October 9, 2015 § 1 Comment
A line of characters flooded the screen, alternating as my friend shifted her position in my keyboard. My book report was pulled up in Microsoft Word, the cursor blinking frantically as it tried to keep up with my friend’s sabotage. I just laughed as I pushed her off, then entered my newest discovery into the keyboard, taught to us only a week before in 5th grade computer class:
I was fascinated by the concept of that combination of keys. I could make the most impulsive of edits, write the most ridiculous statement, and delete entire chunks of my paper without worrying about any long term consequences. If I didn’t like the result of my action, I could just push those two keys- Ctrl+Z- and everything would be as it should. A fresh start. Slate cleared. Back to whatever square I chose I wanted to resume work from. I didn’t have to worry about reconstructing any past reality or losing anything to time and effort, because with those two keys in my hand, I could take myself back to any foundation, given I had built the foundation before.
What a tool.
Hooked as I was on the thrill of “Edit-> Undo,” I was a little taken aback when I realized that this handy shortcut didn’t apply to social interactions. It was irrational, I know- but after a week of riding the high of Ctrl+Z, I had somehow assumed that the same rules that applied to my word processor could apply to real life. And when they didn’t, I was not so much alarmed as unsettled.
I always knew Ctrl+Z was a function of the digital realm. But nonetheless, when my confession of a crush to the boy I liked was met with a blank stare, I found my thumb and forefinger twitching, pushing at the keys that weren’t there:
I couldn’t edit this unfortunate moment out of my past, couldn’t insert myself back into an earlier version of my life’s document, the one where he didn’t avoid eye contact every time we passed in the hallway. Just like everything else in the real world, I was bound by time–that immutable, stubborn dimension that refuses to yield to all of human ingenuity, that force that turns into bold, permanent marker the marks that we’d rather be in pencil. There is always the possibility that you can cover up the Sharpie-mask it with the paint of reconciliation, or hide it underneath the tarp of loaded silence.
But no matter what you throw over it, the Sharpie always remains, bleeding through the medium to remind you that yes, this happened. You messed up. You will have always messed up this moment. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Science fiction’s answer to this kick in the brain, this blow of helplessness?
Novels like Timescape take our worst fears–that we might irreparably damage our world, whether that world be the world of individual humans or the literal world of humanity–and puts a bandaid over them, then tucks us into to say goodnight and tells us that everything is going to be okay, because somebody will fix it. Somebody will hit the undo button. The irreparable will become repairable, and we can throw away our tarnished slates and start again.
Time travel grants us control over the fourth dimension and releases us from the chains of time, thereby releasing us from our mistakes. We are fascinated by it because we so deeply want it to be true–to imagine that we can go back and make things right before they ever went wrong.
But at the same time, it’s these wrongs that make us who we are. All of those “character building moments” would be lost if we indulged in easily-accessible time travel-we would never learn anything, because there would be no significant consequences for our actions. Perhaps more importantly, all of the good, unintended consequences of mistakes would be lost. The world would stagnate, because all of the rich innovation that arises out of failure would be lost.
We can’t predict the long term consequences of our actions. Our mistakes can be our biggest triumphs.
However, as Timescape notes, sometimes our triumphs–chemical developments and more efficient methods of manufacturing–can be our biggest mistakes, leading to our downfall–the dismal world Benford describes. And it is this possibility–that we could, as a species, ruin the world–that is the most terrifying to us, because it means that we would tarnish every blank slate born into our mistakes.
Furthermore, it is this possibility that is terrifyingly real.
Gregory Benford might not have the means to time travel in real life, but his fingers are desperately twitching at Ctrl+Z anyway–and as a result of this twitching, typing out a great novel of warning. This book is Benford’s best version of a tachyon, a message to the present urging change and a greater consideration of the future–
because the future will soon become the present, and when it does, we can’t just hit
September 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
I was miffed.
“The names of the scientists are going to be on the test?”
My honors physics teacher, who I regarded as a generally reasonable man, had lost touch with reality and was resorting to the lowest of low testing methods: rote memorization without purpose.
