Backward - Time Travel: A History (2016)

Time Travel: A History (2016)



There are no compasses for journeying in time. As far as our sense of direction in this unchartable dimension is concerned, we are like lost travellers in a desert.

—Graham Swift (1983)

IF YOU COULD take one ride in a time machine, which way would you go?

The future or the past? Sally forth or turn back? (“Right then, Rose Tyler, you tell me,” says the Doctor. “Where do you want to go? backwards or forwards in time. It’s your choice. What’s it going to be?”) Do you prefer the costumed pageant of history or the technomarvels to come? It seems there are two kinds of people. Both camps have their optimists as well as their pessimists. Disease is a worry. Time traveling while black or female poses special hazards. Then again, some people see ways to make money at lotteries, stock markets, and racetracks. Some just want to relive past loves. Many back travelers are driven by regret—mistakes made, opportunities lost.

You may wonder about the rules of this game. Is safety guaranteed? Can you take anything with you?*1 At the very least, presumably, you carry your awareness and your memories, if not a change of clothing. Will you be a passive observer or can you change the course of history? If you change history, does that change you, in turn? “History makes you what you are,” says an armchair philosopher in Dexter Palmer’s 2016 novel, Version Control. “And if you traveled back in time you wouldn’t get to be you anymore. You would have a different history, and you would become someone else.” The rules keep changing, it seems.

Wells, though he later published not one but two histories of the world, had no interest in sending his Time Traveller backward. He plunged forward, then forward again, on to the end of time. But it didn’t take long for other writers to see other possibilities. Edith Nesbit, a friend of Wells’s, was a forward-looking, free-thinking fellow socialist, but when she got her chance, the past was the place for her. Writing under the gender-free name of E. Nesbit, she was commonly said to be an author of children’s books. Generations later, Gore Vidal took issue with that categorization: he said children were the heroes of her books, but don’t be fooled, they are not her ideal readers. He compared her to Lewis Carroll: “Like Carroll, she was able to create a world of magic and inverted logic that was entirely her own.” He thought she should be more famous.

Credit 10.1

Wells often visited the household over which she presided with her husband, Hubert Bland. “The quicksilver wife” is how he perceived her, alongside “the more commonplace, argumentative cast-iron husband.” He thought Hubert was something of a fraud, not as bright as Edith, unable to support the family (she did that, with her writing), and a “Seducer”: “The astonished visitor came to realize that most of the children of the household were not E. Nesbit’s but the results of Bland’s conquests…”*2 E. Nesbit became one of the first English writers to explore the new possibilities of time travel. She did not bother with science. There is no machinery, only magic. And where Wells looked forward, she looked back.

Her strange tale The Story of the Amulet, written in 1906, begins with four children—Cyril, Robert, Anthea, and Jane—moping through a long summer holiday. They have been left alone in London with old Nurse. Father is in Manchuria and mother in Madeira. They are deprived of liberty and primed for adventure.

Their house is in Bloomsbury, “happily situated between a sandpit and a chalk pit,” which means they can walk to the British Museum.*3 In turn-of-the-century London, this was an institution like none other in the world: a treasure house of antiquities from everywhere England had sent its seaborne colonizers and plunderers. It had the Elgin Marbles, named for the Scottish earl who made off with them from the Acropolis of Athens. It had the only surviving original of Beowulf. Visitors could walk into a gallery and examine the Rosetta Stone on a plinth. The museum was a portal to the past, a time gate through which ancient artifacts poked their age-worn surfaces into modernity: a bronze head from Smyrna, mummy cases from Egypt, winged sphinxes of sandstone, drinking vessels looted from Assyrian tombs, and hieroglyphs preserving secrets in a lost language.

If Cyril, Robert, Anthea, and Jane were getting an education in the perplexities of time—past and present jumbled together in odd ways, cultures misunderstanding one another across a gulf of ages—so were England’s adults. Besides museums there were shops trading in relics of the past—“curiosities” and “antiquities”—especially on Wardour Street, Monmouth Street, and Old Bond and New Bond Streets. These physical objects, worn or broken by the years, were like bottles containing messages written by our ancestors, to tell us who they were. “Antiquities are Historie defaced, or some remnants of History, which have casually escaped the shipwrack of time,” Roger Bacon had said. By 1900, London had surpassed Paris, Rome, Venice, and Amsterdam as the world’s center of trade in antiquities. Nesbit’s band of children walk past a curiosity shop near Charing Cross and there discover a small red charm, an amulet of shiny stone. It is trying to tell them something. It has magic powers. Before they know it, they’re on their way to that other country, the Past.

