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A Million People and a Thousand Places

I recently reviewed Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline. This sophomore novel from the founder of io9 was excellent. Like their first novel, Autonomous, it wove together science and technology, with social change and politics.

One of the main concerns of the time travelers in the book is what they name as the “Great Man” vs. “Collective Action” theories of time travel and social change.

According to the “Great Man” theory, key people and specific times are integral to the time line. Therefore, if one were to say, kill a young Adolf Hitler, one would sidestep the rise of German Nationalism and the Holocaust (or at least the worst of them). I think this idea might be found in the “fixed points” in Doctor Who. Certain times, people, and places, are integral to the way things currently are. Therefore, if one were somehow able to change a fixed point, the timeline would change in dramatic ways.

Those who espouse the collective action theory would argue that any significant changes to the timeline can only be achieved through broad social movements and gradual shifts in attitudes and behaviors. So if one were to kill young Hitler, all of the other factors leading to the Third Reich, etc. would still be in place, and history would more or less play out in the same way, granted with changes in the details. Perhaps certain events could be less or more severe. Events might happen later or earlier. Different people would be involved. But much like the toppling of a powerful autocrat without substantive multilateral change in a government or country, another, perhaps worse leader will take their place.

For me it seems pretty clear that the latter view is much closer to the way the world actually works, though the debate remains only a thought experiment as it relates to time travel obviously.

There is another angle on this discussion, however. While meaningful social and political change may only be achieved through changing the hearts and minds of many people and cultivating a community of action, as it turns out, each individual in that group is vitally important to the end result. Somehow, even though the many, many individuals in a particular movement may not be discernible as one looks back in time, each and every one is integral to the whole. Each is in a sense a “Great Man” within the collective.

Beth, one of the main characters in the novel, writes a paper on these two views. She encapsulates this new angle when she writes that “collective action means that when someone does something small or personal, their actions can change history too.”

The theme of the individual vs. the collective is central to Western culture, often emphasizing the former over the latter. It’s a theme that has certainly been central to my own life, as I became obsessed with Rush, whose early lyrics were initially heavily influenced by Ayn Rand but whose later lyrics were more interested in the tension of personal autonomy in the midst of loving community (more on that here). I think that it’s also been central to my religious life. I grew up in a religious milieu that was hyper-individualized, and I’ve spent the last ten years or so defining myself as “not that.”

There was a moment, then, in Rebecca Roanhorse’s Resistance Reborn, that I simply loved. Poe Dameron, who in many ways represents the classic, rugged, Western individualist, is giving a speech to the rag-tag group of Resistance supporters who are again on the run from the First Order. Then Poe Dameron, the guy who put his own ego above the safety of the Resistance,, tells his comrades that their fight is not about one person and one place but rather “a million people and a thousand places.”