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'Time Travel: A History,' by James Gleick



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"Time Travel"

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James Gleick

James Gleick

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Time Travel: A History, by James Gleick

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Given its present ubiquity in popular culture, it might seem as if the notion of time travel has always been with us. Not so, asserts James Gleick in his new book, Time Travel: A History.

Time travel is a fantasy of the modern age, he writes. When (H.G.) Wells in his lamp-lit room imagined a time machine, he also invented a new mode of thought.

The author of Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, Isaac Newton and The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, Gleick is particularly well equipped to explore how the idea of time travel evolved across the past century in science, literature, technology and philosophy. Far-ranging, lucid, accessible and witty, Time Travel tackles its elusive subject from unusual angles but with fine-tuned focus.

Readers who know Wells The Time Machine only from the 1960 George Pal film or as another half-forgotten, high school required-reading assignment may be surprised to be reminded of just how revolutionary that novella was upon its first publication in 1895. Ancient myths and mostly forgotten satires had featured characters sleeping their way into the future, but none had the authority of Wells work.

At a time when artists and engineers were looking forward to a bright and gleaming new future, The Time Machine struck a chord with readers highbrow and low. For the rest of his career, Wells would have to deal with fans and critics wanting to argue the logic of time travel with him, despite his insistence that there is none.

When you write about time travel, writes Gleick, you either pay homage to The Time Machine or dodge its shadow. There are many formidable literary figures among those homage payers and shadow dodgers, from Jorge Luis Borges to Vladimir Nabokov to Ursula Le Guin.

The concept of time travel leads inexorably to questions of paradox, especially the ones that occupied the attention of Hugo Gernsback, publisher of the pulp science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. What if you could go back in time and kill your grandfather? Would that prevent your own birth? What if you go back and marry your mother? Could you become your own father?

Gleick devotes a chapter to Robert A. Heinlein and his famous short story, By His Bootstraps, in which hapless doctoral candidate Bob Wilson learns why tampering with time is dangerous and confusing, meeting different versions of himself during the course of one day. Although fun and farcical, the story also grapples with philosophy. What is the self?, it asks. Does free will exist?

Gleick doesnt leave these questions only to the fiction writers but also checks in with physicists and philosophers. Time travel raises difficult ideas about the relationship between cause and effect. Does time permit only one fixed future or does it branch off into infinity? Does it run backward as well as forward?

Physicist Erwin Schrodinger and his thought experiment about his simultaneously dead and alive cat make their expected appearances, ss does theorist Hugh Everett III and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, with its claim of everything that can happen does happen, in one universe or another.

The question of whether its possible to go back in time and kill Hitler has occupied the imaginations of Kate Atkinson, Stephen Fry and hundreds of other writers. Gleick addresses the urge to rewrite history, drawing on examples in the work of Marcel Proust, Tom Stoppard, William Gibson and childrens fantasy writer E. Nesbit.

Gleick also looks at some of the more mundane as aspects of time travel. He spends a chapter focused on time capsules, the tragicomic time machine and the silly urge to project our imaginations and our memories into the future.

In the final chapter, Gleick examines how the Internet has redefined the meaning of the present moment. When everyone is online at once, tweeting from different zones, the past, the present, the future go round and collide, bumper cars in a chain of distraction. He asks why we yearn for time travel and concludes, All the answers come down to one. To elude death.

With Time Travel: A History, Gleick doesnt try to provide the last word on its subject, as if that goal were even possible. Instead he provides an engaging overview of the topic, hitting the high points, following a few interesting tangents, providing some answers while maintaining an air of ineffable mystery. Like the best time travel stories, this compact but far-reaching book will leave some readers slightly confused but many energized. Theres a well-curated list of sources and suggestions for further reading.

Knowledgeable, curious and humane, Gleick proves to be the perfect tour guide for this mind-bending intellectual expedition into the past, present and future.

Michael Berry writes the science fiction and fantasy column for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: books@sfchronicle.com

Time Travel

A History

By James Gleick

(Pantheon; 336 pages; $26.95)

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