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If I recall correctly, the first time I've read about the idea of the reality-present self-healing after time traveling to the past was in "The Ugly Little Boy" (Isaac Asimov, 1958) where someone tells that if you bring someone from the past to the present, instead of a chain of events that would alter the present, the reality would try to self heal and the present would remain unaltered unless you make a big change in the past.

A more extreme version of this idea is in the Time Machine (2002 movie) where the time traveler can't change the fact that his lover died when returning to the past, because that would create a paradox that it would eliminate the motivation for him to create the time machine. I haven't read the original novel of this movie (H.G. Wells 1895) so I don't know if the idea in the novel it's the same.

And I know I've seen an anime recently which featured the same idea in Asimov's way, but I don't remember the name now.

My question is, which was the first sci-fi story to feature this idea? Which was the first sci-fi story featuring time travelling where reality - the present self-heals?

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    "self-healing itself" — I think you can just say "self-healing". It's difficult to self-heal something else. Jan 13 at 16:36
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    '—All You Zombies—' or as I sometimes think of it, I'm my own granpa. Jan 13 at 23:58
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    For the record, the Time Machine novel has no plot element about a dead lover, or anything involving any paradoxes; the time traveller simply goes straight to the future to see what he can see.
    – jwodder
    Jan 14 at 1:10
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    @jwodder just as further information, the novel was vehicle for a political commentary on the part of Wells. It was the future of capitalism taken to the extreme - the Eloi are the decadent consumerist upper class, while the Molochs are the lower worker class.
    – VLAZ
    Jan 14 at 7:09
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    @jwodder - a train-wreck of a Wells/Time Traveller movie is the 1979 Time After Time in which the Time Traveller (who is HG Wells) arrives in 1979 California in pursuit of Jack the Ripper who borrowed the TM for a one-way journey to escape the 1895 London police. He meets and falls in love with Mary Steenburgen (who works in a bank) and - long story short - takes her back with him to 1895 where they marry. I was sort of hoping he sent her to stay in Weybridge just before the first Martian cylinder landed, to die by the heat ray, but it seems she died in 1927. So no Wells the serial lover? Jan 14 at 18:31
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Hindsight by Jack Williamson from 1940 is the earliest I can recall.

The story is mostly about a war fought against space pirates in the asteroids, but it involves a machine that can view and influence the past.

At the end, the main character argues that while you can change details, there are (more or less) fixed nodes in time that you can't change.

In the story, the "fixed node" was the destruction of the pirate fleet.

The main character determines how the fleet was beaten, and changes the past to fix it. Despite that, the fleet is still destroyed - by a different cause. The destruction of the fleet is a given, always. Only the details change.

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  • I guess he wrote this before the "butterfly effect" became common knowledge.
    – Barmar
    Jan 15 at 16:51
  • Dr Who seems to have picked up on the same concept, with "fixed points" in time. It's actually an interesting and somewhat more nuanced way to look at moving around in 4D spacetime -- just as we have heavy or otherwise hard to move objects in 3D, conceptually why wouldn't there be similar "objects" in 4D or higher spacetime? Jan 16 at 9:26
  • @Barmar for me it's a common myth
    – o0'.
    Jan 16 at 16:48
  • Regarding the "butterfly effect" as fact vs myth, consider that although a butterfly might be able to affect the location of hurricanes the following year, it won't be able to do much about the rotation rate of the earth. Not everything in nature is chaotic (or at least, the time scales for change can vary by orders of magnitude). The degree to which human events are chaotic is of course up to interpretation, since it's hard to get good data on it. Jan 17 at 6:21
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Just slightly earlier than Asimov's The End of Eternity (August 1955) is Poul Anderson's "Time Patrol" (May 1955).

"You see, it's rather as if the continuum were a mesh of tough rubber bands. It isn't easy to distort it, the tendency is always for it to snap back to its, uh, 'former' shape. One individual insectivore doesn't matter, it's the total genetic pool of their species which led to man.

"Likewise, if I killed a sheep in the Middle Ages, I wouldn't wipe out all its later descendants, maybe all the sheep there were by 1940. Rather, those would still be there, unchanged down to their very genes in spite of a different ancestry — because over so long a period of time, all the sheep, or men, are descendants of all the earlier sheep or men. Compensation, don't you see; somewhere along the line, some other ancestor supplies the genes you thought you had eliminated.

"In the same way... oh, suppose I went back and prevented Booth from killing Lincoln. Unless I took very elaborate precautions, it would probably happen that someone else did the shooting and Booth got blamed anyway.

