26 Nov 2016

James Gleick: 'Time travel is what makes us human'

From Saturday Morning, 10:11 am on 26 November 2016

James Gleick's latest book Time Travel: A History, is not a how-to guide, he says, because time travel is not possible.

Yet, as he tells Kim Hill, through memories, movies, novels and hope, all of us are Time Lords.

Before 'time travel' was a known concept, we can find it in some unexpected places, Gleick says, such as the story of Rip Van Winkle and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

The idea of someone dialling up a year of their choice in the future or past and travelling there of their own volition didn’t appear until HG Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine.

Although Wells’ hero was known as the Time Traveller, his readers would not yet have understood the concept of ‘time travel’ – a phrase Wells himself originated – Gleick says.

To best illustrate his (dark) vision of the future, Wells believed he needed to transport his hero there to look at it. For transportation through time and space he invented ‘the time machine’.

In The Time Machine, Wells explains that the machine works because time is a ‘fourth dimension’ of space akin to length, breadth and height.

When he was asked later how he'd come up with this concept – ten years before Albert Einstein explained the fourth dimension – Wells said it was “in the air”.

A still from the 1960 film of HG Wells' 'The Time Machine'

A still from the 1960 film of HG Wells' 'The Time Machine' Photo: YouTube screenshot

In 19th-century England the ‘fourth dimension’ was a sort of catch-all concept for occult things, says Gleick.

Around the turn of the 20th century, as new ideas about science and new technologies challenged traditional beliefs, the notion of time itself was up for grabs.

“Everybody was uneasy, everything was unsettled, everything was changing.”

The subject of time travel sits at the intersection of science fiction, literary fiction, philosophy and physics, Gleick says.

While he was once doubtful that science fiction had anywhere left to go, he’s very impressed by some recent films.

One his personal favourites is the 2012 film Looper:

“A time traveller goes back in time and he meets himself. The older version is played by Bruce Willis and the younger version is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They meet for the first time and they’re sitting down at a diner. Of course, the old guy, Bruce Willis, knows all about it, but the young guy is gobsmacked and needs a lot of explanation. Bruce Willis says “I haven’t go time for this. If we’re gonna start talking time travel we’re gonna be sitting here all day making diagrams with straws.”

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the 2012 film 'Looper'

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the 2012 film 'Looper' Photo: YouTube screenshot

Groundhog Day (from 1993) is also a kind of time travel movie, he says:

“Poor Bill Murray, playing the weather man, is stuck reliving the same day over and over again, beginning at 6am every morning. He’s trapped, right? He’s forced to go in a kind of time travel loop over and over again… It’s a wonderful movie.”

Bill Murray in a still from the 1993 film 'Groundhog Day'

Bill Murray in a still from the 1993 film 'Groundhog Day' Photo: YouTube screenshot

Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven another interesting example of a time travel story, says Gleick:

“A man dreams, and when he dreams the world changes. He has what we would call ‘affective dreams’ that change the future. You would think this would be a wonderful thing and make him every powerful, but we don’t have control over our dreams, so scary things happen.”

Detail from the cover of Ursula Le Guin's 'The Lathe of Heaven'

Detail from the cover of Ursula Le Guin's 'The Lathe of Heaven' Photo: Public Domain

Technology has so much shuffled up our sense of time that it’s harder than ever before to think chronologically.

“Now we’re more and more living in a networked world. We’re letting information come to us through our screens and though our headphones. The timestamps are scrambled and we don’t know whether a message is coming from the immediate present or is a rerun. We mix up the sequels and the prequels and it starts to feel like we’re in a sort of long, unending present.”

Does our cultural creation of this ‘long, unending present’ have something to do with us not wanting to die?

Certainly, Gleick says.

“Time’s a killer, time’s a bastard, time’s an insult. Somebody says that in the new Dr Strange movie, time is what buries us. So time travel is in some ways our hope for liberation, it lets us free ourselves from the shackles, it gives us – even if it’s only fleeting – a sense of what immortality might be like.”

Yet we don’t need fiction to experience time travel, he says. We are all time travellers already.

“As moviegoers, even if a movie doesn’t involve a time traveller getting on a machine we’re very comfortable now with flashbacks and flash forwards, we’re comfortable when the story doesn’t follow a linear progression. We’ve become time travellers ourselves, I’d say... Time Lords, if you’re a fan of Doctor Who.

“We time-travel in our dreams, we time-travel in our novels and our movies and in our memories and in our hopes and fears for the future. Time travel is what makes us human.”

James Gleick

James Gleick Photo: around.com