Book Review: Time Travel: A History by James Gleick

Time Travel: A History is an attempt by a popular science writer to provide an overview of humankind’s concepts of time and literary attempts to fictionalize the phenomenon of travel through time.  The book is interesting, but either my expectations were far higher than the writer’s vision, or the writer failed to organize and present his materials properly.

Like many other young readers, I was introduced to the concept of time travel through H.G. Wells in his enigmatic, ground-breaking short novel The Time Machine.  I recall a special scholastic edition of the book, so it was probably assigned as a literary project for English class.  I vividly remember scenes from that book, though I have not reread it for a number of decades: the peaceful childlike Eloi, the menacing Morlocks, the crab-like creatures on the beaches at the end of the world.  My next encounter with time travel was the short story “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein, in which a man continues to encounter various versions of himself during his forays into the past.  Since these early efforts, time travel has become a staple of science fiction literature, film, and television. One of the finest and most famous of the Star Trek original series episodes is “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a time travel story.  This book isolates and describes some well-known examples of time travel in literature, although it makes no attempt to be comprehensive.

I have dealt with time travel several times in my own writings.  One of the main characters in the series of interrelated stories that comprise my novel After the Fireflood is an enigmatic genius known as the Time Tiger.  In the far future, the atmosphere of the Earth is destroyed in an apocalyptic conflagration, and humankind attempts to reconstruct the surface through terraforming.  Time travel is forbidden by law due to the possibility of alteration of timelines, and the Time Tiger is a notorious criminal.  In my story “Matchmaker,” a time traveler from a future in which people have become apathetic and unloving journeys back to Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1917, just before a fire destroyed much of the city, to obtain advice on relationships from a woman famous for arranging successful marriages.  In my story “Mendocino Mellow,” hippies use a strain of magical marijuana to travel back in time to 1969 to attend the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

In my opinion, the questions of whether time travel is possible or not, or whether stories of time travel should be considered science fiction or fantasy are irrelevant in the consideration of time travel as a literary device.  The concept of time travel allows writers to juxtapose and compare different cultures and eras in ways that would not otherwise be possible.  All’s fair in the perpetration of literature, say I.

This book attempts to follow several threads in its discussion of time travel: a history of human conceptions of time, a history of the philosophical and scientific proof or disproof of the possibility of time travel, and a history of time travel literature.  Unfortunately, it does not present its material in a well-organized and lucid manner.  It is interesting because its subject matter is fascinating, but it could have been so much more if it were better organized and more lucid.  The author obviously has a lot to say, but throws the information out in seemingly random clumps, opting for cleverness rather than comprehension.  This could have been a great book.  Instead, it is an interesting yet sometimes confusing book due to a lack of organization.  Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, it is an overview rather than a thorough presentation of the material.  It could easily have been, and probably should have been, at least two or three times longer.  There is so much to say on this fascinating subject, and yet the author is content to introduce a theme or subject, present one or perhaps two examples, and then move on to the next.  I had the feeling of being swiftly ushered along through the time travel museum rather than being allowed to linger and soak in all the salient details.  I hope that sometime soon another writer takes up this subject again and gives it the comprehensive treatment it deserves.

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