Science Fiction Books That Start Snowballing Themes

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 3, 2016

2017 Sci-Fi ExperienceOver at Stainless Steel Droppings, Carl Anderson has started his 2017 Sci-Fi Experience early. It’s based on Andrea’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. Usually, Carl reads old science fiction in January and February, but decided this year to switch to December and January. Since I’m already reading old science fiction I decided to join in. But I want to put a focus on my efforts. I recently read “17 Science Fiction Books That Forever Changed The Genre” and although I agree with some of their selections, I disagreed with others. However I really liked their idea of identifying the books that either changed the rules/direction of science fiction, or inspired other writers to explore their ideas. I like to think of certain science fiction books as snowballs rolling down a slope getting bigger and bigger – or even causing an avalanche.

James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel: A History does just that for The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Wells’ little book has started a huge snowball rolling down the decades. It might be the best example of what I’m talking about. And Gleick describes many classic time travel novels that came afterwards, but he doesn’t come close to covering all the major time travel stories, just look at this list of books, television shows and films at Wikipedia. Hasn’t every possible speculative variation on time travel been imagined by now?

I want to make my reading of vintage science fiction about studying science fiction themes. I keep wondering if there’s a limited number of science fictional concepts. But then I read something like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson or Quarantine by Greg Egan, and think speculative fiction is unlimited. I do believe we can identify snowballing books, and that will help us count up the themes.

Another good example would be Starship Troopers, a book that inspired such novels as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, plus seems to have launched the Military SF sub-genre. When I watch movies like Aliens, I think Starship Troopers. When I watch Star Wars I think of Asimov’s Foundation books.

Under-the-Ocean-to-the-South-Pole-2What other books, or series of books inspired a sub-genre in science fiction? Did Heinlein start the YA science fiction market with Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947? But then, does anyone remember The Great Marvel Series by Roy Rockwood (1906-1935)? Carl’s reading challenge generally focuses on books from 1950-1979, but what about books from 1850-1950? Have we already forgotten the books that inspired the Golden Age writers to write those 1950-1979 classics? Older fans today can remember juvenile series by Heinlein, Norton, Asimov and Wollheim, but science fiction for young people goes way back.

Did The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The Scarlet Plague by Jack London and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart start the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction last man on Earth stories? Remember Wells hinted at that in The Time Machine. And didn’t The Time Machine set things up for Olaf Stapledon? All that stuff about future species of humans.

The Stars Are Ours - NortonI’ve been been wondering two things. One, is there a limited number of science fictional ideas, themes, subgenres? And two, how far back do they go? For my science fiction book club, we’re reading The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton from 1954. It presents two interesting themes. One, conservative/religious groups repress/destroy science and scientists, and two, people need to escape Earth to start over again on another planet. Both themes are relevant today.  Can we find books from the 19th century or even 18th century that first got those snowballs rolling? Do those themes ever stop being relevant? Will science fiction written in the  22nd century add to the existing snowballs? Will science fiction fans in the 2050s read many SF books from the 1950s? Or even known about them? Or will they think the science fiction they discover in adolescence as having original ideas?

At what point does vintage science fiction become forgotten science fiction, and newer, but older science fiction, become vintage? SF of the 2010s will vintage in the 2050s. The appeal of vintage science fiction might be due to fans getting older and realizing what they once thought of as original ideas might be as old as the hills. As I’ve said before, Noah’s Ark might have been the first generation ship story. I find parts of The Book of Genesis to be very science fictional. If you squint at it in the right way, doesn’t the whole tree of knowledge of good and evil story seem like speculation about the evolution of human awareness? I can easily imagine a writer, male or female, living under Babylonian occupation, trying to imagine how everything got started, and wrote about a powerful alien being creating us. What’s really science fictional, is people think that story is the literal truth 2700 years later.

Generally, we read for story. We want to be entertained. But I think as we read and reread these vintage science fiction tales, we should examine the ideas they present. Then speculate about what inspired those ideas, and finally, evaluate how well they were implemented. As a liberal, I was rather shocked by the 2016 election results. The lesson I learned is don’t trust my assumptions. I’m applying that lesson to reading vintage science fiction. For example, should we assume that humans can leave Earth and start over on another planet if we totally screw things up here? I hated that Interstellar depended on that idea.

