If you could turn back time, where would you go?

Amy Adams plays a linguist communicating with aliens in Arrival. It shows how sophisticated time travel stories have become.

Amy Adams plays a linguist communicating with aliens in Arrival. It shows how sophisticated time travel stories have become.

Time travel may not be possible but we love to speculate. Philip Matthews talks to science writer James Gleick.

This is tomorrow calling. It is Wednesday in New Zealand, Tuesday in New York and writer James Gleick​ is happy to play along with the idea that this phone call is a form of time travel.

"It's hard to resist asking you for some tips about the future," he says.

The future depicted in Back to the Future Part II came and went more than a year and a half ago.

The future depicted in Back to the Future Part II came and went more than a year and a half ago.

"Well, you're still not at war with North Korea," I say.

He laughs. "I hope that turns out to be true."

Gleick is an active Twitter user and like most thinking Americans, his timeline has filled up with dismay about President Donald Trump. And indeed, there is something very time travel-ish about Trump. Not just the conversations people have had about whether they would go back in time and stop Trump if they could, but the way Trump's old Twitter timeline, a cranky stream of consciousness, still runs almost as a commentary on his present.

Science writer James Gleick has noticed that people have gone from being excited about the future to being afraid of it.

Science writer James Gleick has noticed that people have gone from being excited about the future to being afraid of it.

"He promises in the past to do something he now refuses to do, or vice versa," Gleick says.

Is there a way in which the Internet and social media have messed with our sense of time – not just for Trump but all of us?

"That does become an issue I try to grapple with in the book." 

The book is called Time Travel and it follows books on technology and change (The Information and Faster) and chaos theory (Chaos), as well as biographies of scientists Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman​. Gleick is easily one of the world's leading science journalists, but he explains that time travel was a peculiar subject for him to have picked.

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"It turns out that everybody has a favourite book or a favourite movie, and I didn't. I found myself confessing yesterday that I hadn't seen Back to the Future Part II."

It started when he realised the idea of time travel was little more than a century old. He dates it to the publication of The Time Machine by HG Wells in 1895. 

"I found that weird and surprising. It made me rethink a lot of things. How can you not have imagined time travel? What were people thinking about in 1850 if they weren't every so often imagining that they could walk through the closet door and arrive 100 years in the past or 100 years in the future?"

But until then, few experienced much change in their lifetime. The sense of a very different past or very different future was mostly alien. Both the industrial revolution and the discovery of fossil records gave people a deeper sense of time. 

A kind of time travel is involved for Gleick as the writer: how do you put yourself in the mind of someone in the past? In The Information, the telegraph was a world-changing invention. The idea of time travel is a consciousness change akin to the coining of the word "nostalgia" in the 17th century. Initially nostalgia met homesickness, before evolving into a longing for the past, which is also "very time travel-ish", Gleick says.

"I'm just reading Hari Kunzru's​ new novel (White Tears) and his character talks about having nostalgia for the future."

Or people can feel nostalgia for a past they never experienced. "That brings us back to Trump. One of the things that got him elected was nostalgia for a version of this country that I don't think ever existed."

Time travel can be political as well, presenting warnings from the future. The Time Machine was an allegory about class. The Terminator, La Jetee and Planet of the Apes imagined the aftermaths of future wars.  

"Time travel is illegal in China," Gleick says. "Not actual time travelling but time travel fiction. It's inherently subversive.

"The way we think about the future now has changed from the way people thought about it at the turn of the 20th century, when everybody was excited and technology seemed to be promising wonderful things. Now we seem to be worried that we're destroying our world."

Gleick has learned that people can be split into two groups: those who would travel to the future if they could and those who prefer the past.

"My preference was always the future. I started off assuming everybody else would want to go to the future but it turns out that's not true. People are increasingly leery about time travel to the future. It's not people's fantasies the way it was even when I was a kid. The Trump era might be making that worse too."

Some people want to do historical tourism: see the crucifixion, see the dinosaurs. Or they would meet key people – in Gleick's case, Isaac Newton. Or they want to undo something from their past or use time slips to get rich, which seems selfish (he should watch Back to the Future Part II).

There are the stories and there is the science, but they are surprisingly intertwined. Scientists grew up in a culture of HG Wells, Star Trek and Doctor Who, like the rest of us. 

"You can see scientific ideas and literary ideas and pop cultural ideas evolving on parallel paths, influencing one another. I don't take the science of time travel very seriously in the sense of practicalities. I mean no disrespect for the various physicists who do explore ways in which theoretically something which you could call time travel might be possible. And there are an awful lot of those.

"People pose different scenarios. 'You can't prove that this isn't possible' or 'Have you heard about this?' There are quite a few physicists who still like to explore the possibilities and aren't willing to rule it out. Those guys are smarter than I am."

But as appealing as the stories are, we all share an intuitive, gut sense that time can only go one way. 

"We should. This is where the book sneakily becomes a discussion of what time really is. I resist any attempts to give a short answer but I also work pretty hard to explore the ways in which we have learned to appreciate what time is. I do think that when we appreciate it, we understand the directionality of it, what physicists call 'the arrow of time', we begin to get a sense of why we aren't going to be able to buy a machine that will transport us."        

James Gleick is at a WORD Christchurch event on May 16 and in the Auckland Writers Festival on May 18, 20 and 21. 


Time is the material of cinema, which means cinema and time travel were made for each other. These could be the 10 best films about time travel.

LA JETEE (1962). Remade as 12 Monkeys, this French art film makes a poignant story out of the tangles and paradoxes of time travel.

BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989). Two homework-avoiding idiots meet great figures from history and even shape the future. 

LOOPER (2012). One of the great time travel questions: what happens when you meet yourself? And what if you're both Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt? They meet in a diner, like in Heat.

THE NAVIGATOR: A MEDIEVAL ODYSSEY (1988). An ambitious New Zealand fantasy. Plague-fearing miners from the 14th century break into Auckland in the 1980s.  

THE TERMINATOR (1984). A saviour and a killer come back from the future. This dazzling action film was followed by an even stronger sequel. 

BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985). No one has explained the logistics and confusions of time travel with as much humour. The second, darker instalment became weirdly relevant in a time of Trump.

INTERSTELLAR (2014). Physicist Kip Thorne was a consultant on this emotional time travel story about wormholes, other worlds and why it's hard to be a good dad when you're light years away. 

ARRIVAL (2016). A moody sci-fi film about time, language and culture. You need a few viewings to iron it out. Try reading the story by Ted Chiang as well.

PLANET OF THE APES (1968). Nearly 50 years have passed and, still, no one has come up with a more devastating time travel ending.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011). This Woody Allen trifle is like an intellectual's Bill & Ted: Owen Wilson slouches into 1920s Paris and meets figures like Hemingway and Picasso.

 - Sunday Star Times


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