The Lost Object





“Frederic Brown writes about a man who travels into the past in order to punish his grandfather for tormenting his grandmother. In the course of an altercation he kills his grandfather before his father has been engendered. Thus the time traveller cannot then come into the world. Who, therefore, in fact killed the grandfather, if the murderer has not come into the world at all? Herein lies the contradiction. Sometimes an absent minded scientist, having left something in the past which he has visited, returns for the lost object and encounters his own self, since he has not returned exactly to the moment after his departure for the present, but to the time-point at which he was before. When such returns are repeated, the individual is subject to multiple reproduction in the form of doubles…”






“Or another example: in the future someone comes to an artist (in one story to a painter, in another to a writer) and gives him either a book dealing with painting in the future or a novel written in the future. The artist then begins to imitate this material as much as possible, and becomes famous, the paradox being that he is borrowing from his own self (since he himself was the author of that book or those pictures, only “twenty years later”)”.

Text: The Time-Travel Story and Related Matters of SF Structuring, Stanislaw Lem, Thomas H. Hoisington and Darko Suvin, Science Fiction Studies.

Images:  Postcards From the Void – Juliet Eldred and Ground – Bill McDowell


The Evil Desire To Kill

“Imagine you had a time machine. Nothing would stop you from going back in time and killing yourself as an infant, before you ever entered the timemachine. But then a contradiction would ensue: you would never have entered any time machine since you were killed before doing so (let “killing” be understood throughout as implying permanent death), and yet you would have entered a time machine, in order to travel back in time to kill yourself. Some conclude that time travel is impossible, since it would lead to this contradiction.


“There is nothing special about autoinfanticide: similar problems arise whenever a time traveler resolves to go back in time and do something that did not in fact occur. A time traveler who remembers owning a 1974 Plymouth Gold Duster could, it would seem, go back into the past and prevent herself from ever owning such a fine automobile; a time traveler could, it would seem, go back and prevent Lincoln from giving the Gettysburg address, and so on. But autoinfanticide is an especially vivid example.

“As it stands, this argument is very weak. All it shows is that autoinfanticide is impossible, as are related scenarios, such as one in which an address is given but in which someone travels back in time and prevents that address from being given. The impossibility of a certain kind of time-travel scenario does not impugn the possibility of time travel in general, any more than the existence of an impossible story about an empty box containing a figurine impugns the possibility of boxes.

“We have admitted the possibility of time travel, though not the possibility of autoinfanticide. But these possible time travelers who do not kill their earlier selves: some have the desire as well as the means. What stops them?

“No one thing. Some have a sudden change of heart. Some fear awful forces they think would be unleashed by a violation of the laws of logic. Some attempt the deed but fail for various reasons: non-lethal wounds, slips on banana peels, and the like. Others succeed in committing a murder, only to find they killed the wrong person. And there are possible worlds in which time travelers are shackled by gods, or are by other means prevented from doing mischief, though surely this is not required for time travel to occur.

“But focus now on cases in which time travelers are not shackled in ways we do not take ourselves to be shackled. These time travelers would then have the ability to do the sorts of things we could do, in their circumstances. If I, who do not travel back in time, had a gun, had the evil desire to kill, and were suitably positioned near an unprotected victim, I would have the ability to kill that victim. So a time traveler relevantly like me could likewise kill her victim. But the time traveler’s victim is her earlier self, and surely the time traveler cannot kill her earlier self, since contradictions would be true if she did. Thus, this argument concludes, unless time travelers are strangely shackled by gods or whatnot, time travel is impossible. An unshackled time traveler would both have and lack the ability to kill her earlier self.”

Text: Theodore Sider, “Time Travel, Coincidences and Counterfactuals”. Philosophical Studies, #110, 2002.

Alone In The Berghof

“If you were given the power to travel through time and Set Right What Once Went Wrong, what would you do to prevent the atrocities of the past? Well, for many, the answer is obvious: kill Adolf Hitler. This would prevent World War II, the Holocaust, and their myriad side-effects… right?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way.

“First of all, it often proves near-impossible to kill the man in the first place — like most dictators he’s protected by various bodyguards and security forces. After all, the guy survived about 42 real life assassination attempts. Trying to circumvent these by targeting him before his rise to power begins will usually turn out to be ludicrously difficult as well. Locating a lone, disillusioned war veteran wandering around post-WWI Europe is perhaps the ultimate needle-in-a-haystack search. And secondly, even if you do manage to kill him, something even worse will appear in his place; an even smarter and crueler Führer who wins the war for the Axis, or an individual killed in battle instead grows up to terrorize the world, assuming Josef Stalin doesn’t take advantage of the fact that Germany isn’t invading Russia in this new timeline and its the Soviet Union that starts World War II this time. If someone actually does stop Hitler, they’ll almost always have to undo it to prevent this…”


– In Stephen Fry’s 1997 novel Making History, Hitler’s parents are prevented from conceiving, but his absence allows the taller, more handsome, cleverer Rudolf Gloder to ride the tide of frustration that gave birth to the Nazi party, and the results of his reign are worse for the world than Hitler’s. Gloder has negotiated a stop to the war with Germany still in control of most of its conquests, and has reined in the anti-Semitism to the point that it hasn’t inspired total war from his adversaries.

