I’m Trapped in the Present

You’re the owner of a new time machine. The catch? It comes in two models, each traveling one way only : the past OR the future. Which do you choose, and why?

Wow, what an awful pair of time machines. I guess the answer is neither. If the machine can only travel to the future, not to the past, then you wouldn’t be able to return to your own time. Similarly, if it travels only to the past, then you can’t travel back to your own time, because that would then be the future, which it can’t reach. Thanks, I’ll pass.

That’s not what the prompt is really asking. It just left out an important concept. It really should say that the exception to the machine’s limitation is that it can return to its own starting point in time. Yes, I’m being nitpicky again. It’s just the way my mind works. I’ve been known to admit that I can be a pain in the ass about words. I once wrote a two thousand word rant about how the word literally should be used.

I’m not picking on the prompt just because I can though. I can let grammar errors and logic malfunctions go to a certain point. This one just stuck out the instant I read it. That means a lot of other people will notice too. So, to anyone else who found these time machines to be inherently flawed, I’m going to make it clear that I will only use them if the owner’s manual makes it clear that they CAN return to the point in time you started from. You just can’t go any farther than that. If you go to the past, you can never see past the point in time that have arrived at naturally. If you choose the one that goes to the future, then you can never visit any time before the moment of your departure.

There. Much better. It was a mouthful though, wasn’t it? Maybe that’s why it wasn’t in the prompt itself. I feel so dignified, knowing that I am trusted to see vital implications that aren’t made clear. And the return feature of these time machines is implied.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing a time travel story and exploring the potentials and paradoxes of it. So maybe that’s why the flaw in these machines bothered me so much. The idea here is not to examine the machines though. The real idea is to find out whether seeing the past or knowing the future is a better idea.

Before you can determine that, you have to decide just how far in time you intend to travel. If you want to use your machine to talk to historical figures or witness important moments, then your answer is obvious. You want the model that flies into the past.

If you want to see where the human race is headed, how we will progress and what technologies will be invented, then you need the machine for the future. Benjamin Franklin expressed an eagerness to see the future a hundred years after his own death, so it’s a respectable desire.

You could be planning to alter the past by assassinating Hitler or warning Lincoln about going to the theater, but if so, be advised that it’s one of the more famous potential paradoxes. I could go on and on about that, but I want to move on to another idea.

If I had either of these machines, I probably would travel that far. I would love to witness the Beatles’ rooftop concert first hand. I would love to have an audio recording of the actual Gettysburg Address (Wow, I’ve mentioned Lincoln twice now. Maybe I should go back and change the theater warning to a different historical figure’s moment of peril. Then again if I use both of these examples I can show how the time machines can be used in different ways regarding the same subject. Ah, but then I’d have to leave this in, and I try to avoid using parentheses. What a conundrum!). If I were to travel to the future, I would like to see what kind of people exist long after I’m gone. Do we reach the stars? Will there be intelligent robots? Does the world fall into chaos?

For me any of these things are fringe benefits, sideshows to the main event. World history and the distant future don’t concern me as much as my own past and future do. Is that arrogant? No, not really. My own life concerns me. If it didn’t, then I’d be one screwed up individual.

The time machine question is different if you are more concerned with your own life than with the rest of the world. The real question now is, if you had to choose, would you change your own future or would you change your own past?

Changing the past is a bad idea. I suppose there are people out there whose lives are nothing but tragedy. If so, and they choose to alter their past, then I can’t hold that against them. That’s not me though. I have experienced tragedies. I would not change them. On the one hand, I can offer the powerful, rugged, macho perspective that I have been shaped by my hardships and I would not sacrifice that for an easier or happier life. That advice is very sound actually, even if I put under a slightly sarcastic light. There is a better reason to leave the past alone though. The things you have and experience now can be taken from you if you change your past. There are people I would not know, experiences I could not have, if I were to remove the darker experiences of my life. I do not treasure my hardships, but I will not sacrifice my present day for a brighter past.

What about the future though? If I could travel to the future, then I can know what is waiting for me. Then, I’m not altering bad decisions that I have made. I’d only be avoiding bad decisions that I will make. If there are events that are unavoidable, then at least I will be prepared for them. That sounds good. But I can’t do it. Not this way. Using a time machine to this effect is wrong. It’s the method that I can not abide.

Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Future, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be only?” A prompt of the recent past (a past I can not reach) asked if I would choose to see the future at a cost. I answered yes then, but that was because of my assumption that a vision of the future is not the future itself. Using a time machine is different. To step into the future physically, to see it with your own eyes, breathe in that air, interact with actual people, that is not a thing that May be or a thing that Will be. That is not a shadow at all. That is reality. To see lives that I can affect, not only my own, to meet children that will be born, is something I will not change. I do not have the right to remove or transform people that I have actually seen and met.

So I suppose the question is moot. I will not use either machine to travel to my own past or future. I suppose I could be tempted to see one or the other as long as I can believe that I can do so without interfering, but then, why take that chance?

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10 comments

    1. Ironically, it’s implied by omission. It’s something meant to be taken for granted. I suppose I only harped on it because time travel stories are full of mistakes made by people taking things for granted.

  1. I must admit, I read the prompt and just assumed the one way refer to going to the past or the future and that you’d be able to go there and back, no matter which direction you chose to go 🙂

  2. Matthew, does your brain ever shut down? Do you dream in detail? My own mind just doesn’t work like yours, and sometimes I wish it did–more attention to detail, more questioning the question. You remind me of a student I had years ago who hated “True or False” tests because he could always see the obvious contradiction or misleading questions. I would tell him, “Don’t overthink it, Ryan. I’m not trying to trick you. I wouldn’t do that.” And then he would point out an obvious double entendre that I had not intended or even been aware of making. Sigh. I’m much more simple-minded. Straight to the point, no detours, no rabbit trails.

    1. I’ve always seen things differently.

      Back when I was in junior high we read that classic, unsolvable story, “The Lady or the Tiger”. It’s supposed to make you consider a problem that has no real solution. We were supposed to say which outcome we thought was most likely and why. Some chose the tiger, because they assumed the Princess was too jealous to let the young man live without her. Some chose the lady because of course she could not stand to see him die even if it meant he would then belong to another woman.

      My answer was not like the others. I said it had to be the lady, but for a reason I thought was obvious. This Princess is able to get secrets. This is obvious because she knows which door is which. If she has the money and means to pay people to take risks like that, then I thought it was clear that in this barbaric setting, the Princess can have him choose the lady, then later on, have his new wife killed. No need to choose. He lives and is proved innocent in their bizarre trial. Her jealousy is satisfied.

      I got a C minus. There wasn’t any explanation for the grade. Apparently thinking outside the box is a punishable offense. What really happened was that the teacher didn’t like the fact that I looked for a real solution instead of struggling with it like everyone else did, like I was supposed to. From that day on I took schoolwork much less seriously. I knew that a good answer can get a bad grade. So I gave the answers teachers wanted to hear. There is no one left to grade my thoughts now. I can find the answers and seek out the questions and problems that other miss. It’s not really attention to detail though. I wish I had a detail oriented mind. All it really is is that I like to play with ideas and words. There is usually more there than people realize.

      1. Oh my. I was an English teacher, and my students all read that story. I NEVER gave someone a low grade just because he thought differently from the others. What I wanted was originality, not cookie-cutter answers. You’d have gotten an A+ from me 🙂

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