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Literature / The Dead Past

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There's the old saying, "Let the dead past bury its dead." long does a past have to be passed before it's dead?

First published in Astounding Science Fiction (April 1956 issue) by Isaac Asimov, this Science Fiction Novelette is about a physicist, historian, and writer who try to advance technology, and end up creating social upheaval.

Arnold Potterley, Ph.D., wants to use the Chronoscope to view the distant past, because he is a Professor of Ancient History. His specialty is Carthage, and the only way to get more information is through time-viewing (the purpose of the chronoscope). Thaddeus Araman, Department Head of the Division of Chronoscopy, is quite apologetic, but simply cannot currently accommodate his wishes.

Fuming about this, Potterley goes to find Jonas Foster, Ph.D., to convince him that neutrinics, the science underlying the chronoscope, is being deliberately suppressed by the government. Foster engages in clandestine research and designs a chronoscope that requires only the equipment available in a household workshop. Completing the homemade chronoscope is the climax, and characters start having and sharing revelations about the implications of the technology.

The Dead Past was adapted into episode 4 of Out of the Unknown, a television series in 1965. It has been anthologized over a dozen times, and Isaac Asimov would include it in nine of his collections, such as Earth is Room Enough (1957), The Best Of Isaac Asimov (1973), The Far Ends Of Time And Earth (1979), The Edge Of Tomorrow (1985), The Best Science Fiction Of Isaac Asimov (1986), Other Worlds Of Isaac Asimov (1987), and The Complete Stories, Volume 1 (1990).

