Somewhen in time: A (Brief) History of Time travel, the anti-thesis of YOLO

Gautham Shenoy April 21, 2018 7 min

The good news is that the title of the book, ‘Time Travel: A History’ is a little misleading. This book is not just about time travel only. And it’s not ‘history’ in the strictest chronological sense of the term. The better news is that it’s so much more.

While containing everything to make any time travel enthusiast ecstatic, it’s also an exploration of the concept of Time itself, and what it means, its implications on our understanding of ourselves, our history, memories, culture, consciousness, free will, and the quest for immortality. And who better to help us explore this than one of the ‘great explainers’ and historians of science of the modern age, James Gleick, each of whose previous books – such as Chaos, Faster, The Information just to name three non-fiction classics – have been bestsellers leading to him being referred to as ‘one of the great science writers of our time’.

And in Time Travel: A History, James Gleick brings all of his enjoyable narrative techniques, his wit, and erudition to the fore as he takes us along on this exploration in a way that only he can – hopping, skipping and jumping through the origins of time travel, its myriad paradoxes, the classics, the intertwining of physics and fiction across mediums, and an engrossing cast of characters that enliven the pages. Not to mention the abundant footnotes filled with fascinating nuggets that are peppered throughout the book.

Of all the genres of science fiction, or rather amongst the tropes of the genre, time travel is the one that has well and truly crossed over into the popular mainstream. There is nary a person today who is not familiar with the concept of time travel and what it means. As James Gleick writes in the book, “Time travel is in the pop songs, the TV commercials, the wallpaper. From morning to night, children’s cartoons and adult fantasies invent and reinvent time machines, gates, doorways and windows, not to mention time ships and special closets, DeLoreans and police boxes”. Time travel feels like the simplest of narrative devices to explore the world and its many ‘what ifs’, and one that must come naturally to anyone. But as Gleick notes at the beginning of the book, it wasn’t until the ‘man who domesticated the impossible’, H.G. Wells came along and decided to marry the concepts of ‘time’ and ‘travel’ that the concept time travel was born, with Wells’ The Time Machine. As commonplace as it seems to us today, little over a century ago, it was a radical idea, ‘a new mode of thought’.

Left: The hardcover edition of Time Travel: A History. Centre: James Gleick. Right: The cover of the paperback edition.

For a book that clocks in at just over 300 pages (going by my 2016 Pantheon Books hardcover edition), Time Travel: A History is the kind of book that is so packed with rich details you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a much bigger book than it looks like at first sight. Not to mention the fact that the book or rather what is contained in it stays with you long after the last page has been turned. Time flies as you rush through the pages looking at Time (travel) through the eyes and ideas of great minds who have come before, and realise it’s not just the physics of it that’s mind-boggling, but the metaphysics of it. Time truly is the last frontier.

Also read: A paradox of time travel featuring Bootstraps, Beethoven and Black Sabbath

Throughout the book, science fiction writers rub shoulders with scientists, physicists with philosophers and paradoxes. Movies, plays, prose and poems are introduced. Grandfathers are murdered. Well, many attempts are made at least, but not as many as the attempts on Baby Adolf Hitler.

James Gleick states that “The rules of time travel have been written not by scientists, but by storytellers.” So there are all the names you’d expect, and then some. H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Stanislaw Lem, Borges, Jack Finney, Philip K. Dick, David Gerrold, Martin Amis, Ted Chiang, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut are all in there with a lot many more sci-fi masters and anybody who’s written anything to do with time travel, as is to be expected. But there’s also Daphne Du Maurier, Italo Calvino, Tom Stoppard, Kingsley Amis, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Aristotle, Plato, John McTaggart, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron and Eugenio Montale et al. The people of science who weigh in are no less distinguished. There’s the man who once famously hosted a party for time travellers, Stephen Hawking (and his Chronology Protection Conjecture), the physicist whose brilliant biography won James Gleick quite a few accolades, Richard Feynman, Kip Thorne, Archibald Wheeler, Albert Einstein, Lee Smolin, Freeman Dyson, Kurt Gödel, and more. Gleick weaves in all their all their ideas, stories and philosophies into quite a rich tapestry that’s sure to leave any reader of this book better off for having read it.

Also read: Groundhogs, kalachakras, and dying, only to live again: Welcome to the Time Loop

James Gleick ends the book by doing one of the many things he does best – look at the cultural impact of an idea in this contemporary age of technology, and instant communication, by looking at the world of cyberspace and ‘internet time’, where ‘time happens differently’, where the past and the future intermingle in the now. And last but not the least, once the last page of the book per se is done, James Gleick makes a list of his sources and recommended reading that is sure to keep any time travel enthusiast enjoyably occupied for months.

In conclusion, Time Travel: A History is a wonderful and brief, even if more or less comprehensive,  overview, on our cultural fascination with time travel. And that springs from the idea of time itself, and our FOMO or Fear of Missing Out. YOLO they say, You Only Live Once, because we are only given one life, and one linearly progressing physical time in which to live it. Seems like good potential wasted, when we could’ve lived many more lives, in many other times. James Gleick puts it this way, ‘If we have only the one universe — if the universe is all there is — then time murders possibility. It erases the lives we might have had.’

So in that sense, indulging in time travel – even if only through our imagination, and with fiction presently, until a practical real possibility presents itself – is a way of living all the lives that we could’ve led, somewhen in time. The anti-thesis of YOLO.

‘Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast?’ James Gleick asks, before answering, “For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.”

And if you agree too, we’ve got good news for you. We’re giving away not one, but three copies of Time Travel: A History. All you have to do is answer the question that James Gleick asks the readers in the book, ‘If you could take one ride in a time machine, which way would you go? The future or the past? Sally forth or turn back? Do you prefer the costumed pageant of history or the techno-marvels to come?’. So let us know when would you go to, where exactly? And why? on or before Sunday, 30 April 2018. Leave your answers in the comments section below or tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD. Send in your entries, and – you never know – you may just have won a copy on the 30th! Ask a time traveller. Live long and prosper!


Updated at 09:28 pm on April 21, 2018  to add date of the contest.

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