Memorizing formulas was one thing–those were tools, mental shortcuts we employed to cut through a problem in a timely manner. P=mv, F=ma, W=mg–these facts were full, bloated with the theorems my teacher wrote out on the board when introducing the concepts to us.
But Rutherford, Hooke, Bernoulli–these were empty signifiers, a collection of letters that did no more to better my understanding of how things move about in space than watching Jeopardy did. In my mind, these names were trivia, and nothing more.
Rutherford, Hooke, and Bernoulli may have lived rich lives–to their contemporaries, peers, family, and friends, their names must have been loaded with connotation, each utterance of “Rutherford”–or perhaps, “Ernest”–conjuring up memories and feelings. But to the high school science student, “Rutherford” was associated with one thing: the discovery of the nucleus. We did not have the privilege of knowing Rutherford as a person, only the privilege of knowing his discovery.
And if that was all “Rutherford” boiled down to in our heads, what was the use of knowing that name? His life could have been interesting, but to feign the resurrection of his existence, to pretend that we were paying homage to him by remembering those empty letters when all we understood of them was the discovery, not man, attributed to them, seemed superfluous, almost irreverent. I had a deep appreciation for Rutherford’s gold foil experiment, not for him. I couldn’t have. I didn’t know the guy. I had a lot to thank the guy for–we all did, as students standing on this giant’s shoulders–but the rote memorization of his name didn’t do anything for him.
“These men devoted their lives to these discoveries,” formerly-reasonable physics teacher droned on. “We owe it to them to remember their names.”
But did we? The man was long gone–what did it matter to him if, 75-odd years after his death, students drew a line from his name to the gold-foil experiment on the page of a test?
Hypothetical #1: Suppose Rutherford’s last wish was to have his name go down in history for making a meaningful contribution to science–which element of that wish, the remembrance of his name or of his contribution to science, really matters?
History is important in that it allows us to learn from past mistakes, to build on the knowledge gathered by our predecessors. We learn nothing from the man’s name.
Hypothetical #2: Suppose Rutherford made his meaningful contribution to science in order for his name to remembered, and that was his true last wish.
As unlikely as this scenario is, it begs the question: why do last wishes matter?
Last wishes matter only insomuch that some actor in the present derives utility from them. That actor may be the person making the last wish, comforted by a notion that they have the power to make an impact after they expire. It may be a relative or close confidant of the deceased, comforted by the notion that by honoring the last wish of their loved one, they’re salvaging a part of them by keeping a bit of their corporeal desires alive.
Or it might be a high school science teacher, seven decades after the last wish was made by a man he never met, comforted by the notion that it is important to remember the name of the deceased. He draws reassurance from this via a loosely-drawn syllogism, buried within the depths of his subconscious: if people considered remembering names important, then people might remember his name–and through every utterance of his name that occurs after his death, he might live a little longer.
This syllogism is buried in the back of most brains.
When I was thirteen, someone asked me the name of my great grandfather. With a shock, I realized that I didn’t know it–and I was terrified. Had he lived 80 years to only be forgotten by his great granddaughter, his existence fading into nothingness? Would I be doomed to a similar fate, forgotten by descendants, my life fading into
For that is the most grim notion of all–the notion that the sum of our actions, struggles, relationships, passions, and toil could amount to nothing. Welcome to life, the zero-sum game. Prepare to be overtaken by suffocating depression.
So we erect monuments to individuals, we pepper college campuses with statues, we catalogue gratuitous details of our fellow humans’ lives that far exceed the amount needed to learn anything significant from their experiences. We honor last wishes and memorize Rutherford’s name. We fight the idea, voiced by Andres in Mayflower II, that we exist merely to produce replacements: we strive to prove that we, as individuals, matter–to exert some semblance of control over that great leveling force, the eraser of our identities, the zero-sum despot known as death.
Because when death strikes, our voices are silenced. We can no longer fight to preserve our individuality. Thus, we preserve the individuality of others, rewarding innovation, breakthroughs and fame–and, in turn, striving to accomplish something notable enough that our successors will do the same for us.