Some snowballs rolling down a hill just fall apart. Can we also count them as we read?

I believe science fiction represents a collection of speculative ideas that have been around a very long time. Eventually, they become real – like heavier than air flight, traveling to the Moon, cloning, constructing robots to do our work – or, we can eventually give up on the idea. I think time travel stories are now considered fantasy by most people. I hear they are remaking filmed versions of Starship Troopers and A Handmaid’s Tale. That’s a recognition that those themes are still valid to a mass audience. But are they considered fantasies or science fiction? Do we believe space marines and horrible theocracies are possible? I think we do.

I’m currently listening to The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, a short novel that was first published in 1962. Ballard wrote several eco-apocalyptic novels back in the 1960s. They are part of a speculative snowball that now includes The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson. In biblical times God caused such catastrophes. After Darwin, it was nature that could destroy us. Now we imagine species suicide. But the theme is the same. Either all, or nearly everyone, gets wiped out. That theme isn’t new – it might have existed in pre-history.

I want to contemplate vintage themes while reading my vintage science fiction.

drowned-world

JWH

Old Movies on Big Screens Again

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 1, 2016

Last night I went out to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the movie theater. It was absolutely wonderful to see on the big screen. Generally, we see movies on the big screen first, and then watch them again on the little screen at home. We’ve gotten used to seeing old movies small, but when you see one again big, it’s almost mind altering. And even though my little screen is 56”, and I have a Blu-ray copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it’s just not the same – not even close. While watching the movie last night I wondered why I even bothered with watching movies on television. I even wondered about getting a video projector to create my own home theater. I doubted if I could make the image large enough. If I could convince my wife to allow me to cover the windows in the living room with movie screen I might buy a video projector and try.

Breakfast-Tiffanys ending with cat

I was at a multiplex that has 16 screens, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s was on one of the small-to-medium size screens, and it was damn impressive. Month ago I saw The Maltese Falcon on one of the larger screens, and it was amazing. We’re so used to seeing classic films on a small screen that we forget what they’re really suppose to look like. Back in the 1970s there were old theaters here that played old movies – at least for a couple years. I’d go two or three times a week, and got to see many famous flicks, including silent films, on a big screen. It’s worth both the money and effort, although I don’t know why an old movie should cost more to see than a new movie. Last night it was $27 for 2 tickets. I’d go once or twice a week if it was $5-7 and old shows were available to see.

The Maltese Falcon

Be sure and check out Fathom Events to see if old movies, plays, concerts, operas and other special films are shown in your area. Test out an old movie on a big screen. This month they will be showing From Here to Eternity. I’m still kicking myself for missing when they showed Dr. Strangelove. What I’d love to see are my favorite westerns from the 1950s at a theater. And I’d really love seeing old movies from the 1930s. I consider myself lucky to have seen films like Grand Hotel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Dodsworth on big screens. I’ve also seen Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton like they appeared in the 1920s. Silent movies don’t look so quaint and archaic when shown in a theater at the right film rate.

City Lights

I guess this might be the only thing I envy the rich. I don’t care about privates jets, exotic sports cars, or mansions. But I’d love to have a large home theater and a 4K projector.

JWH

Isn’t Receptivity for Fake News in Our Genes?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 29, 2016

When we are very young our parents convince us to believe in Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny. We grow up believing in Super Heroes, Harry Potter like magic, and far out science fictional ideas. We are taken to churches and taught to believe in Jesus, God, angels, heaven, hell and eternal life. All of these beliefs are easily disproved with a good education. And when we want to keep these fantasies rather than accept reality, we learn denialism. Even our favorite adult art forms – television, movies and novels depend on us suspending rational thinking to enjoy.

Orson WellesWe are conditioned to believe in fantasies. Most people aren’t atheists because they can’t throw off their childhood brainwashing even when there’s amble evidence. And all the fantastic ideas we embrace are so much more appealing than the cold facts of reality. Is it any wonder we find it easier to rationalize what we want than to be rational thinkers able to discern fake news from validated facts? Homo sapiens aren’t rational creatures, but rationalizing ones.

