Wednesday, December 2, 2015

For Your Consideration

The afternoon of July 1st, 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant sat sweltering in the parlor of a farmhouse outside of Vicksburg, trying to determine when would be an appropriate time to start drinking. Dinner would not be served for a few more hours, and he not did prefer to sober up again for the night. He eyed the bottle on his writing desk, then turned to work on the daily reports. He closed his eyes, ground palms to sockets to concentrate a moment.

A silvery lightning flash penetrated Grant's hands and eyelids, with no corresponding crash of thunder. Grant started in his seat, blinked his eyes to relieve the dazzle of the purple retinal afterglow. This dazzle was no treelike pattern of lightning, but rather more an animal's claw drawn raggedly across the backs of his eyes.

A brief, jagged rip had opened in the space-time continuum, and out from the Shining Void stepped Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless and his retinue.

"Greetings, Mr. President!" said Dr. Loveless cheerfully, "And how goes the Siege of Vicksburg on this... dismally muggy and oppressive day?"

Grant blinked and peered about the parlor before discerning the dwarfish form of Dr. Loveless. Loveless was impeccably attired in a silk morning coat, silk hat, and gold tipped cane. He wore an enormous green cravat that made his pink face look like a grotesque flower. Behind Loveless hulked his assistant, the giant Voltaire. Voltaire clutched a large metal barrel. Next to the giant stood the lovely Antoinette, who held a wicker basket.

"...tolerably well, I should say, sir", Grant hazarded.

"Ah! I admired your aplomb and composure! It is true what they say of your complete sangfroid in unusual situations. My hat is off to you, sir!" Dr. Loveless tipped his hat and placed it upon Grant's desk.

"Allow me to introduce myself! I am Doctor Miguelito Quixote Loveless! These are my companions, Miss Antoinette, and Mr. Voltaire! We are all of us time travelers, having come from your far future!"

"How do you do?" replied Grant. He held up a hand towards Loveless and pointed towards the basket. "Is that for me?" he asked.

The doctor, interrupted in his prepared speech, somewhat disconcerted, nodded. "Actually, yes. A token of our esteem, a gift basket for you, containing- "

"a bottle of Old Crow Bourbon, apples, oranges, some pieces of fried chicken, fresh bread and butter, and a brace of quite excellent Havana cigars".

The crooked smile vanished from Loveless' face. "How did you...?"

"...know the contents? Well, Doctor, this is not the first time you've appeared before me", said Grant.

Loveless's eyebrows shot up, visibly taken aback, literally rocked on his heals.

"May I please, dear? The basket?" Grant asked Antoinette. She looked at Loveless, who pale and stiff, nodded permission. As she placed the basket upon the table, Grant looked up at Voltaire. "Please, sir, put that heavy thing down and be at ease".

Voltaire humped the barrel to the floor with a grunt. Doctor Loveless, his handsome face suddenly becoming pale and stiff with anger, demanded "What do you mean not the first time? We have just now travelled here to this time and place!"

"Come, come sir!" cajoled Grant, "Do you not know the first thing about time travel? By appearing in the past, you have created a time loop. I have, by my count, gone through this encounter perhaps a few hundred times. Fortunately, the loop is recursive, and so is never the way same twice, else I - and the rest of the universe - would be quite insane. But to you, it will always be the first time".

"Impossible! I..." Loveless's voice trailed off as he started to think about this situation.

Grant unfolded  the calico cover of the basket, removed the bottle of Old Crow, uncorked it, plucked out a cigar, held it under his nose and sniffed. "Wonderful " he sighed, "and the fact that I die from throat cancer does not deter me in the least from smoking one. Sir, do you indulge?"

"Loveless paced the floor and shook his head, "Yes, but not now, thank you. I must appraise this new information".

"Well, let tell you what you planned, and what things occurred the first time you visited". Loveless stopped his pacing. "Please do" he replied.

"You and your plucky companions arrived from Hollywood California, circa 1964-".

"Aha! Nonsense!" interjected Loveless. "We arrived from New Haven, Connecticut 1872! I completed the time machine that year!"

"So it would seem to you", countered Grant "As I said, this-" he gestured around him "this is a recursive time loop you've stuck the Universe in. Or rather, if you will, a Do loop, an iterated algorithm where the result of the computation is fed back into the formula and repeated. So, it would seem to you, at the start point, that you arrived from Yale University, where you were a professor of the physical sciences, with the means and resources to assemble the material and device that you call a time machine. And at the same time, constructed the nuclear device which Mr. Voltaire has placed upon the floor. You offered to end the Siege of Vicksburg for me, with, as you said 'an aerial mine with the power of a million kegs of gunpowder'. All you needed from me was my signature. I, foolishly, accepted your offer, thinking the siege would continue for several months. The blast not only wiped out Vicksburg, it irradiated and incapacitated nearly a third of my army. It did end the siege, and the war, once news spread of a horrible weapon possessed by the Union. You then travelled forward in time, produced a land grant with my now Presidential signature transferring much of the state of California into your possession, but in turn, meaning you never took the position at Yale, and thus never created the time machine, which created a paradoxical loop in time."

"This is utter nonsense!" laughed Loveless, " a fabrication!"

"Perhaps, as I said, that was the first iteration". But you obviously need more convincing. You and I have spent a great deal of time as adversaries, Doctor, and I know a great about you. Grant proceeded to tell Loveless his whole life, the family history. How the strange experiments of Herr Doktor Lieblos, Miguelito's father, had inadvertently resulted in his dwarfism. How the Liebloses of Austria had been exiled. How they emigrated to America, how the Viceroy of New Spain granted the family large tracts of the province of Alta California. How the land was stolen by the Republic of California. And on and on until finally Loveless, dark browed and stiff lipped, admitted this all might be true.

"Fine," Loveless acceded. "Now what?"

"Why, you accept President Lincoln's exchange offer for the city of Los Angeles and its surrounds, and then go back to Yale to avoid the paradox".

"Exchange? For what price?"

"We'll give it to you for a song".

1 comment:

  1. (I see this essay as a Twilight Zone episode, or more likely, The Night Gallery).

    The science fiction author Larry Niven has a law about time travel:
    "If the universe of discourse permits the possibility of time travel and of changing the past, then no time machine will be invented in that universe".
    This is a variation of Stephen Hawkings' or Roger Penrose's chronology protection conjecture or cosmic censorship hypothesis. This is a bit of a contrived chastity belt just to get around something as inconvenient as the violation of global causality. Further, Niven's law does not suggest there can be some universe within a larger multiverse that allows this, as a "universe of discourse" generally means THE universe, any subset of multiverses within it included.

    Some would say this also tends to go against the principle of parsimony, that the least amount of assumptions would seem to be the best prescriptor. But why the Universe, or Nature, call-it-what-you-will would seem to be proscribed into a narrow range of behavior just so a pink little ape brain can understand things seems equally contrived.

    How then to explain that changing of the past? This could be a case of past and future infinities canceling each other out. The traveller, for example, could flit back to the Cambrian and unscrew the head of every living creature to be found, only to return to the present and find that nothing has changed. The traveller has not travelled back to some alternate past. He has travelled to the real past, changed the real past, and yet his present is unchanged! No less a paradox than traveling into the past and expecting to return to any recognizable present to begin with.

    Perhaps what we are left with, then, is the Cinema Principle, the idea that the successful time traveller in some sense ceases to exist. Or rather, like a camera recording a movie, the universe is paradoxically subjectively viewed with no subject to view it.