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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Time Travel

I need a time machine.

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. I have plenty of friends who, like me, would love to take a trip back to the past. I'm guessing there are many many more people out there who share this desire.

I want to see all kinds of things: Early landscapes, family members and ancestors, lost peoples, the construction of Stonehenge, the Sphynx, the Acropolis, the Great Wall, and any number of great and ordinary men and women whose words, thoughts, deeds and inventions touch us today. We want to know not only what they did, but how they did it, and why. Who hasn't looked at a tapestry, or an arrowhead, and wished they could sit in the firelight with its creator and ask them about their lives.

I'm sure the subjects of our musings would find our curiosity a bit odd. I imagine people's attitudes towards day-to-day life hasn't changed. Everyone thinks their life is...well, ordinary. Even a little bit boring, I'm guessing. Martin Luther King Jr. would probably find it astonishing that his birthday is a national holiday, and I doubt he'd believe me if I told him there are streets named after him in every major city in America, today. As a writer, myself, I'd like to think my books will be around for generations, even millenia, after my death, but I'm not sure I'd want my journal preserved. I know I'm no Anne Frank. I suspect even royals and statesmen, artists and inventors who would hope their work would change the world forever, would not want every little detail of their lives preserved for posterity.

All of which does not stop me from wanting to go back in time to see...the little details. Shakespeare at work. Sculptors, scientists, scenery. I'd like to explore the wilderness of Manhattan Island in 10,000 B.C. (preferably on a temperate weekend in the spring or fall). I wish I could meet my mother and father when they were young; also Thurgood Marshall, Henry James, Aphra Behn and Xanthippe among others. I think I'd enjoy meeting people all over the world in all different times. I'd like to thank Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe tell him not to go to the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, or at least not to stand out on the balcony that evening.

I'm enough of a science fiction buff to believe that if we went back and met the people we admire, or even just the people we imagine (the 16th century housewife, the mammoth hunter, the tribal medicine woman) we couldn't tell them anything about the future without changing that future somehow. Even if I could convince people I met that I was from the future and therefore they believed my stories of flying machines, computers, and atomic power plants, would that be harmful or helpful? If we told Van Gogh how popular his work is today, would that change the nature or even the quality of his work? If he painted a great masterwork out of newfound confidence in his ability, would that have a ripple effect that would change the lives of all of the people who were affected by his work? And all of the people affected by those people? Might it change the paths of nations? What if I taught Euripides English? Or read a book aloud at an Anasazi campfire?

Could I stop the assassinations of Gandhi or King, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Marie Antoinette? Should I even try? Would I be able to resist?

I still want a time machine. Even if there is a ripple effect, I'm guessing any effect I created would be pretty minor. After all, it's not like I could build a printing press, or an airplane, or explain how computers work or anything. All I could do would be to tell stories, and maybe teach people to read. And even if, because of something I said to him, MLK Jr. lived out his normal life span, and even if he was elected the 39th or 40th President of the United States, would that be such a bad thing?