Review of Time Travel: A History by James Gleick
Time Travel: A History
by James Gleick
Longtime readers of my reviews should not be surprised that I love time travel. I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to it, and I love Doctor Who. So Time Travel: A History by James Gleick was really a no-brainer. This is going to be a short review, because I don’t have a lot to say: this book does what the title promises. Gleick presents a brief history of the concept of time travel in literature and popular culture. This book is part history, part philosophy, part physics text. There are a few moments where you might get lost in the details Gleick presents to you, but for the most part it’s very easy to follow his discussion. What emerges is a wonderful record of intertextuality and a conversation that has been happening for over a century.
See, what Gleick understands and what I really appreciate about this book is the fact that stories are always in conversation with each other. The continuum of literature builds on what has come before, either very deliberately—like modern retellings of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and others—or more obliquely, perhaps even unintentionally. Some of us are fascinated enough by this intertextuality that it turns us into English teachers or even, indeed, professors of literature. But I think that any reader can appreciate these conversations—you just need to read widely, and books like Time Travel help.
Gleick begins his survey of this concept with H.G. Wells and The Time Machine. From the publication of this novel, ripples spread outwards throughout Western literature (unfortunately, aside from a note that more recently China has banned time travel stories for their potential heterodoxy, this book focuses almost exclusively on Western storytelling, with a couple of spicy mentions of Indigenous oral histories, etc.). Gleick examines how some of the important developments in physics in the early twentieth century—Einstein and relativity, quantum field theory, etc.—influenced literature, and perhaps vice versa.
As someone who grew up in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, I’ve always been fascinated when I hear about the early days of science fiction. Though its origins stretch back beyond Wells and Verne to luminaries like Mary Shelley, I can’t dispute that science fiction in its modern form emerged from the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s—and this literature form feels so far removed from how I experience stories a hundred years later. It’s tough for me to wrap my head around the idea that Amazing Stories was but one of Hugo Gernsback’s many (often failed) business ventures, and that there was a time when kids would pay a nickel or quarter to grab a cheaply printed booklet of the latest yarns from Heinlein or Asimov or whomever. Then again, I suppose they would be equally stymied to imagine how we get to read short stories in online magazines, sometimes even for free (but let’s pay our authors).
So in this respect, Time Travel is itself, like most history books, a form of time travel. As Gleick discusses how the popular ideas of time travel developed—the rules, the paradoxes, the understandings that we all seem to be aware of now that we are inundated by franchises like Terminator—he also reminds us that these ideas did develop over time. Philosophers weighed in on the concepts they thought plausible or ridiculous. Physicists opined on whether time travel could be possible, if not perhaps practical. Artists imagined the possibilities that time travel might create, as well as the ethical conundrums. We live in an era that has inherited all of this intellectual and creative labour, and the result is the cornucopia of time travel stories we have today.
Gleick’s effortless and seamless transitions from quoting obscure short stories to philosophers to explaining thermodynamics can make for both interesting and sometimes overwhelming reading. Nevertheless, I found that this was a wonderful book to sit with on a cold winter’s day, sunlight streaming in through my library window, so I could ponder the mysteries of the universe—or perhaps the multiverse. It’s not so much whether or not I learned from this book (while many of the ideas, like multiverse theory, were not really new to me, I can’t claim I had the detailed grasp of time travel history that this book presents)—rather, I think it is more important to stress that I luxuriated in the thinking this book provoked. I love that, in my fiction and my non-fiction alike.