What If Science Fiction Is Wrong About Space Travel?

Science fiction is about speculation and the topic it has speculated on most is space travel. What if science fiction is wrong? What if it turns out that humans aren’t suited for living in space or colonizing other worlds? What if homo sapiens need to live on Earth? How will such knowledge affect your philosophy?

Decades ago I realized that science fiction was my substitute for religion. I didn’t believe in God, heaven, or an afterlife, but I did believe in humanity spreading across the galaxy. I don’t know why that brought meaning to my life, but it did. I grew up reading and watching science fiction during the Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo year of the 1960s. As I covered in my last essay at Worlds Without End, “A Distance Too Far,” new research is showing the biological limitations of humans living in space. Space scientists hope to overcome those limitations but what if they can’t? What if humanity is condemned to living on Earth until we go extinct? What if we have to watch robots and AI machines live out our Star Trek dreams?

I assume most science fiction fans will react the same way the faithful react when they encounter an atheist. It’s really hard to give up a core value which gives our minds meaning. I have no idea how adaptable humans are to space but I’m wondering what it will mean if we can’t. If you’re a hardcore science fiction fan could you give up your faith in the final frontier?

What happens to us when we no longer believe in getting to heaven or other planets? Will we find meaning living vicariously through the eyes of our robots who leave Earth and become immortal among the stars? What kind of science fiction will be written in fifty years if we have tried to colonize Mars and failed? If we discover galactic radiation fries our brains and it requires 1-G to reproduce normally – will we give up on human space travel?

Or think about this. What if we do colonize Mars and adapt but discover everyone hates living there? There are thousands of people who would volunteer for a one-way mission to Mars. Have you ever wondered why? What motivates people to want to live on a barren rock, that’s bathed in solar and galactic radiation, that’s colder than anyplace on Earth, and its atmosphere is unbreathable? Is it a powerful fantasy implanted in childhood like theology? Is it a deep drive to spread our genes to new worlds? Or is it a psychological desire to escape an unhappy life here?

What if we discover that many of the hopes of science fiction won’t come true for us? Think a moment about our other science fiction dreams. What if we can only push our bodies so far before longevity research peters out and we realize immortality is impossible? What if we can’t download our minds into machines or clones? What happens when we discover that being homo sapiens comes with limits that can’t be surpassed? I’m sure we’re far from discovering those limits but what if someday we know those limits with certainty?

Science fiction has always given us hope for unlimited potential. Yet, reality suggests we’ll eventually bang into the glass walls of our aquarium. I wonder what science fiction will speculate on then.

JWH

Have We Accepted Rising Oceans as Inevitable?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 16, 2017

I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction novel, New York 2140. The story depicts a future New York City through the eyes of a wide cast of characters, reminding me somewhat of Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Robinson’s characters are survivors of a massive rise in sea levels. And even though they face horrible problems, their problems don’t seem any worse than those we face. The message is we always have problems, and we always solve them in a muddling way.

New York 2140

I’ve felt until now that climate change fiction warned us to avoid environmental doom. Have we already given up the battle? Are we now accepting rising seas and mass extinctions as inevitable? Donald Trump’s budget came out today, and it’s all too obvious he’s not going to fight climate change. Has everyone else given up too, including science fiction writers, of returning CO2 levels to below 350 ppm?

It is quite clear that conservatives have chosen lower taxes over action to stop global warming. Their greed knows no bounds, just look at their health care proposal. They prefer a tax cut for the rich over any Sermon on the Mount compassion. They pretend to believe climate change is not real, but I can’t believe they’re that stupid. I wonder if they haven’t psychologically accepted rising oceans in exchanged for lowering taxes and deregulation windfalls?

New York 2140 is a very entertaining novel, but I’m wondering if Robinson isn’t taking a Pollyanna view of the future. His New York City of 2140 is vibrant and alive, even after the oceans have turned it into a new world Venice. If I wrote science fiction my 2140 NYC would look a hundred times worse than New Orleans right after Katrina. My novel of a doomed city would be closer to Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. Robinson makes 2140 NYC horrible but exciting, even attractive.

New York 2140 cover

KSM is considered a very realistic science fiction writer, but isn’t he also overly optimistic? Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and 2312 reveal a lot of hope for the future. Is Robinson being too hopeful? We have to ask ourselves if civilization can survive runaway climate change? Robinson’s book suggests we’ll adapt and survive like our species always has in the past. But can we really bank on that trend? I’m not so sure.

I don’t think humanity will become extinct if we don’t reverse rising CO2 levels. We are adaptable. I do think we risk devastating billions of lives, and jeopardizing civilization as we know it. Our current successful civilization depends on relentless economic growth. I don’t think that’s sustainable. The real challenge of climate change is mutating our current civilization from free market capitalism to steady-state capitalism. The neo-nationalism we’re experiencing today suggests humans aren’t adaptable to such a change.

In that sense, I’m not sure Kim Stanley Robinson is right in thinking we’ll continue to succeed like we’ve had in the past. I worry we’re approaching a breaking point. That might happen yet in his novel, I haven’t finished it yet.

