Rubber-Band History

Harvey: All modern research points to the elasticity of time, rather than a brittle framework.
Crichton: Can it be corrected?
Harvey: If nudged closely enough to course, events have a way of restructuring themselves. If the participants are the same, the venue's the same, the motivation's the same, then well: the outcome is likely to be the same.
Farscape, "Different Destinations"

Rubber-Band History is the phenomenon where a story begins in an Alternate History but ends with the usual timeline having been restored. History, apparently, is like a giant rubber band: you can stretch it and twist it, but sooner or later it will spring back into its original form, and the more radical the change the nastier the Snap Back will be.

Sometimes, the resident Alternate Badass of said timeline will come back if the alternate timeline threatens to become dominant again. Don't expect them to stick around, though.

This trope is easiest to grasp in the context of a series, where an episode starts with a radically different version of reality that sooner or later snaps back into the version established in earlier episodes. But it can also be seen in standalone works, where it's the timeline snapping back to "real" history — ie. the version of reality familiar to the author and the audience. (In the latter case, it's often implied that in-universe the unfamiliar timeline is the original one and the change to our reality is a new alteration and not a reversion to a previous state; that still counts.)

If history can't be brought back to its original form without some major differences, it's a Close Enough Timeline — like when Alice escapes death, but our heroes make sure she gets run over by a truck a few minutes later anyway. If Alice's tomb is instead filled by Bob just to preserve the timeline, it's Tricked Out Time. Not related to the "rubberband" timeline for Long Runners where characters don't age; that's Comic-Book Time.


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    Comic Books 
  • Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602 is set in a timeline in which the heroes and villains of the Marvel Comics Universe begin to appear 400 years early. In the end, the disrupting factor is identified and dealt with, and the history of the Marvel Universe is restored to normal (although the 1602 timeline survives in a pocket universe).

    Fan Works 
  • In "Empty Graves", part of the Sorrowful and Immaculate Hearts series, Martha Kent has to deal with a succession of time-traveling assassins attempting to kill Clark Kent while he's still young and relatively defenseless. Each time traveler is from a different future which ceases to exist as a result of their actions — for instance, one of the first is from a future where Jonathan and Martha kept Clark isolated on the farm for fear of what might happen if his origins were discovered, with the result that he grew up emotionally isolated from humanity and became a tyrannical overlord; having seen how that will turn out, Martha decides to risk letting Clark go to school and make friends, and that future is averted. After several such adjustments, the final time-traveling villain is from the familiar-to-the-reader timeline in which Clark grows up to become Superman.

