What came first, the science or the fiction? The answer is in James Gleick’s ‘Time Travel’

Peter Capadli starred as the time-traveling "Doctor Who."
Peter Capadli starred as the time-traveling “Doctor Who.”

“If you could take one ride in a time machine, which way would you go?” James Gleick asks. “The future or the past?” Posed about midway through his dazzling, dizzying history of time travel, the question is just one of dozens that will make most readers stop reading, stare off into space and think. Starting with H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” published in 1895, Gleick’s book explores the cultural and intellectual roots of the idea of time travel, which leads to a deep dive into the nature of time itself, as investigated by everyone from Heraclitus to Newton, Einstein to Borges, Asimov to Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, who wrote the 1993 hit “Groundhog Day” — which Gleick admires as “one of the greatest of all time-travel movies.”

“Can you, citizen of the twenty-first century, recall when you first heard of time travel?” Gleick asks. It’s hard to imagine any of us could; we grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons of time-traveling boys and dogs, graduating to comic books and science fiction that taught us to worry about the butterfly effect and the logistics and ethics of murdering baby Hitler. But the phrase “time travel” itself didn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1914, and the idea itself isn’t much older, a product of the roiling, anxious end of the 19th century — an era of fantastic technological advances and new questions about what it meant to be human. As the 20th century dawned, “[p]hilosophers, physicists, poets, and pulp writers all struggled” with ideas about time, an inevitable preoccupation in an age freshly obsessed with thoughts of the future. “No one bothered with the future in 1516,” Gleick notes, the year Thomas More wrote of Utopia as a remote island. Today’s utopian and dystopian visions, of course, tend to be set in distant times, not places.

No wonder three dimensions no longer seemed adequate to organize the world; thinkers sought to explain time as a fourth dimension, a novel concept that led to further questions: Is the future predetermined or do human beings exert free will? Can multiple futures or time-space realities exist simultaneously? What of the eternal, the spiritual? While an undergraduate at Amherst, David Foster Wallace wrote his honors thesis on the work of logician Richard Taylor, the father of fatalism, which sees time as a meaningless path to predetermined end. Like Wallace, Gleick’s a wide-ranging enthusiast and a graceful explainer — though some readers (like this one) may need to slow down and focus very hard as we move through the thorny thickets of theoretical physics. At any rate, as Gleick notes, “[w]e have learned a great deal about time, and only some of it from science.” Pure thought can only take us so far, and one of the great charms of this book is its author’s willingness to embrace multiple points of view and to credit art and experience as much as theory. Indeed, he adds, “[t]he rules of time travel have been written not by scientists but by storytellers,” and the reason we care so much — beyond our insatiable curiosity — is because time, in the end, ends us all.

Tuttle is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and regular contributor to the Boston Globe; she is founding director of the Decatur Writers Studio.


Time Travel

James Gleick

Pantheon: 352 pp., $26.95