The Offensive Qualities of Time Travel

In one of the weirder news items of the week, the People’s Republic of China has banned science fiction shows depicting time travel. Why? Here’s the Times’ summary of the decision:

The State Administration for Radio, Film & Television said that TV dramas that involve characters traveling back in time “lack positive thoughts and meaning.” The guidelines discouraging this type of show said that some “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”

We’ve written before about science fiction’s moral authority, and petty anti-pluralist tyrants’ tendencies to — like Jonah Goldberg — dislike or misunderstand its ability to review modernity from a distance. I expect that similar fears are at work here. The well-executed time travel plot is a handy way to inflect ancient and settled moral disputes back onto complicated, modern problems. And the results may not be something the PRC would enjoy.

(By the caveat “well-executed,” I exclude things like Star Trek IV and the Starling episodes of Star Trek: Voyager which, while nonetheless fun, contain no deep moral truths. I also exclude the simply terrible season four opener to Enterprise, which punctuated two good seasons with the type of dreck normally serves for seasons one and two. Let’s never speak of that again.)

For example, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book puts a modern historian in the English countryside at the advent of the Black Death, to examine how we react to crisis. The results aren’t pretty. An aristocratic party accidentally brings the plague to the countryside and, when the symptoms manifest in one of the party’s members, they leave, abandoning him to die and infect the surrounding middle-class village. Everyone dies, in a timeless tale of rich exploiting poor.

Though not a classic time travel story, Iain Pears’ Dream of Scipio links together three narratives spanning the millennia, all converging in Provence, France. In the “first” story, a Roman philosopher and aristocrat, the last of his kind, abandons the trappings of philosophy and takes the cloth. As the new Bishop of Provence, the invading barbarians, bound to respect his ecclesiastical authority, spare Manlius, his estates, and more importantly, the many Roman families that depended on his protection. But the price is staggering. Manlius must renounce and condemn the old philosophy — functionally ending Roman civilization to preserve her civilians — and to cement his authority, denounce and dehumanize the Jews of Provence. In the novel’s “third” story, 1300 years later, Hitler’s invading armies use Manlius’ writings (unaware of their context) to justify the Holocaust in Provence. Actions have consequences… even unintended ones. The arc of history is long.

And then there’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Res ipsa loquitor.

Then again, maybe the problem is that rewriting origin stories are subversive. I imagine that Stargate would have been banned in pharaonic Egypt. Either way, you can tell a thing’s value by its enemies. Science fiction is a valuable moral lens, and China wants no such thing.

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5 comments

  1. That’s all well and good, except two problems: The original notice doesn’t actually mention a ban on anything – and it would have if that was what they intended, trust me – nor does there seem to be anything specifically about time travel in there.

    Although my Chinese is not the best, what I think it does say is that SARFT has “received reports” in recent months of 不正确的创作, “incorrect creative works”, including 神怪剧, which are roughly “plays/shows involving demons”, and 随意编纂神话故事, which could be something like “willful compilations of myths”. I don’t know. No time travel, anyway, which would be 時空旅行.

    Nor does it seem convincing, as the article suggests, that it’s directed against specific shows like Palace. Because, again, if SARFT thought that a particular show was a problem, they probably wouldn’t release a vague and oddly-worded notice about it and hope the producers figured it out on their own. They’d ban or at least censor it.

  2. “All but ban,” true, but “ban” is MORE EXCITING.

    Also, you can read Chinese? Jesus. And you’re better at it than the NYTimes? Damn, son.

  3. Not very well, no, but I have a good dictionary.

    And yeah, I figured the way things are going, someone had better learn to talk to these people.

    It’s no more difficult than most other languages, actually, once you get the hang of it. The hard part is the characters and of course that the word sound like nothing you’ve heard before, but the grammar OTOH is delightfully simple.

  4. Loquitur?

  5. MarshallDog · ·

    Hail Xenu, that I am not the only one who thinks Star Trek 4 was poorly executed. I never uderstood why they had to go back in time, versus just going to the Klingon homeworld and finding humpback whales with bumpier foreheads and bringing them to Earth. And in Star Trek 8, the Borg seriously blew their chance by going all the way to Earth before using the time portal. And if they knew how to do it, why didn’t they just try again when Picard wasn’t around? And don’t get me started on Enterprise. Nazi aliens? WTF? Anyway, what were we talking about again?

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