Now and Then

How the idea of time travel entered the cultural imagination.


John Martz

If you were to travel back in time to, say, London in the early 1890s, and you informed everyone you encountered there that you were a time traveler from the 21st century who had journeyed to their era by means of a time machine, the good people of late Victorian England would have no idea what you were on about. You’d have to explain to them—in a way that you wouldn’t have to explain had you traveled back to pretty much any subsequent decade—what it was you meant by time travel. The concept would seem profoundly counterintuitive to them, unaccustomed as they were to thinking about time as a dimension that might, at least theoretically, be traversed in either direction, negotiated like physical space.

It’s strange to think that this concept is so recent a development: strange to think, for instance, that the writers and inventors of the Italian Renaissance didn’t sit around imagining devices that would take them back to Rome at the height of the empire, any more than the Romans imagined a souped-up chariot that would whisk them back to ancient Greece, or forward into a world over which their gods no longer held sway. There were always prophetic and hallucinatory visions of the future, of course, and mythical figures returning from the past—your Book of Revelations, your Rip Van Winkles—but the idea of moving back and forth in time, of gadding about by technological means from now to then, did not properly enter the popular imagination until 1895, with the publication of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

Wells’ novel is the entry point of Time Travel, James Gleick’s absorbing and enlightening new book: the portal through which we embark on a cultural history of this most strange and familiar of fantasies. “Scientific people know very well,” Wells’ Time Traveller put it, “that Time is only a kind of Space.” This notion, which would soon progress from the fictional realm into the orthodoxy of theoretical physics, seemed to materialize out of nowhere, like a balls-naked Arnold Schwarzenegger at the start of The Terminator. But it’s an idea that had been in the air for a while before Wells made it his own (and everyone else’s). The notion that time and space might be part of a contiguous phenomenon, Gleick writes, emerged at some point in the 19th century, spurred on by developments in mathematical theory and applied technology: “Time became vivid, concrete, and spatial to anyone who saw the railroad smashing across distances on a coordinated schedule—coordinated by the electric telegraph, which was pinning time to the mat.”

A variety of cultural factors—the impact of Darwinian evolutionary theory, for one thing, and the rate of societal and technological change brought about by the rise of capitalism—ushered in a modern notion of time as inherently bound up with progress: a distinct sense that the future would be even less like the present than the present was like the past. Where once the world had seemed immutable, a system of rigid social orders and immemorial cultural practices overseen by eternal gods, it was now subject to the transformational effect of technology. (Time Travel’s initial chapters, in this sense, touch on some of the same subjects Gleick explored in his 1999 book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything.) “Above all,” writes Gleick, “modern time was irreversible, inexorable, and unrepeatable. Progress marched onward—a good thing, if you were a technological optimist. Cyclical time, crosswinds of time, eternal return, the wheel of life: these were romantic notions now, for poets and nostalgic philosophers.”

The idea of the Future—by which I mean the Kanye West and Elon Musk sense of “the futch,” as distinct from the feverish auguries of religious prophesy—began in earnest, claims Gleick:

with the Gutenberg printing press, saving our cultural memory in something visible, tangible, and shareable. It reached critical velocity with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the machine—looms and mills and furnaces, coal and iron and steam—creating, along with so much else, a sudden nostalgia for the apparently vanishing agrarian way of life. […] Technological change had not always seemed like a one-way street. Now it did. The children of the Industrial Revolution witnessed vast transformations within their lifetimes. To the past there was no return.

The book is faithful enough to its plain-dealing title: Certainly, Gleick gives the impression of having read everything that has ever been written on the topic of time travel—largely as a byproduct of his having read everything ever written on any topic at all. He is, to be clear, a writer of almost freakish erudition. In one two-page stretch of the book, I clocked references to (among others) Plato, Heraclitus, Miguel de Unamuno, Parmenides, Nabokov, Marcus Aurelius, the original series of Star Trek, Sebald, and Borges. With a lot of authors, this level of learnedness can seem flamboyant, or even slightly hysterical, but there’s an infectious kid-in-a-candy-shop gleefulness to Gleick’s hyperactive referencing that reminded me of nothing so much as the nonfiction writing of Borges himself. (Borges, along with Wells and Einstein and Proust, is one of a handful of totemic figures in the book, a seerlike figure guiding us through the labyrinthine wasteland of modernity.)

