TIME TRAVEL STORIES are everywhere, from blockbuster movies to children’s cartoons, and it’s easy to imagine that the idea has always been popular. But science writer James Gleick, author of the new book Time Travel: A History, says widespread understanding of time travel is actually a fairly recent phenomenon.
“Everybody who’s born into this society knows about time travel,” Gleick says in Episode 241 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I know six-year-olds who argue at the breakfast table about paradoxes of time travel that would have taken an hour to explain to somebody in the 1930s.”
As recently as 1895 the concept of time travel was so unfamiliar that H. G. Wells had to spend the entire first chapter of The Time Machine just explaining what time travel is. “Because there had never been time travel before, because there had never been a time machine, the first thing H. G. Wells has to do is explain to his readers what this whole book is going to be about, or he can’t even start the story,” Gleick says.
Later authors such as E. Nesbit, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein expanded on Wells’ idea, gradually working out many of the possible implications of time travel, such as meeting yourself or altering the past. Such concepts are now so familiar that audiences can easily follow virtuoso feats of time travel gymnastics such as the Doctor Who episode “Blink,” in which a woman has a conversation with a video recorded in the ’70s.
“That story is trying to talk to us about the world we live in, where we get information from the past mixed up with information from the present and information that seems to be coming to us almost from the future, on all of the different screens that have become part of our networked lives,” Gleick says. “So that’s why I think that story has such great power, besides just being sheer fun.”
But based on some of the responses to the recent film Arrival, it seems that we haven’t quite reached peak time travel sophistication.
Read More: WIRED
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