Posted by: danzierlea | November 12, 2012

Who Needs Time Travel?

I wrote this over the summer, at some point when I didn’t have internet access to post something long, and now I am finally posting it. I do not apologize for calling certain people dumb shits. Also, I love time travel ideas and putzing with things better left alone. But this is important.


Holly [Holly Lisle, of ] wrote a post – a reader interview question – that asked, in a thousand years, what do you see as the greatest human achievement?

And of course a bunch of dumb shits posted crap about enforced peace and no people and such. This pissed Holly off. [Me too.]

My post kind of sucked. I was posting on my phone, which is a bad idea, and I missed the focus of the question too. I thought I was commenting on the unhappy tone of the comments, but it reads badly, and then my joking “ability to understand the language” didn’t read as a joke.

I’ve thought about it some more and come to a couple of surprising conclusions.

First, there’s trouble with the phrase, “Greatest Human Achievement”.

Because, Human isn’t a number, it’s a mass. It’s a group. And group achievements are usually half what they could have been.

Greatest is another thing—what to call great? What do I, the person judging a list of achievements, decide is great, and what’s mediocre, or lame, or nifty but not quite the pinnacle of humanity’s last thousand years of travail? It has to be something I think is great. I find greatness in a lot of things, and they’re usually places where someone’s looked at a problem and flipped it on its head to solve it, and I grin at the ingenuity of the solution. Things that make peoples’ lives better in a one-on-one style—like water filters and air conditioning—are marvels. So what is my measure of greatness?

Greatness, I think, is something of a ratio. The ratio of the size of the grain of rice tipping the scale to the size of the scale being tipped. Well, not really quite that. But it’s like this. Suppose, in a moment of good humor, I tip a waitress by hiding dollar bills under all the dishes on the table. Suppose this makes her laugh after work, and suppose that makes her more relaxed, and suppose that makes her able to react better as she’s driving home, and suppose that makes her stop at a red light instead of running it, and suppose that she therefore doesn’t t-bone a tourist, and suppose that tourist who has unsuspectingly not been turned into mincemeat goes on their merry way to the airshow, and while there, figures out how to revitalize the airline industry, which when implemented, allows a kid (now two) to figure out how to make interstellar travel in-solar-system possible for the common folk, and suppose on the first flight two rich young people meet and have coffee and end up married and their kid figures out how to make the best blueberry pie in history by growing the blueberries in space.

What’s the great part—the tip, the happiness, the saved lives, the revitalized industry, the space travel, the lovers’ union, pie, or space blueberries?

Well, it’s my call, and I say it’s the tip.


Because I did something, on purpose, to make someone’s day better. I put a smidgeon of effort into getting the ghost of a smile from some other human. One-on-one life improvement.

I don’t want to go a thousand years into the future to hunt down greatness. It’s a lost cause, to me. I want to go ten years into the future and be able to track it back, one good thing at a time, to now. I want to look at my kid and see a teenager who is responsible and happy and well-adjusted and not about to flush her life away for the first guy with a smile. I want to look at my life and see a cascade of tiny good events, one rice grain after another, leading back to now and one good choice.

A hundred thousand tiny shifts towards something better, one little thing at a time, will produce something great. I don’t know what. Maybe it’s space blueberry pie. Maybe it’s two lovers on a spaceship. Maybe it’s air travel that doesn’t involve voluntary molestation.

Or maybe it’s a waitress, smiling at the end of a long day, as she finds twenty dollars’ worth of tip hidden on the table she’s clearing, in a country I’ve never been to and never plan to visit.

So there’s greatness, right? Well, now we get to the real heart of the question. In a thousand years, after innumerable acts of greatness and hellraising, look at humanity and say, this, this here? That’s what makes humanity worth saving, celebrating, and improving.

In the book “Q&A” by Keith R. A. DeCandido, the author does just that, and gives the answer to Q at the end: “What worried me most was that the fate of the universe rested in the hands of the stuffiest human being in the history of the galaxy finding out that he has a sense of humor.” According to DeCandido, the quality that makes all the great and nifty and wowing stuff worth it is the ability to laugh.

I’m not sure he’s right—but I’m not sure he’s wrong, either. I think there’s more to it than just that wild maniacal giggling in the face of terror, or of insanity, or of a banana cream pie. I think…. the ability to laugh is great. But the ability to consciously choose to bring happiness, laughter, and joy to another person is even better. Laughing alone is sad. Laughing with others is contagious.

After all this, here at last is my answer to Holly’s question: In a thousand years, if I can get off a time machine and watch a human do something on purpose that makes another human happy without hurting anyone in the process or being forced into it, then there is that greatest achievement. The single act of bringing joy, the knowledge of its necessity, and the willingness to do so without coercion—that is the greatest of human achievements.

And the greatest part is, I can see that today. I can do that today. Who needs time travel?


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