I would kill Hitler.
You know, if I had a time machine at my disposal.
Yes: I would be THAT GUY in the time-travel story.
And therein lies my point.
Which is: gosh, but we’ve been coasting for a long time, haven’t we? Shields down to seventy percent…if we change the past we might erase the future, so we dare not…I’m going out there/I’m going with you!/It’s too dangerous/I can’t let you do this alone…! (Aspiring Hollywood actresses: study this.) All the little tricks of our trade, so boring, so boring now. All the little permission-codes, that make stories so easy to write. But all — ALL — just so much panelbeating. The visitors from the alternate history are actually dark reflections of ourselves — GASP! We must change how things are going to be, lest we become them!
Oh, lestn’t we?
…Hi, I’m the Batman of Earth-1221, I call myself Wonder Woman and I ride an ass-kicking unicorn possessed by an ancient demon…glad to meet you, I’m the Blue Beetle of Earth-1692, my secret identity is Clark Kent and I’m an actual fucking BEETLE…who has a magic SWORD, given to me by the wizard SHAZAM…and by the way did you know there are an infinite number of universes, all as stupid as this one…?
So, well…guess there’s nothing more to see, here.
We cannot interfere in the development of another culture…!
Or else what?
Through linking our minds together, the power of our LOVE will avert this cosmic catastrophe by knitting reality back TOGETHER…!
But that trick ALWAYS works!
No…too much power…! OVERLOADING…!
Wait, wasn’t that your whole bit in the first place…?
I love you…but because I love you, I can’t BE with you! Because I have to PROTECT you…!
And that’s why you must die!
I would kill Hitler, I tell you.
After all, why not?
Sure, many people now alive would never have been born…but many more who didn’t deserve to have their lives taken from them would live. And isn’t that a fair enough trade-off? I mean, how fair does it have to be? If you really believe in this hoary old time-travel standard, then you already believe that we can never know what would have been, what might happen, what the consequences really are…and as I’ve said before, this is what time-travel is really all about, the literary delineation of the struggle with fate we all experience in our daily lives. We don’t know the consequences of our actions, but we have no choice…except to act nonetheless, and hope it all works out. It isn’t supposed to be easy. There aren’t supposed to be any rules. If I hadn’t spilled the coffee, if I’d only asked her out when I had the chance, if I hadn’t forgotten the combination, if I had only bought Apple in the 70s…
There is no one, no one who has ever lived, who hasn’t had these problems to grapple with. There never will be, either: it is simply the very core of the human condition.
By extension, therefore:
Dare you stop that serial killer from doing away with that innocent blond child?
You know in the future, many races will become allies, because of the Daleks…
Hitler. The idea is, that as human beings we’re fairly likely to perform self-sacrificial actions. You might do it for a baby in a stroller, old school chum, teammate, person on the street. Well, at any rate, you might. You might not, of course. That’s really up to you, and it’s not my place to judge…
However if we’re to exercise the slightest honesty in our lives, we should be capable of admitting that (at least) we know we ought to be willing to perform such sacrifices. And this is where the standard permission-rules of the average time-travel story let us down, these days, because they strip dilemma of its dramatic power: characters are kept well away from that hot stove, for fear they might actually decide for themselves whether or not to touch it. The inversion of the everyday grappling with destiny is thwarted, and thus time-travel’s original association with the monkey’s paw is broken up.
Because modern day time-travel stories like to play dress-up, carefully putting the mask of Oedipus in place over their features before they hit the stage…
But underneath the Oedipal mask, their true face is still the face of Abraham.
This creates a certain amount of dissonance, I think. Abraham, will you sacrifice your son for me? Not crazy about the idea, actually, Lord…but, I guess so. We are not supposed to like this story too much, and in fact we don’t — a dislike only slightly ameliorated by the bit at the end, where God rescues Abraham and his son by performing one of his famous miracles. Well, but isn’t every action taken by God necessarily a miracle…?
Time-travel’s central concerns are all distinctly Abrahamic: what are the consequences of action? What are the consequences of inaction? What is the value of faith, and can one ever live without it? Take away the miracle, and you have the daily existential grind of the average man on the street, shopping for bread. But add in the various permission-rules (and, I should also say, neglect to hire a good writer to use them innovatively), and you might as well have God stop Abraham on his way up the mountain, and say “when you get to the top…here’s what you have to do…”
Of course in the modern SF/adventure story, we often embroider the Abrahamic pas-de-deux of dilemma and miracle with the motif of the Third Option. This makes for good half-hour TV programming, and personally I love the stuff: the last-ditch attempt to save the ship/planet/galaxy/universe/whatever fails…leaving only five untethered minutes for Mr. Spock or The Doctor to come up with a last-ditch attempt beyond the last-ditch attempt…in other words, a miracle. Absolutely gorgeous stuff, indispensible, and the heart of this particular hybrid genre. As a fan, I adore it.
But it’s very difficult to pull off when time-travel’s involved, because time-travel is a completely different kind of embroidery on the Abrahamic cloth, and it isn’t really compatible with the Third Option. Time-travel is itself the Third Option, really, in that fictional weave…so when you begin with time-travel, it’s very difficult to go back to Third Options. Not impossible, of course. But difficult. Because the thing you might otherwise use to solve the dilemma, is what’s creating it in the first place. The miracles are all out, already: all fully in play. So what actors are left after that, to play God’s part? I called it an inversion, because that’s just what it is: in that situation, all that’s left to the story is Abraham’s dilemma, and his faith. That’s the only “miracle” you get, then: finding out what kind of sacrifice he’ll choose to make.
But add in the rules, and you don’t even get that. Which is why I would kill Hitler anyway, and all you redshirts would think I was a crazy man: because don’t you see we have to destroy these rules, in order to save them. God, I feel like I’ve been getting too much Nietzsche in my diet, or something, but…yes: kill Hitler, date Mary Jane, expect nothing, blame no one, and embrace paradox…! If that’s all that’s left. Yes, interfere with that culture! Yes, assert that multiversal primacy of “your” reality! Yes, save that blond-haired innocent child! And let those shields go down to zero already, for God’s sake!
Shoot that Hitler, damn you! You’ve got him in your sights!
That’s what this should all be about.
“Oooo, but I can’t shoot Hitler, it would damage the timeline…”
Christ, what are you even doing in this story, then? Jesus, can’t you at least think about shooting him?
For God’s sake, is there no beginning to the sacrifices you’re willing to make?