First, a few scientific-sounding words to help them along:

“Don’t you understand? The thing existed in the Past. If you were in the Past, too, you could find it. It’s very difficult to make you understand things. Time and space are only forms of thought.”

Of course Nesbit had read The Time Machine. Late in the story, her heroes do dart briefly into the future (using the British Museum as a portal). They find a sort of socialist utopia—all clean and happy and safe and orderly, perhaps to a fault—and encounter a child named Wells, “after the great reformer—surely you’ve heard of him? He lived in the dark ages.” With that brief exception, their real adventures take them backward into the Past (always reverently capitalized). They find themselves in Egypt, where children wear no clothes to speak of and tools are made of flint, because no one has heard of iron. They go to Babylon and meet the Queen in her palace of gold and silver, with flights of marble steps and beautiful fountains and a throne with embroidered cushions. She takes time out from throwing people in jail to entertain the time travelers with cold drinks. “I’m simply dying to talk to you, and to hear all about your wonderful country and how you got here, and everything, but I have to do justice every morning. Such a bore, isn’t it?” Then it’s off to another ancient land, Atlantis: “Great continent—disappeared in the sea. You can read about it in Plato.” They find blue sea sparkling in sunlight, white-capped waves lapping marble breakwaters, and the people riding around on great hairy mammoths—not as mild looking as the elephants they were accustomed to seeing at London’s zoo.

Archeology catalyzed imaginative literature. Nesbit didn’t intend to invent a time-travel subgenre, because she couldn’t see into the future, but she did just that. Meanwhile, also in 1906, Rudyard Kipling published a book of historical fantasies called Puck of Pook’s Hill, with swords and treasures and children transported through the years by the magic of storytelling. C. S. Lewis read Nesbit’s Amulet when he was a boy in Ireland: “It first opened my eyes to antiquity, the ‘dark backward and abysm of time.’ ” The road that started here led fifty years later to Peabody’s Improbable History, the television cartoon series that began appearing on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Mr. Peabody, the time-traveling beagle, and his boy, Sherman, take their WABAC Machine back to the construction of the pyramids at Giza, and also to visit Cleopatra, King Arthur, the emperor Nero, Christopher Columbus, and Isaac Newton, at the foot of his apple tree. Anachronism is rampant. The pedagogy is joyously imperfect.*4 Later still came the cult film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: history “rewritten by two guys who can’t spell.” Some time-tourists go to ogle, others to study history.

All these children—Cyril, Robert, Anthea, Jane, and the boy Sherman—want to go back and see the famous names enacting their famous stories. They serve as proxies for our desire to know what really happened. That desire seems to burn more fiercely when it is partially satisfied. The better that technology gets at capturing and representing our experience of the present, the more we suffer from the fog of ignorance that divides us from lost times. Progress in visualization shows us what we’re missing. In Nesbit’s time, statues and painted portraits were giving way to photographs. There was a magic in the way they froze an instant of time. Later, the dog Mr. Peabody was of course expert in the new medium of television. Nowadays every modern historian and biographer has felt the desire to send a video camera into the past—to Newton’s garden or King Arthur’s court—if an actual time machine is not available.

“I’ve always felt a wonder at old photographs,” says Simon Morley. He is a sketch artist, working in advertising in New York, and he is the narrator of Time and Again, a 1970 novel (illustrated with sketches and vintage photographs) by Jack Finney, a former New York ad man himself.*5 Simon deeply feels the inaccessibility of the past, once alive, now lost, taunting us with the few objects and images that survive.

Maybe I don’t need to explain; maybe you’ll recognize what I mean. I mean the sense of wonder, staring at the strange clothes and vanished backgrounds, at knowing that what you’re seeing was once real. That light really did reflect into a lens from these lost faces and objects. That these people were really there once, smiling into a camera. You could have walked into the scene then, touched those people, and spoken to them. You could actually have gone into that strange outmoded old building and seen what now you never can—what was just inside the door.

