Passing Time

I just finished Time Travel: A History (2016) by science historian and author James Gleick. The New York Times Book Review, Anthony Doerr described it as, “A fascinating mash-up of philosophy, literary criticism, physics and cultural observation.” I agree with that description minus the word fascinating. I would have said tedious.

This is not the book’s fault. I’m not saying it’s bad. There was nothing I disagreed with. There were even a few parts I got into. The problem is I found it ambling, rambling, and meandering. It wasn’t incoherent, but it seemed disconnected to me.

Overall I found it easy to put down and hard to pick back up.

But this really isn’t the book’s fault. For one thing, while I admit to considerable rambling and meandering in my blog posts, it’s not something I enjoy in non-fiction books. It’s not a style I care for in book length.

There is also that I was expecting something else. I didn’t read the description carefully enough and was expecting more focus and analysis of time travel in science fiction. I wasn’t expecting such a wide net — Gleick touches on nearly every possible opinion about time and time travel.

One of my complaints is that his net goes so far beyond time travel — not just into notions of time and our relationship with it, but the internet, futurism, free will, determinism, and death. (I believe he never mentions any kitchen sinks.)

With such a wide scope, it’s impossible for any book to get into much detail. On such a whirlwind tour, one is never in the same spot long enough to catch one’s breath or study the sights in any detail before one is whipped off to the next attraction. I found it a bit maddening. And empty (I’m no longer a tourist in this territory; I want to linger over details).

The book is a puree of what a large number of diverse people, from science fiction authors to philosophers to scientists to the average person, think about time travel. The problem is that, in most cases, I don’t care about most of them.

I don’t care what a tribe of indigenous people think about time. I don’t care what religious people or ancient philosophers thought about time. In the context of this book (about science fiction), I don’t even care that much what scientists think. People think all sorts of shit; I don’t care.

I was looking forward to an exploration of time travel in science fiction, and a lot of that does get mentioned, but to frequently (for my taste) just in passing. Many of the SF references (let alone the myriad other references) are obscure, and there are what I thought were some odd omissions.

(No mention of Superman’s efforts to change the past. No mention of the movie Primer. Barely mentioned Looper (a single quote in passing). No mention of time travel in Star Trek. No mention of Time Tunnel. Given the wide net and discussion of our perceptions of time, I would have expected touching on Kant and maybe mentioning “Repeat Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman.)

((And I would have mentioned how Rick and Morty is an excellent SF show committed to not using time travel. It does have infinite alternate dimensions, though.))

The bottom line here is that the book wasn’t what I expected or wanted. That’s all on me.


If you like that sort of meandering exploration, you might really enjoy the book. I can’t fault the quality at all. I just didn’t respond to the style.

Or the content, to be honest. I was seriously bored during the entire chapter about time capsules. (You see what I mean about the wide net.)

One note I have is: Portentous tone. Pronouncements and the banal blended into the seemingly deep. The NPR approach — wrong for the topic. Time travel is not a fine arts matter; time travel is Gilligan’s Island.


Given that Gleick is a historian, I expected more of a timeline approach to exploring time travel. (In science fiction — which seems almost redundant. Where else would it be?)

Instead Gleick constantly jumps back and forth in history throughout the book. He does begin with The Time Machine (1895), by H.G. Wells, which, in many regards, is the first time travel story. (Except, not really. It’s the first one to feature a technological time travel machine, though.)

In the Wells story, the traveler moves only forward (and then back to his own time). The idea of traveling into the past wouldn’t occur until a story by Edith Nesbit, who was a friend of Wells. Under the gender-free name E. Nesbit she published The Story of the Amulet (1906), which uses magic to travel back in time.

Gleick doesn’t introduce us to Nesbit until chapter 10 (of 14): Backward. It isn’t until chapter 5 that Gleick introduces the Robert Heinlein story By His Bootstraps (1941), in which a time traveler (Bob) meets himself. Multiple times.

(When they say that, for any science fiction topic, Heinlein wrote a story about it first, these are the kinds of stories they mean.)

The point is that our understanding of (fictional) time travel evolved in a really interesting way that I wish had been more the central focus of the book. A serious study of the evolution of time travel in fiction would have fascinated me — it’s what I thought this book was. It’s why I read it in the first place.

