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Discussion: Ethical Imperative of the Time Traveler

Do historically weighted tragedies such as The Holocaust, the Columbine shootings, or September 11th (just to name the ones on the top of my head) impose any kind of moral or ethical imperative upon time travelers?

As writers, how do we deal with such events in a responsible manner without sacrificing our plots?

Should we bother, and if so, why?

responsibilities Now

if time travel is merely that: travel.
then how is it any different from tourist v. missionary situations right now?

if we all take responsibility for injustice the world as it unfolds then these events dont occur-

I think its a great question, because you can take a stand regardless of any paradoxes AKA: the imperitive to save becomes the goal rather than a possibility- of time travel.

these are quick thoughts though-

Damn the Continuum It was Broken to Begin With

So you've got either a single traveler -- a la Quantum Leap -- or perhaps a group or society of travelers that say "Damn the time continuum. It was broken to begin with." And instead of fixing paradoxes, they decide to fix events in order to create a better future.

I kind of like that idea. In my mind I see them as a four-color, pulp like adventure squad fighting for a better tomorrow.

But then, if our characters go back and kill Hitler, perform diplomatic ninjitsu, and stop WWII -- we're left with a drastically different universe than the one our readers inhabit. Does this spiral out into escapism and wishful thinking or is there a way to conform our optimistic outlook with the (by comparison) dismal reality our readers will be presented with when they finish?

"Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgot." ~Neil Gaiman

I hate time travel

There's a couple of approaches. An "Imperfect Knowledge" approach tells us that small changes have unintended effects and you might very well create a _worse_ event than the one you tried to repair. This is the most common solution.

A far more creative approach, that asks more of the author and the reader is the "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" approach. I much prefer this. The past is inviolable and cannot be changed- you can't kill your own grandfather, but you could potentially be "an old family friend". "All You Zombies" by Heinlein is a perfect example. The main character intrudes on their own personal history and causes the events that lead to his becoming a time traveler in the first place.

Personally, I don't believe in a past, and don't tend to use that time travel trope when I can avoid it.


Not Responsible

Not getting out of it that easily ~_^

I remembered everything about the Heinlein story except the title. Thanks for that. :)

What exactly do you mean by you don't believe in a past? You don't believe in the past as a place that can be traveled to or do you believe our concept of the past is just some kind of collective hallucination? Is that the only reason you avoid time travel fiction, or are there others?

Now, let's assume that we are going to write a time travel piece -- you tend to avoid them and I've never attempted one, but I'm planning on having at it, hence the post -- we're now aware of the typical ways of handling things: either butterfly catastrophes or slaving ourselves to fate. Are there other ways to twist it?

I see the "imperfect knowledge" idea as being too preachy -- "Be happy with what you have 'cause the alternative is worse." And if I were to write a story about, say, someone stopping the Columbine shootings, or Wako, or something along those lines, and then the perpetrators of the crimes go off and kill *more* people, am I implying that it's a good thing these events happened?

I like the struggle between fate and choice that the "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" option presents, but if the struggle is pointless, then in the end isn't the story?
"Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgot." ~Neil Gaiman

Hmm... This actually gave me

Hmm... This actually gave me an idea:

A man in his early thirties is sick of his life. It isn't a bad life, but it isn't a great life. He happens upon time travel and sets about to redo his entire life, giving up everything in the process. Each change he makes improvements on his life, but not as big as he would expect. He is battling fate and winning, but only barely.

After 30 years of this his former self is famous and his previous life was grand. Suddenly though his previous life drops off the face of the earth. He discovers that in the new timeline the old him is missing and presumed dead. After more time passes he discovers that he does remember where the new him has been. The two timelines have merged and his old self has been time traveling, making the exact same changes he just made.

As the man thinks about this he realizes that he just wasted almost his entire future trying to create a better past for himself when his past wasn't really all that bad to begin with. He beat out the self-fulfilling prophecy, but in the end what did he win? He had a good thirty years and a bad thirty years. If he had just stayed in his own time and put as much energy into his original life he could have had a good thirty years followed by a great 30 years.

