James Gleick first came to our attention back in the late 80s with his book “Chaos: Making A New Science”. This was around the same time Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History Of Time” was becoming the publishing phenomenon which would prompt a proliferation of “Popular Science” literature. Hawking’s book, notoriously, rivals Finnegans Wake in the ratio of copies owned to those completed and comprehended. Chaos is no less formidable in terms of the depth and breadth with which it seeks to explain its subject. But, while it’s true that it tackles what were then-zeitgeisty topics like The Butterfly Effect and Fractals which apply to more down-to-Earth things such as cloud formations and coastlines, I would say Chaos also demonstrates that Gleick has a greater talent for bringing the reader along without needing to oversimplify complicated subject matter.
As eyebrow-raising as Chaos Theory is, it is very much hard science. Time travel, as Stephen Hawking (who famously threw a party for time travellers by sending out the invitations afterwards) would remind us, is the stuff of speculation, so I was interested to see how this writer would approach the subject. As it turns out, Gleick could have cheekily half-inched the professor’s title, as this work is, for the most part a brief history of time travel – insofar as the umbrella term permits the author to discuss the origins and implications of Relativity, the sudden explosion of 20th century time travel fiction, how the past, present and future are regarded in different cultures and that ever-growing part of our own lives spent in the timeless abstraction of cyberspace.
What’s not dealt with in great detail here are solid ideas about how time travel might work from serious, if far out, thinkers (Gleick clearly believes it will always be impossible). Relativity itself is not gone into with the detail I expected from a science writer who knows his onions; Minkowski Spacetime, time cones and wormholes are all checked off but not dwelt on. Of course, all of these have been covered extensively elsewhere, but when you give your book the bald title “Time Travel”, I expect to feel I’ve got a pretty full picture of these ideas from this source alone.
That’s not to say this book isn’t a cracking read. Gleick does a great job of showing how proactive time travel fiction grew from not existing at all – because, until Wells, no-one had thought of it – to being an idea that every dumb kid is familiar with by the time they’ve seen their hundredth tv shooting. It’s perhaps surprising how quickly such stories caught on – for example, I certainly wasn’t aware that “by the end of the 1940s Hitler’s assassination at hands of time travellers was already a meme”.
The author traces the evolution of time travel stories as they are shaped by the new frontiers of scientific discovery, ever more delightful paradoxes and conundrums and, inevitably, the times in which they are written (he bemoans the lack of female time travellers, while at the same time recognising as writers and those who cast The Doctor do, that being female or non-white imposes limitations when travelling into the past). This book is, I think, worth the price just for the many stories it will lead its reader to investigate.
Those same stories are used as stepping off points to discuss the philosophical questions that would arise if one could change one’s own past (Am I not the sum of my experiences?) and the opposite idea – that interpretation of Relativity that infers all of time is already there and our deluded belief in free will is simply a consequence of our inability to see it.
Our relationship with time might be viewed as a series of clocks, from when every local town hall had its own clock with its own time, to the absolute time of Newton’s clockwork universe, to the chap accelerating away on the rocket whose clock is increasingly out sync with his twin back on Earth and finally to “now” (whatever that means!) when, having binned the notion of absolute time, we find we need to maintain it artificially in order for our the many clocks of our Global Positioning System to function.
There are some very informative and entertaining digressions, revealing the significance of museums full of artefacts, both archaeological and Imperially plundered, in helping people to imagine themselves in the lives of those of the distant past and the 20th Century phenomenon of burying time capsules for the future. The latter provides two of the most amusing episodes: the creators of the Time Capsule Of Cupaloy, worried futurehumans might not be able to understand its contents, included a “Key To The English Language” which itself was written in English, and the two unfortunate elderly ladies from Oklahoma who won a vintage car that had been buried in a concrete vault for fifty years only to discover that it had been destroyed by water getting in.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Gleick’s previous work (although, maybe moreso his contemporary culture stuff like “Faster”), entertaining and smart pop science and my own hilarious time travel fiction post on this blog which still exists in The Wayback Machine.
One thing you’ve learned
Isaac Asimov wrote a novel (The End Of Eternity) about a geezer who interfered with history using an “elevator” that could travel through time. In the course of the story he acquires an attractive female companion who turns out to have great significance for the universe as a whole..