Time Travel: A History
At its most literary, the style of a work of cultural criticism mirrors its subject. The prose in Geoff Dyer’s masterful But Beautiful, for example, swings and croons like the jazz music the book celebrates. James Gleick’s latest work, Time Travel: A History, is a book about time travel that aspires to that very feat. Poets from one time and place are put in conversation with scientists from another; Plato, Einstein, Nabokov, Newton, Borges, Hugh Everett III, Joyce, and many others are frequently quoted in quick succession. At its best, it is a whirling polymathic joy ride. At its worst, it is a lurching aggregator that produces the kind of queasiness H.G. Wells’s Time Traveller felt whenever he pulled the lever in his time machine “like one has on a switchback—of a helpless headlong motion!” The book’s flaws, however, do not overwhelm its delights or its central virtue. It’s a work of history that, in its attempt to buck chronology, dissolves the illusory distinctions between science and art, theory and fiction. Gleick reveals a unified culture connected by existential questions and desires to escape the bounds of time and space.
For such a recently created concept, time travel is remarkably engrained in the culture. The idea was popularized after H.G. Wells published his genre-founding book, The Time Machine, in 1895, and, today, there’s an abundance of time travel-based books, movies, and television shows. But time travel is more than a storytelling trope. It is “a fantasy of the modern era,” Gleick writes. Before Wells, no society thought about the future—or the past—as tangible places that could be visited. Not even our most imaginative ancestors thought about time travel. “The past and present are all the same to Shakespeare: mechanical clocks strike the hour in Caesar’s Rome, and Cleopatra plays billiards,” Gleick writes. Thomas More imagined Utopia as an island that you could sail to, not as a place waiting in the future.
But before time travel became a favorite topic for the likes of Hawking and Nabokov, it was the preserve of twenty-five-cent pulp magazines. Those magazines gave birth to the science fiction genre (first called “scientifiction”), but they also anticipated actual science. Inspired by Wells, pulp writers created stories with time loops (what theoretical physicists now call “closed timelike curves”), wormholes, alternate realities, and explorations of myriad time travel “paradoxes” (e.g. what happens if you go back in time and meet yourself? or kill your grandfather?, etc.). Renowned theoreticians like Hugh Everett III, we learn, grew up reading these pulps. Early sci-fi stories about alternate realities resemble Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
If chronology were the organizing principle, fiction would come before science. But Gleick shows that fiction writers, physicists, and philosophers have been conditioned by each other. Indeed, Time Travel is most delightful, and fun, when Gleick pulls the lever and connects Everett and Jorge Luis Borges; Isaac Asimov and Augustine; Robert Heinlein and David Foster Wallace; and other thinkers separated, merely, by time and space. In his history sans chronology, Gleick connects these disparate thinkers under themes. Borges, who wrote about forking paths in a garden, and Everett, who thought of time as branches, are united in a chapter assessing the different, often ineffective, metaphors—a river, a path, a maze—we use to grasp time. Asimov and Augustine meet in an exploration of eternity. Asimov, an atheist, wrote a novel about people living outside of time who had the power of gods over the people stuck inside of time. This is almost exactly how the pious Augustine thought of God when he wrote, “In the sublimity of an eternity which is always in the present, you are before all things past and transcend all things future, because they are still to come.” Some other chapters have similarly edifying connections, but all of them are crammed with dozens of thinkers. The chapter joining Heinlein and Wallace, for example, also brings in Schopenhauer, Einstein, Minkowski, Oliver Lodge, Aristotle, Laplace, Newton, Bertrand Russell, Donald C. Williams, and Richard Taylor—in the span of three pages. This kind of overcrowding is fairly common throughout the book.
Perhaps Gleick could manage the multitude of thinkers if his narrative unfolded chronologically. But the book suffers because he tries to escape the bounds of time. Gleick can turn a good phrase, but the surfeit of quotes from so many different people in too small a space obscures his efforts. Gleick’s history too often lacks a story; at its most tiresome, the book reads like a results page of a “time travel” Google search query, albeit a sophisticated and articulate one, rendered into quote salad paragraphs. During those moments I had no choice but to sit back and let the abundant—and at times superfluous—quotes and names and references crash over me while I waited for the next story.
Time travel, it seems, may be the one and only topic a cultural critic should not try to explore by unifying content and style. Gleick himself acknowledges the recklessness of trying to write outside of time. Towards the end, he critiques Nabokov’s argument that a book can be truly appreciated only when reread to the point that it can be considered as a whole, apart from time. Books, Gleick writes in response, “play with time, as a piece of music does. They thrive on anticipation, they flirt with expectation. Even if you know a book well—even if you can recite it entire, like the Homeric poet—you cannot experience it as a timeless object […] when you read a book you are a creature living in time.” While Gleick makes an admirable attempt, what his book demonstrates, in the end, is that the writer, too, must write in time.