Strangely, fake news is in the news like its something new. The Onion and Saturday Night Live have been doing fake news for decades (1988, 1975). Tabloids go back much further, but even the earliest of newspapers played fast and loose in their reporting. It’s also well established that first person testimony is unreliable. We all live in a sea of lies, so is it such a surprise we can’t tell shit from Shinola?

The Bible is promoted as the literal word of God by many, yet it only takes reading the book itself to reveal it was written by all too human people, expressing widely divergent opinions and philosophies, using different writing styles and points-of-views, and often showing contradictions and inconsistencies. And scholars of history, who study The Bible in-depth, have found parts of it to be fake history. Many books of The Old Testament appear to have been written to pre-date land claims in building of an ancient nation. And books in the New Testament were forged to shape Christian theology based on personal bias. To compound the many false aspects of The Bible, many thousands of books have been written to rationalize those falsities. Anyone who reads The Bible should at least get a scholarly study Bible, like The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and read what experts have to say along with the currently best translation of the oldest biblical texts we have. It would also help to read books about the history of The Bible before starting any serious Bible study, such as The Bible Unearthed or Who Wrote the Bible? to give a historical context why the The Bible was originally written, and by who. But we don’t do that, do we? We just embrace the good bits, using them to justify our current beliefs and wants, claiming “God” an an authority.

And remember that saying, “History is written by the victors,” that’s just the start of the distortion. Anyone who wants to shape current thought can write a history book. And the news media can say anything about history, as well as artists. Just look at JFK by Oliver Stone. Everyone thinks they know the truth. But reality is Rashomon 24×7. Truth is extremely elusive, unless you understand science, math and statistics, and only then it’s the best truth we can find at the moment.

How to deal with fake news is the talking-head topic of the month. Most discussions are about how to ban fake news, yet I can’t imagine a world where we can trust what we read, hear and see. Will we ban satire? Obviously we won’t ban lying politicians. Should churches have to prove the existence of eternal life before collecting tithes? Shouldn’t fantasy fiction come with the warning “Magic Does Not Exist” printed on the spine?

Fake news isn’t just those weird stories you see on Facebook. Fake news is any information you use to understand reality. I include religion because gospel means the good news. We assume its true, but isn’t it fake news too? Gossip can also be considered fake news, since it’s usually distorted. When it comes to spotting fake news, we’re piss-poor judges, and it’s everywhere.

To abolish fake news would require programming our kids to become hyperaware of lying, to think skeptically, distrust the media, history books, social institutions and other people, and carefully evaluate everything they read, see, or hear. We need to educate them about science, logic, philosophy, ethics, authority, evidence, scholarship and statistics. We’d have a wiser society if folks studied statistics and data mining every Sunday instead of going to church.

But will any of this ever happen? Didn’t Donald Trump win because of anti-intellectualism, denialism, fake news, unethicality, and mob rule social media? Doesn’t his success endorse its efficacy? Isn’t fake news an effective tool in the fight against science and enlightenment politics? Didn’t orthodox Christianity suppress liberal Christianity in the first three centuries of the common era with the same tactics? George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four illustrated perfectly the value controlling the news. Aren’t the institutions of news always the first things revolutionaries take over in revolutions? Haven’t conservatives succeeded amazingly well with Fox News? Fake news is too effective to give up, especially if your objective is to get votes, change laws, or demolish reputations.

I’d like to believe we could change things for the better, but when I read history I’m not sure I see any signs of progress. I’d like to believe the pendulum swings back and forth between conservative and liberal eras, and overall we’re becoming more liberal over time. But that might be like climate change deniers taking tiny segments of temperature histories to claim a cooling trend, while ignoring the larger trend on the graph. Reading books like Collapsed by Jared Diamond suggests we don’t change. Our species has been extremely stable for a couple hundred thousand years. Evolution produces species that adapt to their environment, and we have adapted very well. But we have adapted because of the selfishness of individuals. We have not adapted because of liberal ideals. Fake news benefits the survival of the fittest individuals, not groups.

