It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Worst of Times: James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History

If it’s true, as Alain de Botton has written, that “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us,” then maybe this wasn’t the ideal moment for me to have read James Gleick’s latest book, Time Travel: A History. On the whole, though, I did have a good time.

There’s much to commend. Gleick guides us on a fascinating survey of cultural attitudes towards time and how those have changed over time. He also recaps key scientific ideas about the physics of time and its most intriguing philosophical conundrums—such as the question of whether it actually exists. And, as promised by the book’s title, Gleick covers examples of time travel as depicted in literature and film, with particular emphasis on genre classics and enduring time travel tropes.

But this isn’t really a history of time travel, in the sense of charting the idea from its inception to recent instances. Nor is it a cultural history that uses time travel to probe social anxieties and trends, though there is some of that. Instead, Gleick’s book is a potpourri. Ideas are presented in a sequence that some may call adventurous and others will deem haphazard; some of Gleick’s book and film discussions outstay their welcome; and perhaps most surprisingly for a largely expository work, the prose is deliberately stylized, with healthy doses of attitude and editorializing throughout.

Anyone who picks up Time Travel: A History will find quotes and witticisms galore, a plethora of absorbing historical footnotes and trenchant observations on humanity’s relationship with time. And yet they may also find themselves scratching their heads, or worse, skipping pages. There’s much intellectual fun to be had, but rather than a book-length rollercoaster ride, Time Travel is more like a succession of fourteen different rides, unified because they’re in the same theme park.

I’ve admired and appreciated Gleick’s work in the past, particularly his biographies Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992) and Isaac Newton (2003). I tackled Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) when I wasn’t ready for it, but the parts I remember left a favorable impression, and I plan to return to it someday. In light of these positive experiences, Time Travel is somewhat dimmed by its presentation, though chosen sections truly shine. But ultimately if, like me, you’re irresistibly drawn to discussions of time travel, is there even a remote chance you won’t give this book the time of day?


The Best of Times

While the fourteen chapters of Time Travel read as somewhat disparate essays on one overarching subject, Gleick does have two connective through-lines. Both of these ideas are clearly presented, well argued, and merit serious consideration.

The first, simply put, is that “Time travel is a fantasy of the modern era.” When does this “modern era” begin? Gleick’s book kicks off with a close look at the inaugural trip undertaken by H. G. Wells’ Time Traveler in The Time Machine (1895), and Gleick argues that this text provides a turning point. Some of the reasons for this include its popularization of time as the fourth dimension, its examination of the future in terms of entropy, and its crystallization in literary form of “time awareness,” which “in general was dim, by our sophisticated standards” before its publication. The idea is provocative, but Gleick has clearly thought through his premise, as demonstrated by the numerous examples and secondary arguments he adduces.

The book’s first two chapters, which I found riveting, are devoted to placing The Time Machine in its historical context, from both a literary and scientific standpoint. We encounter here engaging discussions and thought-provoking examples of “time awareness” before and after Wells. Delightful nuggets of information are sprinkled throughout, such as: “In 1879 the photographic stop-motion pioneer Eadweard Muybridge invented what he called a zoopraxiscope for projecting successive images to give the illusion of movement. They made visible an aspect of time never before seen.” Or the following: “In the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic, Kakudmi ascends to the heavens to meet Brahma and finds upon his return that epochs have passed and everyone he knew is dead. A similar fate befalls an ancient Japanese fisherman, Urashima Tarō—an inadvertent leap into the future by journeying far from home.” And one of my favorites: “William Shakespeare, whose imagination seemed limitless, who traveled freely to magical isles and enchanted forests, did not—could not—imagine different times. The past and present are all the same to Shakespeare: mechanical clocks strike the hour in Caesar’s Rome, and Cleopatra plays billiards.” That “could not” may strike a chord of undue fervor for some readers, but nevertheless this is compelling material.

