the court of Charles the Pretender, son of a former King James of England who has supporters in Scotland wanting to restore his line to the throne. Claire knows that this is a future disaster, bringing about the destruction of many of the Scottish clans and failing in its objective. She is seriously considering attempting to prevent it. It is not clear that she could, but in attempting to do so she might again impact who lives and who dies, who is part of Charles’ revolt and who survives. So she is not finished changing the world, even if she does not accomplish her goal. However, again if we take this as a parallel dimension, she can do this with impunity. The only problem she would create is that the next person who stumbles through the stone circle into this world will probably realize that this is not the past, because its history will have changed enough that the details of its present are noticeably altered.
This, though, raises another problem.
Claire says that in the stories it is always two hundred years. Of course, it isn’t–the witch came from 1967 and was already well established in her identity by the time Claire arrived. However, the combination of “this explains the stories” with the confirmation of the other time traveler tells us that Claire is not the first person to tamper with the history of this dimension. If it were a replacement theory story, that would not be so much of a problem: Claire would have left from whatever version of history was created by all previous time travelers. However, the point of making it a parallel dimension theory is that the changes made in this universe do not change events in the other–and if even several persons have done this before, that means history has been changed in some ways. That Claire does not know what is different is simply a flaw in her own knowledge and the fact that nothing major has changed–so far. However, the seeds of change create increasing ripples over time. She believes that the uprising in support of King Charles the Pretender will fail because it failed in her world; yet she does not know whether something she has done, or something her friend has done, or something one of the possibly thousands of other dimension travelers has done, has altered some piece of the puzzle such that the British side will fall. After all, already England has lost one soldier who might have been there and one officer who would have been there, would have died there. We do not know whether persons in leadership positions have been replaced by different persons who will make different decisions. She predicted the date of death of Jonathan Randall, and then her actions changed it. She wants to change history such that the uprising will not occur because she knows that in her world it was a disaster for Scotland, but she does not know that events have not already been altered in a way that has set in motion a Scottish victory. She simply cannot know with certainty that the history of her world is the future of this one. She can only bet that it is, and hope she is right. She has a better basis for her predictions than most, but this is not her world and the changes already made might rather abruptly move it in a completely different direction. That happens when you tamper with parallel dimensions; it must already be happening in some ways, and the trick is having enough information to know what those are. It does not mean the story doesn’t work; it only means that Claire doesn’t know as much as she thinks she does.
So Outlander works as a parallel dimension theory story, but is very doubtful as a time travel story.
In fairness to the author, I am not certain she cares. The original H. G. Wells time travel book The Time Machine was not really about time travel but about letting the author comment on the current state of the world by extrapolating a future world and bringing a then-modern traveler there to observe it. There are stories in which time travel itself is part of the plot, but that one and this one are examples of time travel used to bring a modern observer into a story set in another age. As such, it works quite well.
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