But Gleick’s real subject here, in fact, is not so much time travel as time itself, that slipperiest of subjective phenomena. He examines it from every angle, bringing to bear a formidable array of analytical instruments—philosophy, poetry, physics, science fiction, and psychology. It wouldn’t be right to suggest that the book had anything so straightforwardly utilitarian as a bottom line, but the overall impression I got from it is that no one—least of all practitioners of the hard sciences—has any definitive answers on what time is, or in what sense it can actually be said to exist. Gleick is particularly good on the extent to which our understanding of time is reflective of—as opposed to merely reflected by—the words we use to talk about it. The language of spatial measurement and movement, he suggests, forces us to conceive of our experience of time in a particular way: “Who was the first person to say that time ‘passes’ or ‘flows’? We are seldom conscious of the effect of language on our choice of metaphors, the effect of our metaphors on our sense of reality. Usually we give the words no thought at all. When we do, we may well wonder what we’re really saying.”

Like the faithful student of Borges he is, Gleick is an acute observer of the feedback loop that exists between fantasy and reality, the way in which science and fiction mutually inform one another. The book subtly suggests the links between, say, the mathematician Kurt Gödel’s theory of closed timelike curves—an extrapolation of Einstein’s relativity whereby, in certain possible “universes,” time loops back upon itself—and mythologies of cyclical time, as well as any number of speculative sci-fi scenarios. Gleick is, above all, a gifted synthesizer of difficult materials, a writer who can draw together disparate cultural fragments—from Marcel Proust to Niels Bohr, from the introduction of daylight saving time to Philip K. Dick, from William James to Erwin Schrödinger—into a rich and complex whole. He doesn’t make a great deal of the point, but it’s hard to avoid the overall impression of science and philosophy and poetry and fiction as one great human grasp at comprehension, at making sense of the vast and unknowable universe in which we find ourselves. What makes him so engaging as a science writer is his distinctly nonjingoistic stance in relation to other ways of thinking about the world. “The computers in our thought experiments,” as he puts it toward the end of the book, “if not always the computers we own, are deterministic because people have designed them that way. Likewise, the laws of science are deterministic because people have written them that way. They have an ideal perfection that can be attained in the mind or in the Platonic realm but not in the real world.”

Gleick seems strangely unconcerned—or at least reticent—about why we might be so preoccupied with the fantasy of time travel to begin with. Although he situates it historically, he has very little to say about the deep emotional resonances of the subject, the melancholy human heart that beats beneath the technological fantasy of thwarting time’s relentless unidirectionality. And this is of a piece, I think, with the book’s hyperactive erudition: He tends to progress from synopsizing the plot of a novel to sketching scientific theory to compressing a philosophical argument, without ever pausing to do much in the way of contemplation himself. In this sense, the book sometimes seems to move too lightly, and too quickly, for its own good.

But when the pace slows, as it does in the final chapter, there is a grace and an elegiac wisdom to Gleick’s writing that brings the mystery and vastness of his subject into perspective. He understands that understanding is only ever partial, and fleeting, in the flow of time, whatever that might mean. “When the future vanishes into the past so quickly,” he writes, “what remains is a kind of atemporality, a present tense in which temporal order feels as arbitrary as alphabetical order. […] It might be fair to say that all we perceive is change––that any sense of stasis is a constructed illusion. Every moment alters what came before. We reach across layers of time for the memories of memories.” Time travel may be a fantasy, and time itself may be nothing at all, but it is a nothingness that structures our entire experience of the world.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. Pantheon.

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