The evolution of time travel as an idea

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Time Travel: A History by James Gleick, Pantheon, US $26.95, Pp 352, September 2016, ISBN 978-0307908797

In Time Travel, James Gleick explores one of the most mysterious topics of all times, time travel, its subversive origins, its evolution in literature, and its influence on our understanding of time itself. In Time Travel, James Gleick says that the story began at the turn of the nineteenth century, with the young H. G. Wells writing and rewriting the fantastic tale that became his first book and an international sensation: the time machine. It was an era when a host of forces were converging to transmute the human understanding of time, some philosophical and some technological: the electric telegraph, the steam railroad, the discovery of buried civilizations, and the perfection of clocks. He tracks the evolution of time travel as an idea that became part of contemporary culture — from Marcel Proust to Doctor Who, from Jorge Luis Borges to Woody Allen. He investigates the inevitable looping paradoxes and examines the porous boundary between pulp fiction and modern physics. Finally, he delves into a temporal shift that is unsettling our own moment: the instantaneous wired world with its all-consuming present and vanishing future.

Gleick says, that ‘The Time Machine’ is one of those books you feel you must have read at some point, whether or not you actually did. He writes, “One way or another, the inventions of H. G. Wells color every time travel story that followed. When you write about time travel, you either pay homage to ‘The Time Machine’ or dodge its shadow. William Gibson, who reinvented time travel yet again in the twenty-first century, was a boy when he encountered Well’s story  in a fifteen-cent Classics Illustrated comic books; by the time he saw the movie he felt he already owned it, part of a personal and growing collection of alternative universe.

The Time Traveler says, “The object of Well’s interest, bordering on obsession was the future — that shadowy, inaccessible place. So with a kind of madness growing upon me, I flung myself into futurity.” Wells wrote that most people – “the predominant type, the type of the majority of living people” — never think about the future. Or, if they do, they regard it “as a sort of blank non-existence upon which the advancing present will presently write events.” The moving finger writes that the more modern sort of person — “The creative, organizing, or masterful type” — sees the future as our very reason for being. The legal mind says, “Things have been and so we are her. The creative mind says we are here because things have yet to be. Wells, of course, hoped to personify that creative, forward-looking type. He had more and more company.

Time Travel traces the origins of time travel and time machine in a most interesting way. Tracing its origins in H. G. Wells’ first book, Gleick thoroughly explains the evolution of this concept. If you start reading it, you will not be able to put it down before you finish it. Reviewed by Jonathan T. Rich