It takes at least a century to get past a really big war. The US didn’t begin to get past the Civil War until the mid-1960s, and we’re still not done. World War 1 was raging 100 years ago, and we are far from past it. A completely avoidable conflict, WW1 was the pivotal catastrophe of the 20th century. Without it, there wouldn’t have been a World War 2, a Cold War, or the Balkan troubles of the ‘90s (not as they happened anyway), and the Middle East would be a vastly different place.
I recently picked up a few more titles to add to my shelfful on the subject, including Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East and Douglas Boyd’s The Other First World War: The Blood-soaked Russian Fronts 1914-1922. Both books have value both as history and as background for present-day geopolitical issues, but I’ll leave a discussion of these weighty matters to another time. Perhaps in recoil to all the mayhem on the pages, a more frivolous thought kept grabbing my attention – frivolous because there is nothing to be done about it. Despite knowing how campaigns and events played out in the First World War, a part of me kept hoping as I turned the pages that this time the outcomes would be different. It was a silly thought, but completely unshakable. It is one I commonly have when re-reading fiction or watching movies too. Thus far those hopes have not been realized.
By chance, a movie I watched last night questioned causality, Bradley Cooper’s Time Lapse (2015). The plot is similar to an old Twilight Zone episode “A Most Unusual Camera.” Low budget and perhaps a trifle too long for the subject matter, Time Lapse nonetheless isn’t bad – nothing great, but not bad. In the film three friends, one of them the superintendent for the apartment building in which they live, discover that a scientist who lives in one of the units has died but has left behind a camera that takes photos 24 hours into the future. The camera is attached to a large device bolted to the floor. They decide to make money by concealing the tenant’s death and taking pictures of themselves displaying dog race results to the camera. One of the friends is a painter with an artistic block, and photos of his canvas enable him to copy from his own future work. As you might expect, things go wrong when disturbing photos appear, the three begin to work at cross-purposes, and other people get involved. Can they change the present by sending a photographic warning to themselves yesterday? Is the future, or the past for that matter, fixed?
The real answer, not a cinematic one, with regard to the past appears to be yes it is fixed, though there are dissenters; the past is irreversible – the Arrow of Time, causality, entropy and all that. The future, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess. The guesses have ranged from the contention that only one outcome is possible to the contention that near infinite (or actually infinite) outcomes are possible and that all of them happen simultaneously. I don’t pretend to know, but I prefer to assume the future is not fixed. The fantasy of seeing the future nonetheless is an old one. In Vergil’s Aeneid, Aeneas gets a glimpse of the future for Rome that the Fates have woven. (Whether the Fates have a choice in what they weave is not addressed.) In 1932 HG Wells published a short story The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper in which the protagonist receives a newspaper from 1971. In the 1944 film It Happened Tomorrow, reporter Dick Powell repeatedly receives tomorrow’s newspaper, which allows him to win at the track and scoop other reporters; he tries to change the future, however, when he reads his own obituary.
If we could reverse causality and, say, avert World War 1 with a minor intervention, it might not be a good idea. Even though it would save millions of lives in the subsequent four years, for all we know the new sequence of events might culminate in a thermonuclear war in the 1950s. Who can say? Besides, if one person runs around changing the past, everyone will get in on the act and make a complete hash of the timeline(s).
What if tomorrow morning I receive a newspaper dated the day after tomorrow? In books and film that always ends badly, so I’ll proceed cautiously. I won’t even check the racing results. I’ll check the stock market quotes.