The history of time travel began, at least according to James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel: A History, in 1895 when H.G. Wells published his novel The Time Machine. That’s not to say that no one had thought about traveling through time before, but those journeys had happened through supernatural means or the unexpected effects of getting conked on the head. Wells, Gleick explains, was the first to connect the notion of moving through time with science.
The Victorians had developed machines to do things that, just a few decades earlier, would have seemed magical. If you can capture light, in photographs, or sound, in phonographs, or cross an ocean or a continent in less than a week, why can’t you control time, or, rather, move through time the way you move through space? Just a decade later, Albert Einstein would show that time is not absolute. The century that followed was full of theories of how time travel worked, philosophical inquiries into the nature of time-travel paradoxes, and a ridiculous number of time machines, time portals, and wormholes.
But for Gleick (pronounced “Glick”), the most interesting part of the history of time travel is what’s unfolding now. “I had the sense [as I was writing] that something new is happening relative to time,” he says. “There’s a change in how we deal with time and what time means that’s as consequential and dramatic as what people went through 100 years ago.”
Like Wells, we’re living in a time of rapid technological change that’s affecting the way we think about time. We’re less concerned with controlling time, though, than we are with using it to send and receive messages. The virtual world makes sure we’re constantly connected to other people, and also to things that aren’t people, like Siri and the Facebook news bot. On YouTube, we can watch videos of things that happened both 50 years and five minutes ago. “Everything feels like it’s now,” says Gleick. “We have channels from so many different places at once, the notion of ‘real time’ expands the sense of now. The present is compressed and expanded at the same time.”
Will we someday be able to time-travel through virtual reality, as in William Gibson’s 2015 novel The Peripheral? Or will the past, present, and future exist on a Möbius strip, as in the seminal Doctor Who episode “Blink,” where the Doctor, trapped in 1969, appears to be having a spontaneous conversation with a woman in 2007, only he’s on a DVD, reading lines from a script that she hasn’t given him yet?
Gleick isn’t sure. All he knows is that something’s changing. “We’re not going to be able to understand it fully until we look back on it,” he says. Or maybe someone from the future is working on a way to tell us. v