It’s not just photographs. Someone appropriately sensitized, like Simon, can see the fingers of the past pressing through the cracks of all his existence. In a dense old city like New York, the past is in the stones and the bricks. The relic that triggers Simon’s time travels will turn out to be a residential building—not just any apartment house, but a famous one, the Dakota: “like a miniature town…gables, turrets, pyramids, towers, peaks…acres of slanted surfaces shingled in slate, trimmed with age-greened copper, and peppered with uncountable windows, dormer and flush; square, round, and rectangular; big and small; wide, and as narrow as archers’ slits.” This will be his portal.

The conceit of Time and Again is that time travel to the past can be accomplished with no machinery, no magic, but merely a trick of the mind, a bit of self-hypnosis. If the right subject, a sensitive person like Simon, can rid his memory and purge his surroundings of every trace of the past century, he can translate himself by an act of will into, for example, the year 1882. First he must get into the mood: “There are no such things as automobiles….There are no planes, computers, television, no world in which they are possible. ‘Nuclear’ and ‘electronics’ appear in no dictionary anywhere on the face of the earth. You have never heard the name Richard Nixon…or Eisenhower…Adenauer…Stalin…Franco…General Patton.”

Simon (and the reader) are also primed with the now-customary Wells-style pseudologic, to counter the commonsense knowledge that time travel is impossible. Once again, everything we think we know about time is wrong. Here, in 1970, the patter is updated to stand on the authority of Einstein. “How much do you know about Albert Einstein,” says Dr. E. E. Danziger, project director, in the role of learned gentleman. “The list of Einstein’s discoveries is a considerable one. But I’ll skip to this: Presently he said that our ideas about time are largely mistaken.” He explains:

“We’re mistaken in our conception of what the past, present and future really are. We think the past is gone, the future hasn’t yet happened, and that only the present exists. Because the present is all we can see.”

“Well, if you pinned me down [says Simon], I’d have to admit that that’s how it seems to me.”

He smiled. “Of course. To me, too. It’s only natural. As Einstein himself pointed out. He said we’re like people in a boat without oars drifting along a winding river. Around us we see only the present. We can’t see the past, back in the bends and curves behind us. But it’s there.”

“Did he mean that literally, though? Or did he mean—”

Good question. Did he mean it literally, or was he merely creating an effective mathematical model? No matter. We’re moving quickly now, because Danziger has done Einstein one better and invented a way to step out of the boat and walk back.

The reader will discover that what powers this book is the author’s raw love of history—for a special time and place, 1880s New York. Time and Again has a twisty plot involving blackmail and murder, as well as a time-traveling love triangle, but you sense that what Jack Finney really cared about—drawing it so painstakingly in words and sketches—was the texture of the time: the mortised cut stone that lines Central Park, a gown of wine-red velvet, the New York Evening Sun and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, hitching posts and gas jets and carriage lamps, silk-hatted men and women carrying muffs and wearing button shoes, the astonishing profusion of telegraph wires, in bunches, darkening the downtown sky. “This was the greatest possible adventure,” Simon thinks, and you know that Finney thinks so, too.

I was like a man on a diving board far higher than any other he’s ever dared….However cautiously and tentatively, I was about to participate in the life of these times.

Longing for the past resembles the sentiment (or disorder) called nostalgia. Originally, before our newly heightened sense of past and future, nostalgia meant homesickness: “the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia” (Joseph Banks, 1770, per the Oxford English Dictionary). Not till the end of the nineteenth century did the word have anything to do with time. But Finney and other writers are not just nostalgic. They are running their fingers through the fabric of history. They are communing with its ghosts. They are reanimating the dead. Long before Finney, Henry James, too, used a redolent old house as a gateway. Just past the turn of the century, while his brother William, the psychologist, was so fascinated with Proust and Bergson, Henry was struggling with a novel he never managed to finish, published after his death as The Sense of the Past: a young, fatherless historian, an inherited London house (“a piece of suggestive concrete antiquity”), and a door. There is something special about James’s hero, Ralph Pendrel. He is a “victim of the sense of the Past.”

“I’ve been ridden all my life,” he says, “by the desire to cultivate some better sense of the past than has mostly seemed sufficient even for those people who have gone in most for cultivating it.” He pauses at the fateful door, James tells us—

perhaps with the supreme pause of the determined diver about to plunge just marked in him before the closing of the door again placed him on the right side and the whole world as he had known it on the wrong.

Ralph finds himself in another of those bicentury love triangles, fiancée in the present and a fresher, somehow more innocent woman of the past. He is not called a time traveler—not in 1917—but now we know that’s what he is.