Tropes present through Chronoscope viewing:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The largest change between current day and the "future" of this story is that scientific research has calcified into highly specialized fields, and only the world government approves research grants.
  • All for Nothing: In the end, Potterly gets his Chronoscope, but he cannot use it to study Carthage like he wished: the signal degrades the further back in time you go, to the point of uselessness by the time you look back a century or so, making Chronoscopic research of a civilization that has been dead for millennia impossible. That same issue means that Chronoscopes can be used to view images of what somebody did last night trivially, or events one millisecond ago.
    • Not only does it abolish privacy, it also allows people to relive the past. Since Potterly's three-year-old daughter died several years ago (part of why he has thrown himself into studying Carthage), his wife declares that Carthage can wait if she can watch her daughter alive. With the Chronoscope, everyone may warm themselves around their nostalgia, and ignore the future.
  • Benevolent Conspiracy: The government is secretly trying to prevent anyone from developing a device that can show the past. The protagonists disagree and not only develop such a device, but distribute the plans widely. A government agent then explains to them the reason for the ban: such a time-viewer could be used to spy on anyone, anywhere in current time. The widespread availability of such viewers means the effective end of personal privacy for the human race.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Played with in that it's not necessarily the government watching everyone, but the citizens. The government has been trying to prevent the study and creation of more past-viewing devices because the past starts with the present. If people have access to devices that can see anywhere in the world at any time, then privacy is gone. In this case, they are trying to stop Big Brother.
  • Can't Stop The Signal: The main characters release the information to several publicity outlets so it will become public, then learn why the government suppressed it. It can look at any place at any sufficiently recent time... which means there is no privacy, since there are no limitations on how close to the present it can look. The government knew about this before (it was their motivation for their draconian rules, the intent being to keep it out of the public's hands and unused), but once the protagonists invent a cheap and simple way to duplicate the technology and spread it widely, everyone can look at anyone at any time. The government even admits that their own agents have used it for indiscreet purposes.
  • Chronoscope: This story has a Chronoscope that was developed fifty years ago. The world government has been suppressing use of the device because "the past" can be as recent as one-hundredth of a second ago. Unfortunately, our protagonists invented a cheap and simple way to duplicate the technology, and shared it with others.
  • Catch-22 Dilemma: Potterley points out the circular reasoning behind Foster's rejection of neutrinics. It's not offered in schools because the field is useless. Neutrinics must be a useless field because otherwise it would be offered in schools. Potterley concludes that the dilemma means the world government is trying to suppress scientific research into neutrinos and past-viewing.
    Arnold Potterley: "It's not given because it's unimportant. And it's unimportant because it's not given."
  • Crippling Overspecialization: Nimmo used to give his nephew, Foster, lectures on how studying one specific field of science has made for a culture of narrow focus, praising the idea of being a science writer (like him), because it means you must learn a bit of everything. Foster's counter to this idea is that such specialization is needed to advance in a field, since there's too much to learn. The climax reveals that this overspecialization was a deliberate effort on the part of the world government to make suppressing certain fields easier.
  • Epigraph: The quote at the beginning of the story comes from a discussion between John W. Campbell and Isaac Asimov. This quote inspired the story.
    There's the old saying, "Let the dead past bury its dead." long does a past have to be passed before it's dead?
  • Excessive Mourning: Potterly's wife has been mourning their daughter since she died several years ago, and would use the Chronoscope to relive her past even if it means she'd waste away.
  • Exposition: The largest background information dump is describing how all scientific research has become part of the world government. It's framed as part of Foster's internal resistance to Potterley's "liberal" ideas of intellectual freedom. Other points of information are presented more subtly, by having one character explaining things to another character.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: Some descriptors for the main characters are used, but never very detailed and few rooms are described, or even named. The opening scene, specifically, presumably takes place in Director Araman's office, but it could just as easily be occuring in a hotel, given the details included.
  • Fictional Field of Science:
    • Neutrinics, the study and detection of neutrinos. During 1956, the particle was purely theoretical, a way to explain what happened to the law of conservation of mass and energy. Dr Asimov was inventing scientific-sounding nonsense to justify the Chronoscope and past-viewing.
    • Gravitics, the study of gravitational fields (also containing pseudo-gravitics, the study of artificial gravitational fields). Foster got his doctorate in an even narrower field, the study of how photons move in artificially generated gravity. Foster's expertise in this field gives him new insight into the unrelated neutrinics, allowing him to design a visual-only chronoscope using only the equipment available in a household workshop.
  • Foreshadowing: Potterley's distaste for cigarettes is a reference to his past; he may have left a lit cigarette that caused his house to burn down and kill his daughter.
  • Government Conspiracy: It turns out the government has a stranglehold on science in a massive conspiracy to prevent science from rediscovering an apparatus capable of looking into the past. It's also a deconstruction, because it turns out that this is for humanity's own good, as "the past" starts at about a second ago, and the device can see anywhere in the world, thus making privacy obsolete. The protagonists fail to realize this until after they've managed to publicize the technology far and wide.
    Araman: "Nobody knew anything, but you all just took it for granted that the government was stupidly bureaucratic, vicious, tyrannical, given to suppressing research for the hell of it. It never occurred to any of you that we were trying to protect mankind as best we could."
  • Homemade Inventions: Foster engaged in illegal research by applying his knowledge of light in artificially generated gravity fields to neutrinos, and conducted a few experiments. When he was done, he was able to design a past-viewing device from equipment that everyone has access to. A design that his uncle shared with almost everyone he knew.
  • Information Wants to Be Free: Director Araman's primary duty is to avert this trope, but Nimmo went ahead and distributed Foster's design for home-built chronoscopes to six different publishers early. Each of the publishers have probably sent it to other scientists to verify the information. The possibility of everyone having a one in their home is considered a virtual certainty.
  • Jack of All Trades: Nimmo, a science writer, is paid to edit and rewrite scientific articles to make them more easily understood by people who don't know the basic scientific principles behind the research. He says that trying to write his articles is an education in itself, giving him a bit of understanding in pretty much every field.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Nimmo is a science writer, and extols the virtues of such In-Universe. He takes the information from scientists, synthesizes it into a narrative, and creates explanations that non-specialized readers can follow. It affords him a broad basis of scientific understanding, rather than a narrow view. Isaac Asimov has shared that this is how he views himself, a Science writer more than a Science Fiction writer.
  • The Namesake:
    • During the resolution, Department Head Araman explains to Potterley, the historian, that the past begins in the present, making them the same thing, from the perspective of the Chronoscope.
      "The dead past is just another name for the living present. What if you focus the chronoscope in the past of one-hundredth of a second ago? Aren't you watching the present?"
    • The German title is "Das Chronoskop" and the Italian title is "Il cronoscopio". Both translations promote the time-viewing device to titular importance due to its impact on the story.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Thaddeus Araman, Department Head of the Division of Chronoscopy, is supposedly in charge of determining who gets access to the Chronoscope. In actuality, his job is to suppress access and knowledge of the technology, usually by making petitioners feel like they're on a waiting list to eventually make use of it, once all the higher-priority people have gotten their chance.
  • One World Order: At this point in the future, there's a single unified government that has taken over not only the national governments, but also the colleges and universities that teach and sponsor scientific research.
  • The Punishment Is the Crime: The government agents tracking down the protagonists for the crime of illegally building a time viewer arrive too late to stop them from spreading the secret. After explaining that they've just abolished privacy (since the viewer can be set to see any place at any time from a century ago to a split-second ago), the agents rescind the arrest and leave them all to live with the consequences.
  • Satire: Dr. Asimov takes the idea of an Obstructive Bureaucrat, creating a world where governments dictate scientific progress, and then takes it apart to see how it fails. The government is trying to preserve our way of life (rather than withholding the technology for selfish motives). The hyper-focus in narrow fields of study was supposed to prevent the advancement of certain fields (except an unrelated field was responsible for a huge leap forward in a suppressed field of study). The story ends with the suppressed technology getting worldwide publication, essentially proving that trying to suppress science will never work.
  • Spanner in the Works: The historian Potterley, unable to get permission to use the Chronoscope in order to view past events, convinces a young physicist to learn enough of the science to make his own. When he learns why the government had been trying to prevent Chronoscope study, it's too late; his fail-safes guaranteed the worldwide publication of a how-to guide on homemade Chronoscope construction, removing all privacy.
  • Villain Has a Point: The government agents trying to prevent the protagonists from learning the secret of viewing the past seem like a classic heavy-handed Government Conspiracy... until it turns out that they're simply trying to prevent privacy from being utterly destroyed by the dissemination of devices that can view any place at any past time from a century ago to a microsecond ago.
  • When It All Began:
    • Fifty years ago, Sterbinski and LaMarr published a scientific paper on the principles of neutrinics that explained the basis of the chronoscope and time-viewing in general. This began the government's efforts to conceal the information about the field. The main character, Arnold Potterley, is a historian desperate to prove his thesis about Carthage, and convinces a physicist who studied pseudo-gravitics to work on neutrinics and prove that the government is trying to hold back scientific advancement.
    • Potterley's desperation comes from an accidental fire that took the life of his daughter when she was three years old. He may have forgotten to stub out a cigarette before falling asleep, and he's displaced that blame to his study of Carthage. Their ancient enemies (Rome and Greece) would claim that Carthaginian citizens would sacrifice their children to Moloch by tossing them into a furnace.