A few notes on James Gleick’s time-travel book (in lieu of a review)


James Gleick is the most elegant of companions. His tours take you places you probably wouldn’t have thought were related, much as James Burke did in his television series Connections. In Time Travel, his most recent book, Gleick comes to grips with time, our scientific understanding of it, our view of history, and our cultural fascination with ways of moving through time, whether in memory or through science fiction. Guests on the itinerary include H. G. Wells and Hugo Gernsback, Isaac Asimov and Kingsley Amis, Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein, Robert Heinlein and David Foster Wallace, E. M. Forster and Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino, Kurt Gödel and Lee Smolin. The subjects include time travel itself and time capsules and time messaging, clocks and determinism and alternative histories. (Maria Popova, in her post on the book, calls it “a most exquisitely annotated compendium of the body of time literature.” Popova neglects to mention that she’s named in Gleick’s acknowledgments and presumably shaped the discussion, and as usual all of her links lead only to other entries on her own site, but her post is a thorough and enjoyable celebration of Gleick’s book.) It’s both informative and fun, yet it feels a little diffuse, as if all these ideas are more familiar and more clearly connected than in some of Gleick’s other books but yield less readily to new insights.

Gleick traces our current consciousness of time and time travel to two main sources: science and literature. On the science side, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and work that followed it unfolded (among other things) the idea that we exist in a united set of dimensions called spacetime, in which there is no absolute, fixed reference point determining what “here” means or when “now” is. In literature, H. G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine let loose a trickle that became a flood, of stories in which people physically travel through time, not long before Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time established the past as a realm in which the mind might wander, or be suddenly transported, along the paths of memory. Gleick briefly connects these things to a new sense of time, a new understanding of history. Although he refers to discoveries in geology and to the theory of evolution, he never uses the term “historicism” and devotes only a few sentences to it, quoting historian Dorothy Ross’s definition: “the doctrine…that all events in historical time can be explained by prior events in historical time.”

Yet these developments, taken together, reshaped our view of time, change, and progress. They added up to a view in which the past was not simply a collection of disparate and unrelated elements but some sort of intelligible sequence in which things change over time for reasons that are assumed to exist even if they’re hard to elucidate or agree on. (I’m relying on decades-old memories of a few college lectures and would welcome a correction from more knowledgeable readers.) As Susan Sontag put it, this new view was “the history-mindedness that…transformed thinking in the nineteenth century.” With it arose the possibility of a certain kind of nostalgia, the kind that longs not merely to recall the past but that wants either to roll back the changes and recreate a better time or at least to preserve things as they are. This kind of nostalgia is what the editors of National Review were talking about when, in their first issue, they declared their intention “to stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” The historicist view, which connected us to the past, also connected us to what is still to come, so it shaped much of what we mean by science fiction or speculative fiction, the kind that extrapolates from our present to propose a conceivable future. In fact, as Sontag pointed out in the same essay (“AIDS and Its Metaphors”), future-mindedness became “the distinctive mental habit” of the 20th century.

Gleick touches on nostalgia, and throughout the book he discusses a fair amount of science fiction and other forms of fiction that play with time, which arose almost entirely after the end of the 19th century. But, apart from noting an outlier or two (such as Wuthering Heights), he basically sidesteps the background I just sketched. Gleick presents enough modern physics and philosophy that one may not miss it. Still, given that the full title of his book is Time Travel: A History, it wouldn’t have been out of place.

H. G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895. The fiction of time travel (and Gleick makes clear that the idea is almost certainly a fiction, in any practical sense) continues to find and explore new avenues. Time messaging—the sending of information, rather than persons, into the past—is one of them. Though the possibility arose before the 20th century, in James Clerk Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, and the idea was since employed in some obscure stories[1], it has flowered only recently, in work such as the “Blink” episode of the Doctor Who television show and William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral, both of which are discussed by Gleick. Yet another new avenue, which I can’t specify without giving something away, occurs in Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” published in 1998, as well as in the recent film based on it, called Arrival. But in a way, all of these stories are purely fanciful, which may present a problem. To put it schematically: some readers may think, Yes the stories are a kick, but we can’t really do any of that; others may reverse the order and think, Too bad we can’t really travel in time, but it’s great to imagine we could. John Lanchester leans toward the former position. Reviewing Time Travel in The New York Review of Books, he says near the end of his essay, “All this energy and brilliance, and yet we’re left feeling a little flat.” But time won’t leave us alone, and Lanchester’s conclusion does much to explain why we, like the physicists and the philosophers and the spinners of tales, can’t leave time alone:

Our time is more universal and more precise than ever, and we’re more than ever aware of the fact; it’s no wonder that we dream so much and think so fervently of ways in which time might be bent, stretched, reversed, made less unyielding and less unforgiving. All prisoners dream of freedom, perhaps never more so [than] when they know there isn’t, and will never be, any possibility of escape.

[Updates 6/28/17: I corrected a typo. For an excellent late review of Gleick’s book, see this essay by Timothy Kennett on the Los Angeles Review of Books site.]

[1] Time messaging is one among the vast range of ideas discussed in a book by Paul J. Nahin called Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction, now in its second edition. Nahin doesn’t discuss any of the broader subjects that Gleick takes up, but where time travel is concerned, if somebody thought of it and/or wrote a story about it, you can probably find it in Nahin’s book.


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