JWH

65 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 25, 2016

Hothouse - Brian W. AldissHappy Birthday to me! Last year I wrote “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear” for my 64th birthday. It was published at SF Signal. I had hoped audiobook publishers would have granted my wish by now. Unfortunately, only one title has shown up at Audible.com – Nova by Samuel R. Delany. I bought it and it sounds wonderful. Maybe more will show up by the time I’m 66. But guys, I can only live for so long.

Here’s the list updated to 65 titles for my 65th birthday. I’ve substituted some collected works for older original short story collections. I figure it’s probably easier to get the audio publishing rights to the most recent collections.

If I had three wishes from a genie, one wish would be for Adventures in Time and Space (1946) edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas in a perfect audiobook edition. Great anthologies on audio are rare. I expect publishing rights are hard to arrange. I’m still wishing for six completely out-of-print volumes to come out in audio. Most of these books below are available in print or ebook editions. Does it take a certain demand for print/ebook editions before publishers will risk an audio edition?

A Mirror for Observers - Edgar PangbornMost of the great science fiction classics have shown up on audio. Starting in 2002 when I join Audible.com, I’ve been “rereading” my favorite science fiction books from youth by listening to them. I love hearing old science fiction when read by a great narrator. If you can think of an old science fiction book that’s not on my list below, chances are its available on audio at Audible.com. If you haven’t gotten into audiobooks yet, I recommend starting with an old favorite. You might be surprised to hear something you missed.

Many of the books below are forgotten classics, especially the older ones. People from my generation might remember them, but younger readers may never have heard of many titles. The real question is whether or not these books still hold up. Just because I want to hear them doesn’t mean they are great stories. They are just books I often read about when reading about science fiction.

What amazes me are the authors that have no Audible.com editions of their work. Or next to none. I can’t figure out if this is for legal reasons, or there’s no interest in their work. These include:

  • Eleanor Arnason
  • Alfred Bester
  • Michael Bishop
  • Pat Cadigan
  • R. A. Lafferty
  • Maureen F. McHugh
  • Eric Frank Russell
  • James H. Schmitz
  • William Tenn
  • James Tiptree, Jr.
  • Wilson Tucker

65 Books I Want to Hear

H=Hardback  T=Trade paper  M=Mass market  E=ebook  *=OOP

  1. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay – HT
  2. The World of Null-A (1948) by A. E. Van Vogt – TE
  3. The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A. E. Van Vogt – T
  4. Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore – TE
  5. The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester – TE
  6. A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn – H
  7. Mission of Gravity (1954) by Hal Clement – TE (as Heavy Planet: The Classic Mesklin Stories)
  8. Cities in Flight (1955) by James Blish – E
  9. The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester – TE
  10. Wasp (1957) by Eric Frank Russell – E
  11. The Lincoln Hunters (1958) by Wilson Tucker *
  12. Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys – E
  13. The High Crusade (1960) by Poul Anderson ME
  14. Hothouse (1962) by Brian W. Aldiss – E
  15. Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn – H
  16. Empire Star (1966) – T (combined with Babel-17)
  17. The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz – ME
  18. Dangerous Visions (1967) ed. Harlan Ellison – TE
  19. The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
  20. Camp Concentration (1968) by Thomas Disch – TE
  21. Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty – T
  22. The Last Starship from Earth (1968) by John Boyd – *
  23. Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock – T
  24. Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad – TE
  25. Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony – HTE
  26. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin – HTME (OOP on audio)
  27. And Chaos Died (1970) by Joanna Russ – *
  28. Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970) edit by Robert Silverberg – T
  29. The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) by Wilson Tucker *
  30. The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth (1971) by Roger Zelanzy – TE
  31. The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) by Gene Wolfe – TE
  32. The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn – T
  33. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and 2B (1972) edited by Ben Bova – T
  34. The Sheep Look Up (1972) by John Brunner – TE
  35. Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov – *
  36. A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1974) by Stanley G. Weinbaum – *
  37. The Centauri Device (1974) by M. John Harrison *
  38. The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ – T
  39. The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brunner – TE
  40. Trouble on Triton (1976) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
  41. On Wings of a Song (1979) by Thomas M. Disch – E
  42. Ridley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban – HTE
  43. No Enemy But Time (1982) by Michael Bishop – E
  44. Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin – TE
  45. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
  46. Ancient of Days (1985) by Michael Bishop – TE
  47. The Falling Woman (1986) by Pat Murphy – E
  48. Mindplayers (1988) by Pat Cadigan – TE
  49. Grass (1989) by Sheri S. Tepper – TE
  50. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990) by James Tiptree, Jr. – T
  51. A Woman of the Iron People (1991) by Eleanor Arnason – E
  52. Sarah Canary (1991) – Karen Joy Fowler – TE
  53. Synners (1991) by Pat Cadigan – TE
  54. China Mountain Zhang (1992) by Maureen F. McHugh – TE
  55. Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith – TE
  56. The Rediscovery of Man (1993) by Cordwainer Smith – H
  57. Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers – TE
  58. Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson (1995) – H
  59. Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling – TE
  60. The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96) v.1 and v.2 by Gene Wolfe – T
  61. Immodest Proposals: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn Volume 1 (2001) – H
  62. Here Comes Civilization: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn Volume 2 (2001) – H
  63. Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) by Samuel R. Delany – T
  64. Strange Relations (2008) by Philip Jose Farmer – M (The Lovers, Flesh, Strange Relations omnibus)
  65. The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer – TE

