In Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, Eckels hires Time Safari, Inc., to take him back to the Late Cretaceous to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex. When he faces his quarry, he loses all bravado and panics. He leaves the path, steps on a butterfly, and alters the present-day. Words are spelled differently. The other candidate won the election.
McCoy steps through the Guardian of Forever and stops Edith Keeler from being hit by a car. Keeler delays the US’s entry into World War II, Germany wins, and the Federation ceases to exist mid-sentence.
Marty McFly saves his father from getting hit by a car (different car) and almost erases himself from existence. Barry Allen saves his mother from getting killed when he was a child and… you get the picture.
It’s a trope of science fiction. Time travelers are always concerned about changing the present by making some small change in the past, but we never think that we can seriously change the future by making some small change today.
Why do we have such a strange pair of beliefs?
- We can’t see the effects of our actions. Time travelers are always shielded somehow from the effects of the alteration. They remember how things are supposed to be. They may not be able to connect all the dots—I’d love to know how stepping on a butterfly changes the election—but they can tell that by changing what happened, they could change what happens.
- We disconnect actions from consequences. Every action has a consequence, a natural result of that action. If you pick up one of the stick, you pick up the other end, too. Every single time. No matter how much we may want to separate the two, the choices we make today are going to affect what happens tomorrow.
- Our view of the future isn’t clear. We know how the present-day is supposed to be. Do we have the same clear vision of the future? If we don’t take the time to visualize the future we’re trying to create, how will we know what choices we need to make today to take us there?
- We don’t believe we can make a difference. Results take time to measure. When we make a change in the past, the results are immediately visible in the present. We’ve short-circuited the feedback loop. The future unfolds one day at a time. That’s frustrating right there—we want answers and we want them now! When you also consider that by the time we know the results of our choices, it may be too late to do anything about it, it can feel downright disheartening.
Have you ever noticed how the accidental changes to the timeline always make things worse? In all fairness to the authors, it makes a better story. If someone steps on a butterfly and creates a peaceful utopia, you might want to let that one slide.
The underlying assumption there, good story aside, is that things are as good now as they could ever possibly be. “But the peaceful utopia could collapse and become a terrible dystopia in five years!” Sure, it’s possible, but the possibility of something bad happening should never stop us from doing something awesome. We might fail, but what if we succeed?
Life is not deterministic. Our efforts to change can seem futile because we’re seeing the results unfold one day at a time. Things don’t go exactly as planned. Fortunately, change is cumulative. Tomorrow picks up where today leaves off.
It’s easier for us to look back and see how far we’ve come than it is to look forward and face how far we have to go. You know what? The next year is going to happen anyway. The next five years, the next twenty. You have a choice: you can let them play out as a passive observer, or you can change what happens today to change what happens tomorrow.