The Long-Timer Chronicles: A Tale of Two Sisters, available at Amazon in print and Kindle format. http://amazon.com/author/gmlupo
The problem with rapid advances in society and technology is that often we’re so concerned with answering the question, can we, that we forget to ask, should we. This question is much more difficult to answer, and in the rush to develop the next big breakthrough, people raising legitimate concerns are often drowned out in the discussion of how far we can push the limit. Still these concerns deserve to be heard. By modifying crops to make them more resistant to pests, do we run the risk of making them inedible to humans and animals? Mechanization can free us from labor, but then what happens to the legion of workers who previously performed those activities? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but if we are to deal with the consequences wrought by technology in modern society, they must be addressed.
Is it any wonder that so many people feel alienated by the modern world? The rise of fundamentalism, the rejection of science and technology, the nostalgia for simpler times and less complex ways of living, are all reactions to the increasingly complex world in which we find ourselves. None of this is new, however, as people have been dealing with questions such as these throughout recorded history. It’s no surprise that most of the great art movements of the past few centuries have followed rapid changes in the established social order. Dadaism sprang up as a reaction to World War I and its shocking level of brutality and the aftermath of World War II in the U.S. gave us such authors as Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and J. D. Salinger, while artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein employed pop culture motifs inspired by the growth of mass media and commercialism in the late 20th century. Art comments on the world around it, and when life becomes increasingly complex, it’s the job of artists to try to make some sense of it all. This is probably why absurdist writers such as Beckett, Pinter and Camus flourished as the world was gripped by the uncertainties of the Cold War, and fears of nuclear annihilation. In a crazy world, sometimes nonsense makes more sense than rationality.
Romanticism arose during the early days of the Industrial Revolution and frequently lamented the potential of industrialized society to rob us of our individuality and humanity. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelly (1818), was a perfect expression of this — humanity reborn without a soul. The creature was a modern vision of humankind, stitched together from many sources and reanimated through unnatural means. It represented the final evolution, humans as creator gods, and raised frightening questions for its author and all who read it. Can one wield the power of a god without the wisdom of a god? It’s ironic how often technological innovation is driven by the need to kill, conquer and subjugate, only discovering non-lethal applications as an afterthought. Splitting the atom first led to weapons of warfare, then to electric power plants.
Science fiction is an outgrowth of Romanticism, and as such is often skeptical about social and technological advances. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the works of Kurt Vonnegut in novels such as Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, and Slapstick. Vonnegut witnessed, first hand, the destructive side of human nature in all its technological infamy, by being front and center at the Allied bombing of Dresden in February of 1945, the event which inspired what is perhaps his best-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five. In it Billy Pilgrim becomes a metaphor for post-World War II America, hurtling toward a confusing future, longing for the simplicity of earlier times, and slowly losing his grip on what constitutes reality. “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” The Tralfamadorians, the aliens Billy encounters, who have the ability to see time all at once, in a clear, unchangeable present, speak of the futility of free will. Events are inevitable, and nothing can change them or stop them from happening.
Vonnegut rarely described himself as a science fiction writer, though he acknowledged that people regarded him as such. Rather, he used the conventions of science fiction to tell his story, which any good writer of science or conventional fiction might do. A number of his stories, such as Mother Night and Deadeye Dick, aren’t heavily reliant on science fiction, at all, but depict characters famous or infamous for what they’ve done, or are perceived to have done. At heart, Vonnegut shares a kinship with the Romantics in his cynicism for modern humans and the direction evolution seems to be taking us. He tended to blame our “big brains” for most human foibles, and the eventual loss of this biological innovation by humanity in his novel Galapagos, is the salvation of humankind, as the species reverts back to being just another equal player in the natural cycle of predator and prey on earth.
In Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, the lead characters destroy the dominant technology, only to see their followers rebuild the most vapid remnants of it to amuse themselves. Vonnegut seems to believe humans can learn from history, but refuse to do so, and it’s this refusal that contributes to their worst tendencies. Technology itself is never the villain in Vonnegut’s world, except in the ways humans use it to further their own selfish ends. The culprit for Vonnegut is the belief by humans that they’re far more clever than they actually are, believing they’ve become masters of the world, when in fact their intervention in the ways of nature often makes things much worse.
