Changing History

Changing History March 19, 2013

The question of whether it is possible to change history is a staple of time travel science fiction. SMBC’s latest cartoon has an interesting take on it:

HT Luke Barnes

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  • arcseconds

    behold, an earlier SMBC on the same topic:

    (l like this one better)

  • Nick Gotts

    Nice cartoon – but of course unintended consequences can follow just as much from ordinary linear-time actions. If you save that drowning child tomorrow, maybe you’re saving the individual who will unleash the Purple Death in 2050 – or, of course, the individual who will develop the vaccine against it. Can the moral be that deliberate killing is always wrong, even when undertaken for the best of reasons? If enough people on the Allied side had acted on that basis, Hitler would have won. Some pacifists are prepared to accept that consequence, but a lot, I’ve found, won’t face up to it. Most historians who have studied the matter (I think A.J.P. Taylor was an exception) have concluded that Hitler was primarily responsible for WWII and the Shoah to such an extent that either is very unlikely to have happened if he had died in WWI – or, presumably, if someone had assassinated him even well after he became politically prominent (and morally responsible for the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 and multiple murders by the thugs of the SA), in the mid-1920s. Even in mid-1939, before the Nazi-Soviet Pact, his death might well have prompted a split in the Nazi Party andor a military coup. An assassination I welcomed with uninhibited joy at the time (and I still think I was right) was ETA’s killing of Franco’s Prime Minister and designated successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, 1st Duke of Carrero Blanco, in 1974 – which in the judgment of many, made possible the relatively smooth Spanish transition to democracy.

    The ultimate SF time-travel-unintended-consequences story, IMO, is
    Stanisław Lem’s The Twentieth Voyage, in his collection The Star Diaries, which begins when the protagonist, Ijon Tichy, is reluctantly recruited by a future version of himself to head THEOHIPPIP (Teleotelechronistic-Historical Engineering to Optimize the Hyperputerized Implementation of Paleological Programming and Interplanetary Planning), the mission of which is to clean up history so that humanity won’t be embarrassed within the galactic community.
    *Spoiler alert*
    Practically everything that’s ever gone wrong turns out to have been a consequence of THEOHIPPIP’s repeated bungling attempts to repair its earlier bungles.