Tooth and nail, blood and sweat, we claw our way to meaning.
But this logic is flawed. It’s driven by a desire to be more than just a blink in the timespan world–to last beyond the 80-odd years granted to us by nature. But even if we accomplish something notable enough to warrant a statue, that statue is just a pebble thrown into a canyon. After thousands of years, stone erodes. Names are forgotten. And thousands of years are mere blinks in the timeline of the universe.
Ultimately, we all fade.
But not to meaninglessness.
Our lifespans may be naught but flashes in the perspective of the universe, but in our perspective, they are everything. They are our own universes. They matter, if only to us and our contemporaries. And they will leave legacies, if only ones that are accepted as assumed, attributeless characteristic of the future world. Our very state of existence implies this.
Those who do not know Rutherford’s name still benefit from his breakthrough. Perhaps more significantly, they benefit from all of the miniscule steps taken by nameless shadows of the past that enabled Rutherford to make his breakthrough. The tiniest fraction is still part of the sum–and, as Bradbury notes in A Sound of Thunder–the smallest butterfly a factor in the future of the world.
And it’s okay that we are ultimately all fameless fractions, our limits approaching zero. Long after we die, we’ll–you know–still be dead. And it won’t matter if there’s a hunk of rock out there with your name on it, or a group of students reciting your name to their teacher. With the eclipse of our personal universes comes the snuffling out of our pride and vanity. We’re gone. Dust in the wind.
And that thought is empowering.
If we narrow our perspective to the timeline of our own lives, instead of trying to grasp the strands of infinity, every action becomes more meaningful. With the recalibration of our viewpoints comes the revitalization of the “small things.” Stop and smell the roses. Appreciate the feeling of the sun on your face. Write a thank-you card. Hug someone.
Accept that all of these actions will inevitably be forgotten. But in the present moment, they are
September 18, 2015 § 1 Comment
It isn’t easy being a protagonist in science-fiction literature about time or space travel; loneliness often seems to be a precondition to their lives.
Sometimes, this loneliness is unavoidable: a solitary ten-year-long spaceship ride will probably make you miss other people, and it’s always difficult to develop a robust social rapport with people thousands of years in the future, with their unrecognizable languages and inexplicable habits. Frequently, however, these lonely types are surrounded by people like them as they hurtle through space and/or time – they feel they way they do because of some distinct characteristic or internal bent, something that sets them apart from the others.
Now, these lonely characters aren’t a distinctive trait of science fiction; fiction writ large is full of lonesome brooding adventurers – Ishmael immediately comes to mind, from what many consider to be the Great American Novel. So don’t take this acknowledgement as a critique or judgment of value. Besides, prose fiction naturally invites a certain degree of internality and solitariness – the very act of reading is about silently constructing an internal world to which someone who is sitting a few feet from you would have no access.
However, science fiction doesn’t just exist as prose literature, so we can look at other artistic forms of science fiction to determine if the genre is actually more lonesome. To my mind, the most obvious alternative form to consider is popular music: not only does a fruitful history of science fiction music exist, the artistic form of music is fundamentally oriented toward communal interaction in way that literature isn’t. Music almost begs to be heard alongside others, which is one of the reasons why many concerts can outdraw even the most popular book reading.
But, upon a quick glance at some of the “classics” of the science fiction musical genre, the sense of loneliness found in the literature is still present. David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” tells the unnerving story of an actual severing of connection between an astronaut and ground control, and, in doing so, actively creates a scene of inescapable solitude, soundtracked by distant instrumentation that reiterates that lonely void. The narrator of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” explicitly talks about missing his wife and kids while on a “long, long” trip to Mars. Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” tells of a time traveler who, because of his inability to communicate with other people, brings about mass-scale destruction.
So, perhaps the genre of science fiction simply invites this solitude – this wouldn’t necessarily be that surprising. Space and time are both inconceivable massive expanses that can’t help but make a person feel somewhat insignificant and alone. Additionally, the core demographic for science fiction is often thought to be primarily composed of socially uncomfortable – regardless of the accuracy of this notion, it has at least been a prevalent stereotype.
