Can We Escape from Time?

A scene from ‘The Web Planet,’ from the sci-fi television series Doctor Who, in which the Doctor and his crew travel in their time machine to the planet Vortis, home of the butterfly-like Menoptera (center), the ant-like Zarbi (right), and the Zarbi’s woodlouse-like Larvae Gun (left), 1965
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A scene from ‘The Web Planet,’ from the sci-fi television series Doctor Who, in which the Doctor and his crew travel in their time machine to the planet Vortis, home of the butterfly-like Menoptera (center), the ant-like Zarbi (right), and the Zarbi’s woodlouse-like Larvae Gun (left), 1965

Thanks to Joseph Campbell and his many acolytes in the world of screenwriting instruction and story analysis, we have grown used to the idea that stories are based not just on archetypes, but on one specific archetype. It’s known as the “hero’s journey” or the “monomyth”: a hero undertakes a quest through an uncanny land full of magic and danger and returns transformed and victorious. The monomyth has exerted a great deal of force in the world of Hollywood.

Too much force, perhaps. It sometimes seems the culture has forgotten that while narrative archetypes are potent, part of the point of telling stories is to make up creatures and characters that are new. We might all be thoroughly sick of stories about vampires and zombies and schools for wizards and emotionally damaged omniscient detectives, but the fact is that when readers first met them, the inventions of Bram Stoker and George Romero and Ursula K. LeGuin and Arthur Conan Doyle were thrilling and strange and daringly original.

Now, there’s a pleasure in the imaginative worlds that build up around the different versions of imaginary beings; the encrusted lore, so similar to the ancient myths, that accumulates and enriches their fictional worlds. It’s fun to compare Stoker’s Dracula with Anne Rice’s vampires, Max Schreck’s Nosferatu with Robert Pattison’s Edward Cullen; entertaining to wonder who invented the thing about vampires being invisible in mirrors (Stoker), sensitive to garlic and crucifixes (not Stoker), or unable to cross a threshold unless invited (again, not Stoker).

The extended franchise worlds of Marvel and DC Comics are a ruthlessly commodified way of experiencing the same pleasure. A keen consumer of contemporary mass culture has many opportunities to indulge in this feeling of marinating in an imaginative canon. (My fourteen-year-old son and his friends use the word “canon” more often than literature Ph.D.s.) What we don’t have enough of, however, is the genuinely new. More new stories! Give us more things that are as sexy and unpredictable and new as the first vampire, the first werewolf! Is that too much to ask?

James Gleick’s illuminating and entertaining Time Travel is about one of these once-new stories. We have grown very used to the idea of time travel, as explored and exploited in so many movies and TV series and so much fiction. Although it feels like it’s been around forever, it isn’t an ancient archetypal story but a newborn myth, created by H.G. Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine. To put it another way, time travel is two years older than Dracula, and eight years younger than Sherlock Holmes. The very term “time travel” is a back-formation from the unnamed principal character of the story, whom Wells calls “the Time Traveller.” The new idea caught on so quickly that it was appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary by 1914.

Wells is described by Gleick as “a thoroughly modern man, a believer in socialism, free love, and bicycles.” He was a serious thinker in his own way, forceful and coarse-grained, but the invention of the time machine wasn’t one of his deep philosophical conceptions. It was instead a narrative device for a story with two cruxes, one of them political-philosophical and the other imaginative. Its main argumentative point comes when Wells travels to the far future and finds that humanity has evolved into two different species, the brutish, underground-dwelling Morlocks and the etiolated, effete, surface-living Eloi. This, Wells implies, is what could happen if current trends toward inequality continue unchecked.

This was an argument worth making in 1895, and worth being reminded of today, but it’s not what most readers remember from The Time Machine. Instead, as Gleick points out, the abiding memory of the story comes from the Traveller’s journey to the final days of the earth, the dark and cold and silent stillness of the dying planet circling the dying sun. It is an atheist’s unforgettable vision of the absoluteness of death.