the-last-starship-from-earth-by-john-boyd_thumb

JWH

Counting My Worries

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 21, 2016

My friends and I are hyper-worried about the future, now that Republicans have gained control of all three branches of government. I suppose that could be a signal to stop worrying, since they now have the reigns, and thus the worries. Of course, both parties have always assumed the other side would destroy the future, explaining each side’s endless worrying.

What if I stopped worrying about politics and only worried about things I could actual change? What if I was granted the serenity prayer?

Serenity Prayer

If I only need to worry about those things I can change, then how many things do I need to worry about? What world problems can I change on my own? Would rephrasing that be more illuminating? How many problems do I make worse? My wife and I never had children, so we don’t add to overpopulation. I’m retired, get out little, and live off a plant based diet, so my carbon footprint is relatively small. Except for an occasional roof rat, I don’t kill anything. I’m not a terrorist or hate anyone. I don’t drink, do drugs or commit crimes. I’m rather bland and innocuous. I’m a watcher and a reader, observing reality as I wait to die. By this accounting, I have little to worry about.

A major increaser of worries is trying to convince other people to be different. Whether its getting a spouse to do more housework, a friend to eat healthy, or everyone to stop using coal, convincing people to be different creates endless worries. I could vastly reduce my total worry count if I stopped trying to change people.

What about worrying about myself? For example, I’m currently worried about writing a new essay for Book Riot. My choices are either to write or not write, but I spend a lot of time either worrying about not writing or worrying about what to write. The Zen thing to do would be either to write or not write and forget the worrying.

What, Me Worry

Should I worry about anything? Is not worrying shirking a duty? Shouldn’t we all be taking turns worrying about the world’s problems? Everyone should contribute to charities, right? Is worrying helping those causes? Maybe giving or volunteering to a charity is the only way to solve their problems. But many charities spend their income trying to convince more people to worry about their cause. The solution, give to charities that do rather than worry.

I’ve convinced myself I have little to worry about, so why do I worry so much? My mother was a worrier. I called it gnawing her bone. She believed that worrying about bad things kept those bad things from happening. The evidence suggests all my worry about climate change and Republicans had no effect on the 2016 election.

Maybe I should stop gnawing my bones.

JWH

Should Manufacturing Robots Be Banned?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 19, 2016

alberteinsteinBecause my friends have been depressed since November 8th, I’ve been wondering what it would take to make both liberals and conservatives happy – and solve all our environmental problems. Once again, the election has shown, “It’s the economy stupid.” Without widespread economic security, the population will be unstably polarized. As long as such unrest exists, no other major problem can be solved. To solve the problems of sustainability, climate change, overpopulation, inequality, mass extinctions, pollution, will first require solving the problem with the economy.

Is that possible? Can we create an economy where most people find security? Corporations are at war with workers, either by moving jobs overseas, or by buying robots. Donald Trump promised he’d stop corporations from moving jobs. Would that help? No, the problem requires a global solution. Would banning robots help? Maybe. If capital was willing to accept higher production costs, employing more people, it should. However, robotics creates jobs too. And we have to decide if billions of people working like machines is a good thing. People want is a job they love. People want to feel creative, productive, worthwhile, and independent. Does a Foxconn assembly job provides that? Could we create enough jobs without banning robots? I doubt it.

