My current obsession, shared by approximately half the world (half, that is, of my own predominantly white geeky more-or-less-affluent American world, as gauged mostly by Facebook and Twitter), is watching my way through the most recent iteration of Doctor Who (2005-present) on Netflix. I’m coming to the end of the fourth series, if you’re wondering, which I’ve gathered means the end of my time with David Tennant as The Tenth Doctor. Which is probably going to make me cry or something.
Something that’s occurred to me lately is that I have a more exacting standard for time-travel stories than I do for stories of any other stripe; they generally have to be brilliantly inventive and have actors and/or characters that really pull me in, like the most recent Doctor Who has, for me to be willing to devote much of my time to them (though of course I enjoyed the camp of the Back to the Future franchise as much as any good geeky child of the eighties and nineties). And that’s because it — time travel — is simply never going to happen.
It’s not that I have a hard time suspending my disbelief, generally. It’s not as though lasers are ever likely to make good gun-type weapons, or that we’re ever likely to get past the inherent problems posed by traveling at the speeds necessary to traverse large distances in space; that doesn’t bother me. I’ve loved stories about Hobbits and vampires with souls and grammar schools for wizards and witches and MMO players who sometimes leave their homes.
I think, rather, that it’s just that I want time travel so very, very badly. There’s little I’d like more than to be able to see where we’re headed (to know what replaces TV and the internet in a hundred years, what people look like and are eating in five hundred, if we’re still around at all in a thousand), and one of the few I would prefer may be to be able to look back — see a Shakespeare play, compare Lincoln’s oratory style to Daniel Day-Lewis’ attempt, watch Ruth and Gehrig go back-to-back (and kill Hitler and such, but that’s a whole thing).
I want that to happen so badly, and there’s just no way it’s ever going to. Even with the other things I mentioned, you can imagine the doubts away; scientists could come up with a way around the near-light-speed problem at some point, even though we can’t currently imagine what that might be. I’d make the same assumption about time travel: it’s a pretty ridiculous concept right now, but maybe some day, far down the road, some researcher could stumble upon the secret that makes it all possible.
Except she won’t. No one will. If they were ever going to, we’d have found that out by now.
I picture it going like this: the secret that may one day lead to time travel is unearthed, and the U.S. government, or whatever world government is similarly powerful at that point, quickly and silently controls it. The first time machine that’s developed is probably used under highly controlled conditions, utterly in secret, for limited military or government purposes. No one who witnesses the time traveler ever finds out, or if they do, they’re sworn to absolute secrecy or otherwise silenced.
But then, it goes the way of the fax machine, and the internet, and every other non-weapon military technology. The technology advances, becomes cheaper, slips out to the public. The future equivalent of Xerox and Minolta start producing time machines that can be had for the future-currency equivalent of $5000, then $1000, then $150, then free with the purchase of some other product. People are moving around in time by the dozens, then the thousands, then the millions.
Maybe it’s more controlled than that, but the point is this: if people were going to learn how to time travel, we’d know by now. At some point, however it might be regulated, some doofus is going to show up in the middle of the Revolutionary War in those crazy silver robes from the future scene in Bill and Ted. Someone’s going to go back and bet $100,000 on Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson. Someone‘s going to try that “killing Hitler” thing. We’d have a record, somewhere, of something that really can’t be explained except by time travel. Cave drawings or Renaissance paintings of smartphones and sunglasses and future technology we haven’t actually imagined yet. It’s not the kind of secret that a large-enough group of humans is capable of collectively keeping.
I suppose one could cook up possibilities that would explain this (maybe we’re at or near the very vanguard of all of time, all of the possible universes — maybe time travel will be possible, but not until we get there?). But if we were going to have time travel in the way it’s usually portrayed — you can travel to all points ahead and behind, with the possibility of seriously impacting your own present-day world if you go back — we would know by now, we’d be dealing with some of the implications, both good and bad.
So: no time travel, ever, no chance. That’s my sad thought for today. What say you?