What if it works

What if it worked? People would forever be going back in time to make their experience of the world perfect. People who live at any time would become mere puppets of unknown people from the future, the impression of free will would be a joke. Whole generations would be sacrificed to necessary ills to keep the rest of the timeline nice. You'd end up in "the best of all possible worlds" living out a script ordained from the end of time, and I bet it'd be horrible.

Interesting thought. What if

Interesting thought. What if that is happening now? Maybe the people at the end of time can only go back so far? What if they can't go back far enough to fix our present? However, by making pieces of our present worse for us they can improve the future? Maybe Iraq/Iran will cause World War III in 2008, which will result in a new world government that heralds in utopia? Are we one of those generations being sacrificed just so the rest of time can live their nice scripted lives?

*queue spooky music and MIB style marble/locker scene*

What exactly is time?

I've got a few takes on it. First, quantum uncertainty runs both ways. I can't tell where a particle is and where it's going at the same time, but I also can't tell where it was either. Information is lost, the past is constantly destroyed- and the farther away we get from an event, the less that event exists. The past is as unfinished as the future.

A different explanation to reach the same result is that "time" isn't a dimension- but entropy is. Our units of time are merely a way to measure "change in entropy", or ∆e. Now, some interesting things about entropy- entropy always increases, and that isn't bound to a direction in time. If I were to run time backwards and watch a radioactive isotope, I'd watch it decay the same way as if it were traveling forwards in time.

This doesn't prevent me from working time travel into stories, but I personally maintain a few rules. 1: you can't travel into the past, but a universal quantum state akin to the past. If I were to use a magic time mirror to look at myself one week ago, it wouldn't be _me_ from a week ago, it would be an entity very similar to me, but potentially different. A different "parallel universe", except I'd never have any way of knowing if it was actually a different universe or the same one, because the information I could have used to tell them apart has been lost to entropy.


Not Responsible

There is no past, only Xul...

If the past is as unfinished as the future, wouldn't that open it up to the possibility of "editing via time travel" (assuming we are talking about a reality in which you can go backwards in time)?

Also, your ideas seem to free up the trope form the possibility of paradox. If the past is unfixed, then we can't screw it up. If we're not going back to our history, but simply another dimension that's similar to our history, then there isn't anything to mess with. Our initial time line is stable.

This leads me to a neat idea about megalomaniac time travelers trying to tweak different realities until they create their ideal worlds... hmm.

"Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgot." ~Neil Gaiman

But in that case...

But in that case, why travel back in time at all? Why not move laterally into one of those alternate possible worlds? Travel to a universe where things are like you want them anyway.

But I don't like the concept of a time-line anyway- that is, to me, a fictional construct. There is no one history that lead up to the present, but an infinity of potential histories that can be evaluated probabilistically. Going back in time wouldn't alter the present, but completely remove you from any perceived timeline.

The other problem with time-travel is the Law of Conservation. If you travel back in time, your matter (which existed then, but in a different form) has just been duplicated- the total amount of matter in the Universe has increased. If we want to have time-travel that doesn't violate that law, we have to limit ourselves to self-fulfilling time-travel- you can only travel into the past if you have already traveled into the past.


Not Responsible

slightly different approach.

I've pretty well chucked time travel in favor of interdimensional travel. It removes the temptation to muck about with the past. And, given that time is relative, my protagonist(s) can spend minutes or weeks in the other place with no more time elapsed at home than is necessary.

All just a bit of fun, anyway.

I don't agree on the Law of

I don't agree on the Law of Conservation. You are not creating a duplicate of yourself, and therefore more matter. Their is a reason that space-time are considered linked and time is thought of as the fourth dimension. More matter is present at a particular point in time, but the amount of matter within the universe is still constant.

You make a persuasive argument. And by that, I mean there are more of you and you are using that to coerce me into obeying your moral code. - Belkar