A Brief History of the Future: On James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History

October 28, 2016 | 15 books mentioned 2 9 min read


“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”

Susan Sontag, quoting “an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy,” but part of which (i.e., the first half) is often attributed to John Archibald Wheeler (who “admitted to having found it scrawled in a Texas men’s room”), Woody Allen, and Albert Einstein, but which actually appeared before all of these figures were supposed to have said or written it in a novel by Ray Cummings from 1922 called The Girl in the Golden Atom and is spoken by a character named Big Business Man, so I guess one can only really credit Sontag (or, I suppose, the “old riff” to which she refers) with the part about space (which, admittedly, is a totally brilliant and enriching addendum; really makes the phrase, don’t you think?), and if you think this quote attribution is convoluted and confusing well then hold onto your hats, there, buddy, because shit’s about to get real weird

coverTom Robbins, in his 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, abruptly interrupts the narrative and briefly expounds on the nature of time in literature. “Even though we agree that time is relative,” he writes, “that most subjective notions of it are inaccurate just as most objective expressions of it are arbitrary…even so, we have come to expect, for better or worse, some sort of chronological order in the books we read, for it is the function of literature to provide what life has not.” He has interjected, he explains, to inform the reader of some reordering of certain events — i.e., that the events of Parts I and II occurred after the events currently being described in Part III. “The author apologizes” for any confusion but “does not, however, disavow the impulses that lead to his presentation…nor does he, in repentance, embrace the notion that literature should mirror reality.” Moreover, he continues:

A book no more contains reality than a clock contains time. A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real (both more real, perhaps, than those ideas to which they allude); but let’s not kid ourselves — all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.

This passage — one of my very favorites — drifted into my mind (a psychological phenomenon referred to, I now know, as “involuntary mental time travel”) as I read through James Gleick’s fascinating new book Time Travel: A History, as Robbins’s quote seems to have anticipated (or, maybe, pre-emptively challenged) just such a work.  What could any book, a mere vessel of subjective interpretation, tell us about time, an invisible system of measuring change? I suspected that by the end I’d either feel tricked or confounded.

It turns out that I felt neither deceived nor confused — or, rather, I did feel those things, but about the subject and not the book. Gleick’s hybrid of history, literary criticism, theoretical physics, and philosophical meditation is itself a time-jumping, head-tripping odyssey, and it works so well. Even though Gleick can elucidate complex ideas into accessible language, he’s even better at explicating notions that remain perplexing. That is, he’s good at explaining paradoxes — itself a sort of paradoxical phrase, paradoxes supposedly being logical contradictions that defy common sense and are thus difficult — if not impossible — to comprehend. But a subject like time travel, as we savvy citizens of the 21st century well know by now, is rife with paradox, and any account of its history must not only engage with those incongruities but transcend them in some powerful way. There has to be, in other words, more insight than one would find in a given episode of Doctor Who.

covercoverThat’s not to say that elements of popular culture are out of the time-travel historian’s reach (Doctor Who, for instance, is fruitfully used by Gleick in Time Travel), but rather that such an enterprise’s primary subject must only ostensibly be time travel but that it’s truly about why we’re so interested in the subject and what that means about who we are. The infinite intricacies of moving forward or backward in time have been so thoroughly dissected by popular culture that, quite amazingly, these meta-cognitive and entirely theoretical ideas have become clichés. In her fun and insightful new book Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies, Hadley Freeman notes a plot hole in 1985’s Back to the Future: “But complaining about credibility issues in a movie about time travel is surely the definition of carping.” And to think that humanity, as a species, didn’t even consider the concept of time travel until a little more than 100 years ago, and already such innovative and cerebral ideas have grown so banal they’re barely worthy of comment. It is amazing what human beings can become bored with.

covercovercoverGleick is particularly suited to the task of writing a history of time travel. His previous books include Genius, a rich biography of physics bad-boy Richard Feynman; The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, which traces the origins of the information age; and Chaos: Making a New Science, a work that tackles chaos theory and that made “the Butterfly Effect” a common term. Gleick was also the founder, with Uday Ivatury, of The Pipeline in 1993, one of the earliest Internet service providers. Time travel, for such a writer, must be almost bromidic. And to be sure, there is a slight trace of disdain in Gleick for his subject here, almost as if he’s getting annoyed having to explicate ideas he knows are hogwash — e.g., his takedown of “time capsules,” which he refers to as “a special kind of foolishness,” — or having the irksome duty of assembling such declarations as, “In point of fact, time is not a river.”

coverBut by the end of the book I too developed a frustration with the myriad arguments surrounding time — not at any of the arguers but of the flimsiness of my hold on it as a subject of speculation. Every time I felt I had a grasp on a particular way of thinking about time, some new theory threw my understanding out the window. For example, Gleick begins his history with the creator of time travel, H.G. Wells, and his monumental work of science fiction of 1895, The Time Machine. In its early pages, the protagonist, the Time Traveller, Socratically explains the basics of his invention with some skeptical (and similarly ersatz) characters:

‘You know of course [said the Time Traveller] that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions.’

‘That is all right,’ said the Psychologist.

‘Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.’

‘There I object,’ said Filby. ‘Of course a solid body may exist. All real things-‘

‘So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?’

‘Don’t follow you,’ said Filby.

‘Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?’

Filby became pensive. ‘Clearly,’ the Time Traveller proceeded, ‘any real body must have extension in four dimensions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and — Duration.”

Gleick calls Filby a “poor sap” for putting up such a “feeble resistance” to the Time Traveller’s points, but for me such a basic explanation was revelatory — to consider duration as a necessary component to existence seems not only true but rather obvious once you’ve learned it.

