18 November 2014

The Unbearable Emptiness of Time-travelling

When H. G. Wells introduced the Time Machine back in 1895, it served as an ingenious device to tell a dystopian story. By travelling to the distant future and returning to the present, the protagonist could share with us what the world could degenerate into if we did nothing to stop the polarisation between the haves and have-nots. It was a classic cautionary tale.

But sci-fi blockbusters today have become obsessed with Wells’ idea as a convenient plot filler and forgotten about his didactic concerns. From the reboot of Star Trek, through X-Men: Days of Future Past, to Interstellar, the most calamitous situation is always to be saved ultimately by someone in the future intervening to reconstruct the past.

What they overlook is that to posit time as the fourth dimension is to locate it as a unchangeable component of the space-time continuum. Whatever has happened cannot be undone. A moment thought would suffice to demonstrate that with infinite opportunities in the future to alter the past, if such alteration were possible, our memories would be continuously scrambled with nothing left to constitute any conception of our ongoing existence.

And to address this, there has long been a consensus that even if time-travelling were possible and someone from one point in time could affect events further back from that point, the impact would not in fact alter that past event, but only create an additional alternate timeline. So more and more alternate universes could be generated – some with the disaster in question averted, some with other unforeseen complications arising – but the tragedy that happened in the original past would remain a tragic event in that timeline.

So whatever heroic time-travelling deeds may appear on screen, they are just diversions from the dreadful events unfolding in the past presented to us at the outset. In truth, at best another world had been created, but in this one, things were as bad as ever. No one has been saved – only that in some parallel universe, a world with similar, but more fortunate, inhabitants has been brought into being. If you were about to be tortured, and someone said a clone of you had been produced on the other side of the world and given a luxurious lifestyle, it would not be of much comfort to you.

That is the vacuity of ‘time-travel’ salvation.

Our minds could of course jump around, to our memories of the past and imagined visions of the future. Vonnegut showed masterfully in Slaughter House 5 how shifting time perspectives could create greater literary depths. But in so doing, he also reminded us that we could never erase disasters that had befallen us with a dash of time-travelling. The bombing of Dresden, the massacre in Nanking, the inhumanity of Auschwitz, cannot be rubbed out of the space-time continuum. It is precisely because we can never change the past that we must strive for a better future.