Time Travel: A History by James Gleick
No matter their background, at some point just about everyone partakes in heavy philosophical discussion on the nature of time. What is time? How does it work? Is it even real? Einstein’s relativity theories triggered a ground-up reevaluation of how time operates, and though our understanding continually increases, much remains a mystery. As technology continues to advance in startling leaps, might some form of time travel be one day possible?
James Gleick’s new book Time Travel: A History poses many of these questions, and certainly succeeds in stimulating your curiosity. However, if you seek hypotheses about how future generations might be able to pull off time travel, look elsewhere. Gleick opts to keep things coldly rational for a grounded, if anticlimactic, meditation on the properties of time.
Time Travel: A History isn’t a pop-science overview of the mathematical theories and formulas that attempt to quantify and manipulate time. Rather, think of this book as a survey of the human understanding of the topic: the imperfect metaphors we use to describe it, and the interesting misconceptions throughout generations of scientists and thinkers. Also documented are the varying ways fiction authors have approached the “time travel plot.” We see authors test the genre’s parameters, address the paradoxes and alternate universes that can arise, and cultivate themes of nostalgia for the past and curiosity for the future.
Gleick certainly did his homework in collecting a trove of instances on this subject throughout history. His prose ability proves suitable to the task, especially for a topic so notoriously tricky. (Not enough verb tenses exist to describe events in split timelines with precision, he notes.) But the noticeable lack of editorialization pushes this book a bit farther down the “textbook” end of the spectrum. Gleick summarizes the viewpoint of scientist X, contextualizes the hypothesis of philosopher Y, and leaves the facts on the table for your consideration. There is no cohesive statement tying the various chapters together, no ultimate point or thesis to be drawn.
Where Gleick does manage to offer his own opinions, he’s a real party pooper. With amusement he scolds scientist Brian Greene for espousing a multiverse theory that is too convenient and exciting to be useful. Elsewhere, he condescendingly dismisses the well-meaning posterity of time capsules, baffled why any future civilization might care about the clothes, furniture and grammatical structures of eras long past.
It is odd that an author which such apparent excitement for the field nonetheless nay-says so much forward-looking curiosity. The enthusiasm he does have fuels his examination of different authors’ depictions of time travel throughout literature. What results is a chronicle of the human imagination, a narrative that isn’t without its merits. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is regarded as the foundation of the genre, and it is explored at length in the early phases of the book. We do eventually arrive at more recent works like Back to the Future, Twleve Monkeys, The Terminator, and the print fiction of Isaac Asimov and William Gibson. But sometimes these story recaps drag on too long. They read like plot-heavy summarization, instead of an exploration of the literary philosophies that helped evolve the genre.
Of the many schools of thought presented throughout Time Travel: A History, no single approach emerges on top. Glieck instead hedges his bets, and what results is a book advocating no single theory. If you enter the experience agreeing to draw your own conclusions, this book will certainly engage your imagination with its thought-provoking scenarios. You will ponder the fascinating facts surrounding your existence in the mysterious domain of time. If given the opportunity to go back in time and choose an alternate universe in which I skipped this book, I don’t think I would.