The following chapter offers up even more mental cotton candy as it traces a variety of approaches to time travel in the pulp magazines from the 1920s through the 1940s. Again Gleick charms us with commentary on our shifting perceptions regarding time and its creative possibilities [*]. Up to this point, I was thoroughly engrossed. In Chapter Four there’s a somewhat clanging change of gears. Newton and Einstein take center stage, or at least the history of their ideas does. Successive chapters roam ever farther. We switch back to science fiction, with a particular emphasis on stories by Robert Heinlein; then we move on to Jorge Luis Borges; then Richard Taylor’s “fatalism” and Davis Foster Wallace’s deconstruction of Taylor’s argument. From there, it’s on to the second law of thermodynamics and the arrow of time; the appropriateness or lack thereof of metaphorical approaches to time such as claiming that it’s a river; the meaning of eternity and a lengthy commentary on Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity (1955); the phenomenon and inherent folly of time capsules; more science fiction and more philosophy; Kurt Gödel’s work on closed timelike curves, retrocausation, and Stephen Hawking’s chronology protection conjecture; quantum physics; the ultimate meaning of time; global communications and cyberspace; and at last a return to Wells and finally our “now.” Oh, and Proust and Doctor Who. Phew!

Keep in mind, I’ve left out about fifty-seven other subjects turned over by Gleick’s nimble socio-historical fingers, but the above list should give you a sense of the book’s enormous scope and often heady contents. This is a stunningly learned tour, though it doesn’t always wear its erudition lightly, and we’re not quite sure how the tour has been arranged. Fortunately, though, there’s that second connective element I alluded to earlier, which is Gleick’s emphasis on the fact that “Words represent things but the words are not the things. We know that but we can forget.” He makes sure we don’t, with reminders in practically every chapter, like this one: “Physics is made of mathematics and words, always words and mathematics. Whether the words represent ‘real’ entities is not always a productive question.” Or this one: “Not only are words slippery; the problem with using words to describe time is that words themselves are in time.” Or this one: “I have put quotation marks around those words because they are so problematic in themselves.” These recurring admonitions turn out to be very helpful.

Admittedly, it may sound like Gleick’s mantra could come across as trivial in the face of, say, reviewing Feynman’s work on the infinities resulting from the electron’s self-energy, but it’s a surprisingly effective grounding tool precisely at these abstruse times. He prevents us from getting caught up in technical details and reminds us to not take time travel, fictional or theoretical, too seriously.


The Worst of Times

Who is the intended audience of this book? Popular science buffs? Science fiction fans? Historians? Gleick geeks? Time travelers? All of the above? The question may seem small-minded, but I ask because the answer would shed light on what Gleick was ultimately hoping to achieve with his book; it’s a joyous, razzle-dazzle parade of shiny concepts regarding time, loosely assembled in the ways I described in the previous section, but was it supposed to be more?

Knowing Gleick’s intended audience or purpose would also help trying to divine the organizing principles behind his book. What are they? If the philosophy of time is important, why leave a discussion titled “What Is Time?” to the twelfth chapter? If it’s a “history” of time travel, why not develop it chronologically? If the focus is fiction, why dedicate standalone sections to science and philosophy and society? Of course, we might say this is an interdisciplinary history, seeking to integrate concepts from all manner of realms. If so, I daresay the book should have been longer, and more thorough. Readers lacking a physics background, for example, are likely to be confused by a number of concepts alluded to by Gleick, or even come away with fundamental misunderstandings, like the implied similarity of Wells’ unification of time and space (a superficial one) in The Time Machine with Einstein’s unification (a profound one) in the concept of spacetime as developed in the special theory of relativity.

Further, there’s that pesky question of florid style. Gleick’s turns of phrase are often simply dramatic riffs on quotes, but there’s also plenty of sentence fragments, hyperbole in the service of poetry (your mileage may vary, of course), and repetitions. “Time travel as described by Wells and his many heirs is everywhere now, but it does not exist. It cannot. In saying so, it occurs to me that I’m Filby.” Cute, but Gleick at best makes a case for time travel being implausible, and in fact illustrates how contemporary theoretical physics doesn’t rule it out. “Stories are like parasites finding a host,” Gleick writes. “In other words, memes. Arrows of the Zeitgeist.” If so, we might rightfully wonder if the same is true for this book, rendering Gleick little more than a pedagogic host to parasitic concepts like time travel. Writing about telepresence, he says, “Deep sea explorers and bomb squads can project themselves elsewhere—project their souls, their eyes and ears, while the body remains behind.” Their souls? Later, he muses that “Heaven was better in the good old days.” A few lines below that, he repeats, “Ah, the good old days.” Richard II makes a well-timed appearance, but repeating the same quote in a later chapter diminishes the effect.