§ §

Just some random notes:

At one point Gleick writes: “If time is a river, does it have tributaries? Whence does it spring? From the big bang, or are we now mixing metaphors? If time is a river, where are the banks that contain it?”

After a lot of this sort of aimless wondering, I added a note: Torturing the “time is a river” metaphor within an inch of its life. I’ll never again encounter that metaphor without a touch of PTSD.

In the intro of the last chapter (Presently), Gleick has a long paragraph that starts: “Formerly communication occurred in the present, perforce. You speak, I listen. […] The the written word split time: your present became my past, or my future your present. Even a blaze of paint on a cave wall accomplished asynchronous communication. […]”

To which I added a note: This is a good example of a bunch of words that ultimately says nothing. Communication is as it was. To wit: humanity has always had both asynchronous and synchronous communication. It’s a lot of portentous text that really adds nothing.

I will credit him for devoting several pages to one of the best Doctor Who episodes, Blink. But as with a lot of his references, if you’ve never seen that episode, you won’t get as much from the text.

(It’s a seriously twisted time travel story plus it introduces what I think are the scariest monsters ever, the Weeping Angels.)

§ §

Despite really not being into it, I was determined to finish the book.

Some of that was curiosity — wanting to see the whole thing before I made up my mind. (Ever hopeful, I usually think, “Maybe it’ll get better…”)

Some of it was an ingrained commitment to finishing what I start (the “clean plate club” childhood training; it wasn’t until adulthood I became easy with exiting books, movies, or TV shows, that didn’t satisfy).

Some of was that the book is, in many ways, very good. I would like to read at least one more book by Gleick. Time Travel is the last one he published; I’d like to check out his early work. This one just wasn’t to my taste.

Stay in the present, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “Passing Time

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Sounds like the kind of book I wouldn’t have finished. As I’ve gotten older, those have increased in frequency. Life is too short to spend it on books that aren’t working.

    I’m with you on not liking meandering books. One of the things I look at when considering them is the table of contents. Structured books tend to have meaningful chapter names. Meandering stream of consciousness books tend to have cutesy meaningless chapter names. Unless there are major recommendations for it, I usually skip those books.

    On traveling backward in time, I think A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court was published before 1900. Or does it not count? (I’ve never read it, so it’s possible the hearsay I’ve picked up is wrong.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hell, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) predates even The Time Machine, so I’m not sure what Gleick meant. (I’ve returned the book to the library, and don’t feel like checking it out again to see.) He did mention the Twain piece, so he’s certainly aware of it. The book is so mixed up, I can’t recall what he wrote about it.

      Connecticut Yankee is a fantasy — no time machine — so he’s at least right about that much. But the text did lead me to think the Nesbit story was the first trip to the past. Perhaps it’s the first story to consider the ramifications of travel to the past? Connecticut Yankee, from what I recall, simply ignored that aspect. That is a part of the book Gleick talks about time travel paradoxes, as I recall.

      FWIW, the chapter names were pretty meaningful, even linear after their fashion, but the text was more (near) stream of consciousness.

      Funny aside: When I entered the [James Gleick] tag, I saw that the tag already existed. I’d mentioned him before. (I was aware of him as a writer of possible interest, but had never read any of his books.) I did mention him in a 2016 post where I said his Time Travel book sounded interesting. (I thought so again when I saw it listed in the Cloud Library.) But in that post I also mention that what really caught my eye was his third book, Faster. (At least I’m consistent. 😀 )

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’ve noticed books on the history of fiction tend to have a lot of oversights. The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction often misses the first occurrence of a concept. I get that that kind of research is hard to do, but at least check Wikipedia on it.

        You made me go look at the table of contents in preview on Amazon. Some chapter titles do seem meaningful, but many of them seem too cute to me. This is one that the ToC would have been a red flag for me.

        I know the feeling with tags. I’m sometimes surprised to discover I wrote about a particular topic. Sometimes I’m even impressed with what I said, if I still agree with it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I wonder if trying to document fiction isn’t as hard or harder than trying to document humanity. (Perhaps Gleick has some logic behind how he presented things, but it wasn’t apparent to me. He did mention Connecticut Yankee, so he was aware of it.)

