Time Travel has been and still remains one of the most enduring subjects in Science Fiction. From books to stories to movies and radio shows and television shows, the amount of stories involving Time Travel number into the hundreds of thousands if not the millions. From H.G. Wells’ classic exploration of time travel in “The Time Machine” to the modern day stories of time travel like Connie Willis’ classic novel, “The Domesday Book” to numerous movies like the Back To The Future trilogy, the Terminator trilogy and “12 Monkeys” and numerous TV shows like “The Time Element” and “Quantum Leap” and individual episodes of TV shows like Star Trek’s famous “City on the Edge of Forever.”
What makes time travel so compelling a subject? In no small part it’s because it taps directly into a fundamental desire of most people, to undo or change something about the past. For all that technology and the technophilia of the most gadget happy Hard SF or Cyberpunk Science Fiction gives us the illusion of control over space, distant galaxies, the virtual world, even our own DNA, the passage of time continues to defy our ability to grasp and control it. And the passage of time ir also the passage of our lives.
Whatever we accomplish, we nevertheless dwell in the limited perspective of the present. Futuristic Science Fiction is an attempt to break through to the future, to a world where our capabilities have expanded and we have “grown up” into a superhuman self. This is however an elementally childish appeal. To grow up and become a starship Captain. To do amazing things. As adult hood sets in, as we age and look back on wasted opportunities, on failures and lost loves and lost prospects, our youthful dreams die, but the prospect of cheating time’s morality by repairing what we breached and undoing where we erred, remains compelling.
If starship exploration is a young man’s game, time travel is an old man’s game. It appeals to people looking back at their lives. It appeals to people who feel displaced in time, longing for the more civilized eras of the past or the distant unknown vistas of the future.
In Science Fiction time travel often represents a return to our roots. To simpler times and simpler ways. The perspectives with which they are viewed remain more simplistic. Purer visions of the 1950’s or the 1920’s or the 19th century which tone down racism, injustice and lack of civil rights. Like an idealized childhood, they let us return to the historical womb.
Considering the familial nature of it, it’s no surprise that one of the abiding practical and ethical paradoxes involves shooting your own grandfather. It runs something like this. Supposed you go back in time and shoot your own grandfather. With him dead, you, as in the unique genetic structure that produced you, can no longer exist. In theory you have just wiped out the entire line leading up to your own existence, which also terminates your own action in killing your grandfather, thus creating a temporal loop, in which your own action negates your own existence.
On the TV show “Futurama”, Fry returns in time to the Eisenhower era, accidentally gets his grandfather killed, sleeps with his grandmother and becomes his own grandfather. This is an old spin on the same basic idea.
In Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” and later in David Gerrold’s “The Man Who Folded Himself”, an entire line of descent consists entirely of one single person traveling through time to interact with himself. In the Heinlein story this required sex changes to manage. The incestuous premise however remains of a man recreating an entire past family for himself, literally in his own image.
Larger ethical questions arise when tampering when other people’s past, rather than only your own. Saving a life in the past means creating or recreating an entire line of people that can radically alter your own future. In Frank Capra’s semi-secular semi-religious fairy tale, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, a man realizes the ripple effects his own life had on a given timeline. While not everyone may have such an extensive ripple effect, nevertheless lives are touched and changed in exactly this manner. Changing one life will mean changing other lives. Saving one life may mean saving or dooming mankind.
The TV show “Quantum Leap” was premised precisely on changing lives in the past. By contrast iIn Star Trek’s famous classic episode, “City on the Edge of Forever,” Captain Kirk and Commander Spock journey back through time via the Guardian of Forever to the 1930’s where Dr. McCoy has saved the life of mission house activist and preacher Edith Keeler, resulting in a powerful domestic anti-war movement that allows Hitler victory and destroys humanity and the hope of a better future. Her death is required to preserve the lives of countless billions.
The ethical dilemma at the core of it is a very difficult one. Can you kill one person or even stand by while another is killed, no matter how many lives are at stake? Does the good of the many outweigh the few or the one, even when the one does not consent? In Harlan Ellison’s original script, Kirk did indeed try to save Edith Keeler’s life and had to be restrained from doing so. In the revised Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana script, Captain James T. Kirk must stand and watch while the woman he loves dies, for the sake of the future. The first decision is an understandable human reaction to seeing one woman die and not seeing the unseen billions be destroyed and brutally annihilated. The second decision is the heavy decision a starship Captain must make when he sees the bigger picture and the cost that must be borne for it.
Peter David’s gloss on the original screenplay set in “Star Trek The Next Generation” future attempted to reverse that position with the novel “Imzadi.” Of course Imzadi’s plot cheated so that saving Troi actually improved rather than worsened the timeline. This dodges entirely the moral dillema present in both Harlan Ellison’s and the Gene Roddenberry D.C. Fontana draft where one woman’s life is balanced against death and misery for countless billions.
The ethical questions of course aren’t easy. Both the Terminator and Back to the Future trilogies feature extensive time tampering, in both cases to rescue a bad timeline. In the case of the Terminator movies, the timeline is genuinely a horrific one in which humanity is all but annihilated and thus any tampering that can prevent that becomes justified. By contrast Back to the Future’s temporal tampering is a primarily selfish one that allows McFly (Michael J. Fox) to create a happier and wealthier family for himself. Similarly in “Frequency”, temporal tampering is used to stop a serial killer, but also to enrich a childhood friend and reunite his family.
As it turns out, the ethics of time travel are no simpler than the paradoxes of time travel itself.