Most time travellers, when they decide to change history for the better, opt to kill Hitler or tweak the American Civil War. This story goes a bit further than that. Sherman, the protagonist, concludes that he should convince Aristotle to advocate the scientific method and empirical testing. Not only would the technology level of Ancient Greece and Rome be enhanced, but his influence over subsequent scientific development might be rectified:
However, Aristotle tried to cover so much ground, and accepted so many fables as facts that he did much harm to science as well as good. For, when a man of such colossal intellect goes wrong, he carries with him whole generations of weaker minds who cite him as an infallible authority. Like his colleagues, Aristotle never appreciated the need for constant verification. Thus, though he was married twice, he said that men have more teeth than women. He never thought to ask either of his wives to open her mouth for a count. He never grasped the need for invention and experiment.
Now, if I could catch Aristotle at the right period of his career, perhaps I could give him a push in the right direction.
Handily, Sherman has just finished building a time machine. Even more handily, his project’s just about to be shut down and he feels he has nothing to lose. Off he goes to the past, to the period when Aristotle was teaching the young Alexander the Great; the best time, he feels, to pass himself off as a foreigner.
What follows is Sherman’s time with Aristotle. At first the two hit it off; Sherman is passing himself off as a philosopher from India, and answers all of Aristotle’s questions about whether elephants and rhinoceros exist. But over the next few weeks Aristotle is shown doubtful of the scientific wonders described to him, and one of Alexander’s attendants starts to believe Sherman is a foreign spy. The expedition ends badly, and when Sherman returns to his own time he finds it has changed far worse than he could have imagined.
An excellent story with a powerful ending.
Aristotle and the Gun by L. Sprague de Camp
Availability: print only
Word count: 13,800
First published: Astounding Science Fiction, Feb 1958
Where to find it: Modern Classics of Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, 1993, St Martin’s Press
Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History, edited by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt, 1998, Del Rey / Ballantine
Aristotle and the Gun and other stories, collection, 2002, Five Star
Years in the Making: The Time Travel Stories of L. Sprague de Camp, collection, 2005, NESFA Press
Futures Past, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, 2006, Ace