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Webcomic / xkcd Time

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The world is changing.

"You could spend a thousand lifetimes staring at water and sand, thinking as hard as you could, and you'd never guess the world has things like this in it."
The Girl

When xkcd comic #1190 by Randall Munroe went up on March 25, 2013, it seemed to be a still frame of a boy and girl sitting on a slope. However, every half hour the comic changed ever so slightly, presenting successive frames of an animated image. First, the boy and girl built a sandcastle. But the story went on, revealing that the sea was rising. The boy and girl set off on The Quest, to find out why.

During the original run, the strip updated twice an hour, which was reduced to once an hour later in the story's run. The animation concluded on July 26, 2013, and the xkcd comic page shows the final frame. A number of sites make the entire sequence of 3099 frames available for watching or rewatching:

  • The geekwagon site features an option to vote on which individual frames (such as those with Speech Bubbles or particularly interesting moments in the action) should be designated as "special" ones that are paused for a user-selectable time.
  • The mscha site has a "sound" option to play readings of the dialogue. It also has the sort of pan-and-zoom animation effects that were mocked in this xkcd comic, but with the option to "turn off the aw(some)ful slideshow animation".
  • The Aubron Wood site has basic playback and scroll-through options.
  • The richardwestra site has a basic playback with speed control.
  • There's also a video compilation of all the frames, pausing as needed for dialogue.

Won the Best Graphic Story Hugo for 2014.

Time contains examples of:

  • After the End: It's not explained what happened, but industrial civilization seems to have collapsed.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The story ends with the protagonists' tribe making landfall on the post-flood coastline and beginning to explore their new home.
  • Apocalypse How: Regional, class five — the ocean is about to flood the Mediterranean basin, which had been dry and inhabited for some time as the story begins.
  • Arc Words: "The sea is rising."
  • Bearer of Bad News: After Beanie Leader explains about the oncoming flood, Cueball and Megan talk about moving their people to safety... and then Cueball asks Beanie Leader "Are you OK?" (implying a distressed expression that doesn't show in the stick-figure art). Beanie Leader then explains that there's no time left (see the Wham Line entry).
  • Bold Explorer: The protagonists travel far beyond the lands they know.
  • Bring News Back: Cueball and Megan hurry home in the hope of delivering a warning in time. The tribe manages to take to boats and survive.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: For one frame, a little girl can be seen looking at the still intact remains of the sandcastle left behind by the protagonists. Near the end of the story, it's revealed that she turned the wooden part of the castle into a boat to save it from the rising water. The villagers use it to rescue the rest of the survivors and ride out the flood.
  • Conlang: Beanish. It remains undeciphered despite a lot of attempts.note 
  • Driving Question: Why is the sea rising?
  • Earth All Along: The floor of the Mediterranean ocean, 11000 years in the future when the Strait of Gibraltar has sealed.
  • Ghost Town: Cueball and Megan find signs of previous human habitation along their travels before finally meeting the Beanie People. Apparently, they were left behind by people who received and heeded the Beanie People's warnings about the imminent flood.
  • The Great Flood: The story takes place in a far-future, dried-out Mediterranean basin, which is about to be flooded by the Atlantic Ocean breaking through the Straits of Gibraltar as it did during the prehistoric Zanclean flood.
  • Minimalist Cast: At first.
  • No Name Given: Neither protagonist is named. ("Cueball" and "Megan" are the fan names for their counterparts in the main strip.)
  • Panthera Awesome: A large cat attacks Cueball and Megan on their journey. Based on the location it is likely a leopard.
  • Post-Peak Oil: Since all of the easy-to-reach fossil fuels have been used up in our time, future civilizations haven't been able to progress past the pre-industrial age.
  • The Quest: The protagonists set out to find out why the sea is rising.
  • The Reveal:
    • The map of the projected post-flood coastline clearly matches the modern-day coastlines of the Western Mediterranean, definitively establishing that the story is set in that region after the Mediterranean Sea has been cut off from the ocean and mostly evaporated.
    • The castle the duo visit for a short time is mentioned as having once been on an island. Judging by where it is on the map, it's probably Château d'If, located just off the coast of what used to be Marseilles, France.
  • Reclaimed by Nature: There are a few extended shots in which nature can be seen doing its thing, despite the somewhat barren environment and the claims that animals used to exist. When the characters pass a series of trees, one has an active bird in it. Later, when Megan goes back to collect grapes from a vine, a snake can be seen following her. The characters later encounter and even interact with more animals.
  • Run or Die: Frame 2926 changes the AltText to "RUN".
  • Rousseau Was Right:
    • Everyone we see onscreen is well-intentioned. Cueball and Megan set out in a spirit of curiosity and peaceful exploration. They receive a friendly greeting from the Beanie People, who treat Megan's injury and bring them to their leader, who (kinda sorta) speaks their language. More generally, the Beanie People tried to prevent the flood, and when that failed tried to warn the inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin to evacuate.
    • Averted by the (offscreen) Hill People, who dislike the protagonists' tribe, and who packed up and left without warning them (and who may have told the Beanie People that nobody lived near the seashore to prevent them from being warned).
    • The closest thing to an onscreen exception is Megan stealing the Beanie Leader's maps. She feels guilty about it, even given the urgency that drove her to it.
  • Scavenger World: The protagonists' small band gathers Hill People artifacts washed down the river.
  • Scenery Porn: A shocking amount of it, especially for a black-and-white stick figure comic.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The stars in the night sky match what they will look like in 11000 years, accounting for both precession of the equinoxes and proper motion of individual stars.
    • Antares (the bright red star in Scorpius) is missing; apparently it went supernova during the 11000 years between our time and the story.
  • Speech Bubbles: To visually represent the language barrier, the Beanie Leader's speech is obscured with ink blots and cropped, rotated and scratched letters.
  • Small, Secluded World: Megan and Cueball live with about forty other people along the shores of a sea. They know next to nothing about the world outside. One effect of this is that they apparently don't know how to swim, and decide it's too dangerous to attempt to retrieve Cueball's dropped bottle from a river that flows at about the same speed they walk. This makes sense given that they live near the remnants of the Western Mediterranean, which would be hyper-saline to the point that people could simply float in it (like the modern Dead Sea).
  • Wham Line: "The sea will fill not in years but in DAYS."
  • The World Is Just Awesome: The protagonists are charmed and fascinated by various things they discover on their journey.
  • You Are Too Late: The Beanie Leader tells them it's impossible to warn their people in time. Fortunately, she turns out to be wrong. But only barely as they were cut off by the water, and only saved by the Chekhov's Gun.
  • You No Take Candle: How the Beanie Leader speaks English. Words are cropped, rotated, truncated and overlaid with other words (indicating the translator's uncertainty). Many words are partially or completely blotted out with ink spills.