It is a hard thing to write non-fiction about time travel and be taken seriously. And by tackling this subject, James Gleik has given a gift to those of us who obsess over this weird, newish corner of the collective imagination. He has given us Canon, nearly scripture, and a lucid one at that.
Yes, the Time Travel, A History is that good, not only as lucid non-fiction about science (if which there is always a shortage) but a serious book about time travel itself, which is a rare treasure indeed.
The author stares at a camera and summarizes his premise within a video at Big Think:
“Before the late Victorian era, it was practically impossible to for people to conceive of time travel. And I say it was impossible because they didn’t.”
The problem with time travel as a subject for non-fiction is that it is both new and terribly, mind-meltingly strange. Real scientists can’t touch it, except to briefly dismiss it as fantasy on their way to talk about “serious cosmology”. [We should not here that they are Not Wrong]. Speculating at length about the How of time travel is a fast-track to the crank file, where no grant ever flows.
Consequently, time travel non-fiction has been relegated to a sidebar in a book about time (or worse, a history of time from sundials to the atomic clock, a book that has many forms, all just as interesting), or encyclopedic endeavors by Geeks to list and categorize time travel fiction (which includes this blog).
Gleik has written a history of time travel as a concept, a trope, and specific thing we think and imagine about, and has done so with the same readable, cogent, accessible prose that put most of his other work on short lists for the Pulitzer prize.
I exaggerate not; behold his bio.
And he has done so with fewer Doctor Who references than you might think.
Long before the BBC back-benchers slapped together a children’s TV show that got way out of hand, HG Wells wrote the first time travel fiction (of any size or consequence) where the protagonist physically moves through time on purpose.
[ I prefer the 1960 version to any other adaptation, even thought this trailer, product of its time, lays it on thick.]
The success of that work became the embryo for what would become the “scientific novel, and soon after science fiction. The time travel trope would then be expanded upon by Hugo Gernsback (mostly as an editor, but he is the one who first described the “grandfather paradox.”) and later Asimov and Heinlein (whose contributions, Gleik fairly notes, reek of their time and their intended audience) and then a cascading expansion of other authors as science fiction became something adults could read in open daylight.
Wells did it first, and Gleik argues that is because he was the right writer at the right time. By the mid-19th century, humanity, for the first time, was seeing the world change substantially within their lifetime, and thereby developed a desire, and in fact a need for thinking about the future in a more serious way.
Previous fantasies about people moving into the future, whether by prolonged sleep of wandering amiss inside a fairy mound, would have them emerge to discover only the names had changed.
Looking the opposite direction, the 19th century saw some of the first serious efforts at scientific history, because we had better tools to investigate with. This brought about a new question: “what can we learn from the past to help us better predict the future?” Previously, those sort of inquiries had been limited to politics – and even then, people rarely listened to the answers.
While Gleik touches on time as the physical force that physicists argue about (you can make a serious case that time does not exist) he spends a good deal of the book examining how we think about time, and how that has evolved. And yes, he also references that one scene from Doctor Who.
In between Wells expounding on the fourth dimension to Moffat’s madman in a box waving it off as Timey Wimey we now have some sober non-fiction to reference. Now granted, I am his target audience, but if you are the sort that reads down this far in an amateur blog about time travel, you definitely need to get this book.
It is now Canon.