If robots were regulated, and cars for example, had to be made by human hands, could they be made at affordable prices? Let’s bring in the environment now. What if we designed a sustainable transportation system, one that’s a blend of bicycles, cars, trucks, buses, trains, ships, and planes. Such a system needs to create jobs and protect the environment. Would building things like cars only by human hands create enough jobs, and still be profitable for corporations?

If we don’t outlaw robots, what would be the next solution? It’s obvious that free-market capitalism fails many workers and the environment. Capital ranks wealth over labor. The next solution would be a minimum income for people without jobs. This would be a tax on capital, something it also hates. Since capital hates both labor and taxes, it might need to decide which it hates more.

Conservatives claim if they had free reign their economic solutions would create more jobs. That claim is probably false. If their economic theories were true, they still want to ignore the environment. Ignoring the environment ultimately means economic self-destruction, so it can’t be a solution. Remember, any real solution must be economically and environmentally sustainable.

Capital’s current path is towards fewer workers and greater inequality. Since we originally stated that the base problem is economic security for workers, that brings us back to where we started. Liberals believe a growing economy/population can be designed to protect the environment. Conservatives believe a healthy economy can be built by ignoring the environment and population growth. Neither are realistic.

I’m not sure a solution is possible, which is more depressing than the Republicans winning all the branches of the government.

JWH

Twisting My Brain Around Time Travel

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 17, 2016

There’s a book by Clifford D. Simak with a title I love, Time is the Simplest Thing. It’s not. Try to define “time” in words. You can’t. Everyone tries, but has anyone ever succeeded? In Time Travel: A History, James Gleick covers the science fictional subject of time travel, and the scientific subject of time. Thus, if you’re a science fiction fan, you’ll have a wonderful stroll down memory lane of many iconic time travel stories. But it’s the other half of the narrative, the one where Gleick explains the science of time – that tied my mind in knots.

Time-Travel_James-Gleick_coverI don’t believe in time travel. H. G. Wells didn’t believe in time travel. James Gleick does not believe in time travel. So why spend so much time speculating about an impossible subject? That’s what Gleick’s book is about. One big spoiler warning to anyone planning to write a time travel novel – after Gleick described so many time travel stories I wondered if there’s any need for more. Can anyone read this book and think of a new angle on time traveling? Time Travel: A History illustrates just how speculative one idea can be. For me Gleick’s book is a celebration of the concept of time travel, and an eulogy. Time travel stories are fun, especially when young, but other than escapist entertainment, speculation about real time travel feels as valuable as counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. This book is about speculating on time travel. When we are young we hope concepts like God and Time Travel are real, but when we’re old such thoughts fade, but it’s pleasurable to contemplate old thoughts of fancies. I know I won’t be traveling in time, or outer space, or even to heaven or hell. Now is all I’ve got. Being old makes me want to know the real nature of time. Gleick’s book combines the two.

What’s really rewarding about Time Travel: A History is the respect it gives to science fiction. Gleick uses famous SF stories to illustrate how we struggle to understand time. Of course, it’s also bait and switch. Science fiction fans will buy the book to read about time travel, but Gleick spends a good deal of “time” conveying the thoughts of Newton, Einstein, Feynman, Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Proust, Bergson, and other heavyweight thinkers about the nature of time.

Time-Machine-Norton-Critical-EditionOf course, Gleik covers The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, including some of the serious reactions to that story. I wish he could have gathered a sample of man-on-the-street reactions. How did the average person respond to the idea of time travel in 1895? How did the standup comics of the day, or whatever they were called, poke fun at the idea? Did the story generate 1890s pop culture buzz? In some ways I would have liked this book to have been The Time Machine: A History. Looking at the publication history of The Time Machine at ISFDB, I’m not sure it was an instant hit. I have a copy of the Norton Critical Edition that features early reviews and later scholarly essays, but it doesn’t offer what everyday readers thought. I wonder if such a history could be written? (Or has?)