        Judging a book by the ToC seems too close to judging a book by its cover to me. Surely there are great books with really crappy chapter headings (and vice versa)? I’m not sure I see a great connection between chapter titles and the quality of the writing. It might be something of a clue to how the material is presented, but I get very little from this one. What do you see as a red flag?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’ve noticed a correlation, but it might just be my own experience.

        From the Kindle preview:

        Chapter One: Machine
        Chapter Two: Fin de Siècle
        Chapter Three: Philosophers and Pulps
        Chapter Four: Ancient Light
        Chapter Five: By Your Bootstraps
        Chapter Six: Arrow of Time
        Chapter Seven: A River, a Path, a Maze
        Chapter Eight: Eternity
        Chapter Nine: Buried Time
        Chapter Ten: Backward
        Chapter Eleven: The Paradoxes
        Chapter Twelve: What Is Time?
        Chapter Thirteen: Our Only Boat
        Chapter Fourteen: Presently

        Gleick, James (2016-09-26T23:58:59). Time Travel . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

        Looking at it this morning, I can see more meaning than I did yesterday. But I’m too provincial to know what 2, 5, 7, or 13 refer to. And the others are a little too cute and ambiguous for my tastes. For example, does “Ancient Light” refer to ancient perspectives on time travel? Or something else? Cute and ambiguous, at least in my experience, often translate into unstructured meandering.

        As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become increasingly aware of how limited time is. When someone wants me to read their stuff, I need to see value in it. If I have to invest a lot of time to find out if that value is there, I’m going to just move on to something where the value is more evident. I’ll be more patient if it came highly recommended.

        (On a related note, when considering fiction, I often check to see how much dialog it has in relation to exposition. I’ve learned I enjoy more dialog and less exposition. That’s a very personal preference, but it’s a benchmark I’ve found useful.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        So, had you not seen my review, and had Gleick on the horizon as someone to check out, and had an interest in time travel in SF, would the ToC have put you off reading the book?

        This may be another of those fundamental POV things. I have a buddy who was always trying to get me to go to beer tastings. I enjoy those just fine, but not enough to go out of my way. He and I are both picky about beer, and both like exploring new beers, but metaphorically he’s kind of a ToC guy whereas I’m more prone to getting the book. He prefers to sample beers before he commits to buying them, whereas I’ll buy a 6-pack (or 12-pack). In part, I like to see how they hold up over time. First impressions can steer one wrong.

        I also see this in how, if I hear a song I really like, I’ll buy the whole album even though these days you can buy just the tune. (Once consequence of this is that I do have a number of albums where I only like one song on them. On the flip side, I’ve discovered some very good albums, too.)

        I think I’m just more inclined to jump into something than many.

        I do agree about value, but I find some value in knowing what James Gleick is like. (I can almost hear my mother, “How do you know you don’t like it if you don’t try it?” 😀 )

        “I’ve learned I enjoy more dialog and less exposition.”

        Very much with you on that one! Some authors,… page after page with no quote marks. I’m, likewise, not a huge fan of lots of internal dialog.

        (The Expanse (reading book three now) sometimes gets close to my border there with Holden’s internalizing. Also with Julie Mao’s sister, “Melba” — one wacked out person.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Would I have put off reading it? Hard to say, but the ToC would have made it less likely.

        In comparison, here’s the ToC of another book that drew me in:

        1 Introduction: Pain in Life, Science, and Medicine
        2 The Need for Complexity: Rejecting the Orthodoxy of Simplicity
        3 Mechanistic Explanations: How Complex Idiosyncrasy Undermines Them
        4 Adopting Scientific Eliminativism: How Complex Idiosyncrasy Undermines Scientific Utility
        5 Rejecting Traditional Eliminativism: Why Pain Is Still Real
        6 Conclusion: Living with the Complex Reality of Pain

        Corns, Jennifer. The Complex Reality of Pain (Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy) (p. vii). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

        No guarantee I’m going to enjoy it. It might end up being too philosophically dense. But this ToC did a much better job selling its product.

        I do jump in on some things, even books. There’s a reason I stop reading a lot of them. One thing I remember hearing in school, that you must give a book 100 pages before judging it. To hell with that. That might have worked in 1950, but time’s short and it’s too easy to pull up a different book these days.