The time machine, the whole idea of time travel, was just a means of getting the story to where Wells wanted it to go. He did an impressive feat of hand-waving and misdirection in introducing the phoney science behind his invention. Alfred Jarry, who very quickly latched onto the idea of time travel for his Commentary to Serve in the Practical Construction of a Machine to Explore Time, praised the “admirable sang-froid” of Wells’s mumbo-jumbo:

“Can an instantaneous cube exist?”

“Don’t follow you,” said Filby [the designated straight man].

“Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?”

Filby became pensive. “Clearly,” the Time Traveller proceeded, “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.”

It is this fourth dimension that has proved crucial to the viral quality of the idea of time travel. Wells was onto something. The Victorians had already been thinking about the mathematical qualities of extra dimensions, but with the discoveries of Einstein, first published in 1905, a new conception of time became central to contemporary physics. Wells didn’t just strike a chord, he accidentally hit on one of the fundamental principles of modern science. “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it,” says the Traveller. That turned out, amazingly and counterintuitively, to be true. “In surprisingly short order this notion would become part of the orthodoxy of theoretical physics,” says Gleick.

Time travel has been an object of fascination ever since—and one of the reasons must surely be that Wells’s fantasy turned out to rhyme so surprisingly with the new physics. One of the few people to resist the infatuation with the new idea was Wells himself. He knew perfectly well that time travel is impossible, and its increasing popularity irritated him. “The effect of reality is easily produced,” he said. “One jerks in one or two unexpected gadgets or so, and the trick is done. It is a trick.”

We should be precise about what Wells invented. Other writers had displaced fictional characters through time. Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle fell asleep and woke up twenty years later; Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee got a bump on the head in the late nineteenth century and woke up in King Arthur’s court. (“‘Bridgeport?’ said I, pointing. ‘Camelot,’ said he.”) In Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the main character dozes off for 113 years and wakes in 2000; in 1892 the Scots golfer J. McCullough, his given name no longer known, published Golf in the Year 2000; or, What Are We Coming To. Gleick, who has read it so we don’t have to, reports that “in the year 2000 women dress like men and do all the work, while men are freed to play golf every day.” No comment. The crucial thing about these trips through time is that they are inadvertent. The hero (always a man) has no agency. Wells’s Traveller was different because he built a machine to travel through time on purpose. In his story humanity had, through its ingenuity, conquered time. That was what was new.

A scene from George Pal’s 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine, based on H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel
MGM/George Pal Productions/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection
A scene from George Pal’s 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine, based on H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel

Time travel became a popular subject of speculation and storytelling almost immediately. It was a vital part of a new genre, “scientifiction,” as it was initially dubbed by Hugo Gernsback, the founder-editor of Amazing Stories, in April 1926. Gernsback was “a self-made inventor, an entrepreneur,” says Gleick, and more than a little of a con man, taking out patents left, right, and center, squinting through a monocle at the wine list of fancy restaurants while keeping his other eye on the lookout for angry creditors. He was a huge fan of the future—an enthusiasm that, then and now, has a significant tropism for bullshit. It was this futurophilia more than anything that led him to create his new magazine. Scientifiction soon became science fiction, and the magazine (which Gernsback lost in one of his bankruptcies) became the longest lasting of his many inventions and appropriations.

Kingsley Amis isn’t thought of as a genre writer, though he wrote one of the best counterfactual-history novels, The Alteration (1976), and he was a serious enthusiast and student of science fiction. He observed:

While in 1930 you were quite likely to be a crank or a hack if you wrote science fiction, by 1940 you would be a normal young man with a career to start, you were a member of the first generation who had grown up with the medium already in existence.

Amazing Stories was a, maybe the, main reason for that shift.

It was a competitor magazine in the new genre, Astounding Science Fiction, that published the 1941 story that, after Wells’s original, did most to shape our fascination with time travel. “By His Bootstraps” was the work of the thirty-four-year-old Robert Heinlein, a man who perfectly exemplified Amis’s point about timing: he wrote his first story for a contest in the same magazine in 1939; by two years later, he had published twenty stories and short novels and was a professional sci-fi writer.

