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Writer James Gleick on why time travel makes us feel truly liberated

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The concept of time travel infatuated HG Wells and Einstein, has transported Doctor Who for half a century and even took Homer Simpson back to the dinosaurs. Writer James Gleick explains why it makes us feel truly liberated.

In 1895, a budding writer, HG Wells, published a story about time travel. The two words – time and travel – had never been joined as a single phrase before, and Wells needed a way to introduce the concept. The young man came up with what he thought was a cute piece of scientific bunkum. Forget everything you know about geometry, instructs a character in his novel The Time Machine, and think of time as the fourth ­dimension, ­inseparable from length, breadth and thickness. A little over a decade later, Einstein’s theory of relativity would say that time really was the fourth dimension, ­connected to the three dimensions of space. Did science imitate art?

Popular science writer James Gleick spent some time researching the ­question for his latest book, Time Travel: A ­History. In the end, he says on the phone from New York, he decided it was highly unlikely that Einstein ever read Wells. “There were some early translations in French, but for Einstein to have read it in German … there is certainly no reason to think he did.

“And Wells himself had no interest in saying something serious and new about physics. He was just trying to set a scene for his story with a load of horseshit.

“He was then beleaguered for the rest of his life by people who took his ideas more seriously than he did and thought he had discovered some profound secret.”

But Gleick doesn’t think the echo was a coincidence. Both men were steeped in the radical new science that was ­permeating the world at the time. “Both popular fiction and ­theoretical physics were embedded in the same culture and influenced by the same new ideas. The discovery of the new geology created by [Charles] Lyell was blowing apart any hope of sticking to the idea the Earth was only 6000 years old, and the ­evolutionary theory of Darwin was ­completely ­reorganising the history of life.”

Einstein, he says, “could not have ­created his version of physics in a vacuum, as much as it is a beautiful piece of pure mathematics”.

Around the same period, electric clocks were proliferating and people in ­different places were synchronising their ­timepieces. “The same basket of influences was making it possible for HG Wells to think, ‘Oh, I could have a machine that would travel through time and you could throw a lever and arrive in the future.’”

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Gleick, whose narrative non-fiction has long charted the cultural impact of technology, didn’t set out to delve into issues about time, mortality and free will, though Time Travel ended up tackling all these topics. His 1999 book Faster explores the giddy acceleration of modern life. This time, all he wanted was to write a history of time travel fiction.

“When I first pitched to my editor, he said, ‘Yeah, but really you’re going to end up ­writing about time.’ I said sure, but I wasn’t maybe as self-aware as you might expect,” he says. “If I had thought, ‘Now it’s time for me to write a big book about time’, I would have just laughed at myself and thought, ‘You can’t attempt that.’ What made it manageable was the idea of time travel, which seems much more specific and fun.”

Time travel feels like an ancient ­storytelling device, but it isn’t. Gleick points out that jumping through the ages is a fantasy born of the past century or so. For a long time, people assumed their grandchildren would inhabit a world very similar to their own world.

Time travel, argues Gleick, is the product of a ­culture that looks back with nostalgia to ­pre-industrial life, and forward with the certainty that Earth in the future will be radically different. Once people started asking what would happen if they could control their movements through time, they became addicted.

Wells had to help his readers ­understand the concept. By the time Homer Simpson accidentally turned a toaster into a time machine, in a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, no exposition was necessary.

Gleick is entertaining when he describes the screeds of fiction that Wells inspired – some beautiful, some cringe-making. He had never seen an episode of Doctor Who before he embarked on his research, and it wasn’t an instantaneous liking.

“At first I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, it’s so cheesy.’ But then I got it. I write about the Blink episode at some length, because it has so much to say about our lives today and some of these deeper issues like free will and determinism.”

Certain themes emerge in his survey of time travel books and television. People travelling back in time always seem to end up visiting the dinosaurs, ancient Egypt or Europe during World War II. Before Y2K, people travelling forwards always used to end up in the year 2000, where authors imagined they would find smellevisions (replacing televisions), battery-powered bicycles or games of croquet at the bottom of the sea.

Gleick says wariness, learnt from ­experience, has sunk the techno-­optimism of many early time travel stories. “It doesn’t feel as though there is any ­interest ­nowadays in writing a version of time travel fiction where you arrive in the future and the world is now full of wonderful technology that’s making everybody happy.

“There’s an awful lot of dystopian futures being written, and if there is advanced technology to be seen, it’s not too much more advanced than what we’re bound to have next year, anyway, and it’s not making people very happy. That’s partly because we have a ­different awareness of what we’re doing to the planet compared with people at the turn of the 20th century, when there was a lot of excitement about all the new ­wondrous things you could do with ­electricity and machines.”

As a writer, Gleick is unusually ­comfortable with the ­mind-bending aspects of theoretical physics. You sense his glee at diving into the realm of ­thermodynamics and quantum ­mechanics, even as he feigns reluctance to go there. (“At some point,” he says, about a third of the way through the book, “we have to talk about entropy.”) Yet he never loses sight of the emotional relationship people have with time, and he articulates beautifully the gap between this and a physicist’s way of conceiving time.

When we live our everyday lives, we tend to take time for granted. We might ask what the time is, but not what is time. When you stare at the science behind time, Gleick suggests, things can look seriously strange. Drawing on Einstein, the logician Kurt Gödel calculated it was possible to have loops of time, curving in on themselves. In other words, time travel was possible, in theory if not in human reality.

Writing about such topics could mess with your head, but Gleick relishes the feeling of vertigo he gets from asking questions such as, “What is time?”

“There were a lot of times when my head was spinning, metaphorically, but I like that. I decided the wrong thing to do was to imagine that you can arrive at some simple final answer to the question of what time is. Even physicists, at least when they’re honest, realise that’s a fool’s errand. Scientists are aware that time is experienced by humans as too big a thing to be finally reduced to the version they use in their equations.”

Ultimately, he thinks our ­compulsion to beat time is about seeking ­liberation, both from mortality and our own ­stuff-ups. Time travel is just another attempt to evade the inevitable ­consequences of being alive. Through it, we can murder baby Hitler, warn our descendants to shun atomic bombs or teach infant Trump some empathy.

“One of the most powerful ­motivations for this whole cornucopia of fantasies is that time imprisons us,” says Gleick. “All of time travel is a way of seeking liberation from our pasts, the futures we are afraid of or our inevitable mortality.”

A lot has changed since 1895. Now that people move through space and ­cyberspace so easily, it may seem ­surprising that we still feel the need to imagine whizzing around in time machines. Are we really still imprisoned? Gleick thinks so.

“We have a lot of different kinds of freedom, apparently, in cyberspace. We are disembodied and we seem to be able to travel everywhere, even through time. The past is available to us much more vividly than ever before. You might think we’d feel everything is okay, but we aren’t any freer, are we?

“We are still finite creatures, and when we make mistakes, we have made them and we have to live with them. I have no reason to think there is any less regret going around nowadays than there was in the past.”

TIME TRAVEL: A HISTORY by James Gleick (Fourth Estate, $34.99)

This article was first published in the December 3, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.