Time flies, time flows. Time is money. Time is like an arrow, a ladder, a river, a maze. Time marches on, time runs out, time is up. We waste it, we spend it, we kill it. Time is all we have. And if it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it – then again, perhaps we did. For as Susan Sontag once said, “Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”
What is time, really? Doctor Who, the Time Lord of the BBC series, once explained it thus: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly … timey-wimey … stuff.” Even the best efforts of philosophers and scientists to pin it down remain at best wibbly wobbly and timey wimey. Does time exist at all? According to the author of Time Travel, James Gleick, “many of the most respected and established physicists” today concur it is “not real”. And yet we are obsessed with it. “Things change,” he writes, “and time is how we keep track.”
Elsewhere, Gleick observes, “We are seldom conscious of the effect of language on our choice of metaphors, the effect of our metaphors on our sense of reality.” Time is nothing if not metaphoric, and one of the most enduring and ancient of metaphors for time is that of a river. Plato quoted the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus as observing about time “that all things pass” and you can’t “step twice into the same river”. The water is never the same. But what if you could step twice into the same river? Inspired by the notion of time as a traversable “fourth dimension”, H. G. Wells wrote the novel The Time Machine in 1895. His anonymous protagonist, the Time Traveller, embarks on a series of adventures in which he meets fantastical creatures from the past and witnesses the dying of the Earth 30 million years into the future. The phrase “time travel” is a back formation from Time Traveller.
In order to shoot off into the Fourth Dimension, Wells’s Time Traveller saddles up a complicated device made of nickel, ivory, brass and quartz, adjusting a screw here, adding a drop of oil there. One of the most endearing things about time-travel fiction is how quaintly old-fashioned the mechanics appear in retrospect. This is true despite the fact that the technology is always advancing along with the science: now novelists (and filmmakers and the rest) may launch their characters into other eras via wormholes, for example. But time travel always remains of its own time.
Time travel came of age in what historians call modern times, one quality of which is an increasing consciousness of time itself. After all, as Gleick notes, no one said “turn of the century” before the 19th century “turned” into the 20th. Another quality of modernity was the questioning of beliefs around such concepts as free will – or, as the British physicist and radio pioneer Oliver Lodge put it in 1920, “is the future all settled beforehand?” Time-travel fiction likes to ask questions such as, if you could go back in time, could you kill Hitler and change the course of history? The “predestination paradox” is a popular theme – and one as ancient as Oedipus. “Regret,” writes Gleick, “is the time traveler’s energy bar.”
Given that time travel is – sorry if this is a spoiler – entirely fictional, it’s natural that much of the book is taken up with its imaginative exploration through literature. I admit disappointment at seeing Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife relegated to “Further Reading”, and while Gleick mentions controversies in China and discusses the French film La Jetée at length, it would have been nice to have a generally more global perspective.
Gleick does expand the definition of time travel well beyond the literary. He devotes a chapter to the craze in early 20th-century America for “time capsules”, a simple means for dispatching a slice of the present into the future (or, from another perspective, simply using the Earth as a “great disorganised filing cabinet”). One of the most famous, buried on the site of the 1939 “World of Tomorrow” World’s Fair in New York, contained a million words on microfilm (including a message from Einstein), a slide rule, one US dollar in coins, a pack of cigarettes and a lady’s hat.
Other time machines are entirely literal – the retronym, for example. An example of a retronym is “acoustic guitar”. Before the invention of electric guitars, acoustic guitars were just guitars. The internet, meanwhile, is a temporal jungle where “every hyperlink is a time gate” and you can even follow @samuelpepys on Twitter. Interestingly, the influential cyberpunk novelist William Gibson generally avoids time travel in his work.
Gleick’s other books include Chaos, Faster and The Information. He commonly explores topics in which science and technology, philosophy and culture intersect. He has a gift for teasing out the connections between diverse disciplines, and showing how they interact one upon the other. In Time Travel he explores the evolution of an idea that is now so pervasive it is “in the pop songs, the TV commercials, the wallpaper”. Some of the science is relatively dense: I would have preferred a bit more hand-holding through the occasionally breezy jaunts through principles of quantum mechanics and the like. I also wish the author had refrained from calling some of the famous people in the book by familial or friendly nicknames – “Bertie” for H. G. Wells, “Sam” for Samuel Beckett – a grating, unnecessary, American-inflected gimmick. But these are minor quibbles.
In Time Travel, Gleick asks why the notion of time travel is so captivating. Sure, physics intrigues us. And there is a natural attraction to the notion of life as, in Jorge Luis Borges’s words, a “garden of forking paths”. Ultimately, however, Gleick writes, “All the answers come down to one. To elude death.” CG
4th Estate, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 22, 2016 as "James Gleick, Time Travel". Subscribe here.