– A passing mention of this is made in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. The plot involves an agency that can travel through time and across parallel universes. One of their early attempts at improving the world involved assassinating (humanely, they simply ensured that his parents were using birth control on the day of his conception) a Hitler-like dictator. His brutal reign doesn’t happen, but what was originally a small-scale nuclear war turned into a global one, since the Hitler-analogue had kept the alternate America out of the war. They rid the world of the evil dictatorship, sure, but they also rid it of all life other than cockroaches. Unusually for this trope, they didn’t take their failure as a sign that there are things they shouldn’t be messing with; instead, they decided they needed better projections about what would happen should they make a change.

The Iron Dream is a rather unusual example set in an Alternate History where Hitler emigrated to the US after World War I to become a Sci-Fi/fantasy author. In this world, the Soviet Union conquers all of Eurasia and Africa. But this is all background material— Norman Spinrad instead uses Hitler’s book-within-the-book The Lord of the Swastika to point out the Unfortunate Implications of Golden Age militaristic SF.

– Connie Willis’s time-travelling historians can’t go back to any event which is over a certain threshold of “significance” to world history. “The net” (the name for their time machine) won’t open for them, or if it will, results are unpredictable. In-universe, someone did once try to go to Germany to kill Hitler in the early days of the net and ended up in South America. Similarly, you can’t go to Waterloo or Lincoln’s assassination. Since historians can be in the past for extended periods and travel freely once there, it’s never explained why you can’t go to a different location a bit earlier and travel to the site of the event you’re interested in (perhaps the net somehow knows what you’re up to?) but then it’s never really explained why it’s lethal to exist in the same time period twice, either.)

Text: Hitler’s Time Travel Exemption Act, TV

Image: Extract from Operation Foxley briefing, UK National Archives Education Kit.

Magic & Technology

“Sociologists have argued that the acquirement of an understanding of time is a prerequisite for the organisation of modern societies, which learn to control time technologically. Gu ̈nter Dux gives a clear distinction between primitive and modern concepts of time in Die Zeit in der Geschichte (Time in history, 1989, pp. 103–111, 196, 239), and likewise Maki Yu ̄suke in Jikan no hikaku shakaigaku (A comparative sociology of time, 1981, pp. 47–64). Both Dux and Maki refer to early anthropological field research in pre-modern societies by Claude Le ́vi-Strauss and Edward E. Evans-Prichard. However, this control of time is constantly being updated even in modern societies. When feudal Japan reopened in the 1860s after 220 years of seclusion, it required an update of the national Jo ̄kyo ̄ calendar, which the Tokugawa regime had introduced as early as 1684 in order to detach Japanese time measurement from the Chinese tradition. In 1798, the new Kansei calendar took Western methods of calculation into consideration, based on translations of Dutch writings. On 1 January 1873, political theorist Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901) explained Western time to his fellow Japanese citizens, and the Emperor put the Gregorian calendar into effect on the same day (Coulmas 2000, pp. 113, 124). Japan quickly became the only non-Western society to undergo industrialisation and modernisation successfully. In 1895, the Wako ̄ Building in Ginza, an area of Tokyo, was erected: its famous clock was a public milestone marking the start of modernity in Japan. In the same year, H. G. Wells published his famous novel The time machine. In contrast to Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) about an involuntary time warp, it emphasised the technological control of time in modern society and triggered off the classical phase of the narrative.

“In Japan, residues of pre-modern concepts of time remain to the present day. Weddings and funerals are planned according to the rokuyo ̄ (six days) calendar, which came to Japan from China in the Muromachi Era and gained popularity in the Tokugawa Era (Coulmas 2000, pp. 306, 309). And a superstitious tradition about the effect one’s birth year has over one’s life caused the number of births to drop sharply in the years of the Fire Horse 1906 and 1966 (Akabayashi 2008). These old notions of time in Japan have, however, by no means impeded or delayed modernisation. With the emergence of the visual mass media after the Second World War, time travel soon became a widely popular science-fiction theme.

“In Japan, it was a manga series that provided the point of departure for the development of time travel topoi in popular culture. Fujiko F. Fujio’s Doraemon has entertained and fascinated Japanese children for several decades since the first episode in 1969, and it still occupies a daily spot on children’s television. The series is now available in multiple languages to a truly international following. The blue robotic cat after which the series is named has travelled back in time from the year 2112 to help 10-year-old protagonist Nobita with his homework. A mixture of robot and sorcerer, Doraemon has a magic pouch called the ‘fourth dimensional pocket’ from which he produces problem-solving gadgets and de- vices, as well as a dokodemo doa (be-anywhere-door). While most episodes take place in the present time, travel adventures also occur to the Mesozoic era of the dinosaurs or to the prehistoric Jo ̄mon era. Since the target audience is mainly children, whose thinking retains a form of animism, robot technology associated with the future easily communicates and interacts with cultures and societies of the past. In this context, magic and technology are identical or equivalent, as are the past and the future, pet and robot…”

Text: Ulrich Heinze, Time travel topoi in Japanese manga, Centre for Japanese Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 28 May 2012.

Image: Tokyo time travel map for iPhone, Cycling Tourism, Japan & Asia. “Tokyo time travel map for iPhone was released last month. This application has former editions of maps of Tokyo going back every 20 years. Because it links with GPS, I can see the old map in the present location. Shibuya was a farm village, and there was a waterwheel in the river beside me.”