        I know what you mean on The Expanse. They sometimes skirt my tolerance for inner monologue too. There was one book (I think book 6) where it felt really excessive. It was the only one I actually had to exert effort to finish. (Although some people loved it, so go figure.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I remember hearing in school, that you must give a book 100 pages before judging it.”

        I think maybe that’s the key difference, since I still think that’s true, and judging a book by its title headings just isn’t my thing, I guess. (If I ever write a book, I’ll be sure to just call the chapters “1”, “2”,… 😉 )

        “I know what you mean on The Expanse. They sometimes skirt my tolerance for inner monologue too.”

        It’s not just me then (I know sometimes it is). I’m about halfway through book three. Gonna spend a few more hours with it today.

        For the most part I haven’t liked the new material the TV show has added — most of it falling under “Manufactured Conflict” in my book. But I do like the changes they made in Ashford, and it seems the character Michio Pa became Camina Drummer — who I kinda crush on.

        What I find in general is that people act much more sensibly in the books than in the TV show. We still apparently like a lot of hotheaded ignorant dickhead in our TV drama. I really wish we’d grow out of that childishness.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Some of it may come down to the differences in the storytelling medium. The show has to externalize a lot of stuff that’s handled through exposition or inner monologue in the books. And the books have more time to develop character motivations.

        But as I’ve noted before, I’m uneasy with the added darkness of the show. In my view, the books are plenty dark enough. The relationship of the characters in the books actually serves as a nice contrast to that darkness. The show adds more conflict into those relations, although not as much in the later seasons.

        I like Ashford and Drummer on the show too, although I did miss Bull from the book. I was actually pretty disappointed with how fast the show ran through the third book.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But as I’ve noted before, I’m uneasy with the added darkness of the show.”

        Right, and that’s what I’m talking about. That stuff isn’t forced by differences in the medium.

        The changes and deletions they’ve made, those are, and I tend to either agree with them or don’t mind them.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Was watching Netflix last night… bright flash of lightning followed very shortly by a huge crack of thunder. In between the flash and the crack, the power went out — for the whole neighborhood.

    This was around 11:00 last night. Power didn’t come back on until about 8:30 this morning. Gotta admire those electrical crews and their ability to get out there and get it done!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Had an outage yesterday morning, no idea why. The Xcel Energy site indicated a work crew was on a nearby corner, so I went for a walk to see if I could see them.

      No one at that particular corner so I kept walking. On the way back, at that corner, I saw a guy in an Xcel truck pull up, and he used a long telescoping pole that reached all the way up to the top of the power pole.

      I watched from across the street as he used the pole to flip the breaker bar to reconnect the circuit. There was a nice spark when the bar connected, and I thought, “Hmm, I’ll bet my power is back on!”

      Sure enough, when I got home, it was. Kinda cool I happened on that corner just in time to watch. Another moment of synchronicity!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’m currently reading Gleick’s The Information… and having the same issues with Gleick being all over the map. I think a lot of people must enjoy that sort of thing, but I don’t, and I’m questioning whether to finish this 1000+ page book. I skipped almost all of chapter two.

    He just doesn’t seem to be my cup of tea, but then I’ve never been a history buff.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It got better with chapter four, which was mostly about Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Lovelace.

      But, man, does Gleick meander around. He mentions at one point how Babbage used what was essentially an early seismometer, mounted in a train car, to track the motion of a train over several miles. Apparently this resulted in a 1000-foot paper record. Then Gleick spends many pages wandering around the landscape of the time and looking at many things. A large number of pages later, he mentions the train thing again. Neither time in depth — just one of the myriad things the author’s gaze briefly rests on.

      So I’m finding the topic matter a bit more interesting, but still not digging this meandering style. I really wish he organized his material differently. I find it too rambling and disconnected to really get much out of it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I am definitely liking this one better. I wonder if Gleick was a bit out of his depth when it came to time travel and science fiction? He’s dealing with a more real subject here, and despite his tendency to meander, I’m much more engaged with this book (although I confess to skimming through large sections).

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Funny I never mentioned or linked to the post I wrote about time travel. I completely forgot about it, and it’s not a bad post (if I do say so myself)!

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