Time Travel: A History

James Gleick


Why do we need time travel? All the answers come down to one. To elude death. Time is a killer. Everyone knows that. Time will bury us. “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” Time makes dust of all things. Time’s winged chariot isn’t taking us anywhere good…The past, in which we did not exist, is bearable, but the future, in which we will not exist, troubles us more.

                          from  Time Travel: A History


Perplexities and paradoxes posed by the idea of time.

Thinking about time is like gazing at an Escher engraving: You’re doing fine, following along, when suddenly you realize that somewhere it’s jumped the tracks of logic. Time is a concept that our earliest philosophers wrestled with. Augustine confessed, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.”

Science writer James Gleick, author of several popular books including Chaos: Making a New Science, provides an entertaining meditation on time and time travel in his newest work.

He starts with H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine (1895,) which Gleick says has become so ingrained in our modern culture that it is “one of those books you feel you must have read at some point, whether or not you actually did.”

But the idea of traveling through time has been in our specie’s subconscious for quite a while longer, if not by a machine, then maybe by hibernation, as in Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” or Woody Allen’s film, Sleeper, where the main characters wake up into the future (“I haven’t seen my analyst in two hundred years. He was a strict Freudian. If I’d been going all this time, I’d probably almost be cured by now.”)

Gleick’s wide-ranging survey explores mythology, history, science and science fiction, mathematics and quantum physics, literature, psychology, art and popular culture. He even quotes from Doctor Who:

“Must be a spatio-temporal hyperlink.”
“What’s that?”
“No idea. Just made it up. Didn’t want to say ‘magic door.’”

He discusses space travel, wormholes, tesseracts, parallel universes, and the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI)—“that we have multiple selves, living other lives in other universes.” (See Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel, Life After Life.)

He wrestles with a number of problems that time and time travel present, such as the “grandfather paradox:” If time travel is possible, could you go back in time and kill your grandfather before you were born? (Even if you could, it probably wouldn’t be in your best self-interest.)

Clearly, this is not a book to whiz through, but rather one that forces the reader to stop at times and ponder the implications. You may even need to go for a walk, trying to work through the convolutions and conundrums, the perplexities and paradoxes posed by the idea of time. But if you do, don’t be surprised, as with that Escher engraving, if you meet yourself coming back from your walk.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15, 2017-June 14, 2017.) Reprinted with permission.