“The Dead Past,” Isaac Asimov, 1956 – Arnold Potterley, PhD, a historian of Carthage, begs to be allowed to use the government’s chronoscope in order to clear the name of Carthage; specifically, he wishes to prove to his wife that the Carthaginians did not sacrifice children to Moloch. Ever since the death of their daughter, Laurel, his wife has been withdrawn, but upon learning of this alleged practice by the Carthaginians, she has fallen into a deep depression.
Potterley’s request is denied. Desperate, he accosts a new physicist at a faculty luncheon and enlists him in the cause, but the prospect of success is slim: In their heavily bureaucratized society, knowledge is compartmentalized and funding from the Research Commission is scarce. All research is “directed.” All grants are highly competitive and vetted for non-encroachment on other areas, which is considered unethical. The scientist, Jonas Foster, is able to acquire information and equipment only through the generosity of his uncle, Ralph Nimmo, a science writer who specializes in lending coherence and general interest to scientists’ research proposals.
Foster succeeds in building an illegal chronoscope, but its limits are quickly revealed–it has a range of 125 years or so, and beyond that, the data is unreliable and no picture is possible. Potterley refuses to believe it; the historical journals published by the authorities suggest chronoscopy has been used in many research projects on ancient civilizations. But Potterley’s wife is no longer interested in Carthage. She sweeps into the room and demands to see the image of her dead daughter. Potterley tries to explain that viewing Laurel, who can never age beyond childhood, will not be “real,” and will create a dangerous obsession. Later, in discussion with Foster, it’s revealed that Potterley has another reason for preventing his wife from looking–it may have been that the fire that killed his daughter when he was baby-sitting was caused by his cigarette.
Their activities are discovered by the government and an official, Araman, detains them. Araman explains that the public must think of the past as “the dead past,” and this is the reason for the hoax involving research into ancient civilizations. If the public thought it had access to “the past,” the concept would become confused. “Now you three know a century or a little more is the limit, so what does the past mean to you? Your youth. Your first girl. Your dead mother. Twenty yeas ago. Thirty years ago. Fifty years ago. The deader the better. But when does the past really begin?” Even worse, this past is too close to the present, and it could be abused. Araman explains that for some, the dead past is just another name for “the living present,” and being able to focus in on the past a few seconds ago will lead to “damnation.” After satisfying their need to look at the dead, people will begin spying on their neighbors, family members, and competitors. Privacy will end. Araman knows this must be prevented and seems to intend to kill them. But Nimmo has taken precautions: He’s already sent the details for the plans to several news outlets. Araman congratulates him on the new “goldfish bowl” world he has created.
Comments: Read in 6 Decades: The Best of Analog Science Fiction Science Fact, introduction by Stanley Schmidt. Also read in Five-Odd. Themes include privacy, surveillance, scientific ethics, memory, curiosity, knowledge, specialization, interdisciplinary research, perception, senses, and authenticity. Twist on the conventional dystopia, as the government was there to help.
Author: Wikipedia: “Isaac Asimov…(January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992) was a Russian American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards…Asimov is widely considered a master of hard science fiction and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, he was considered one of the ‘Big Three’ science fiction writers during his lifetime.”