Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Day after Yesterday

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.


  1. I haven't heard of "Time Lapse", but yeah we just watched that "Twilight Zone" episode a few weeks ago. I hadn't seen it in years and forgotten how it all turns out.

    I'm working on a science fiction story dealing with time travel and ability to change events in the past and the future. I had to figure out early on if I wanted to use the fixed future (destiny) concept or not. I decided against it and went for the multiple future/reality concept. I'm hoping the final result isn't nearly as confusing at the outline is starting to look. :)

    1. Good luck with the SF time travel tale. They have a way of twisting into knots as in “The Terminator” franchise. In the granddaddy of the genre, HG Wells bypassed causality questions by jumping far into the future. I’ve done only one time travel short story (“Living in Clovis”) but bypassed obvious paradoxes by jumping far back to an extinct culture. Multiverses are one way out of the paradoxes. Heinlein in his later novels rescued his earlier ones, which history had overtaken, by committing whole hog to multiple parallel timelines – as in, “Well, that’s the way it happened in that timeline over there.” His final novel “To Sail beyond the Sunset,” which plainly was written with his own approaching sunset in mind, formulates his multiverse vision neatly; it also is a relic of more easygoing 70s/80s sexuality, but that is another topic. I hope to get a peek at what you conjure up.

  2. I was curious about what you meant by we are still not past WWI yet. Thinking about time lines and that sort of thing does make the head spin. It seems we have different roads to take, but maybe that's an illusion.

    I guess I could decide to not pay my taxes this year, and see how that road plays out, but is that just an illusion of the future. Granted at some point in time, I'll probably get a letter from the IRS saying I owe taxes and there's penalties, etc. But when I get that letter, it will be in the present, and I'd have to deal with the consequences then. It's hard to figure when we always have to live in the present. So I don't know. It's a fun theme to play with in the SF realm. I'll have to check out the movie.

    1. Re: getting past WW1, the disposition of the Ottoman Empire by the WW1 Allies is still troubling us the most, from the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that set up Palestine for future conflict to the setting of national boundaries of the Middle East that suited colonial powers rather than locals. But lingering issues are elsewhere too; arguably Ukrainian boundary issues date to 1918 and Brest-Litovsk. Strategic or tactical decisions that make sense at the moment so often have unintended long-term consequences.

      Perhaps both futures exist until you collapse the wave function by sending the IRS a check. Schrödinger's tax?