Time Travel: A History

The title alone of science and technology chronicler James Gleick’s latest work, TIME TRAVEL: A HISTORY, makes it irresistible to any serious fan of science fiction. Indeed if any single theme distinguishes science fiction from other genres, it is time travel. But does it have a history?

Yes! Gleick aptly proves that the concept of going forward and backwards in time actually predates science fiction as we know it. Authors and philosophers toyed with the idea since antiquity. But one particular novel, published first in England in the 1890s, forever changed the concept of time travel for both scientists and the general public alike.

That novel, of course, was THE TIME MACHINE by H. G. Wells. Gleick shows how both the discussion of time as the fourth dimension that opens the novel, as well as the idea of a machine allowing travel through time, influenced authors, philosophers, and physicists when Wells’ novel was first published, and continues to this very day. (And, as Gleick reminds us, were it not for Wells’ novel we wouldn’t have Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine, Marty McFly’s DeLorean, and countless other variations that followed.)

From there Gleick traces various works that featured time travel as well as the on-going discussions of the topic in science, philosophy, and what would eventually become the type of stories known as science fiction.

There is hardly a topic related to time travel that escapes Gleick’s perceptive eye. Everything from what would happen “if you traveled back in time and killed your grandfather,” to the space-time continuum, futurism, alternate histories and everything in-between is called forth and examined in the light of science, philosophy, and fiction. And in Chapter 12 Gleick tackles head-on the overlying question, “What Is Time?”

There are sections when Gleick’s discussion of physics is difficult to follow – especially for those without a general understanding of Newton and Einstein’s basic theories. But beyond these few moments Gleick’s conversation of otherwise challenging topics is clear and lucid even for the most causal reader.

Throughout the study Gleick uses science fiction and other examples of fantastic literature as the entryway to our familiarity and understanding of all concepts related to time travel. Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Garden Of Forking Paths,” for example, forms the basis of Gleick’s discussion of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Robert Heinlein’s 1941 story “By His Bootstraps” introduces the discussion of potentially meeting yourself in the past. Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder” better illustrates “the butterfly effect,” according to Gleick. And Isaac Asimov’s 1955 novel THE END OF ETERNITY is the centerpiece of Gleick’s chapter devoted to – of course — eternity.

These are only a few of the many classic and contemporary stories and novels that Gleick includes in each chapter. (Along with frequent references to the ever-regenerating Time Lord, Doctor Who.) So much so that the listing of “Sources And Further Reading” appearing before the Index becomes an invaluable reading list for anyone interested in expanding their collection of time travel fiction.

Every celebrated science fiction author since the genre was established has tried his hand at time travel, and it is a topic that continues to fascinate both genre and mainstream authors. (Witness, as just one current example, Elan Mastai’s novel ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS.)

That is one of the many reasons why TIME TRAVEL: A HISTORY is highly recommended. Readers will soon find themselves as enthralled and captivated as Wells’s Time Traveller when he first pushed the lever of his machine forward and launched himself into the future. —Alan Cranis

Get it at Amazon.

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