Despite his sometimes crusty cynicism, Vonnegut nevertheless remained hopeful that humanity could overcome its worst tendencies and somehow live up to its better nature. In his essays, he often cited those he identified as “angels” who were working to combat a host of societal ills such as racism and poverty. An avowed Atheist, he nonetheless admired the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount, and frequently counseled people to show kindness toward one another, reassuring them “you are not alone.” In novels such as Slapstick and Cat’s Cradle, he tackled the existential problem of living among many, yet still feeling alone and alienated. His principal characters are almost always struggling against the absurdities of human interactions, constantly being victimized by those of lesser mind who are carrying out their own agendas for less than noble purposes. Organized religion was often a favorite target, as was the human tendency to create heroes out of the thinnest of provocations, only to tear them down when the situation changed.
It’s probably no surprise that in many of Vonnegut’s novels, the world or the established social order is destroyed and those left are forced to start over with something new, but not necessarily better. Vonnegut seems to view this as the natural progression of life. The old world passes away and is replaced by another, equally confounding one. Through it all, though, Vonnegut refuses to give up hope and encourages us to do the same. In an ever-shrinking world where events on the other side of the globe have the immediacy of what’s happening outside our front doors, and many dissonant viewpoints compete for our attention, Kurt Vonnegut still has a voice which rises above the din, guiding us toward a better way of seeing the world and our place in it. It’s definitely worth our time to listen.
Note: This article appears in an updated version in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.
While it cannot be definitively proven that the future has already happened, we can be certain that the future will arrive at some point, and with the phenomenal advances in technology seen throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, a day may well arrive when humans will discover ways to travel backward in time. For this reason, it is advisable that people in this day and age begin preparing for the possibility that at some point after time travel has been perfected, someone with a serious grievance against a person living in the current day, might undertake to dispatch an assassin or assassins to rid the timeline of this perceived threat. Certainly, important people, such as presidents, business leaders, and other celebrities are fair game, but average people should not rule out the impact they are having on the timeline. Actions have consequences, and one cannot know for certain what the ultimate outcome of his or her actions might be. A decision seemingly as harmless as the choice of one’s daily footwear could set off ripples throughout time that could lead to disastrous consequences for some unfortunate individual in the distant future, and for this reason, it’s best to be on one’s guard.
One should never assume he or she is not important enough to warrant the attention of some dystopian future regime seeking to erase one’s influence on history. As shown in the beloved holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, the loss of a single individual to history can have a profound and devastating impact on people with whom this individual has never even directly interacted. One may give money to a beggar some afternoon, which is enough to allow that individual to eat, thus surviving to another day, during which he or she saves another person who goes on to discover the cure for cancer. A popular urban legend tells us of a British soldier during World War I who took pity on a German corporal he found in his gun sight, sparing the man’s life, and taking him prisoner instead. This corporal went on to become chancellor of Germany, and initiated the Second World War. Humans are social beings and each interaction leads to further interaction, so the impact of a given life can cause ripples throughout society, affecting people far beyond the immediate scope of the individual’s attention.
Despite this, one should not attempt to trick fate by being the sort of person a futuristic antagonist would not want to erase from history. Just as Oedipus’ father tried to avert fate by sending his son away to die, only to have Oedipus return and carry out his preordained role, attempting to avoid a future outcome may, in fact, bring about the very outcome one is trying to avoid. One cannot be certain what will or won’t cause someone distress a hundred or more years from now, prompting that person to desire one’s removal from the timeline. The best advice is to live one’s life as one chooses, but always be mindful of the impact one’s actions are having, while remaining on the lookout for signs that someone in the future has taken umbrage with one’s actions. There’s no need to get discouraged, however, because even when being pursued by a futuristic assassin, one still has many advantages working in one’s favor.
First, take solace in the fact that it won’t be easy for someone from the future to pinpoint one’s location with any degree of accuracy, though social media is making it much easier for individuals to broadcast their whereabouts. We cannot be certain, though, how much of our current culture will still exist fifty to a hundred years from now. In just the span of the last twenty to thirty years, technology has rendered many permanent storage mediums obsolete, such as floppy discs and tape drives, making it all but impossible to retrieve data stored on them. Consider how difficult it is to garner details on someone living in the 1930s, even though records on individuals from that era still exist. As pervasive as the Internet can be, unless someone makes the effort to store and catalog specific types of data, the vast amount of information available constantly dilutes the stream of posts, photos, and videos. Only a fraction of items posted to YouTube become Internet sensations, and even one’s closest associates quickly lose track of the concert or theatrical review one posted to Facebook a few days ago. Still, the information exists, and an obsessive futuristic antagonist, hell bent on wrecking havoc on the timeline may well have the time, energy, and resources to pursue such goals.