"That resilience of time is the reason travel is permitted at all. If you want to change things, you have to go about it just right and work very hard, usually."

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  • I was thinking of Bester's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" but the Anderson story has the benefit of being earlier. Jan 13 at 20:36
  • Not sure if this is the answer or it's the other post's "The End of Eternity". This last story was published later than "Time Patrol" but apparently finished before.
    – Pablo
    Jan 14 at 12:32
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A little bit later, but perhaps a purer example of the trope, is Fritz Leiber’s 1958 short story “Try and Change the Past”, part of his Change War series. The protagonist makes repeated attempts to save his own life, but gives up when his earlier self is hit by a meteorite. It’s online here.

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In Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955), Eternity is an organization that exists ostensibly to trade between different times on Earth, but covertly changes history to promote the welfare of humanity as a whole. The time stream tends to heal itself, so changes tend to fade away. For example, most of the same people are born after a change is instituted, even though we know that making a tiny change in the act of conception would lead to embryos developing from different sperm. Physicists these days do not think time would heal itself, incidentally; as The Butterfly Effect suggests, the slight changes can result in increasing differences over time. This reality is inconvenient for fiction about time travel, however, so Asimov found a way around it: "self-healing" of the time stream.

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    A really great book, mind blowing in lots of ways. However if I remember correcly, time doesn't really heals itself in it. I don't want to spoil the plot, and I would need to re-read it, one of my special abilities is to forget book ends!
    – Kaddath
    Jan 14 at 13:20
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    It's been a couple years since I last read End of Eternity, but I don't remember anything about time healing itself in it. Specific quotes would help! Jan 14 at 13:48
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    If I recall correctly, the very begining of the book covers a technician changing the position of an object in a shelf so that, centuries later, space travel would not exist. That was made on purpose, by the way.
    – rafa11111
    Jan 14 at 18:04
  • Added an example from memory. I recall Asimov writing of "finding alternate parents" for people, and the protagonist being shocked that his girlfriend simply disappeared after a change to the time line. Jan 14 at 22:02
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    @InvisibleTrihedron: The problem with Noÿs was that she shouldn't even have existed in the time line she was in. She came from a far future that had rediscovered time travel - and also that the time line she came from was very low probability and could only exist as a result of some one tampering with the "natural" course of events. Changing the current timeline would produce a timeline much like the current one. The computers couldn't predict Noÿs in the modified time lines because she wasn't a product of the existing time lines.
    – JRE
    Jan 15 at 9:30
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If you broaden your definitions of science fiction and time-travel, you're basically describing the long-established literary trope of the "self-fulfilling prophecy." The classic example is Oedipus Rex (performed around 429 B.C.) wherein attempts to change fate actually results in the predicted outcome. A "self-healing timeline" is nothing more than the principle of Fate applied on timeline that twists, loops, or forks.

Reliable prophesy is informational time-travel (just as many time-loop time travel stories do not actually deal in corporeal or bodily time travel, but informational time-travel in the form of consciousness). If the rules of the magic are predictable and repeatable they may constitute science fiction. So any story with a known but unavoidable Fate basically answers the question.

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    No, "you can't change the past" is qualitatively different from "you can change the past, but it won't change the present." Besides, we just covered that last week.
    – DavidW
    Jan 13 at 18:02
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    @DavidW You mean we covered that "next week"? Jan 13 at 19:31
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    @DavidTonhofer We were have been going to have had that covered next week. :)
    – DavidW
    Jan 13 at 19:39
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    Didn't I once read a short story by Asimov where a group of present-day human scientists decide to see if altering the past changes the present, and they make a series of past-alterations, and each time things change in the present but they don't notice? I think it ends up with the team leader ruffling his fine feathers and stroking his beak triumphantly, and they are all saying things like "Awwk Qrzzzt Smmpspddff!" Jan 13 at 21:01
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    @MichaelHarvey I believe there are at least 2 like that, one where they say something like "and we still have 6 tentacles, like we've always had" and the other where they go from scientists with an advanced AI to shamans/witch doctors with a magic speaking copper mask. I'd have to dig for the names though.
    – DavidW
    Jan 14 at 2:15
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This is the very subject of Damon Knight's Anachron, published in 1953/4. There is a discussion of the story at Seeking story about time travel used to steal from the future

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  • Whilst that may be true a work of 1940 has already been given and we’re looking for the earliest work here. As such I really feel this is more of a comment as it isn’t earlier.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Jan 15 at 21:41

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