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!