Yesterday I talked about an ever shifting and fluid future. Today I’m going to talk about a changing past.
If there are multiple versions of the future as “The Minority Report” suggests, does that mean there are numerous versions of the past as well? The most logical answer is no; though the future may be full of possibilities, the past remains fixed. However, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven presents a slightly different idea. The novel's main character, George Orr, possesses the ability to retroactively change the past through the use of “effective” dreaming – in other words, when he dreams the world changes, both present and past. Only he, the effective dreamer, and those in his presence while he dreams, know that a change has occurred. Thus Orr (and his corrupt psychiatrist, Dr. Haber) remember countless editions of the past.
However, with so many different versions of history piled on top of one another, Orr finds it difficult to determine what’s genuine – “I keep wondering what things are changed, and whether anything’s real at all.” Reality becomes almost unrecognizable as it alters over and over again. At one point Orr tells Heather (his wife in one of the realities) that the earth was destroyed by plague and war four years previously, and as he lay with the world dying around him, he re-dreamed it into existence. But to Orr, that means that the world no longer exists. “We are all dead, and we spoiled the world before we died. There is nothing left. Nothing but dreams.”
Orr remains haunted by memories of a hundred versions of the past throughout the novel. But where Orr struggles to forget the past, Winston Smith of George Orwell’s 1984 fights to remember it. To Winston, memory is the only antidote to a constantly altered past. In his case, it's Big Brother, the totalitarian political party that runs the world, that creates multiple version of the past by altering every historical documentation of it – photographs, newspapers, books. Everything. As Winston Churchill once said, “history is written by the victors,” and in this case, the history Big Brother presents is absolute.
Memory then becomes the key to reality where records are falsified and history itself is unreliable. Winston becomes obsessed with his burred memories of the past, and seeks out members of an older generation that might recall the world as it was before Big Brother came into power. He even looks to the lower class (called the Proles) who've been largely left alone by the government, as a sort of cultural and anthropological memory. Unfortunately, Winston’s attempts prove utterly futile; even if the government hadn't intervened, memory as a means of preserving the one true version of the past only lasts as long as the person holding it remains alive, and their mind untampered. After enough time had passed and a pre-Big Brother generation was replaced with a youth raised under the regime, even memory would prove unreliable. And there would be no way of ever holding onto a single, unyielding past.
In Lathe of Heaven and 1984, both protagonists fear a inconstant past. And they both make the reader wonder, if the past persistently changes, can the present ever be real?
This post is part of the Blogging A through Z Challenge 2012. My theme is (in case you didn’t already guess) science fiction. Stay tuned for the rest of the alphabet, and if you’d like to check in on the rest of the participants, simply click here.