When I was a teenager, one of my favorite books was “The Time Machine” by Herbert Wells. I remember how surprised and even astonished I was by the idea of the evolutionary division of humanity into Morlocks and Eloi. The former, as you may remember, are creatures dwelling underground, maintaining and controlling ancient machines, whereas the latter are a caste of light-minded, happy beings living on the surface. The symbiosis between these two species (Eloi received their clothes, food, and goods from Morlocks, while serving as food to them) shocked me the most, as well as the idea that these two species emerged from the class division existing in Great Britain during the times when Herbert Wells lived. Anyways, “The Time Machine” was the first novel to have awoken my interest in the idea of time travelling.
As I grew up, I read many other novels and stories on the same subject. I remember Howard Lovecraft’s characters travelling into the ancient depths of time to meet strange beings that ruled Earth long before humanity existed; I remember Ray Bradbury’s safari in the prehistoric era, when a man accidentally stepped on an insect, causing unbelievable changes in the future; I remember countless science-fiction movies about time travelling, starting from the “Terminator” franchise, and ending up with the surrealistic “Twelve Monkeys,” grim “Looper,” and weird and disturbing “Donnie Darko.” One common feature about almost all of such movies is the idea that by evoking changes in the past, one can change the future. This thought has always seemed rather disturbing to me; I believe that what has already happened should remain in the past. Of course, I am aware of the fact that time travelling is impossible, and it will remain so in the nearest future; however, whenever someone asks me whether I would want to travel back or forward in time, I cannot help but think of the consequences of such a journey.
I know people who, when discussing this subject, make claims like, “If I could only go back in time, I would kill Hitler,” or “I would prevent the creation of nuclear weapons,” or even “I would save Kennedy.” When I hear this, I often wonder: how can they be so careless and light-minded? Just yesterday, I was thinking about the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; undoubtedly, it was a terrible tragedy, and perhaps for people living back then, this event could have looked like the beginning of the end of the world. But, as it turned out, the world did not stop spinning; it moved on, it somehow adjusted to the presence of nuclear threat. The same can be said about World War II, the death of one of America’s brightest politicians, and about anything else: the world has always moved on, and there has been no such disaster that humanity has not been able to survive and adjust to.
The most dreadful historical events shaped the world as we know it today. It is extremely convenient to be living in the 21st century, enjoying all of its benefits and progress, and make statements like, “I would change the course of history.” But, how can one be sure that their actions would not cause unexpected harm? Historical processes are so complicated and versatile that no one can possibly predict the outcomes of one’s actions. For a brief example: can an average person predict how his or her actions will affect his or her own life in the next five years? I suppose not. So, how is it possible to anticipate any specific results (and, more importantly, positive results) when intending to change the course of history, with billions of people’s lives involved? Therefore, all these “I would kill Hitler” talks are nonsense. In reality, if you could travel back in time and change something, the consequences of this would most likely be so unpredictable and drastic that it would have possibly been better to leave everything as it is.
At the same time, travelling to the future would probably have no negative consequences. There is a great difference between the past and the future in terms of philosophy (and probably physics): the past is already determined, it happened, whereas the future is merely a yet non-existent aggregate of all the possibilities. You cannot spoil something that does not exist; however, it might also mean that travelling to the future is simply impossible.
If I could go back in time, I would change nothing. I would be extremely careful to not touch anything, because who knows what it might result in. I would rather be a tourist, a guest—preferably an invisible and invincible ghost, able only to spectate events, but not to take part in them. I would love to see the ice age, the Triassic and Cambrian periods, the dawn of the Universe, Victorian England, the United States of the 1930s, Mayan and Aztec civilizations in the flesh, Japan during the Sengoku period, visit the famous Alexandrian library and see the Colossus. I would like to see Einstein working on his general relativity theory, and hear one of Adolf Hitler’s speeches—just to check whether he was as charismatic and persuasive as many historians claim; I would want to see Picasso or Matisse working on their masterpieces, or hear The Doors singing live. There are so many things I would want to see, hear, or otherwise witness in the past, but I have no intention to change them, or to influence them somehow; to me, history is but a cinema screen, and no matter how good or bad the movie is, it has already been filmed, so nothing can (and should) be changed in it.
I only wish sometimes that I could alert myself about certain events in my life. If I could write a letter to myself when I was younger, I think I would at least try to provide support to myself. I would say something like this: “Hey man, how are you doing? I know you are currently worrying about X, but do not bother yourself—it will all turn out great. And this guy, he seems nice and honest, but don’t do business with him: he will wind you around his finger and disappear with all the money. And definitely do woo that girl: you will break up in the end, but this will be the best relationship in your life.” But… is not this all the same as trying to change history globally?
Let the past remain in the past. In the end, if I could go back in time, I would only contemplate. That would suffice.
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