Time travel stories are everywhere, from blockbuster movies to children’s cartoons, and it’s easy to imagine that the idea has always been popular. But science writer James Gleick, author of the new book Time Travel: A History, says widespread understanding of time travel is actually a fairly recent phenomenon.
“Everybody who’s born into this society knows about time travel,” Gleick says in Episode 241 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I know six-year-olds who argue at the breakfast table about paradoxes of time travel that would have taken an hour to explain to somebody in the 1930s.”
As recently as 1895 the concept of time travel was so unfamiliar that H. G. Wells had to spend the entire first chapter of The Time Machine just explaining what time travel is. “Because there had never been time travel before, because there had never been a time machine, the first thing H. G. Wells has to do is explain to his readers what this whole book is going to be about, or he can’t even start the story,” Gleick says.
Later authors such as E. Nesbit, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein expanded on Wells’ idea, gradually working out many of the possible implications of time travel, such as meeting yourself or altering the past. Such concepts are now so familiar that audiences can easily follow virtuoso feats of time travel gymnastics such as the Doctor Who episode “Blink,” in which a woman has a conversation with a video recorded in the ’70s.
“That story is trying to talk to us about the world we live in, where we get information from the past mixed up with information from the present and information that seems to be coming to us almost from the future, on all of the different screens that have become part of our networked lives,” Gleick says. “So that’s why I think that story has such great power, besides just being sheer fun.”
But based on some of the responses to the recent film Arrival, it seems that we haven’t quite reached peak time travel sophistication.
“At the heart of the movie is a time travel twist,” Gleick says. “And I know from experience that a lot of people who see the movie don’t quite get it, even when the movie is done.”
Listen to our complete interview with James Gleick in Episode 241 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
James Gleick on the influence of his book Chaos:
“I read Jurassic Park at the time, and I saw the movie. I never met Michael Crichton, but it’s pretty obvious that his character the chaos scientist, played in the movie by Jeff Goldblum so memorably, is speaking lines that reminded me of my book, so that was great. … Another much better example–much more beloved by me anyway–is Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, which I can say was inspired by my book, because he has said that it was. And he writes so much more beautifully than I was ever able to about not just chaos but entropy and thermodynamics and all kinds of other scientific ideas. It’s really been inspiring for me to read people like him, to read what artists are able to do with ideas from science.”
James Gleick on 12 Monkeys:
“The world has come to an end, and the movie starts, and Bruce Willis is a kind of unwilling time traveler, being sent back on a mission to the past by these murky, mysterious, semi-sinister people who seem to live in caves or something. And the movie has an ending that is so wonderful, and has a twist that I don’t even want to give away now, years later, even though most of you probably know what it is. But what I didn’t know when I started working on my book is that that movie was essentially a remake of an incredible early French film called La Jetee, that is only half an hour long and is composed almost entirely of still images, and is made by a mysterious Frenchman with the mysteriously American-sounding name of Chris Marker.”
James Gleick on Robert Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps”:
“He had to imagine what it’s like for Bob #2–who’s being told by Bob #3 that they’ve met before–to think, ‘Well, wait a second. If I’ve had this conversation before, shouldn’t I remember it?’ And one of the Bobs actually does remember it, and so it’s natural for him to think, ‘If I’ve had this conversation, now can I say something different, or do I have to follow the script?’ So willy-nilly, we’re now talking about the great, profound philosophical questions of free will and determinism. And I don’t think Robert Heinlein said to himself, ‘I’m going to write a story about free will.’ … But he was a smart, thoughtful guy, and he followed the logic of his story where it led him, and it led him into deep, deep swamps of philosophy.”
James Gleick on the rules of time travel:
“There were versions of time travel history where people thought, ‘OK, maybe you can change the past, but the overall course of human history will just repair itself and get back together. Isaac Asimov’s book The End of Eternity basically makes that case. They make little nudges to change history, but the idea is that you can’t change the really big things just by messing around with little things. But Ray Bradbury took a different approach, and essentially invented what chaos theory 20 years later named ‘the butterfly effect.’ … [His time travelers] are required to stay very carefully on the trail, and not disturb any living thing, because it is understood by the masters of time travel here that there could be unexpected effects in the future. And sure enough, somebody clumsily steps on a butterfly, and as a result the presidential election [in the future] is changed for the worse.”