One of the trickier aspects of reading this book is paying attention to when Gleick uses the phrase “time” or “time travel” because my mind often wanted to switch them. For example, when he quotes Lee Smolin, “I no longer believe that time is unreal” my eyes tried to read it as “I no longer believe that time travel is unreal.” I assume my unconscious mind wanted a scientist to claim time travel is possible. As a species, I believe we all wish to travel in time. Don’t we do this is so many ways: art, history, journalism, fiction, nostalgia, dreams, memories, and so on. Gleick covers all this too.

By_His_Bootstraps_ASF_Oct_1941It’s when Gleick tries to define time, especially in relation to Einstein’s discoveries, that my head explodes. I want to believe there is one now that exists everywhere, all across this universe, to other universes in the multiverse, down into the atomic world, the subatomic, the quantum, and if they exist, to all the dimensions of strings, and then to what makes up strings, and so forth. But my understanding of Einstein, which is very limited, tells me the observer has their own time. What does that mean? I can understand if that means clock time is different in different locations – depending on the speed of the observer. But is Einstein saying  the nature/substance/structure of time is different for each observer? Do they each have a personal now? Many scientists doubt the existence of time, and consider it an illusion.

H. G. Wells confused things when he suggested that time was the 4th dimension, and we can travel through it, like we do through the 3rd. How does that explain Newton’s apple falling from the tree? How does that explain a light beam from a star 1,000 light years away? Is that a 1,000 year yardstick with ticks for all the nows that exist along its path – like counting tree rings? That light beam is a relic of the past, so it confuses us about the nature of time. Even though we think we see a star, what we’re seeing is 1,000 years old light. The star’s now is different. But does our sun and that star also share a same now regardless of the age of the light beams we see? Is there one eternal now everywhere? Is time merely a measure of how far points in the past and future are from the eternal now?

Think of it this way. We measure time on a timeline, and imagine the now moving down the timeline. What if we didn’t use the timeline, and used a constantly changing number for events in the past. For example, instead of saying I was born in 1951, I’d say I was born -65 years in the past, that Columbus discovered America –524 years ago. Of course, every year we’d have to memorize a new number for every event in history. It’s easier to give every event a year to remember, and let now always be an ever changing date. But isn’t that backwards? Isn’t now always the same, and the past an ever expanding number? And the future an ever shrinking number?

134-The-End-of-EternityWhat if we wanted to travel back 542 years to see Columbus. That requires moving our now back all those years. The essence of time travel is moving to another now. That’s why I personally don’t believe in time travel, I believe there is only one now for all of reality. What I want to know, and Gleick didn’t tell me in his book, is whether or not there are other nows, meaning multiple timelines, one for each universe. A great example of this problem is Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein. The premise of this book is some twins have telepathy, and that this telepathy is always instantaneous over any distance, so use them as radios for interstellar flights. The twin that stays home gets older much faster than the twin that travels to the stars. They always share a telepathic now, but they can tell there’s a difference. What the space traveling twin hears in his mind as he travels faster is his twin talking slower.

I can’t remember when I first grasped the idea of time travel. I saw the George Pal movie in the early 1960s, before I read the classic novel by H. G. Wells, but I’m not sure if I hadn’t seen cartoons, television shows or movies that also dealt with the topic. Before H. G. Wells few people thought of time travel, now, I doubt many people haven’t thought about it. Before Wells, writers wrote about people sleeping into the future. Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but had he invented time travel? Wasn’t Twain really inventing alternative history? Gleick does go into all the philosophical old variations on time travel, such as prophecy, fortune telling, eternal life, and so on. It’s amazing how many ways we play with the idea of time.

That’s the thing about this book – it demands rereading. Is that another form of time travel? Read Maria Popova review of the book. I wish I could think and write like her. And isn’t her essay an example of actual time travel? We constantly revisit the past, to annotate and evaluate. Reading my review, hers, and others, we’re all traveling to the same spot and time – the book Time Travel: A History.

JWH

[I wrote two versions of this essay. Microsoft decided to update Windows when I left the machine unattended, and I lost parts of the first version. Rewriting this essay feels like time traveling itself, and this version is the result of my mind going back and interfering with the timeline of the first version.]