Every so often the prose quiets down into a more standard mode of unfettered disquisition, but the transitions aren’t always smooth. And even then, we still get repetitions. Discussing Hugh Everett’s work in Chapter Seven, Gleick observes that “It has acquired a name, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, an acronym, MWI, and a considerable following.” In Chapter Twelve, he notes, “The many-worlds interpretation—MWI, to those in the know—is a fantastic piece of make-believe championed by some of the smartest physicists of our time.” To be fair, it was five chapters since he had mentioned the acronym, so maybe repeating it is useful; but doesn’t that beg the question of whether we really needed to know it in the first place?

Lastly—and this may be a result of the hyperbole—I feel like Gleick may on occasion be presenting opinions and interpretations with the rotundity of facts. In a footnote, Gleick says that “When he writes of Bob Wilson, ‘His was a mixed nature, half hustler, half philosopher,’ Heinlein is proudly describing himself.” Is there autobiographical evidence to back this up, or is this simply Gleick’s reading of Heinlein? Later he pulls the same stunt of attributing a character’s thoughts directly to their author with Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970): “‘This was the greatest possible adventure,’ Simon thinks, and you know that Finney thinks so, too.” Do we? When Gleick declares that “H. G. Wells already knew about entropy and heat death,” is he saying that Wells’ pioneering novel intuitively grasps the concepts of entropy and heat death, or that Wells actually had a technical background, self-taught or otherwise, in thermodynamics? I ask these questions not because I’m trying to nitpick, but because Gleick has genuinely piqued my curiosity.

Unfortunately, though his book contains hundreds of quotes, there are no source attributions, so it’s difficult to verify particulars or easily track down passages. There is a section titled “Sources and Further Reading,” but no distinction is made between sources and additional texts, and the quotes throughout the book contain no key connecting them with this appended bibliographical list. Frankly, I’m boggled by this.

But in the end, despite these objections, Gleick’s book is an accomplishment. He’s consistently up to the material he so exuberantly expounds, and while the parts may fail to cohere into a satisfying whole, the book is an elegant illustration of that old adage, “the times are changing, and we change with them”—even our notions regarding time itself.


Tripping On 

As mentioned, Gleick’s book contains a list of recommended reading, with many fantastic selections. I’d like to underscore one of his suggestions. Paul J. Nahin’s Time Machines (1993; second edition 1999) is an invaluable resource. Ted Chiang recommended it in 2009, describing it as “a pretty comprehensive survey of how time travel has been handled by philosophers, physicists, and fiction writers,” and I heartily agree. A few additional nonfiction books that have served me well over time (ouch) and are not captured in Gleick’s list: Rudy Rucker’s The Fourth Dimension (1984), John Gribbin’s In Search of the Edge of Time (1992), Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace (1994), Year Million edited by Damien Broderick (2008), Nick Huggett’s Everywhere and Everywhen: Adventures in Physics and Philosophy (2010), Stephen Hawking’s My Brief History (2013) and Kip Thorne’s The Science of Interstellar (2014). And a few fiction titles I’ve enjoyed recently, also not included: Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships (1995), Robert Silverberg’s Times Three (2011), Time Travel: Recent Trips edited by Paula Guran (2014) and As Time Goes By edited by Hank Davis (2015).

I’d love for readers to recommend their own favorite time travel literature below!


 [*] There are countless interesting time travel story variations—such as the use of time viewers, or the accumulation of time tourists at a particular historical event, or wars waged across time, or stories in which only a disembodied consciousness travels through time and inhabits an earlier body, etc.—that Gleick doesn’t get into. For an excellent historical overview, I recommend the entry on “Time Travel” in Brian Stableford’s Science Fact and Science Fiction (2006).

Time Travel: A History is available from Knopf Doubleday.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro writes fiction, of the non-tingler variety, and non-fiction, of the technicolor kind.


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