Future conditional, part 2

Continuing from yesterday…

At some point in their on-stage conversation, Dean Buonomano asked Ted Chiang why, in his opinion, time travel didn’t emerge as a literary trope until the latter part of the 1800s. Ted Chiang’s answer was very interesting.

He said that through most of human history, the general view was that the future was pre-determined. Therefore, prophecies always came true. No matter how hard Oedipus (or his cultural equivalents) tried to defeat the words of the Oracle, everything he did actually conspired to bring about the very fate he was trying to avoid.

When you think about it, there isn’t much point to time travel as a literary form (except for a few edge cases) if the future is inevitably immutable.

But with modernism a different view began to emerge — one in which we have the power to alter our fates. Although H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is often considered the first time travel story, Ted Chiang posited that there was an earlier one: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

In that novel the Ghost of Christmas Future, Ted Chiang argued, was actual an Oracle, showing Ebenezer Scrooge the bleak future that awaited him. But then Scrooge asked the Ghost “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

The ghost left the question unanswered, yet Scrooge proceeded to answer the question for himself: He altered his behavior, and thereby altered his fate. For the first time in Western literature, information that came from the future was used to change the future. The literary concept of time travel had begun.

As I heard this, The Matrix was still fresh in my mind from having seen it only a week before. So this new insight led me to regard The Matrix in a different light. More tomorrow.

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