However, a notable exception to the loneliness of science fiction music can be found in Outkast’s “Prototype” and its corresponding (and hilarious) music video. The song and its video depict and alien version of Andre 3000, who looks just like the regular ‘Dre 3K except with a terrible blond wig, landing on what seems to be Earth with his crew of shipmates; within minutes, Andre and an earthling woman have seemingly fallen into passionate love. While video is ridiculous and only really enjoyable for its absurd kitschiness, “Prototype” serves as an interesting departure from the loneliness of space travel. Everything in the video is utopian; Andre, his crew, and the Earth woman are existing peacefully and lovingly as a community only moments after arrival, a significant departure from the paranoid loneliness elsewhere seen. This apparent love is the opposite of traditional loneliness.
While extrapolating from a single case is dangerous, I think it is worth pointing out that Outkast is a hip-hop duo, while the previously cited musicians were classic rockers. Arguably, diverse participation in science fiction could allow for such shifts in tone and subject from classical models to new iterations. This theory of a shift from lonely, exceptional protagonists being propelled by diverse participation is further supported by artists such as Janelle Monae, an R&B singer who has produced some fascinating love songs within a science fiction framework.
Therefore, by enabling more diverse participation within the genre, the music of science fiction is perhaps finally being utilized to exhibit an imagination of communal connection across space and time. Whether or not the literature of science fiction has enacted (or should enact) such a broad shift away from loneliness, however, I’ll leave that up for debate.
— Lucas Hilliard
September 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
At its essence, a human is
A soft, malleable layer of flesh stretched over imperfectly constructed bones that act as a sort of rudimentary cage to guard the spongy organs we depend on to pulse life through us.
Our flesh can be punctured. Our bones can be broken. Our organs can rupture. We are
We operate on two types of energy–the potential energy that pulses through us, the trait of being alive, of existing–and kinetic energy, the trait of being alive, of living.
As we move through space and time, we seek different conduits to convert our potential energy into kinetic energy, to turn thoughts into actions that alter our worlds, whether it by disturbing the arrangement of a furniture in a room with physical gestures or disturbing the arrangement of thoughts in a head with vocal vibrations. Circumstance plays a role in our access to different conduits, and conduits play a role in the size of the alterations to our world that we make.
When the characters of Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder arm themselves with guns, they are assuming conduits in order to artificially amplify the alterations their soft, fleshy bodies can make to the world. They are strapping on power as they strap on their guns, transforming a flick of a finger into the death of a dinosaur. They hide underneath their camouflage of resources, attempting to mask the fact–nay, forget the fact– that at their cores, they are
That the blast of the gun and the toppling of a dinosaur ultimately depends on the flick of a finger, attached to that soft, malleable layer of flesh, that
dependent on its spongy organs, including the fears and whims of the fickle brain, which, confronted with the enormity of the dinosaur, yells
REMEMBER, remember that you are human!
And Eckels remembers. And he runs, shedding the conduits, the artificial assumption of power, because the weight of it has become too much to bear; he is humbled, apologetic.
Yet it is Eckels–he who has attempted to rid himself of great power–who alters his world in the greatest fashion, by the simple action of stepping on a butterfly with his soft, fleshy body. He cannot shed the power inherent to his existence–his potential energy, common to all of humanity.
It is this potential energy–not the conduits we surround it with–that enables the smallest, most vulnerable human to enact change. Eckels changed the world not with time travel, but with the step of a foot: we can change worlds with things as immaterial as words–because changing an individual’s experience is changing what the world is to them. At times, this power can be terrifying–the responsibility of it can be so awesome that, like Eckels, we cower in fear from it. But it is the potential of our potentials to change things for the better that keeps us moving, acting, living. There exists 6 billion worlds and 6 billion bundles of potential energy capable of changing those worlds, for better or for worse–
–or, for the vast majority of us, some gray-tinted mixture of the two.
