A parable about change

When do we see change happening?

I’d like to misuse a classic science fiction story as a kind of parable.  See what you think.

In 1948 William Tenn published  “Brooklyn Project”, a time travel tale.  In it a dystopian government launches a probe far into the past, to “various periods ranging from fifteen thousand years to four billion years ago.”  The government claims the physical presence of the “photographic and recording device” won’t alter subsequent reality, as the machine will only observe, not interact with anything.  In reality…

“Brooklyn Project” is akin to Ray Bradbury’s greater and more famous “A Sound of Thunder” (1952), but offers a different political emphasis. (In a way Tenn’s story starts where Bradbury’s ends.)

William Tenn, "Brooklyn Project" first page

From its first appearance in Planet Stories, fall 1948.

So: the probe launches itself into the past, then returns to the present, only to fling itself back in time once more, for a total of twenty-five round trips.  With each voyage the story’s present changes.  Its setting, a metallic room, becomes wooden, and has always been so.  Then the Earth has two moons, and has always had the pair.  Next, English disappears as a language, as the government official “had been stating his thoughts by slapping one pseudopod against the other–as he always had…”  And so on.

At the sequence’s end, the present has changed utterly.  The government official concludes his remarks in words that would have made little sense to the present from which the story began:

“–we are indeed ready for refraction. And that, I tell you, is good enough for those who billow and those who snap. But those who billow will be proven wrong as always, for in the snapping is the rolling and in the rolling is only truth. There need be no change merely because of a sodden cilium. The apparatus has rested at last in the fractional conveyance; shall we view it subtly?”

More drastically, human biology has become something completely different, thanks to the time machine’s repeated incursions:

[T]heir bloated purple bodies dissolved into liquid and flowed up and around to the apparatus. When they reached its four squared blocks, now no longer shrilling mechanically, they rose, solidified, and regained their slime-washed forms.

And the state official concludes, “extend[ing] fifteen purple blobs triumphantly. ‘Nothing has changed!'”

What this says about how we view change in the real world is left as an exercise for the reader.

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