  • K.A. Applegate's Animorphs did this a couple times. In Elfangor's Secret, a rogue Yeerk discovers a way of changing history, and sets about undermining Earth's past to make it easier to conquer. The book opens in the timeline created by his interference, with the protagonists unaware that this is not how history has always been until a Sufficiently Advanced Alien steps in and grants them Ripple Effect-Proof Memory, after which they pursue the Yeerk to restore history to normal.
  • Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity is set in the future, but it gradually becomes apparent that it's the future of a different past than our own. It ends with our history being created by a change in the past, when the time-traveling protagonists derail the sequence of events that would have led to the founding of Eternity.
  • In Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, the time travel shenanigans result in several changes to history which result in the timeline we're familiar with, where the coelacanth survived to the 20th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge never finished writing down "Kubla Khan", and Johann Sebastian Bach is the world's most famous and prolific Baroque composer.
  • The Thursday Next books are set in an alternate history which gradually becomes more like our own over the course of the series, through two main mechanisms:
    • A technology exists by which people can enter the world of a work of fiction and, potentially, affect the course of the story. In The Eyre Affair, the novel Jane Eyre initially has a different ending from the one in 'our' world. However, due to the exploits of the heroine and the events of the final climax taking place within the novel's original manuscript, the ending gets changed to the ending it does have in our world - something which everyone greatly approves of, since in that history the novel's 'original' ending was widely accepted to be depressing and dramatically unsatisfying. For added Mind Screw, the fifth book, First Amongst Sequels, does the same thing with the Thursday Next books themselves.
    • Thursday's father, a rogue Time Police officer, spends much of the first four books bouncing around history and setting events right, and events after his intervention more closely resemble Real Life history. However, eventually time travel itself is retroactively never invented, and that still leaves the Thursday Next world with a past, present, and future wildly different from our own.
  • In James P. Hogan's The Proteus Operation, the original timeline is one in which World War II never happened and the Nazis faded to obscurity after the Beer Hall Putsch. Some 21st century aristocrats go back to the 1920s and give Hitler funding and technology with the intent of moving in and taking over after he conquers the world for them. He takes what they offer, gives them the finger, and proceeds to take over just about the entire planet. An American team from that world's 1970s are able to go back to 1939 and sabotage the Nazis' time gate, and the uptime information they bring back is used by the Allied leaders to launch Operation Overlord and create our timeline.
  • Ward Moore's novel Bring the Jubilee begins in a timeline where the Confederacy won the American Civil War; the main character goes back in time to observe Gettysburg and accidentally changes history to our version.
  • Lawrence Watt-Evans' short story "One-Shot" has a guy go back in time to save Kennedy from being killed by a love-sick Marilyn Monroe. He drugs her and makes it look like a suicide. The Secret Service agent he confesses and proves his story to says he'll tell JFK about it after he gets back from Dallas.
  • Times Without Number by John Brunner is a collection of short stories set in an alternate history where the Spanish Armada conquered England and the resultant European superpower went on to invent time travel. In the final story, an extremist travels back in time to sabotage the Armada; despite the hero's efforts, he succeeds, creating the history we're familiar with.

    Live Action TV 
  • Andromeda: "The Unconquerable Man" depicts an alternative timeline in which Dylan Hunt is killed during the events of the first episode, and Gaheris Rhade survives. At the end of the episode, faced with disaster, Rhade travels back in time and sacrifices himself to secure Hunt's survival, creating the main timeline of the series. Unlike most versions of this trope, the episode doesn't begin in the alternate timeline, but instead with a scene of main-timeline-Hunt discovering a surviving trace of the old timeline, before going into a whole episode flashback.
  • Quantum Leap:
    • In the episode "Lee Harvey Oswald", Sam leaps into the title character, and Sam and Al have to decide whether the purpose of the leap is to shoot Kennedy, not shoot Kennedy, or something else entirely, since Oswald might not have been the assassin at all. It turns out that Oswald was the only shooter, no grassy knoll; the mission is to save Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy, who "originally" died in the shooting.
    • In the episode "Goodbye, Norma Jean", Sam leaps into Marilyn Monroe's chauffeur. The episode ends with Sam preventing her death from a drug overdose, keeping her alive long enough to make The Misfits.
  • Legends of Tomorrow:
  • Farscape. Lampshaded in "Different Destinations". However every attempt by John Crichton to nudge events back the way they were only makes things worse, and he has to settle for a Close Enough Timeline in which a devastating war is averted but a massacre of innocent civilians takes place.
  • The 1st season finale of Eureka is set 4 years in the future. Things seem normal until an unexplainable body materializes in Section 5, followed by events from the past 4 years (such as a runaway tornado) popping up all over town. Turns out someone used Mental Time Travel to change an event in the past and the "real" timeline is bleeding through trying to reassert itself. Time traveling again to prevent the original change is the only way to stop a cataclysmic collapse of both timelines.

    Web Comics 
  • Oddball variation: In Irregular Webcomic!, the Indiana Jones parody strips feature Hitler as a Brain in a Jar - to circumvent the fact that the LEGO Group doesn't produce Hitler figures. This is later explained as the result of a change from yet another alternate history where Hitler died in the Reichstag fire. He was brought back in the jar by Adam Savage of the MythBusters as part of Chess with Death (specifically, a bet that Adam couldn't confirm the myth that Hitler's brain was saved in a jar... hey.)