“Time Travel: A History” by James Gleick (2016)

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“A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods…”

Time travel feels like it’s been a mainstay in popular culture since the dawn of time, but the concept didn’t really get going until the publication of H. G. Wells’ world-changing novel The Time Machine. I’ve covered my favourite books regarding time travel already, but I thought it was high time I did a little more research into the whole thing, which led me to Time Travel: A History.

In this fascinating and fairly comprehensive tome, Jame Gleick pulls back the curtain on time travel and explores it from every angle, studying the stories that have used it and changed the way we think about it, as well as then looking at the philosophy and physics of the concept and how humans have attempted to travel in time already. Gleick attempts to define time and get to grips with what it actually is, as well as taking a look at the problem of paradox (and why you shouldn’t try to kill your grandfather), what happens when you meet yourself, whether or not travelling to the past or future would be better, and what exactly we mean when we say “now”.

The implications of time travel are enormous. While physics still hasn’t been developed enough to allow it, many scientists believe that technically there is nothing in the laws of the universe that forbid it. Philosophers, however, have now spent many years wondering what time travel can tell us about free will – is the future already written and waiting for us to explore, or are we making it up as we go along? From Rip Van Winkle to Doctor Who, Gleick checks in with everyone who had something to say about time, including H. G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Aristotle and Ursula K. Le Guin.

While the whole book is a cavalcade of trivia and theory, some of it more interesting than others but all of it still mesmerising, the more interesting chapters actually arrive when he discusses things that seem a little unrelated, but are actually spot on. One chapter tries to understand the metaphors we use for time. Is it like money (we do save, waste and spend it, after all) or more like a river (it flows). And if it is a river, what are the banks? Can we get out? Elsewhere, he explores how language simply doesn’t have enough tenses to deal with time travel, or why not every language assumes the future is ahead of us and the past is behind. A particularly intriguing chapter takes a look at time capsules and how humanity has been trying to communicate with an uncertain future for decades.

A must-read for anyone with a science fiction bent, or just anyone who has longed for a TARDIS of their very own.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“How We Got To Now” by Steven Johnson (2014)

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“Roughly 26 million years ago, something happened over the sands of the Libyan Desert, the bleak impossibly dry landscape that marks the eastern edge of the Sahara.”

The march of progress rarely proceeds in a straight line. We take the technology of today – smartphones, the Internet, cars, even flushing toilets and electric light – for granted, never much giving any consideration for the things that our ancestors would have found remarkable. Sometimes it takes millennia for ideas to produce tangible results – rarely do changes happen overnight – and it often takes a lot of people to make something happen. Take your watch, for example. That’s not just the product of a watch scientist, or something like that. The fact that you have a reliable timepiece on your watch is thanks to people working in the fields of computing, electromechanics, chemistry, dynamics and astrology. Steven Johnson takes a look at some of the greatest innovations in human history in this astounding book, How We Got to Now.

Johnson explores the six inventions and discoveries that revolutionised humanity: glass, artificial refrigeration, sound recording, germ theory, clocks and the light bulb. Each of these innovations helped the human race progress in truly extraordinary ways, changing the world over and over again. Many of history’s best and brightest also show up here including Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Charles Babbage, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Galileo Galilei, as well as several others that time has unfairly forgotten such as Frederic Tudor who was the first person to transport ice to the Caribbean, or Charles Piazzi Smyth who all but invented flashbulb photography. While some of the stuff seems simple, there are some things brought up that I’d never really given much thought to but seem obvious in retrospect. For example, fire was pretty much the first human “invention”, or at least the process of creating fire. And yet, despite fire being a key source of heat and light, we didn’t manage to take control over cold temperatures until well into the Industrial Revolution, and there was little more advanced than a candle to help us see at night for millennia.

The book’s real beauty comes from the fact that Johnson reveals how certain technologies had ripple effects into other areas of humanity’s development. The discovery of germ theory would eventually lead to both Coronation Street and the bikini; it could be said that air conditioning led to the election of Donald Trump; the invention of the mirror allowed the Renaissance to happen and changed people’s ideas of their place in society; a swinging altar lamp in an Italian cathedral would begin a path that led to Sputnik; and radio would chart a course to both the civil rights movement and Hitler’s fascist regime. The book notes that many ideas come into existence at a certain time because it’s just time for them to exist. Often the same invention or discovery will be announced by several different people at the same time. Edison didn’t invent the first light bulb, but he helped perfect them, and Darwin was one of several scientists who had worked out evolution and natural selection within the same decade or two. New ideas spring from old ones. For example, a person living in 1650 can’t conceive a refrigerator because the associated technologies aren’t available, but once they are, it seems almost inevitable that it would happen.

Johnson appears to be a natural weaver of true stories, and the writing, while occasionally heavy on the science, never feels too out of reach for the layman. The tales are engaging, fascinating and the sort of thing that make you want to instantly go up to other people and say, “Did you know…?” Even things that you might at first think could be dull topics, such as the chlorination of swimming pools, or how fibre optics are made are incredibly interesting, given what they then led to. It’s a very interesting guide to the most important ideas in science, and I for one am incredibly enchanted.