September 9, 2015 § 2 Comments
It must be done. I nervously glanced down at my watch, calibrated to detect the precise instant in time I had entered as well as to keep track of the relative time that had passed since I had begun my travels. It was 6:43 pm, September 18, 2139. Ten minutes until show time.
I discovered the mechanism for time travel approximately five days prior to now; or, rather, I have lived five days since I began traveling in time. The mechanism of my travels is rather simple, yet it took me years to create. Any child past 7th grade (or is it 6th grade curriculum now?) knows that the space-time continuum of Minkowski Space may be manipulated by an extremely strong gravitational well. It is also known that it is possible for this well to bend the plane of space-time so much it that it doubles back upon itself, creating a kind of “hole” where the two points in the plane intersect that connects one part of the plane to another and therefore connects two instances in time. Most believe that this kind of hole only occurs within the vacuum of space and would be impossible to create here on Earth. I, however, managed to achieve this feat, an accomplishment I now regret with the deepest passion. I created a machine that uses gravitons, the boson particle that carries the force of gravity, to create a strong enough gravitational well to bend space-time and create a doorway that remains contained and closable through the use of counteracting anti-gravitons that act as a kind of “push to the pull,” per say. It took a lot of calculating, but I managed to figure out how to calibrate the machine so that I can control what instance in time that the door opens into down to the second. The machine is a masterpiece. And now I hope to make it so that the masterpiece never comes into existence.
7 minutes until I complete my mission. When I created the machine, I never thought of any negative implications. I understood the hypothesis of the ripple effect, that a small change in the past could greatly alter the future, but I was a stark believer in my own hypothesis, that the ripples would have negligible effects on human life and that so long as you mapped out the effects precisely, you could travel freely into the past, altering it in whatever which way you want. I believed this earnestly, and spent five days mapping out paths, planning a test, a simple test, to see if my hypothesis was true. All I did was pick some flowers, five to be precise, a simple week before my own time. I brought these flowers back to my original time (creating a pretty decoration), and checked to see if my simple action had any effect at all. It had.
After studying the incident my action had altered, I concluded the following had occurred: the flowers I had picked were to be admired by a young three-year-old girl precisely two days after I had picked them; her stopping to simply smell the flowers had allowed the girl’s mother time to grab her before she mindlessly ran out into the middle of the road; without the flowers, she did not stop, and was hit and killed immediately. I had removed the flowers; I had killed a three-year-old girl.
Two minutes left. I wait patiently for my past self to leave the lab; it is the day before my inspiration, the day before the invention of the time machine. I know what I have to do, but still fear and doubt creep into my mind as I prepare to destroy my life’s work. It is not just the years spent conceiving and designing the machine that I will be losing; when I destroy the machine, I am consciously destroying any version of myself (and truly any version of the world) that had contact with and was affected by the machine. In that way, this mission is suicide. I am destroying the version of “me” that I know as me. I feel like I am facing death, but at the same time this “me” will actually never have come into existence, so is it really death at all? These questions make my head reel; I cannot think about them now. I must complete my mission. The experiment that led to the death of the little girl is only an incident that will repeat and be amplified a million fold if the machine is allowed to come into existence, for if not I then others using my work will create such machines and affect many futures. One small ripple can combine with many ripples to form a tidal wave, and I cannot allow that to happen.
One minute. I walk into my lab seconds after my past self walks out. I leave the note I have written outside the lab, explaining everything about what happened, why I must do this, and why I, or the past me, should discontinue all research on time travel. I am not sure whether or not the note will cease to exist with my own existence terminating, but no matter; I mustn’t bother with the petty details and just do what I have to do.
I insert the drive into my computer, implanting a virus I created specifically to wipe out any electronic trace of my work, deleting everything. Smiling softly, I turn on the gas nozzle of an old burner, letting the smell of rotten eggs fill the room. I know once I light my match the room will go up in flames, but I do not worry about burning. I will cease to exist, never having existed in the first place. I know what I have to do. It must be done.