Thursday, December 16, 2010

Keeping the Time in Line

With tensions in Korea higher than I can recall them being at any point in my lifetime, I thought it would be instructive today to talk about timelines - specifically, where it's so, so easy for them to go so, so wrong. These two things may not seem to be related at first blush, but they are; I was put on this kick when I saw the latest trailer for the upcoming game Homefront, based around a near-future conquest of the United States by North Korea.



The most withdrawn pariah state the world has ever known, a cult of personality masquerading as a country that's teetering on the brink of famine and social collapse, is going to conquer even a portion of the United States. And we'll all be dining in open-air cafés along the canals of Mars by 1965. Of course, even the creators of Homefront haven't taken sufficient leave of their senses to think this is possible now. Instead they produced a timeline detailing the years from 2011 to 2027, when the game is actually set - I reproduce it here from the game's Wikipedia page.

2011: North Korea's weapons program grows significantly, leading to sanctions by the UN
2012: Kim Jong-il dies. He is succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un
2013: Kim Jong-un reunites North Korea and South Korea under North Korean rule.
2015: Gas prices rise to $20 a gallon in the United States, destabilizing the country
2017: The US Dollar collapses and the US Military begins to downgrade its foreign presence
2018: Japan surrenders to the Greater Korean Republic, forming an 'alliance' (i.e. being capitalized into a vassal state of sorts)
2022: The United States' economic system collapses totally
2024: Koreans annex many nations in East Asia
2025: GKR attacks the US
2025: An EMP hidden in a communications satellite is used to completely disable US infrastructure
2025: GKR forces seize Hawaii
2025: Cyber attack takes down hardened sites
2025: Korean troops control San Francisco
2026: US military is scattered

When I was still a callow youth, I dabbled in flights of creative fancy that I thought, at the time, were perfectly rigorous - mostly because I hadn't yet considered asking myself "if this is so believable, why didn't it happen?" One such one that still sticks in my mind was a very, very bare-bones alternate history centered around Jean-Bédel Bokassa's Central African Empire. In reality, it lasted a little less than three years before it fell apart. In my Totally Legitimate Timeline, on the other hand, it somehow became a super-powerhouse, conquering much of northern Africa and the Middle East by 1990... somehow. Presumably I thought it would work in a similar fashion as Command & Conquer.

Timelines aren't a necessary component in any setting; indeed, some work even better by providing no timeline at all, just hints and implications that come up as the story's told, building the history of the world as it's experienced. Where problems can arise, though, is when you're writing a timeline to arrive at a specific goal - and that's where I think the Homefront timeline falls desperately, dreadfully short.

I mean, it's full of stuff that happens just for the sake of happening, things that go completely against the way of the world as it's currently organized. Take its 2013 reunification of the two Koreas, under the North. This could have been a possibility for speculation back in the 1960s and 1970s, when North Korea's economy was actually outperforming the South's, but in a history that diverges from our own in what's effectively the present day, it's about as believable as the United Kingdom joining the Soviet Union in 1985.

After that, politically, things really seem to go off the rails. Japan becomes a vassal state of the united North Korea... for some reason. Korea annexes "many nations in East Asia" - somehow. While the use of an orbital electromagnetic pulse to shred the North American infrastructure is actually a good concept, but military hardware is specifically shielded against EMP. Not to mention that an EMP would be treated as a weapon of mass destruction and answered in kind. Not to mention that China would not be particularly pleased at seeing Korea all up ins its sphere of influence. Not to mention the massive investment that would be necessary for Korea to secure trans-Pacific transport capability for its armies. And so on and so on...

The timeline of a setting is the foundation of that setting. If it's based on ridiculous premises, it's not going to unfold in any direction except a ridiculous one.

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