January 28, 2003

By Michael Strickland

Edith Keeler Must Die

In Depression-era America, two men show up at a local soup kitchen with nothing but the clothing they're wearing—itself stolen off a clothesline several blocks away. They befriend the soup kitchen owner, arranging to do odd jobs in exchange for a small stipend. One of them falls in love with the proprietor—Edith Keeler—while the other spends what little money they have on a scientific experiment to look into the future. What the latter sees when his experiment is successful makes him utter the now-famous line, "Edith Keeler must die."

The two men are Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, from television's "Star Trek." The plot comes from "The City on the Edge of Forever," often voted the best "Trek" episode ever. In this story, Doctor McCoy travels back in time, changing the events of the past and thereby altering the course of the future. Kirk and Spock go back to stop him, and in so doing, learn that Keeler is the key. Somehow she lives when she is meant to die, and leads a pacifist movement that keeps the United States out of World War II—thus allowing Hitler to win the war. In order to set things right, Edith Keeler... must die.

The issue of Edith Keeler's death is an ethical dilemma common in time travel fiction. If it were possible to travel in time, how would we do so without "polluting" the natural course of history? Even the tiniest pebble, dropped into a body of water, creates ripples that expand outward at a geometric rate. Traveling back in time, your mere presence could set in motion a chain of events that irrevocably alters the future as you know it.

One of these dilemmas is the so-called "grandmother paradox." What would happen if you went back in time and caused the death of your grandmother before she gave birth to your mother? Would you cease to exist? If so, then you would never have gone back in time in the first place to cause the death of your grandmother. If not, then how were you ever born, so that you could grow up and go back in time? This dilemma also found expression in popular sci fi entertainment, namely the "Back to the Future" movies. When Marty McFly found himself back in the 1950s, he inadvertently prevented his parents from meeting, thus preventing his own birth.

But what if restoring the proper flow of history means being responsible for someone's death? Or many deaths? If your presence in Ford's Theater in 1865 prevented John Wilkes Booth from assassinating President Lincoln, could you pull the trigger yourself? If you accidentally prevented Hitler's rise to power when you went back in time, would you have the stomach to put history back on its proper course, knowing six million Jews would die as a result?

Even from a more passive perspective, time travel is fraught with such ethical dilemmas. If you could go back and simply stand by as a witness, could you watch the crucifixion of Christ without lifting a finger to help? Would you be able to stand motionless as Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, knowing the result would be the death of over seven million people in World War I?

Time travel is not yet a reality (though theoretically possible, according to some), so such ethical conflicts remain no more than an intellectual curiosity. But, as always, science fiction allows us to explore such dilemmas while they're still just academic exercises, so hopefully when and if the "time" comes when we face such challenges, we'll be prepared for them.


©2003 Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

What is "The Daily Strick"?

I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year, I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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1/27: Public Enemy Number One
1/26: Rondo alla Turca
1/25: Back in Uniform
1/24: Hitting the Wall
1/23: It's a Small Web After All
1/22: War is Hell
Watching the Wheels
1/20: Bring on the Mayhem
1/19: Pigskin Ponderings
1/18: More Stupid Lawsuits
1/17: Finding My Passion
1/16: Gulf War Memories
1/15: Meet the New Boss
1/14: Man's Other Best Friend
1/13: Sea of Fire
1/12: Back to the Books
1/11: America's Finest Climate
1/10: Sunshine in a Bottle
1/9: What Would Jesus Drive?
1/8: Southwestern Sojourn
Wheel of Fortune
Class Warfare
1/5: Very Large Dream
The New Nuclear Age
Going Solo
New Year, Old Cave
1/1: All Things End

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