And while only a little thing, one of my favourite discoveries was that Captain Birdseye was a real person – his first name was Clarence.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a 80% of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Flashforward” by Robert J. Sawyer (1999)

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flashforward

Better hope you were watching the Lottery at the time.

“A slice through spacetime…”

The future is unknowable to us, which is many ways seems ridiculous. It’s like we’re walking backwards down a corridor – we can see everything behind us but nothing in front of us. But what exactly is the future? Time is a human construct – animals have no concept of minutes, weeks or years – and while we can remember the past, we can never know the future. Does it even exist? After all, to people in the future, we are living in the past. Is all of history happening at the same time, or is it entirely mutable, subject to change on our whims?

Flashforward is a novel written in 1999, set in 2009, and with flashes into a future of 2030. Notable science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer penned this one, which means there’s bound to be some hard science here, as well as a liberal sprinkling of religion. The book was actually the starting point for the recent TV series of the same name, but aside from sharing a concept and a couple of character names, the two are entirely unrelated.

In 2009, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is readying itself for a new test to find the Higgs boson particle. At 17h00 precisely, the machine is turned on and at that very exact moment, Lloyd Simcoe, one of the leaders of the project, finds himself in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, with an unfamiliar woman. He has no control over his body and panics as he wonders who this woman is – she’s white, unlike his girlfriend Michiko Komura – before seeing himself in a mirror. He is an old man, perhaps twenty years older than he was a few seconds ago. After two minutes in this strange environment, he wakes up again on the floor of his lab. It quickly transpires that it wasn’t just he who had a vision. Everyone in the room did. Alarms begin to sound throughout the building and they soon discover that the problem isn’t limited to the room, the building, the compound, the country or even Europe. Every single person on the planet blacked out for just under two minutes.

The immediate effect is terrifying. The death toll is huge – large numbers of cars drove into one another, planes crashed, machinery malfunctioned, people fell down stairs or drowned. All cameras stopped recording for those two minutes as well. Discussing what happened, it appears that everyone had some sort of vision, excepting Lloyd’s colleague and friend Theo Procopides. He saw nothing, merely a jump cut in time. As the people of CERN begin to discuss what happened to them, it appears that they have all just glimped the future. All except Theo. This can only mean one thing – at this point in the future, Theo is dead.

Reports come in from all over the world as people pool their knowledge and seek to find out if what they saw is going to come true. It is established that everyone saw the same future, and like a mosaic, everyone shares their findings. Some people saw a date, a time, revealing the flashforward to have shown everyone in the year 2030, twenty-one years hence. With the survivors confused and many baying for blood, the scientists at CERN have to work out if they were responsible and what actually happened. Theo, meanwhile, recieves a call from a stranger who informs him that in her flashforward, she was reading that Theo had been murdered. He begins to become obsessed with changing the future, while Lloyd is convinced that it is set in stone.

The concept is really nice, here, and the story plays with the idea of free will. Is the future they’ve seen something that is guaranteed to happen, whether people choose it to or not, or can they meddle with it, change the events the way Scrooge changed his future in A Chritsmas Carol? Should Lloyd and Michiko get married if they aren’t together in two decades time? It deals neatly with paradoxes (i.e. two people seeing one another in the future, and then arranging to meet in the present, thus causing their future relationship) and although the science in some places is incredibly dense and long-winded, it’s still not a particularly difficult read.

The visions of 2030 are quite interesting, predicting a monarchy-free Britain, Desmond Tutu as Prime Minister of South Africa (renamed Azania), China as the only communist country left, an African-American President, women ordained in the Catholic Church, ozone depletion to the point that everyone must wear hats and sunglasses whenever outside, hovering cars, a ban on nuclear weapons, a cure for AIDS, Bill Gates losing his fortune, India establishing the first permanent moonbase, among others. There’s also some nicely frivolous additions, such as Donald Trump building himself a pyramid in Nevada, Pepsi winning the cola wars and the USA finally going metric.

But what I found more interesting was Sawyer’s vision of 2009. Having been written in 1999 when we still had dial-up and the LHC only just beginning to be constructed, 2009 still seemed quite futuristic. Although there are no flying cars by that point, Sawyer envisioned basic virtual reality, that bookstores printed books on demand, and there’s absolutely no mention (of course) of any technology beginning with a lower-case i. Weirdly, he does mention Pope Benedict XVI, who didn’t actually become Pope until 2005.

All in all, it’s an interesting diatribe on free will, a lovely look into a potential future, as well as a genuinely scary notion of the whole world being affected and disabled by something unpredictable. Towards the end, I began to get annoyed, but that was merely for personal reasons of storytelling preference and the use of a concept I have little time for, but generally a very, very good book.