“By His Bootstraps” was originally titled “Bob’s Busy Day,” and told the story of a character, Bob, sitting minding his own business when a man who looks a lot like Bob appears behind him through a hole in the air. He explains that this is a “Time Gate,” and invites Bob to join him through it on the other side. Then a third man, with a distinct resemblance to the first two, appears and tells him not to. Then a fourth man rings up to ask what’s happening to the—you’ve guessed it—multiple Bobs. This was the first story to feature the same character appearing in multiple timelines, and to grapple with the ensuing narrative and philosophical brain-teasers, paradoxes, dead ends, and in-jokes.

Heinlein’s story is great hokum, and great fun too. It gave birth to a staple of fiction and film that is very much still with us in the form of Marty McFly (Back to the Future), Doctor Who, the various incarnations of the Terminator, Bill and Ted of the Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey, the crew of the Starship Enterprise, Marvel’s X-Men, the dwarves of Time Bandits, the heroes of the underrated lowbrow masterpiece Hot Tub Time Machine, the main characters in the TV series Outlander and Quantum Leap and Futurama and very, very many others. Most of these stories engage with what came to be called the “Grandfather Paradox”: if you traveled into the past and killed your own grandfather, would you have ever existed in the future? More subtly: In this story do you, at any point, actually have free will?

There are a number of preferred solutions to the Grandfather Paradox, the most common of which is that time is in fact fixed, so that the actions in the past end up being the very factors that determine the future. Alternatively, the altered past does indeed involve an altered future; or the world splits into multiple timelines, multiple universes. Diagramming and plotting out these narratives is always a headache. As Rian Johnson, writer-director of one of the best recent time-travel films, Looper, puts it, “I don’t want to talk about time travel shit, because we’ll start talking about it and then we’ll be here all day talking about it and making diagrams with straws.” That’s true: it’s difficult to discuss a time-travel plot, and the inevitable resulting paradoxes, without sounding as if you’re heavily stoned.

The science-fiction crowd did not have the subject of time travel to themselves. At the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, philosophers and physicists also began to take a new kind of interest in time. The greatest of the philosophers was probably Henri Bergson, whose first book, adapted from his doctoral thesis, was Time and Free Will. He argued for the primacy of subjective time, for our ordinary perception that time is far from regular: happiness and misery run at very different speeds. He thought the lived experience of time should be paramount in our attempts to understand it. In Gleick’s words: “For Bergson, the philosophical analysis of time could not be divorced from our human experience of it.” Bergson was admired by Henry James and immensely influential on Proust, who thought more sustainedly about time than any other great writer of the twentieth century.

In the other camp were the physicists. Einstein and his colleagues were struggling with the nature of light, so clearly a wave; but waves move through a medium, so in what medium did light move? In the “luminiferous ether,” perhaps, a made-up term for the medium that logically had to be there? Experimenters went looking for evidence of this luminiferous ether, and found that it didn’t seem to exist. So what was going on with light? Gleick’s account of the revelatory moment has brio:

We know now that the speed of light in empty space is constant, 299,792,458 meters per second. No rocket ship can overtake a flash of light or reduce that number in the slightest. Einstein struggled (“psychic tension”; “all sorts of nervous conflict”) to make sense of that: to discard the luminiferous ether, to accept the speed of light as absolute. Something else had to give. On a fine bright day in Bern (as he told the story later), he talked it over with his friend Michele Besso. “Next day I came back to him again and said to him, without even saying hello, ‘Thank you. I’ve completely solved the problem.’ An analysis of the concept of time was my solution.” If light speed is absolute, then time itself cannot be.

