How to Travel in Time

Is the age of time travel already over, and when did it begin?

How to Travel in Time

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. Pantheon. 352 pages.

“Time did not so much elapse as grow less relevant.”

— Thomas Pynchon


IF YOU WERE to travel to the Altiplano plateau in the Andes and speak with some Aymaras, an indigenous people of the region, you would encounter something quite remarkable: the pleasure of conversing with one of the few people in the world who regularly and unselfconsciously travel in time. The Aymara language (also called Aymara) conceptualizes time and space differently than do most others: in Aymara, the past is thought of as in front of the speaker, and the future behind her — the idea perhaps being that the past is known and therefore visible, while the future is obscure and therefore invisible. By extension, every step forward is in some sense a step back in time; in contrast, those of us limited by our fluency in English, or French, or Yoruba, who think of the future as being ahead of us are constantly stepping into it, second by second.

The Aymaras’ unique ability to travel through time — or, rather, unique understanding of how we travel through time, predicated on their now-dying language — is one of humanity’s many ingenious ways of using language to figure out what, exactly, time is or might be. In his book Time Travel: A History, James Gleick lists Aymara alongside a whole range of other time machines, most of which are stories of one kind or another, and all of which need language to power them.

Gleick is wonderfully attentive to the power of language: “Human language switches between past and future with a simple change of tense, and this can trap the unwary.” Time travel starts with verb tense. Some languages make it even more difficult for the unwary by blending the past and the future together into the future perfect progressive tense (“By the weekend, there will have been a sea battle”). Gleick foregrounds that language is a system of representation, and that it doesn’t always function all that well; in his view, our “tendency to take our words too seriously” causes confusion in philosophy, physics, and popular science fiction about such difficult topics as whether humans have free will, whether time is reversible, and whether traveling into the past to have sex with your own grandmother, thus becoming your own grandfather, is a good idea.

Scientists and philosophers have produced a lot of confusing models of time and space, and Gleick’s attentiveness to language is most useful when he is discussing them. Scientists create representations, and, like everyone else, they sometimes forget that those representations are just models and descriptions:

You can say Einstein discovered that the universe is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. But it’s better to say, more modestly, Einstein discovered that we can describe the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum and that such a model enables physicists to calculate almost everything, with astounding exactitude, in certain limited domains. Call it spacetime for the convenience of reasoning. Add spacetime to the arsenal of metaphors.

This is not at all to undermine scientific knowledge, and certainly not to say that it is false; rather, it’s an acknowledgment of a desire for utility and a constant drive for perfection. But, as so often, we are left grasping only imperfection; and so we have a number of metaphors for understanding time (like spacetime) that do useful work but can get confusing when deployed in the wrong context.

When we’re thinking about time travel, Gleick’s formulation of scientific models as metaphors is particularly useful because it blurs the distinction between a metaphor for time coming from physics and a metaphor for time produced by, say, H. G. Wells. There are limitations to scientific inquiry for the purposes of resolving the grandmother paradox, notably that it is difficult to run experiments about time travel. (Stephen Hawking has conducted one: he held a party for time travelers, but sent the invitations after the party so that only those capable of traveling back in time could attend. Nobody came. From this we might conclude that either time travel is impossible or that time travelers are asocial. Hawking’s larger point seems to be that experiments about time travel are always merely bad jokes.) This is where literature comes in handy: while a novel is a bad laboratory for an experiment about particle acceleration, it’s a good one for experiments with time. In literature, humans invented the time machine thousands of years ago. As Gleick observes, “The rules of time travel have been written not by scientists but by storytellers.”

If our literary forms are merely vessels for transporting us across time, then we might think of the novel as a sleek racing yacht, the thick volume of slightly dry history as a cargo ship, and the newspaper article as a sturdy tugboat. They all transport their readers in slightly different ways, and with different levels of elegance. The Odyssey, for example, was described by the critic Erich Auerbach as having an “independent and exclusive present” of narration which “causes what is momentarily being narrated to give the impression that it is the only present, pure and without perspective.” Odysseus returns home in disguise, but his identity is revealed as he is bathed by a serving woman who sees his distinctive scar. The tension of the moment is then interrupted by a 70-verse digression, which tells the story of how Odysseus came to have the scar and includes a number of details about his boyhood, as well as about the life, character, and house of his grandfather Autolycus. This is all included in the narration’s present, even though it happens in the story’s past. The story of Odysseus’ scar is an example of the past sitting comfortably in the present, which is, in a way, a moment of time travel.