But it quickly becomes clear that the validity of time as the “fourth dimension” wasn’t going to last too long in the rapid development of subsequent time travel theorems and the physics and quantum mechanics that eventually joined the party. Just as my brain congratulated itself for its keen comprehension, it was thrown for a new loop. Not that this is Gleick’s fault, of course — the very subject of time travel invites headaches if pondered longer than a few minutes, and Gleick’s book totals 336 pages of mind-bending conundra: some mental pain is inevitable, both for author and reader.

covercoverGleick, though, through his years of scientific authorship, has become an artful writer who clearly has a deep love for literature, consequently employing fictional techniques in his nonfiction work. He repeatedly opens sections with the mise-en-scène of novels or TV show episodes that feature time travel, as in this description of the opening of La Jetée, a film by Chris Marker from 1962 that is made up of only still images, and which was the inspiration for the 1995 Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys:

We begin again. A woman stands at the end of “pier” — the open-air observation platform at Orly Airport (la grande jetée D’Orly), over-looking a sea of concrete on which the great metal jetliners rest, pointed like arrows toward the future. The sun is pale in a charcoal sky. We hear shrill jet blasts, a ghostly choir, murmuring voices.

There is a ton of rhetorical work going on here, the kind usually associated with fictional narratives, from the thematic reference of the jets “pointed like arrows toward the future” to the asyndeton in the final sentence. Or consider Time Travel’s opening sentence, introducing Wells’s Time Traveller: “A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods — a squat, ugly contraption, somehow out of focus, not easy for the poor reader to visualize, despite the listing of parts and materials.” Notice how subtly Gleick takes us from literal description (“A man stands…”) to metaphorical commentary (the 19th century as “a drafty corridor”) to literary criticism (“…the poor reader…”) to cluing us into the fact that he’s talking about a novel (“despite the listing of parts…”). Gleick may have a little of the frustrated novelist in him, but he’s certainly learned well how to exercise (and exorcise) that frustration advantageously. Time Travel is as elegant and eloquent as it is edifying.

covercoverThis love of literature manifests in other ways in the book, too, also beneficially. Though Gleick runs the gambit of physicists and philosophers and theorists (from St. Augustine to Stephen Hawking), he’s most fruitful and fun and alive as a writer when he dissects novels and films and television — which is more than fitting considering that time travel itself was the invention of a fiction writer; Gleick, by featuring more fiction than theory, as it were, is merely staying in the tradition that originated the notion. For instructive tools, Gleick takes the reader through, e.g., Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and William Gibson’s The Peripheral and, most interestingly, E.M. Forster’s bleak and just fucking weird novella The Machine Stops. But perhaps my favorite is that episode of Doctor Who Gleick discusses (which I at first wanted to summarize here to grapple with a bit but which proved way too elaborate to do in anything fewer than like seven or eight sentences, and this is already getting too long as it is). Part of the fun of these sections is the various ways Gleick uses them to demonstrate certain abstractions or murky concepts, but what really makes them sing is how richly palpable Gleick’s love for sci-fi is — for its inventiveness, yes, but more so for its playfulness, the way it can positively relish the paradoxes and the moral dilemmas and the general confusion of it all. (Best example: Robert Heinlein’s short story “By Your Bootstraps.”)

And his love is particularly noticeable when set against his growing irritation at now commonly accepted views of time — most of which he so obviously disagrees with. “Timelessness, eternity, the four-dimensional spacetime loaf,” he concludes, “These are the illusions.” Time, for Gleick, no matter how skillful the rhetoric or how tempting the logic, simply cannot be denied its reality (or at least our illusion of its reality), because of how completely it situates our experiences of everyday life. It is, rather, space that is the illusion.

coverBy the end I found I concurred with Gleick about time’s irrepressible existence, which might have warranted more examination of our psychological perception of time, as in Claudia Hammond’s 2013 engaging work Time Warped, which mostly ignores those dusty arguments over whether or not time exists and instead focuses on the way we experience it as a phenomenon. She notes, for instance, that as humans we’re not only organized by time but also exceptionally skilled at it (though, Hammond notes, citing Jean Piaget, the “father of developmental psychology,” that as children, we “find it hard to distinguish between size as it relates to time and size as it relates to space”). Hammond shows how time affects more aspects of our lives than we might assume, like conversations:

To produce and understand speech, we rely on critical timings of less than a tenth of a second. The difference between the sound of a ‘pa’ and a ‘ba’ is all in the timing of the delay before the subsequent vowel, so if the delay is longer you hear a ‘p,’ if it’s short you hear a ‘b.’ If you put your hand on your vocal cords you can even feel that with the ‘ba’ your lips open at the same time as you feel your cords start to vibrate. With the ‘pa’ the vibrations starts a moment earlier. This relies on timing accurate to the millisecond.

If the abstract debates over time are inadequate at worst and irrelevant at best, then shouldn’t these be the kinds of ideas we focus on? If time (and not space) is fundamental to nature, and we’re stuck with its effects no matter how much of an illusion we “prove” it to be, then our clever excursions through the epochs in science fiction might not be the most productive use of our intellectual attention.

But what the hell do I know? With each thought regarding all these pitfall-ridden concepts, I second-guess myself, and I begin to relate to Tom Robbins’s meditation in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. After his apology for mucking up the chronology and noting that books don’t actually reflect reality, he adds that he’s got a repertoire of sentences at his disposal, to do with what he wishes. “This sentence is made of yak wool,” he writes, while another sentence “has a crush on Norman Mailer.” “This sentence went to Woodstock” goes another, and “this little sentence went wee wee all the way home.” It’s a fun bit, but the one I really relate to is the final one: “This sentence is rather confounded by the whole damn thing.”

is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, Read It Forward, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.