Thus was born the physicist’s time, which is profoundly at odds with our commonsense understanding of time. If time is a fourth dimension like the other three—as Wells flukily surmised for the purposes of his story—then free will is in some sense an illusion. Our past and future are fixed, and the only thing moving through them is our consciousness. Added to this is another fact profoundly challenging to our daily, empirical understanding of reality. The equations of physics are reversible and not deterministic: as mathematics, the laws of Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein work both ways. In the reality we experience, they only work one way. Time has a direction—“time’s arrow.” This arrow has no analogy in the study of the other three dimensions, and it introduces a profound problem with the notion of space-time. We can see entropy—the universe’s progression from order to disorder—everywhere we look, and yet this profound, self-evident truth about the physical world is not demanded by the fundamental equations of physics. Despite which, we experience time’s arrow every moment of our conscious lives. Time is everywhere, except in the equations. So, in short, what the hell?

The consequences of these ideas for theoretical physics have been profound, and they have energized philosophical debate too. Bergson and Einstein clashed, both publicly and privately. “The time of the philosophers does not exist,” said Einstein. Gleick has great fun telling the story of the scientists and the thinkers who touch on his subject, from John Archibald Wheeler (who crops up “Zelig-like” in subjects from black holes to the theory of multiple universes) to Kurt Gödel to Lee Smolin, from Jorge Luis Borges to Tom Stoppard, via David Foster Wallace, W.G. Sebald, Woody Allen, and Philip K. Dick, from E. Nesbit and the “future archaeology” of time capsules to John Hospers, the analytical philosopher who was also the only Libertarian candidate ever to have won a vote in the electoral college (in 1972, bestowed by an elector in Virginia who balked at Nixon-Agnew).

There’s a lot going on here, and there isn’t a paragraph in Gleick’s book without good sentences and fascinating information. I have to admit, though, that I also found something frustrating in the experience of grappling with these ideas. After reading Time Travel twice, I’ve come to the conclusion that my difficulties are not so much with the book as with the subject itself. As a lifelong fan of science fiction, I’ve always found time travel one of the least satisfying of the genre’s preoccupations, or devices, or subgenres. Like Rian Johnson, I don’t want to be making diagrams with straws. The central myth of most time-travel fictions, in which a hero tries to avoid a fate and by doing so causes that very same fate to be fulfilled, is one I’ve read and seen too often.

When it comes to the philosophy, and indeed the physics, it goes without saying that it’s fascinating to see brilliant minds “taking up residence in Grand Hotel Abyss” (to borrow George Lukacs’s crack about Theodor Adorno). What would be good, though, would be for someone to call us back when the thinking leads to something, anything, that we can see or feel or sense or even understand—because all this astonishingly brilliant thought and science and learning and history, all these amazing stories, as far as I can tell, have no consequences at all. Our commonsense subjective understanding of time is as telling, as tyrannical, as it ever was. A century-plus of fervent speculation and analysis of time and time travel have led to exactly no outcomes. We are as stuck in the present, as irrevocably exiled from both past and future, as ever.

Our increased awareness of this may be precisely why we have become so fascinated by the idea of time travel. The precise denomination of time is relatively recent, and was in the first instance a by-product of the need for synchronized railway timetables. Gleick makes this point with his usual vividness:

England began synchronizing its clocks (new expression) to railway time in the mid-nineteenth century, when telegraph signals went out from the new electromagnetic clock at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and the Electric Time Company in London.

King Edward VII at Sandringham cheated by running his clocks a half-hour ahead—“Sandringham time”—in order to get in a bit more shooting. Physicists have stopped believing in the idea of absolute universal time, and yet:

humanity has established a collective official timescale, preached by a choir of atomic clocks maintained at a temperature near absolute zero in vaults at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures near Paris, and elsewhere.

This, perhaps, is the moral of Gleick’s book. All this energy and brilliance, and yet we’re left feeling a little flat. The new idea, time travel, is appealing because we know time better than we used to. We know, much better than our ancestors, the exact lineaments of what Kipling called “the unforgiving minute.” Our time is more universal and more precise than ever, and we’re more than ever aware of the fact; it’s no wonder that we dream so much and think so fervently of ways in which time might be bent, stretched, reversed, made less unyielding and less unforgiving. All prisoners dream of freedom, perhaps never more so when they know there isn’t, and will never be, any possibility of escape.