Time travel, then, has been around since the very beginnings of Western narrative fiction. We might also think of prophecy as a different kind of time travel, usually a fuzzy, confused glimpse. While in these cases, time has gotten all mixed up, with bits of the past and bits of the future jutting into the present, the “travel” element of time travel is largely neglected. Somehow the traveling itself did not seem very important. Often though, narrative is self-conscious about the leaps in time it is performing. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, for example, an actor comes onto stage to represent Time:

Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings. Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
O’er sixteen years, and leave the growth untried
Of that wide gap, since it is in my power
To o’erthrow law, and in one self-born hour
To plant and o’erwhelm custom.

Sixteen years pass in the time it takes an actor to recite this soliloquy, which, even with the most extravagant acting, can’t easily take more than a few minutes. Time beats its wings, scoops up the audience, and deposits them 16 years later — a journey that starts and ends in Bohemia, but travels extensively through time.

When The Winter’s Tale was written (scholars think sometime around 1610 or 1611, but they’re not really sure, because it can be difficult to pin down time with any precision), Time’s flight was aberrational: it is Time’s power “To o’erthrow law” and “o’erwhelm custom.” Time has not lost these powers, but, as Gleick argues, these powers have been used so frequently in recent years that they’ve lost their potency. “Literature creates its own time. It mimics time. Until the twentieth century, it did that mainly in a sensible, straightforward, linear way. The stories in books usually began at the beginning and ended at the end.”

Or they did, that is, until modernism came along at the beginning of the 20th century, realized that narrative was the perfect laboratory for temporal experiments, and made time travel normal. Virginia Woolf claimed that “[o]n or around December, 1910, human character changed.” Gleick rolls the date back a few years to the publication of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine in 1895. But, essentially, something happened that led to us all becoming far more self-consciously aware of time travel, and this was reflected in the 20th century’s outpouring of time-travel fiction, modernist fiction with confused temporalities, and movies that start with their ending before pausing and asking, “How did I get here?”

Before we can ask what happened, we need to say what exactly changed. In Gleick’s account, “No one bothered with the future in 1516. It was indistinguishable from the present.” Exotic, magical, or speculative travel was still a journey through space, to isolated islands or enchanted forests. While “the future, as divined by the diviners, remained a personal matter,” — a matter of illness, childbearing, finding treasure, or murdering your father at a crossroads by mistake — it was still predicted by haruspices picking through animal entrails. But societal future was neglected: “The world people imagined their children living in was the world they inherited from their parents. One generation was like the next. No one asked the oracle to forecast the character of daily life in years to come.” Cultures had golden ages and apocalypses, but between those two events, things would stay pretty much the same. In the 19th century, however, the future became qualitatively different from the present, with a different society as well as different technologies, forms of dress, favorite foods, families, architectures, and even different systems of government.

So when Wells came up with a time machine, he changed the tradition of future-minded literature. Before The Time Machine, people mostly traveled in time by being hit on the head (e.g., Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court [1889]) or falling asleep (e.g., Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” [1819]), and then, upon regaining consciousness, were surprised to find themselves in the future or the past. (Wells himself would use this classic falling-asleep trope in The Sleeper Awakes [1910].) Wells’s big innovation was making time travel volitional: the Time Traveller wants to go to the future, so he builds a machine to do so. The machine is a clue as to why time travel became something someone might want to do deliberately: it is a technology, and it is only through technology that the Time Traveller realizes his ambition.

Technology is one of the big reasons we end up with Wellsian time-travel fiction at the end of the 19th century. Earlier technological innovations, things like the specialization of labor, machines that automated parts of the spinning process, coal-powered steam engines, and government bureaucracies, allowed for the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution, in turn, brought to the fore the big Victorian idea of Progress: the idea that things were improving, accreting, surely getting better; that the arc of the universe was bending, if not toward justice, at least toward the production of more linens. Progress implies a future that is radically different to the present, because things are constantly changing and getting better. The idea of Progress was also informed and complicated by new theories in the natural sciences. In geology, the idea of “deep time” was being uncovered, most prominently in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–1833), discovering a history far longer and more mutable than had previously been imagined. In physics, advances in thermodynamics had led to the formulation of the idea of entropy, and its correlated idea that the sun was going to burn out. William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, tried in 1862 to predict exactly when the sun would run out of energy; it is this concept of “heat death” that inspired the second of the Time Traveller’s adventures. And in biology, of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution reaffirmed both mutability and a long time-frame; in the Morlock and Eloi section of The Time Machine, Wells also imagines humanity’s evolutionary future.

