Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Changing the Past

A common topic of discussion among science fiction aficionados is time travel – or more precisely, the ability to change the past.

Quite frankly, of all the writers I’ve seen who’ve dealt with time travel, the only one I think ever got it right was Charles Dickens. Yes, that Charles Dickens. When did he use time travel? In the one story by him that just about everyone knows, A Christmas Carol. Think about it, if Scrooge’s traveling back and forth between Christmases past, present, and future wasn’t time travel, then I don’t know what it was.

How do I think Dickens got it right? Because in his version of it, you could go there; you could visit the past, you could visit the future, you could even see things going on in the present – but you couldn’t interact with them. You were merely an observer, and couldn’t change a thing…not even in the present.

But of those who enjoy talking about time travel, the issue always arises of what happens if you change the past? Does one well-intentioned change 100 years ago send unexpected ripples out that make the present unrecognizable? And then there’s the old time travel paradox: if you’ve gone back to change things in the past, do you end up creating a present where you don’t exist…and therefore couldn’t have gone back to change things in the first place?

Does your head hurt yet? Well get out the aspirin, because I’m gonna make it hurt more.

What does the well-meaning person who wants to save six million Jews by traveling to the past and killing Hitler before he can put in place his Final Solution do to the untold millions of us who were born precisely because World War II took place? And this even includes Jews who were born because of the Holocaust.

What of the equally well-meaning person who wants to go back to 1619 to prevent those first African indentured servants, and the millions of slaves that followed, from being shipped to this country. What does this person do to the millions of present-day African-Americans who exist precisely because their ancestors were ripped from different parts of Africa, and eventually came together here.

A number of years ago I watched a film called The Color of Fear as part of a diversity training session. In this movie, eight men of different ethnic backgrounds spent a weekend in a cottage talking about issues of race and racism in their lives…whether they were the victim of it or the perpetrator of it.

At one point, one of the men, who was of Mexican descent, said something along the lines of, “Damn those conquistadors! If they hadn’t come, things would be so much better for me and my people.”

And at that same point, I shook my head, thinking to myself, “No…you don’t get it. First of all, had those conquistadors never come to these shores, things wouldn’t be better for you, because you wouldn’t be here. You likely only exist because of events set in motion by the very people you resent. And even if you’re willing to sacrifice your own existence for the ‘greater good,’ there’s no guarantee that some other invading force wouldn’t have come along later…and done worse.”

We don’t have the option of changing the past, and doing so would be a very bad idea. But starting now, we can work on changing the present…and the future.

I hope that my Mexican-American friend from The Color of Fear comes to understand that.

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