Friday, May 12, 2017

Time Travel: A History, by James Gleick

James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History (2016) examines the history of the concept of time travel in popular literature and thought.  With a few exceptions, H. G. Wells novel The Time Machine introduced the concept of travel through time to the modern world.  Gleick discusses Wells’ novel in a perceptive way—he takes Wells seriously and sees the novel as a visionary work—even though Wells himself lost interest in the idea of time travel later in life, even though time travel itself (with minor caveats) is a physical impossibility. Gleick considers why time travel as a concept did not enter our thinking until late in the 19th century: the impact of scientific thinking had a major influence on its appearance. He discusses the proliferation of time travel novels after The Time Machine and the importance of the concept in modern culture: films, television, literature. He is comprehensive in approach: that is, he explores every conceivable facet of his subject (at least I couldn’t think of any he’d missed). In the end, his book is as much a philosophical work as it is a discussion of history. Our preoccupation with travel through time reflects our preoccupation with death, our wish to escape or at least delay it. Gleick discusses how the idea of time travel raises the question of what time is, of how and whether it can be measured, of whether it has any meaning, of whether it even exists. The book is eminently readable and interesting.  It doesn’t bog down in technical language. Time travel offers Gleick the opportunity to engage in an interesting meditation on important aspects of the state of our culture.

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