Technology gave the Victorians reason to imagine a changing future, and it also gave them reason to think that they might be able to manipulate time. Railways and telegraphs, because of the speed of communication, caused time to seem malleable; they also led, eventually, to the adoption of standardized time zones after 1884, which demonstrated that time is often arbitrary and can be rearranged as needed — at least if you can organize a successful international conference. From the 1870s, a photographer called Eadweard Muybridge devised an apparatus that would take many pictures in rapid succession, showing what things looked like if the speed of their motion were slowed down. If time could be slowed down at man’s command, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that it could also be sped up, or skipped over, or annihilated entirely.

Wells is Gleick’s jumping-off point, and he does a remarkable job of following the developments of various thoughts and technologies of time throughout the 20th century, touching on almost every canonical work of time travel, reaching from high modernism to Hollywood populism, from continental philosophy to pulp sci-fi, from theoretical physics to things Proust thought while he was eating. Which — to skip over a hundred or so years — brings us to the present day. We should note again Gleick’s title: Time Travel: A History. Histories generally are written after things have finished. So, oxymoronic as the question sounds, is the age of time travel over?

In Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006), a group of eternally youthful adventurers, the Chums of Chance, attend a very long conference on time travel at a university somewhere in the Midwest. They venture off campus and come across a junkyard:

“Walloping Wellesianism!” cried the Professor, “it’s just a whole junkyard full!” Up and down the steeply-pitched sides of a ravine lay the picked-over hulks of failed time machines […] broken, defective, scorched by catastrophic flares of misrouted energy, corroded often beyond recognition by unintended immersion in the terrible Flow over which they had been designed and built, so hopefully, to prevail. […] Where was the safe harbor in Time their pilots might have found, so allowing the craft to avoid such ignominious fates?

Where indeed? It is perhaps time travel’s saddest irony, that, like everything else, it’s bound up in time. Our Wellsian time machines are now better suited to a scrapyard. Our age, perhaps, has lost some faith in the power of technology to do exactly what we want it to do and to conquer exactly what we want it to conquer. And, as Gleick concludes, our understanding of time, post-internet, is much more focused on simultaneity and presentness than it is on duration. He quotes J. G. Ballard: “The future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into the present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us.” The reason, according to Hubertus Bigend in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition (2003) is that “[f]ully imagined futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration.” This is a luxury we have forsaken: “We have no future because our present is too volatile.” The modern age, if such a thing exists, has too much overwhelming simultaneity and uncertainty to allow for any speculation about the future.

We must not push this idea too far: Gibson’s most recent novel The Peripheral (2014), after all, was a time-travel novel. In it, one time is layered atop another. There is no travel between them, just communication, via a kind of fantastic video phone, and the two time periods unfold simultaneous to one another. Such layering of temporality is characteristic of recent time-travel fiction. It is, Gleick might say, a response to overwhelming simultaneity: everything now happens at once, including the past and the future.

We can see this in the film Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, and reviewed by Gleick. The film is about the arrival of aliens on Earth and the attempts of a translator to make contact with them. She notices that they have a strange sentence structure, almost as if they think the whole thought at once, as if past, present, and future are all, to them, fixed, at least in their language. The aliens offer a gift of technology. Everyone is confused for a while, but it becomes apparent that the “technology” being offered is their language. The linguist becomes fluent in Alien, and as a result her perception of time changes: she can now remember her whole life, recalling memories of the future as easily as we are used to recalling memories of the past. She has a new understanding of time as static, extending symmetrically in both directions, forward and back (or back and forward), in which past and future are both accessible to the present. The effect is not all that dissimilar to Odysseus’ scar: other times are bound up in the present of the narration.

Perhaps this is time travel in an age of constant, simultaneous presentness: time travel without much in the way of traveling. Instead of voyaging into the future, or the past, and bringing it back with us as means of reflecting on the present, the future might come to us. We can leave our time machines in the junkyard; we need only our words.


Timothy Kennett is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Stanford University.

LARB Contributor

Timothy Kennett is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Stanford University.


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