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Last year I read, and wrote about, William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It remains my favorite recent science-fiction novel, not least because of its surprising and elegant implementation of time travel. It happens to agree with a treatise on good fictional time travel that I posted to my LiveJournal four years ago, but I am quite willing to accept that Gibson independently came to the same conclusions as I for this novel.
I have a lot of respect for Gibson the novelist as well as Gibson the social-media junkie. Even though I find myself compelled to unfollow him for a length every now and again, his Twitter page remains a consistently excellent single-account source of relevant, culturally broad, and socially conscious news and links, even counting retweets alone. While currently off-list for me — his bleak post-election content became too heavy for me, what with everyone else I follow — through his “GreatDismal” account did I first hear praise of James Gleick’s Time Travel. I hadn’t read Gleick before, but the referral stayed with me due, in all likelihood, to my trust in Gibson’s taste when it came to this particular subject matter.
A confession: days before the election, maybe the day before the election, I borrowed Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation from the Newport Public Library’s new-nonfiction shelf. But then all that happened, and I found myself too utterly heartbroken to immediately proceed into reading a book with such a politically challenging topic that — for the time being — suddenly seemed utterly hopeless. I knew I wouldn’t even begin it, so returned it unread and found Time Travel instead. I wanted right then to escape. Embracing a bookful of pop-soc-sci fluff quite unrelated to the war on the ground seemed to adhere to the calls for self-care filling my personal Twitter timeline during those first post-election days.
I got what I came for, and I enjoyed myself. Its first couple of chapters apologize for the rest of it not presenting much of a “history”, despite the book’s full title. Scholars, we learn, find scarcely any concept of time travel in any human culture prior to the turn of the 20th century (and the original publication of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine). Before the industrial revolution began the whole-order acceleration of technological progress whose curve we were all born deep into, human societies simply had no reason to dream of the future. They had no reason not to assume that life for the next generations would be every bit the same, on the whole, as life for the current one. All evidence suggests they tended to think of the past in the same way. Why would anyone bother to imagine traveling through time, when neither direction held anything special?
The remainder of the book presents a tour of how western culture has broached the topic in science, philosophy, and in fiction since Wells’ nameless Time Traveller went slumming in A.D. 802,701. I read it quickly and pleasantly. I enjoyed soaking in the notion that science really has no agreement at all what time is, or indeed if it exists as any “is” in the first place. Schrödinger gave us his wave-function equation as an abstract tool that works time and again to explain and predict, but nobody can bust open Ψ and detail its contents. Reality isn’t made of spacetime so much as spacetime’s the best model we have to better understand and study reality, right now.
A digression by Gleick into Heraclitus, and his many-ways-translated aphorism about not stepping into the same river twice, led me to pick up a slim volume of that ancient one’s fragments, translated into english by a modern poet. At one point I needed a break from diving through Time Travel so I switched books, and couldn’t stop myself from saying “And speaking of time travel!” out loud, to nobody, except perhaps my own future blogging self. So there’s also that.
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