Monday, May 3, 2010

When the future ain't what it used to be

Men are natural explorers. Born with a wanderlust gene. Women criticize men for failing to ask directions, yet if Columbus had stopped to ask for directions, we’d all be speaking Hindi.

But by the year 1978, when Percy graduated from High School, every square inch of space that could be explored, had been explored. The surface of the globe. The oceans. The rainforests. Subterranean caves. The solar system. Unmanned probes had gone beyond the solar system, but their practical range was limited. Same thing with telescopes on space platforms.

So what was an adventurous and ingenuous young inventor to do? If the age of spatial discovery was over, what about the age of temporal discovery? If you couldn’t explore space, you could still explore time. And, in a sense, that would be a way of exploring space—space inaccessible to ordinary, timebound experience.

Of course, this may not be the 1978 that some of you remember. That’s because the 1978 you remember isn’t the 1978 that I’m reporting on.

Science fiction writers usually make the mistake of setting their stories safely in the future, under the glib assumption that the present doesn’t resemble their futuristic projections. To make their futuristic scenario realistic, they have to set their story well ahead of their reader’s timeframe.

But that’s a surefire sign that you’re reading fiction. I, however, am a historian. A futuristic historian. The future I’m describing is situated in what would have been your past because that’s the way it really happened. Only you don’t remember it because it didn’t happen to you. It’s not your particular past. The 1978 I’m describing was far more advanced.

For that reason, time travel was illegal. Indeed, it was the only crime that still carried the death penalty. That’s how seriously the authorities took the threat.

This, in turn, drove the science of time travel underground. There was a black market in time travel technology.

However, no one knew for sure if anyone had successfully broken the time travel barrier since time travel, if successful, had a way of covering its own tracks. At least theoretically.

Of course, not every incursion into the past or the future would erase the status quo ante. At least not theoretically. But if it did erase the status quo ante, then it would also erase the evidence for the very change it effected. So it was hard to obtain empirical confirmation. Individual time travelers might sometimes know the difference. But if they knew, they didn’t say—since that would publicize their criminal conduct.

Still, the risk was too high. Which is why time travel was a capital offense.

Percy had graduated from high school a year before. He was now in his freshman year of college. Of course, one didn’t need to go to high school to get an education back then. It could all be done by computer.

But that wasn’t really the point of compulsory public education. The point was to indoctrinate the younger generation. Throw them together, like boot camp, to create social conformity. Dress alike, learn alike, talk alike, think alike, act alike. Cookie cutter citizens for the utopian technocracy.

Indeed, one appeal of time travel was to escape the heavy heel of the social engineers. Some students of time travel were revolutionaries. They were hoping to topple the regime.

But other students, like Percy, were merely adventurers. Even so, Percy had to lead a double life. On the one hand, there was Percy, the model citizen and science major.

On the other hand, there was Percy, the outlaw—who tinkered with time travel in the tool shed behind his parent’s summer cottage—using equipment he smuggled out of the science lab at college. It was risky business, but that, too, was part of the adventure. Scamming the authorities.

Percy planned to marry Belinda, his high school sweetheart, after he graduated from college. Have kids. The whole nine yards.

Would he be able to keep his experiment a secret? He might have to give it up at some point.

He began by trying to send cameras into the past or the future. That way he was hoping he could preview the past or the future. That would be a way of telling if the machine were working properly. And he succeeded.

Then he sent gerbils into the past and the future, and brought them back. That way he could test the safety of time travel. Was the process harmful to biological organisms—like himself?

The gerbils came back alive and well. No dead gerbils. No genetic damage.

Finally, he decided that it was safe for him to make the jump. He didn’t want to do anything too ambitious at first. He decided to go a 110 years into the future. He’d already sent a camera and a gerbil a 100 years into the future. So he knew what to expect. Or so he thought

However, once he made the jump, it wasn’t what he expected. It was the same place and the same time, but something was different. Terribly different.

The last time he sent a camera a 100 years into the future, society was—as you might imagine—far more advanced. This time, about 10 years later, it’s almost as if he’d gone backwards rather than forwards. Back to the dark ages.

He could tell he hadn’t accidentally gone back in time because the infrastructure was still futuristic. But it lay in ruins.

What happened? Most of the human race had been wiped out by some sort of plague. Indeed, in a few hours, he began to feel sick. He didn’t dare go back until he got well.

He became deathly ill. He wasn’t sure if he’d survive the night. But he recovered.

It then occurred to him that by sending a gerbil into the future, he may have infected the future. The gerbil was harmless to people in his own time.

But in the future, when medical science had eradicated infectious disease, people had no resistance to this sort of pathogen. The contagion spread rapidly, killing off all but a hardy few. He only survived because he was resistant to a similar strain.

Ironically, Percy was never more shortsighted than when he was far-sighted. His futuristic outlook proved to be fatally nearsighted.

