James Gleick tells an exhilarating history of time travel

Gleick’s “Time Travel: A History,” tells the story of the idea of time travel in science fiction, pop culture, and science. Based on this review by Michael Saler in The Wall Street Journal, it sounds terrific.

Time travel emerged as a big idea at the turn of the 20th Century, as the human race’s idea of the nature of time was fundamentally changing, Saler says. Though most of history (and presumably prehistory), people viewed time as static, and the world as unchanging, Saler says.

That’s not entirely true. People of the past were certainly aware that great empires rose and fell. People were aware that great civilizations had come before them, and fallen before they were born. Even the ancient world had its ancient world; Cleopatra lived closer in time to the invention of the iPhone than the construction of the pyramids.

But as a general rule, your life was the same as your parents, and your children’s lives would be the same as yours.

That changed with the industrial revolution, and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” captured the change in pop culture. Time travel stories continue to fascinate us, along with alternate histories — Saler cites Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” which I’ve read, and Kingsley Amis’s “The Alteration,” which I’d never heard of before.

In scientific circles, the nature of time underwent special scrutiny in the late 19th century. By then, findings in geology, evolutionary biology and archaeology had established that the Earth was far older than the long-accepted biblical time scale: Time was now deep. Also, idiosyncratic local time regimes were being replaced by standard time zones, necessitated by the new railways and made possible by telegraphic communications. Inspired by such temporal ferment, the young journalist H.G. Wells published his first novel, “The Time Machine,” in 1895. The book launched his career and made “time travel” a concept worth taking seriously….

Since this work, time travel has become a veritable theme park of playful attractions, which Mr. Gleick explores with infectious gusto. Time travel is a staple in multiple media, from the BBC series “Doctor Who” to the “Back to the Future” movies. Time capsules—an instance of “reverse archaeology”—became a growth industry after the 1939 World’s Fair, when this extreme form of hoarding was first given its name. Works of alternative history, including Kingsley Amis’s “The Alteration” (1976) and Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” (1964), re-imagine the world by changing a key event in the past, resulting in a startlingly different (yet often strangely familiar) milieu from our own. These two books even have nestled within them hints of alternative-alternative history, creating a recursive, funhouse-mirror effect, a ludic attitude to time also adopted by modernist authors.

Dick’s Man in the High Castle is an alternate history where the Nazis and Japanese won World War II and conquered the United States, and much of the novel revolves around the search for the reclusive author of an alternate history where the Allies won — although that work does not describe our own world.

The Alteration” is, according to Wikipedia, set in a dystopian alternate history where the Protestant Reformation and scientific and industrial revolutions never occurred and the Catholic Church dominates the West, which continues in a dark age. That novel features an alternate history novel called “The Man in the High Castle,” by one Philip K. Dick.

Not mentioned by Saler: “The Iron Dream,” by Norman Spinrad, set in an alternate history where Adolf Hitler briefly flirted with politics after World War I, but then emigrated to the United States, where he worked as an illustrator for science fiction and other pulp magazines, eventually publishing a novel that became a cult hit, called “The Lords of the Swastika,” about an empire of true humans that rise up after a nuclear holocaust to rid the Earth of filthy mutants. Most of “The Iron Dream” takes the form of “Hitler’s” novel, with an afterword by a literary professor explaining Hitler’s life story. The real-life book (I have it somewhere in the house) even has a page listing more books by the alternate Adolf Hitler, which include “The Master Race,” “The Thousand Year Rule,” and “Triumph of the Will,” as well as blurbs for “The Lords of the Swastika” contributed by real-life science fiction writers. Spinrad was making the point that much heroic science fiction and fantasy looks a lot like fascist propaganda.

I remember Hitler often featuring in alternate history stories that I read as a teen-ager. In Poul Anderson’s fantasy novel “Operation: Chaos,” where magic operates instead of science, Hitler is shown as the lord of Hell in the final, climactic battle, and in “Gloriana,” by Brian Aldiss, which takes place on an eldritch alternate British Empire, the Queen mentions the peculiar case of a madman named “Adolphus Hiddler” who claims to be the ruler of the world. In both the Anderson and Aldiss, the main characters have never heard of Hitler.

Similarly, Roger Zelazny’s “Roadmarks” is a fantastic short novel about characters traveling on a literal highway that connects the past, future, and alternate histories; Adolf Hitler is cruising the highway in a black Volkswagen, looking for the timeline where he won.

But back to time travel: Scientists are split on whether time travel would be feasible in real life. Stephen Hawking is one of the skeptics; he hosted a party for time travelers and advertised it widely. “I sat there a long time, but no one came,” Hawking said.