One may also be comforted with the thought that superior technology may not be an advantage once an individual travels back into our time. An assassin traveling to the current day from some future date will no doubt be constrained by the limitations of our technology. For instance, if one of us were somehow transported to the Civil War era with an iPhone, not only would there be no way to charge it, but the network needed to communicate using it won’t exist, making it almost useless. Granted, technology from the future will, undoubtedly, be far advanced from ours, and the ability to establish a wireless network hub from a cellular phone already exists to some extent, but networks, and storage mediums needed to convey data and files would not be present, and it’s not likely any futuristic technology would be backward compatible.
Some may point out that the ability to send a time traveler to a specific place and time may be sketchy, but we should not be lulled into a false sense of security by our lack of knowledge as to how time travel might work. One should assume that a society capable of sending people backward in time would have worked out most of the kinks before offering it to the sort of people likely to want to alter the timeline. Still, we can assume that people won’t just be popping in from out of nowhere, regardless of who may be present to witness the arrival. The key element of sending an assassin from the future will be surprise, so someone just arriving in a flash of light is certain to cause a few alarms to go off. Given that it’s not likely a two-way portal will exist, at least until enough travelers have arrived to construct one, the time traveler will most likely require some sort of vehicle in which to travel, thus requiring a reliable hiding place for the equipment.
It is imperative that if one believes he or she is being pursued by a futuristic assassin, this information should not be shared with anyone. It’s not likely one’s friends or relatives would believe such a claim in the first place, and would attribute the claim to a joke, or perhaps mental illness. Equally so, one should not directly confront a suspected futuristic assassin, not least of which because it could lead to the individual hastening his or her plans to eradicate the target, but also because it is highly unlikely such an individual would freely admit to being an assassin from the future, and could use the accusation to call into question one’s mental state, leading to incarceration, making one much more easy to find and kill. The best course of action is to remain calm and look for tell tale signs to confirm one is, in fact, in the presence of someone from the future.
Be alert! Assassins from the future are nothing if not wily. It won’t be easy to trick one into showing his or her hand. Diligence is very important. Does this individual seem overly nostalgic for modern day cars, or buildings recently constructed, as though recalling them from memory? Has this individual shown little or no surprise over catastrophic events that have occurred, as though these events were anticipated? Does this person display far too much confidence in making predictions on current sporting events, as though the outcome is a foregone conclusion? The devil is in the details, and even the most astute futuristic assassin could have quirks which give away the game. Listen for odd turns of phrase, strange patterns of speech, or unfamiliarity with common cliches or sayings. Does this individual render a blank stare when confronted with the names or actions of well-known performers, or sports figures? Certainly, there are those in the current day who don’t follow the antics of the Real Housewives or denizens of the Jersey Shore, but enough unfamiliarity with common culture could be just the warning one needs to spot someone not from our time.
The question then arises of what do to if one suspects someone of being an assassin from the future. This is a very tricky proposition, since very few will believe such a claim, and would most likely be of no assistance in protecting oneself. It is important to remember, if an assassin has been dispatched from the future to take someone out, this individual will want to be discrete. It’s not likely such a person would zap someone with a laser, or otherwise employ technology not found in our time. Futuristic assassins must be resourceful, and will go out of their way to not draw attention to themselves. These factors can be used to one’s advantage. One strategy would be to somehow discretely convey to the individual that one is aware of his or her intentions, which may not avert the danger, but might cause the individual to strike out rashly, after which retaliatory measures would be justified.
A word of caution must be inserted here. One should not assume every individual one suspects of being from the future is here to cause one harm. Perhaps the individual has a personal reason for employing time travel, to right a wrong, or prevent some tragedy from happening. It’s entirely possible that the person one suspects of plotting against one’s life is merely here to take advantage of a fluctuation in the stock market, or get in on the ground floor of a lucrative business. Vigilance is the watch word here. If the suspected time traveler shows no particular interest in one’s day to day schedule, cannot be found hanging about one’s cubicle at work for no reason, or otherwise exhibits no overt concerns about one’s whereabouts or activities, it’s entirely likely this individual is simply enjoying the fruits of being able to visit different times and presents no immediate danger.
It is hoped that these simple guidelines will be of assistance to anyone suspecting incursions from generations yet to be. Many, if not most of us, may never have to deal with visitors from the future, but it pays to be ready just in case. We can’t count on every futuristic assassin being a relentless, unfeeling cyborg, or otherwise exhibiting signs easily detected. By observing these guidelines, one can be confident of remaining in the timeline, regardless of how persistent some futuristic denizen is to prevent it.