Home > Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 70: A Brief History of Time Travel

Science Fiction Round 70: A Brief History of Time Travel


I recently read Time Travel: A History by James Gleick.

It’s not a science fiction story by itself.  Instead, it’s a wide-ranging analysis of time travel in fiction and popular thought — and well worth a read.

It’s probably just as well that they decided to go for mostly text on the cover. Time-travel diagrams can get messy.

The Time Machine

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is the critical codifier of the time travel genre, and is given an extensive analysis to match, with its influence stretching well into the present.  It eventually spawned a number of similar stories, complete with the trappings of technobabble to explain how it worked.  In includes the common use of time as the “fourth dimension,” drawing on ongoing scientific developments — which Einstein’s relativity eventually made even more popular.

Gleick notes that the term “time travel” itself doesn’t appear to have existed until after Wells’ book was published.  However, he still notes that many stories have elements of it, from ancient prophets who could see the future, to the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Even if the scientific trappings have been considered in more depth only in the last two centuries, many other times and places have asked the many “what if” questions.

One interesting point is that the concept of jumping into a future that is significantly different from the now is a more modern perspective.  In ancient times, people expected to see similar farms and wars and technologies in the future, as they had been in the past.  The more rapid pace of innovation in the present has made the idea of a totally different future, for good or ill, an easier concept to swallow.

The Purview of Philosophy

The question of time travel has intersected with philosophy in ways I hadn’t realized.  At least one philosopher decided time travel was impossible on the basis of the paradoxes alone — combined with the assumption of determinism.  Others considered the interplay of time travel with free will, or what this means about the nature of reality.

It’s actually fascinating how philosophers have examined the topic from an entirely different perspective.

The author also considers all the varieties of playing about in time — from the “mental time travel” of prophesy or dreams, to sending messages to distant stars, to the asynchronous communication we now have every day on the Internet.

In the end, it’s a fascinating examination of how we live in the present moment.

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