"The dead past is just another name for the living present." (52)


Isaac Asimov's short story "The Dead Past", which was a Selection of the Science Fiction Book Club in October 1957, is about the social and ethical implications of a certain kind of time machine: one that allows its viewers to revisit the past, but not interact with it. Its main character is a young physics professor, Jonas Foster, who builds such a machine --- a chronoscope --- for a historian, Arnold Potterley, who needs the device to continue his research on ancient Carthage. Foster's uncle, Ralph Nimmo, a science writer, is drawn into the scheme as well.

Analysis (possible spoiler alert!)

Besides the over-arching idea about the implications of being able to view any place at any time in the past, which I'll refrain from discussing to avoid giving away too many plot details, "The Dead Past" features some interesting speculation about the future of academic research, the interconnectedness of knowledge, and why it's cool to be a science writer. For added confusion value, I won't be discussing these in the order in which I introduced them --- sorry!

Take-Home Lesson #1: Science Writing Rules!

My favorite character in "The Dead Past" was Foster's uncle Ralph, who is introduced with the fact that, in a way, the young physicist "was secretly ashamed of Uncle Ralph", because

Professional science writers, however useful, were a little outside the pale, fit only for patronizing contempt. The fact that, as a class, they made more money than did research scientists only made matters worse...

Still, there were times when a science writer in the family could be a convenience. Not being really educated, they did not have to specialize. Consequently, a good science writer knew practically everything.... And Uncle Ralph was one of the best. (26)

Uncle Ralph is also a great spokesman for his work, as is shown in the following speech by the man himself:

Ralph Nimmo had no college degree and was rather proud of it. "A degree," he once said to Jonas Foster, when both were considerably younger, "is a first step down a ruinous highway. You don't want to waste it so you go on to graduate work and doctoral research. You end up a thoroughgoing ignoramus on everything in the world except for one subdivisional sliver of nothing.

"On the other hand, if you guard your mind carefully and keep it blank of any clutter of information till maturity is reached, filling it only with intelligence and training it only in clear thinking, you then have a powerful instrument at your disposal and you can become a science writer." (26)

I found this speech of Uncle Ralph's to be incredibly inspiring. As an undergraduate, I completed a dual degree in mathematics and linguistics and promptly refused to go to graduate school, fearing that specialization would lead to stagnation. Now I hope to avoid that fate just as Ralph Nimmo did: by continuing to learn about whatever interests me, and writing about it.

The Future of Academia

Speaking of specialization and stagnation, in "The Dead Past", academic research is state-sponsored and directed from the top down, by a centralized government agency. Highly specialized experts pursue research appropriate to their area of expertise and no other. No paper can be published without documentation of appropriate research grants. And before you can say "tunnel vision", why yes: to deviate from this framework is "intellectual anarchy", a thoughtcrime that can mean blacklisting or worse. When Potterley first attempts to enlist Foster's help, the physicist is distrustful, suspecting the historian of subversive activity. However, when his area of research turns out to have radical applications in the field of chronoscopy, their roles are reversed. Potterley, fearful of the implications the discovery might have for his personal life, tries to persuade Foster to discontinue his work, and is rebuffed:

"When you first came to me, I believed in organized and directed research; the situation as it existed, in other words. I considered you an intellectual anarchist, Dr. Potterley, and dangerous. But, for one reason or another, I've been an anarchist myself for months now and I have achieved great things.

"Those things have been achieved not because I am a brilliant scientist. Not at all. It was just that scientific research had been directed from above and holes were left that could be filled in by anyone who looked in the right direction. And anyone might have if the government hadn't actively tried to prevent it.

"Now understand me. I still believe directed research can be useful. I'm not in favor of a retreat to total anarchy. But there must be a middle ground. Directed research can retain flexibility. A scientist must be allowed to follow his curiosity, at least in his spare time." (43)

Ultimately, the government turns out to have valid reasons for suppressing research in chronoscopy, but due to a combination of paranoia, ignorance, incompetence, ambitiousness, and the best of intentions, Foster's dangerous discovery is revealed to the world. No one is prepared to accept the consequences, even the rebellious assistant professor, who goes from protesting --- "All science hangs together. It's one piece. If you want to stop one part, you've got to stop it all." --- to being desperately compliant with the government agent who confronts the physicist, historian, and writer with what they have wrought. Which leads me to my final point about what makes "The Dead Past" so darn cool:

Big Hot Moral Ambiguity!

There are no "good guys" and "bad guys" in "The Dead Past," only people trying to do their jobs. Potterley turns out to be a bit of a creep when his academic obsession backfires into his personal life, Foster starts out high-minded but caves when it's not just principles but his own personal life is on the line, and Nimmo is cynical in a well-meaning way, trying to act in his nephew's best interests. Then there's the government, personified by Thaddeus Araman, Department Head of the Division of Chronoscopy. They've suppressed research in time-viewing technology to the point of abusing it, supposedly for the greater good, which is what the more or less fascist culture of directed, organized, controlled research is supposedly all about. Yet clearly, there are flaws with that system of self-imposed limitations on the scope of human knowledge, and when the system is compromised, the results are unpredictable, even catastrophic. The moral of the story, if any, seems to be that human ingenuity can and will overcome all obstacles to do both great and terrible things --- and that there doesn't have to be a malicious adversary when self-serving behaviors like greed and ambition can do the job just as well. It's all about good intentions gone horribly awry, and healthy thought-provoking stuff.


In case it wasn't already 100% excruciatingly obvious, I give "The Dead Past" two enthusiastic thumbs up.

All quotes taken from: Asimov, Isaac. "The Dead Past." Earth is Room Enough (pp. 7-54). New York: Fawcett Crest, 1957. ISBN 0-449-24125-4.

Last update: 10 April 2012, mostly formatting.

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