I’m listening to the audio version of New York 2140, but I admire it so much, I’ve decided to get the book version and read it too. I don’t think one reading will be enough.

JWH

More Sense of Wonder Than Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 20, 2017

Origami-NOVA-3

For the first two-thirds of my life sense of wonder mostly came from science fiction, but in the last third science is supplying more wonder. I have theories as to why. First, aging is making me more fascinated with reality. Second, I’ve lived long enough to feel the real world is science fictional. For example, my science fiction book club is reading Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, a 1962 novel about the discovery of cute creatures on a distant planet that might be sapient. As a kid in the 1960s, that was an exciting idea. But in 2017 we know animals are far more intelligent than we thought and in ways far more exciting than an old science fiction novel. Learning how and why has a great sense of wonder.

The dimensions of sapient behavior have become far more fantastic than fiction, including old stories about robots. For example, The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1957, and first read by me in 1964. Heinlein’s character Dan Davis built household robots – which dazzled me back then. But today I could build my own robot with a Raspberry Pi kit, producing a completely different kind of sense of wonder. I could also download open source machine learning toolkits. This era of Makers and DIY produces a different kind of wonder. Science fiction is great, but I believe I would now give a kid a subscription to Make Magazine before telling her to read science fiction.

More and more when I watch a great documentary I want to know the details about how things are actually done. I don’t want to just be an observer. Last night I watched a wonderful episode of NOVA on PBS that has more sense of wonder than any science fiction novel I can remember reading in a very long time.

It was about origami.

Origami?

Yes, origami. You know, paper cranes…

It was titled “The Origami Revolution” – about how the art of folding paper has inspired scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. The producers completely blew me away. Origami is a fascinating craft, even an art form, but not one I ever paid much attention to. The program began by reporting the latest developments in the art, which go way beyond making simple paper cranes. Using a single sheet of paper, it’s possible to make very elaborate 3D shapes by just folding paper (and without cutting).

Origami-NOVA-2

Cranes are simple, requiring about thirty folds. Modern advanced origami art like above requires hundreds of folds involving very complex geometry. This is where the excitement started for me – because they brought in mathematics. The program introduced Erik Demaine, showing him working on a 60-page mathematical algorithm with Tomohiro Tachi for computerized origami folding. Can you imagine the mathematics of creating the above work of origami? I can’t, but I wish I could. Tachi has developed a software program Origamizer that the two of them hope will eventually be able to create any 3D figure from a 2D piece of paper. Their theorem should prove it’s possible.

Origami-NOVA-5

“The Origami Revolution” then goes on to survey wide-ranging work in biology, genetics, chemistry, physics, astronomy that have been influenced by what we’re learning from folding. This has been happening for decades, so I feel a little left behind. The program generated a tremendous sense of wonder in me, probably because this new research offers so much far-out potential, including building robots and spacecraft, and even claiming that dark matter theoretically reveals folded shapes in the structure of the universe.

Here’s a 2008 TED Talks by Robert Lang which give more details than the episode of NOVA, including some examples that are more impressive than shown in the TV show. Follow the link in his name to his website for even more information.

Understanding how modeling 3D structures from a 2D source teaches us about nature, because once the mathematics of folding were revealed scientists began seeing folding in nature, including plants, insects, and even the cosmos. From there it goes into applied engineered structures.

(This isn’t folding per se, but I think it’s related. See SmartFlower Solar.)

If you watch “The Origami Revolution” count all the far out bits of technology. You’ll realize that many of them were never discussed in science fiction. When I was young, I thought science fiction explored ahead of science, but after all these decades I’ve learned something different. Science fiction trails science. This show could inspire countless science fiction stories. Even while watching the TV show I imagined other folks seeing it and thinking up science fiction stories as they watched. They will magnify the demonstrated concepts, extrapolate, speculate, imagine, and come up with possible future scenarios to dramatize. I’m sure they will create far-out tales.

But I think getting older is making me both more patient and less patient. I’m becoming impatient with fiction. It’s easier to skim over the drama, and just zero in on the current science. Now that I’m retired, I have more time to fool around with tech toys. I spend less time reading about imaginary futures, and more time trying to figure the details of now.

You can also watch the full episode of “The Origami Revolution” on YouTube.

JWH

Running Away to Mars

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 8, 2017

While reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a handbook for processing memories, it triggered several vivid revelations about my childhood. Especially the time when I ran away to Mars in 1963. That flashback revealed why I first dropped science fiction. I wanted an antidepressant. Science fiction has proven quite effective at masking reality, because I can’t even remember being depressed. How PKDickian!

Two Mars

A lifetime of contemplating the future has been an excellent mantra for ignoring the present. I am rather disappointed that running away never got me anywhere. I’ve been to Mars many times, but never to the one that exists in reality.

Today I’m plotting my own alternate history timeline. What if I had not run away to Mars back in 1963 and stayed on Earth instead? Wow, that’s more mind-twisting than The Man in the High Castle.

Maybe it wasn’t the Mary Karr book that jarred these insights. Could it have been the election? Have we all run away to imagined worlds? Reality seems so deserted these days.

JWH

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 be vintage by 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

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

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.]