Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Scientific Historian's Experimental Time Laboratory

Reading a book on historical methodologies, I noticed the inherent problem with making history scientific lies in the fact that history is not truly repeatable. Certain patterns repeat of course, but historical events are by definition a one-time affair.

Imagine a future historian with a time machine. Of course going back in a time machine to observe history has been the stuff of many stories, but imagine this future historian is more interested in the why behind past events. So he conducts changes in the timeline to see what happens as a result, making time in effect his experimental laboratory.

So, for example, say this historian takes on the question, "Was the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire an inevitable consequence of a number events (such as increasing paralysis in the Roman senate)? Or was it because of the unique genius of Julius Caesar?" Historians of our day can read the evidence and make reasoned guesses, but this future historian can go back in time, assassinate Caesar while he is still in Gaul, and then move forward in this altered timeline to see if the Empire forms itself anyway. And if so, how.

Obviously a story featuring such historical methodology would presume that destiny is not fixed and the past could be changed, possibly through an application of quantum multiverse theory. Go back into your own past and change it, you have not eliminated your knowledge of what happened as would seem to be logically so--you have simply shifted out of your quantum multiverse into a different one, where a different set of quantum splits occurred, your own memories intact.

Probably a single historian would not be enough to carry out this task. More like an entire History Department, or an entire university would be engaged in repeatable and thus scientifically observable historiography. Once the "historical experiment" had been performed and the results noted, the above mentioned history professor could go back to before Caesar was assassinated for experimental purposes, stop the assassination, and return the timeline to normal.

As a story setting, this idea becomes much more interesting if something goes horribly wrong. Perhaps Napoleon or Ivan the Terrible capture the time machine and show an intuitive grasp of how it works and how to use it to dominate the world. Or perhaps, more subtly, the professor or team of historians the story focuses on gets lost in time somehow, having made changes they can no longer keep track of, now on a quest to set the timeline right--which of course has been done in science fiction many times before (setting the timeline right) most notably in the TV series Quantum Leap, though also Dr. Who at times and other books and shows have done this. Though I don't know of any who did so from the point of view of a history department trying to create "scientific history" through deliberate timeline changes.

What if a change in history was so subtle the historians could not trace how they had made it? Back to the example above, they kill Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire forms anyway, so they go back in time to restore Caesar's life, which they successfully do--but suddenly this restored man decides not to become emperor. And Rome remains a republic. And the historians, try as they might cannot figure out where they had gone wrong, not at all. Or else they discover they changed something they considered to be of no consequence that turned out to be huge, based on The Butterfly Effect (which is also the subject of a number of science fiction time travel stories)...



  1. The first story I put up as flash fiction on my blog was about a guy with bad luck who goes back in time to kill the original Murphy of Murphy's law, only to come back and find that this created the ultimate Murphy's law (Murphy turns out to have been the ancestor of the protag's fiance). Anyway, it was a seriously hackneyed story, but the idea was all right, at least.

    I don't see why this academic approach couldn't be used for observation of early earth, too, for the sake of evolutionary biologists. The history department would have to closely guard their secret academic tool, or everybody would want to get in on the action.

    What is your particular bent in history?

    1. I've myself only written one time travel story. Like yours it was a piece of flash fiction. And like you, I put it on my blog:

      As for the time-machine-at-the-university concept, yeah, a number of departments are going to want to have it. (Though the only realistic time machine I know of cannot go back in time before the machine was built, as per "Around The Wheel.") But other departments would not be tempted to make changes in the timeline in order to determine cause and effect. Or at least I don't think they would. A story in which, say, cosmologists go back to visit the Big Bang only to change it could prove interesting perhaps...

      I've just started my master's in history so I haven't been forced to specialize. What interests me most though are: 1) The history of thought 2) Biblical history. These may not connect for most people, but in my inner thought life, they do...

    2. I like the way you leave the doctor scratching his chin at the conundrum. That's the kind of short fiction I like--unresolved with punchlines.

      As far as the history of thought, I'm interested in that, too, but for some reason got caught in the long 18th C philosophical snare and haven't managed to fight my way out. :)

    3. Oh there are some black holes in the world of philosophy, that's for sure. Immanuel Kant comes to mind. For these, if you cross the event horizon, you'll never return (not as a whole person anyway)...

  2. Another common theme in science fiction is the contrast between technological progress and social progress. Do you have any ideas along that line?

    1. I've occasionally floated dystopian story ideas, as in a recent post on the Ministry of Knowledge:

      Or one that sees Star Trek as dystopian propaganda:

      Or or a post on selective immortality:

      Or for a specifically Christian dystopian idea:

      Some of my idealistic notions are expressed in my stories. But my blog has more of a bent toward what is possible for hard science fiction or what would be original or creative as a setting in fantasy or Christian fiction.

      Can you give me an example of a story that does a good job contrasting "technological progress and social progress"? Perhaps you can help me think more along those lines for future reference...