dive into this dizzying survey of time travel, time, memory, dreams, by way of literature, film, philosophy, and physics

a review of Time Travel: A History, by James Gleick

Time Travel: A History, could have been pretty short. After all, to quote physicist Stephen Hawking, “The best evidence we have that time travel is not possible, and never will be, is that we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future.”

But instead of restricting himself to an examination of actual time travel, Gleick leads us through a history of the concept of time travel, which is strikingly modern. Before H.G. Wells, authors and their protagonists dreamt of the past and the future, but no one actually traveled there. Then we leap into a deep discussion of time itself, of memory, and of our dreams of the past and the future. We survey literature, from pulpy short stories of the 1920s and 1930s in such august publications as Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories to the novels of authors ranging from Jules Verne and Philip K. Dick to Jorge Luis Borges and Virginia Woolf. We swim through the treatment of time travel in film, from Twelve Monkeys to Back to the Future to Midnight in Paris. In time, we jump from Augustine writing in the fourth century to Dexter Palmer’s 2016 novel Version Control. We hear extensively from physicists and philosophers.

This book blew my mind 30 times and I loved it. I highly recommend it, even if you don’t have an inherent interest in science fiction (or the scientific novel, or the hypothetical novel, or the scientific-marvelous novel, or scientifiction, all of which the genre has been called, as we learn in this book).

A few bits that I liked:
  • “Time travel is a fantasy of the modern era.”
  • “Stories are like parasites finding a host. In other words, memes. Arrows of the Zeitgeist.”
  • H.G. Wells: “Literature is revelation,” said Wells. “Modern literature is indecorous revelation.”
  • Ursula K. Le Guin: “Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time.”
  • T.S. Eliot: “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Will not stay still.”
  • Jorge Luis Borges: “El tiempo se bifurca perpetuamente hacia innumerables futuros.”
  • Richard Feynman: “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything.”
  • “We’re not very good at understanding causes.”
  • “You can be a time traveler in your own book. If you’re impatient, you can skip ahead to the ending.”
  • In Max Beerbohm’s 1916 story, “Enoch Soames,” a third-rate poet travels one hundred years into the future to see his legacy, which he imagines will be grand. He finds himself listed only as a fictional character in a short story by one Max Beerbohm.

A few other reviews:
  • Anthony Doerr, NYT: “If this new book can sometimes feel like a mind-smashing catalog of literary and filmic references to time ­travel, it’s also a wonderful reminder that the most potent time-traveling technology we have is also the oldest technology we have: storytelling.”
  • Michael Saler, WSJ: “Mr. Gleick’s brisk survey is anything but: He is toying with ideas, playing with past and future. He is having fun, and we all know what that does to time.”
  • Rosalind Williams, Washington Post: “These guests mix and mingle for lively conversations about the paradoxes of determinism, the possibilities of counterfactual history, the challenges of philosophical fatalism, the dangers of metaphors, the problem of finding words to communicate to the future and the limits to logic in understanding the human experience of time, among much else. … ‘Time Travel’ presents a great read.”
  • Kirkus Review: “From Wells to Schrödinger to Twitter, he doesn’t miss a beat, and he imparts a wry appreciation for humorous detail, making him one of the most enjoyable science writers in the field. Though not his best book, this is another fantastic contribution to popular science from Gleick, whose lush storytelling will appeal to a wide range of audiences.”
  • Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, TOR: “Anyone who picks up Time Travel: A History will find quotes and witticisms galore, a plethora of absorbing historical footnotes and trenchant observations on humanity’s relationship with time. And yet they may also find themselves scratching their heads, or worse, skipping pages. There’s much intellectual fun to be had, but rather than a book-length rollercoaster ride, Time Travel is more like a succession of fourteen different rides, unified because they’re in the same theme park.”

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Rob Shapiro. It was well done.

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