Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Time Travel by James Gleick

Is there a fancy literary term to say "review of the literature" (in the scientific sense)? Because that's what this book is: Gleick idly wanders through the fields of physics and SF to pick out interesting theories of time, and time travel, and related concepts, stringing them together in ways that seem most pleasing to him.

That's Time Travel: Gleick starts with Wells, as he must, and ends with...well, somewhat Gibson's The Peripheral, somewhat with the Internet in general, and somewhat with we-are-all-time-travel-theorists now, which is at least true of anyone who will read this book. Along the way, he hits every 20th century physicist you've ever heard of (Einstein and Kip Thorne and John Archibald Wheeler, Feynman and Hawking and Heisenberg), several major SF writers (Dick and Ballard, Bradbury and Heinlein, even Simak and Ray Cummings), and the big media properties most appropriate for a writer in the early 2010s (Doctor Who's "Blink," the inevitable George Pal, La Jetee and Twelve Monkeys, Back to the Future).

It's divided into fourteen more-or-less thematic chapters -- each one starts with a particular vision of time travel, from a physicist or SF story, and then explicates that vision as best Gleick can until looping around to return to more or less where it started. Time loops are at least two or three of the visions, actually, so the book is something of a text-based test-bed for itself.

Time Travel is full of quotes, both from physicists explaining what is possible and what isn't (with regard to something that has never happened and quite possibly never will) and from SF writers gleefully making up their own rules and breaking them even more gleefully. At times, a cynical reader could even wonder if it is a book with an existence on its own, or only an extension of the notecards Gleick took during his preparatory reading. But that would be unkind. (And pointlessly snarky: this book was a bestseller at least twice, and probably sells more copies a year even now than the average new SF book.)

This is a book for people who like the idea of time travel, who know a bit about the history of the literature of time travel and/or the physics theories that might allow time travel, and who want to spend time with a book that makes reasonable demands and leaves the reader feeling smarter than he started. It can also be a good engine to build an expanded to-read list, though Gleick makes some books sound more appealing here than I found them in reality. (Case in point: Charles Yu's How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which I was not a fan of a decade ago and still sometimes remember with grinding teeth.)

And it will make you, at least for a short time, feel smarter for having read it. But that's the point of a book published by Vintage, so maybe don't put too much weight on that.

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