October 3, 2016
NY Times Sunday Book Review: Anthony Doerr Reviews a New Book on Time Travel
I was 10 years old when my brother handed me Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” with the endorsement that it was “probably the raddest story ever.” The action opens in 2055, and the United States has just elected a moderate presidential candidate named Keith over a strongman named Deutscher, “an anti-everything man for you, a militarist, Antichrist, anti-human, anti-intellectual.”
In the story a hubristic big-game hunter named Eckels pays Time Safari Inc. $10,000 to ride a time machine 60 million years back in time to shoot a rather vividly rendered T. rex. But there’s a Red Riding Hood-style catch: Eckels must stay on “the Path,” an antigravity sidewalk Time Safari Inc. has suspended over the jungle floor.
Why? Because, the lead hunter explains, “the stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our Earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations.”
Eckels, of course, stumbles off the Path and squashes a butterfly, “a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time.” When the hunting party gets back to the future, guess who the president-elect is? “Not that fool weakling Keith,” declares the desk jockey at Time Safari Inc. “We got an iron man now, a man with guts!”
(All of which makes one worry that a dino-hunter from 2055 has recently been mucking around in the underbrush of the Mesozoic.)
At age 10, I was gripped by Bradbury’s dramatization. I read the story a half-dozen times, then stepped gingerly through the yard, wondering if every ant I squashed spelled doom for civilization in 3924.
As I grew, so did the number of time travel stories I devoured. I watched Superman spin the Earth backward; I watched John Connor send a young soldier (who was somehow also his dad?) back in time to protect his mom from a Terminator; I watched Keanu Reeves offer Genghis Khan a Twinkie in Bill and Ted’s (not so) Excellent Adventure. Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” made me long to wake in an era when my Casio wristwatch would strike folks as sorcery, and Martin Amis’s “Time’s Arrow” wrecked my assumption that all narratives had to proceed from Then to More-Recently-Than-Then. Indeed, as a world culture, we have indulged in so many time travel stories that, in 2011, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television officially denounced them, charging that they “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”
That’s enough to start any storyteller building her time machine. Enter James Gleick’s “Time Travel: A History.”
Bad news first: Though the title might suggest otherwise, this is not a book sent through a wormhole from the future to detail the glorious evolution of time travel. Darn it. Gleick even goes so far as to declare that literal time travel, as imagined and reimagined by writers over the decades, “does not exist. It cannot.”
The good news? “Time Travel,” like all of Gleick’s work, is a fascinating mash-up of philosophy, literary criticism, physics and cultural observation. It’s witty (“Regret is the time traveler’s energy bar”), pithy (“What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track”) and regularly manages to twist its reader’s mind into those Gordian knots I so loved as a boy.
“Time Travel” begins at what Gleick believes is the beginning, H.G. Wells’s 1895 “The Time Machine.” “When Wells in his lamp-lit room imagined a time machine,” Gleick argues, “he also invented a new mode of thought.” Western science was undergoing a sea change at the same time, of course: Lyell and Darwin had exploded older conceptions of the age of the Earth, locomotives and telegraphs were transforming space, and Einstein was about to punch a major hole in Newton’s theory of absolute time. Meanwhile, in literature, Marcel Proust was using memory to complicate more straightforward storytelling, and it wouldn’t be long before modernists like Woolf and Joyce were compressing, dilating, and folding time in half.
But according to Gleick, Wells was the first to marry the words “time” and “travel,” and in doing so, “The Time Machine” initiated a kind of butterfly effect, the novel fluttering with each passing decade through the souls of more and more storytellers, who in turn influenced more and more of their successors, forking from Robert Heinlein to Jorge Luis Borges to Isaac Asimov to William Gibson to Woody Allen to Kate Atkinson to Charles Yu, until, to use Bradbury’s metaphor, the gigantic dominoes fell. Nowadays, Gleick writes, “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.”
It’s also in the science. Gleick is a polymathic thinker who can quote from David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate thesis as readily as from Kurt Gödel or Lord Kelvin, and like many of the storytellers he thumbnails, he employs time travel to initiate engrossing discussions of causation, fatalism, predestination and even consciousness itself. He includes a humorously derisive chapter on people who bury time capsules (“If time capsulists are enacting reverse archaeology, they are also engaging in reverse nostalgia”), he tackles cyberspace (“Every hyperlink is a time gate”), and throughout the book he displays an acute and playful sensitivity to how quickly language gets slippery when we talk about time. Why, for example, do English speakers say the future lies ahead and the past lies behind, while Mandarin speakers say future events are below and earlier events are above?
“If you say,” he writes, “that an activity wastes time, implying a substance in finite supply, and then you say that it fills time, implying a sort of container, have you contradicted yourself?”
(A footnote here: Gleick is a brilliant footnoter; never more than in this book have I been reminded of how footnotes can function as breaks in the time of a writer’s sentences, wormholes in the space-time of a paragraph.)
As in his 2011 exploration of information theory, “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,” Gleick’s greatest skill in “Time Travel” is to synthesize: He sees practice in theory, literature in science, Augustine in Rivka Galchen. 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.
Read a verse of Homer and you can walk the walls of Troy alongside Hector; fall into a paragraph by Fitzgerald and your Now entangles with Gatsby’s Now; open a 1953 book by Bradbury and go hunting T. rexes with Eckels. Gleick’s epigraph to his penultimate chapter comes from Ursula Le Guin: “Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time,” and she’s right, of course. The shelves of every library in the world brim with time machines. Step into one, and off you go.