by Ádám Gerencsér
Singapore Straits Times – 1st July 1947
Readers with any interest in current affairs will scarcely need reminding that today is the first anniversary of the appearance of those strange phenomena that marked the gradual unravelling of time as a constant and steadfast quantity, the steady progression of which all previous generations could rely on so safely as to take it for granted. This view is now considered obsolete, and rightly so, but it bears repeating how nigh impossible that would have seemed just over a year ago. Over the course of the past twelve months, thanks to the rapid advances of modern science and skilful observations made by vessels of the Royal Navy, we have gained a better understanding of the new role that the International Date Line has come to play.
I have taken the liberty to compose this recollection and offer it to our esteemed editor on account of my rather immediate proximity to the longitude in question. Not only as correspondent of the Straits Times in the Crown Colony of Fiji, documenting both momentous and provincial events as they unfold, but also as a simple resident who experiences daily the disturbing effects that still have the ability to startle as much as they did at their initial onset.
It started on the 1st of July 1946 (or the 30th of June, depending on one’s whereabouts) east of the Marshall Islands and gradually spread north and south thereof, fanning out like elongated ripples along the date meridian. Within a brief period that could not have taken more than a week, or two at the most, we found ourselves confronted with a novel and hitherto unimaginable reality: anyone crossing the international date line roughly along the 180° longitude eastwards no longer cuts across a mere imaginary division, but finds himself an additional day further in the past, or rather, on a past incarnation of the Earth that is now independent of the present. The traveller may than engage in any form of interaction with the inhabitants of that past world, a Yesterearth so to speak, without perturbing in any way the future time he had left behind. After interfering with the events on the other side of the date line, one may return to the present by simply retracing his journey and realise that nothing has changed on account of their actions, other than the fact that time has moved on during their absence. On their subsequent visit to the world of two days past, however, they will notice that their interlocutors remember them well enough and any seeds of future consequence they had planted there have come to fruition.
A world map based on Mercator’s projection distorts the proportions of the surface areas of the continents, by making landmasses at extreme southerly and northerly latitudes, such as Antarctica or Greenland, appear much larger than their actual size would merit compared, for instance, with Africa. So, when we wish to achieve a more proportional representation, we divide the map into equidistant segments that are thicker towards the Equator and thinner at the poles, as if peeling the skin off an orange, and lay it out flat. Our hypothetical map now stretches from Alaska in the West to Siberia in the East, and we know that, just as the gaps between segments of the Earth’s ‘skin’ are imaginary, the edge of the map is no true boundary, but in fact loops around and connects to the opposite end. Thus, in the world as we had known it until 1946, it was not possible to stray off the map of the globe, since a resolute straight line would take one around in circles, returning to the self-same point with each circumnavigation.
That, alas, is no longer the case. Beyond the eastern margin of our map lies the western edge of someone else’s. Of course, in a manner of speaking, our world is still round, and we may be so bold as to argue with some conviction that our present time is unique and one of a kind. For it has become evidently clear that while ships and aeroplanes making their way over the surface of all preceding Earths may travel both backwards by crossing the dateline eastwards and also forward in our direction by traversing the same line due west, the same is not true for vessels in our time. We can regress by two days on the passage from Suva to Samoa, but we may not proceed into our future, as it were, giving us the impression that we stand at the pinnacle of time’s arrow. That is to say, the future is not yet existent, or certainly not accessible, until we unlock it day by day as we stride forward in tune with our calendars.
Being first among equals (and some in the colonial administration would indeed dispute even that proposition), our position brings great opportunities, but also imposes significant responsibility upon our statesmen. The lives of nations and empires now unfold in an entirely separate manner on all contiguous Earths, and the next general election back in the British Isles, to be held in 1950, might yield wildly different results in our continuity compared to the Earth of the day before yesterday. It is therefore eminently possible that the cabinet of our Empire might find itself at loggerheads with the British government elected in our immediate temporal neighbourhood. In fact, His Majesty of today might disagree with policies that are received approvingly by His Majesty of two days ago. The fact is that the political realities of life in the Dominion will inevitably develop very differently across every successive Earth each two further days down the line.
Your correspondent here admits to having made an involuntary, yet naïve attempt at bridging the date meridian and exploring some of the strangeness of the most immediate past just east of his stationment. In the spring I had received a telegraph dispatched by my former self from the world of two days ago. It had been transmitted to Samoa, which by itself was no mean feat, as communications across the Pacific have become impossible lest one was interested in sending messages across time. Telegraphs and mail to one’s contemporaries from an island west of the date line to another speck of dry land just east thereof have to ferry westwards around the entire globe, rendering a journey that formerly took less than a day into a voyage of Magellanic proportions. It is therefore incomparably easier to reach the French Polynesia of the day before than that of today. Laborious as it may be, the telegraph drafted by the man who is my equivalent in the neighbouring past was delivered by the post boat that makes the weekly crossing from Samoa. Without indulging in the tedious details of our exchange, which was hampered by delays caused by both dimensions of time and space, suffice it to say that our correspondence was short-lived and we finally agreed never to meet in person, but to live out our respective lives to the best of our conscience and abilities.
Not all contact is, however, this consensual. One hears all kinds of anecdote around the archipelago and beyond: of people trying to find their near-contemporary selves and bring them back voluntarily or otherwise to share their work or exchange places with them, of investors travelling back and forth with the intention of effecting parallel financial transactions and reaping the same profits several times, or of bereaved families striving to find their loved ones killed in accidents on a previous Earth where the same accident has not yet occurred and might never happen. The world market in commodities and resources has become confusing and at times almost untenable, and prices across near-past worlds may fluctuate in an unsustainable manner due to a potentially inexhaustible supply of material from across the datelines, while for the same reason scarcity may beset another globe. It is not unthinkable that in the future, some catastrophe or another great war could send millions of refugees fleeing to the next available future or past Earth.
On an encouraging note, one must not forget that there are those enterprising spirits who see Yesterearth’s developments as the opening of a new, endless horizon, the gateway to the exploration of the past – and not just one, but countless possible pasts. As far as we can ascertain, endeavours to traverse a long succession of datelines near the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, where distances are smaller but travel is unhindered by excessively cold climate, are limited only by the durability of the mode of transportation, the ability to procure fuel and, ultimately, by the life span of the traveller. We can only hope that our relative advantage of chronological primacy shields us from the worst excesses of the chaotic insecurity that must eventually arise on Earths further in the past, which are flanked on both sides by another world each two days ahead or behind them. Although news of full scale inter-temporal war have yet to be reported from anywhere, it is not inconceivable that one day the menacing powers of barbaric despotism and fascist banditry, which the valiant Allies so gallantly fought to defeat in this our last Great War, rear their ugly heads from the depths of the past and gather enough tenacity to conquer hundreds of planets up the chain to the present day, growing in strength and ferocity with each new acquisition. Should that day come, we do hope that our past compatriots would send warnings across the dateline well in advance, fully trusting in the brotherhood of free nations holding together steadfast even across several zones of time. And rest assured that the Royal Navy would be first to do its duty in the defence of Singapore, Malaya and the Crown Colonies dispersed throughout the East – whether in our time or that of Yesterearth. For we will surely not hesitate to deliver a pre-emptive strike across the meridian, for King and country, should a menace arise from the Pacific of a bygone day!