At first he thought of traveling back into the past to prevent the contagion. But it then occurred to him that he himself was now a carrier. He might carry the plague back into the past. And it wouldn’t be the original strain which he inadvertently introduced into the future. No, it would be a resistant strain. The strain that he developed by surviving the illness. If he went back now, he ran the risk of infecting the past as well as the future.

Perhaps he could create an antigen, based on his own antibodies. But that would take time.

For the next 14 years, he worked on finding an antigen. During that time he married and had kids. Or course, he was hoping to marry Belinda, and have kids by Belinda. But it was too long a wait, and there was no assurance that he would discover an antigen. He might never be able to go back to his own time. So he married Natasha.

In the first few months, Percy felt imprisoned in the future. Trapped in this backward future. He missed his old friends and family. He missed his old lifestyle. The sense of separation was acute.

But over time he began to adjust. Living under these conditions was a challenge, but it had its compensations. At first he found it difficult to cope with the silence. In his own time, he was always connected to something or someone. Talking to someone on the phone. Watching TV. Listening to music. Here, in this preindustrial culture, he was learning to live with silence. Vast stretches of unbroken silence. How would he fill all the void?

But after a while he began to appreciate the silence. To hear the wind and the waves. The birds and the crickets.

He was no longer a cubical drone, having every inch of his existence structured by society. And with the silence, and the isolation, he found a place for prayer.

He never had the time or inclination to pray before. But the absence of sensory overload freed up space for the presence of God. And his social alienation created a hunger for fellowship with the one person whose company transcends time and space.

He also began to blend in with the locals. Adapt to their lifestyle. He went on hunting parties. This was a novel experience for a geeky urbanite. For the first time in his life, he was using all his senses. Using them to track down prey. He wasn’t accustomed to using his senses. He was accustomed to having them used. Bombarded by artificial stimuli. Accustomed to hearing, not listening.

And after they caught a deer or wild boar, the hunters would hold a community feast. Roast the animal over an open fire. Dance and sing by the light of the flames.

This, too, was a unique experience for him. He enjoyed the camaraderie. He was used to ordering synthetic food delivered to his apartment, then eating alone. Even when you ate with someone else, you ate alone—wired into your virtual world of electronic input for eyes and ears.

Then, 14 years later, he did discover an antigen. At last, he was in a position to reverse the damage. But he began second thoughts.

Natasha wasn’t Belinda. There wasn’t the common reservoir of shared memories. With Belinda, they knew the same people and places. You could start a sentence, and she could finish it. She knew what you were talking about. Her eyes lit up with fond recognition.

Percy felt the loss. The isolation. Yet he had a stable marriage with Natasha. What if he’d married Belinda? Who knows? Maybe their relationship would have soured. Ended in divorce.

In 2093, men and women had lower expectations. Life was tough. People were content with less.

And what about his kids? He loved his kids. And they, too, were easily satisfied.

Of course, he was planning to have kids by Belinda. But maybe that wouldn’t turn out as well.

Then again, maybe he’d love his kids by Belinda just as much. But his hypothetical children by Belinda were just abstractions. He didn’t have any affection for them because they didn’t exist.

How could he swap the family he actually had for an unknown quantity? This wasn’t the life he planned. It wasn’t the life he wanted or hoped for.

But even if he would have had a better life with Belinda, that doesn’t mean he wanted to trade in the life he now had for the life he might have had. He had no wish to give up the wife and kids he now had.

And there was a larger concern. If he were to change everything back to the way it was, to restore the status quo ante, wouldn’t he be killing all these people?

In a sense, he already killed millions or billions of people when he messed with the future. Yet that was unwitting. A kind of involuntary mass manslaughter. But this time around, it would be premeditated mass murder. And, what is worse, he’d be killing his own wife and kids in the process.

The future that would have been never was. He wasn’t wronging or harming actual human beings. You can’t murder a nonentity.

There was no way to simply reset the clock as if none of this had ever happened. You could undo the effects of time travel, but you couldn’t undo the future itself. Replacing one actual future with another actual future didn’t change what had happened.

His parents and siblings were grief-stricken at his mysterious disappearance. But they had all died of old age. Long, long ago. He tracked down the cemetery where they were buried. He used to visit it from time to time.

When he began his research, he didn’t have a wife and kids. When he began his research, he was obsessed with reversing the damage. He didn’t stop to consider the consequences. He threw himself into his work—to numb the pain of loss. But that was then.

One morning he sent a camera back into the past, to his own time, to see it one more time. Then he destroyed the time machine.

He took the secret of his past with him to the grave. He was afraid to tell anyone, lest they blame him for the catastrophe he wrought upon the human race.

Born in 1960, Percy died in 2134 at the age of 74. He arranged to be buried in the same cemetery as his parents and siblings and long lost classmates. And before he died, he dictated his epitaph: “When I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.” He was still a futurist—but now of another kind.