Old houses were good for the kind of inspiration that sends a person mysteriously into other times. They have attics and basements, where relics lie untouched for ages. They have doors, and when a door opens, who knows what lies beyond? T. S. Eliot, who particularly admired The Sense of the Past, saw this: “I am the old house / With the noxious smell and the sorrow before morning, / In which all past is present.” In Daphne du Maurier’s novel The House on the Strand, the house alone is not enough. Time travel requires a drug—a potion comprising equal parts mumbo-jumbo and hocus-pocus: “It has to do with DNA, enzyme catalysts, molecular equilibria and the like—above your head, dear boy, I won’t elaborate.” When she wrote the story, du Maurier had recently moved to a house called Kilmarth, on a hilltop near the coast of Cornwall, and she remained there, mainly alone, till the end of her life. Kilmarth is the house on the strand. In the novel, it is said to rest on fourteenth-century foundations, and the fourteenth century is the destination of her fictional hero, an unhappily married book publisher named Dick Young. His trip through time (nausea, vertigo) lands him in a landscape of scrubby moor and young, harsh soil. He is stunned by the clarity. There are hooded ploughmen, wimpled ladies, robed monks, and knights on horseback, and Dick finds himself embroiled in a bloody adventure: adultery, betrayal, and murder. Not only that, he knows, because he has consulted the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that the Black Death is about to arrive. Yet he is never so alive as in the past.

The House on the Strand appeared in 1969, a year before Time and Again, and Dick describes the feeling of both books’ narrators when he says, “I had walked about that other world with a dreamer’s freedom but with a waking man’s perception.” They are interlopers in history. They can witness, but they struggle to find out whether they can belong, intervene, or alter the timeline of events. “Could time be all-dimensional,” Dick muses, “—yesterday, today, tomorrow running concurrently in ceaseless repetition?” Whatever that means. He’s a book publisher, not a physicist.

“Might it not be,” says W. G. Sebald in Austerlitz, “that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?” This Past, into which so many travelers launch themselves, is a misty place, perhaps even more so than the Future. It can seldom be remembered, must be imagined. Yet here in our information-rich present, the past seems more with us than ever. The more vivid it gets, the more real it seems, the greater the craving. Feeding the addiction are Ken Burnsian documentaries, Renaissance faires, Civil War reenactments, history cable channels, and augmented-reality apps. Anything that “brings the past to life.” Under the circumstances, time machines might seem surplus to requirements, but the practitioners of time travel show no signs of slowing down—not in fiction or in film. Woody Allen has explored time travel several times—into the future with Sleeper (1973) and then, in 2011, with Midnight in Paris, he throws the lever to the past.

His hero, Gil Pender, is a blond Californian and the ideal of the backward-looking obsessive. His friends tease him about his nostalgia, his “denial of the painful present,” his “obsession with ‘les temps perdus.’ ” He is writing a novel, and its opening lines both celebrate and mock the very genre that this movie so self-consciously joins:

“Out of the Past” was the name of the store, and its products consisted of memories. What was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status at once magical and also camp.

His time-slipping portal is not a machine or a house but Paris itself, the whole city, its past so exposed, at every street corner and flea market. To 1920 he goes, and there the modernists understand his sense of dislocation. “I’m from a different time—a whole other era—the future,” he explains. “I slide through time.” The surrealist Man Ray replies, “Exactly correct—you inhabit two worlds—so far I see nothing strange.” The film’s central joke is slowly revealed, and it is recursive, time slips within time slips. Nostalgia is eternal. If the twenty-first century yearns for the Jazz Age, the Jazz Age craves the Belle Époque—every age mourning the loss of another age. Woody Allen is neither the first nor the last to see it this way. “The present is always going to seem unsatisfying,” Gil learns, “because life itself is unsatisfying.”

Travel to the past begins as tourism in the extreme. Complications soon arise. The sightseers start tinkering. We barely learn to read history before we want to rewrite it. Here come the paradoxes—cause and effect going around in loops. Even Nesbit’s child heroes see this. When they meet Julius Caesar at his tent in Gaul, peering across the Channel toward Britain, they can’t resist trying to talk him out of dispatching his legions: “We want to ask you not to trouble about conquering Britain; it’s a poor little place, not worth bothering about.” This backfires, naturally. They end up talking him into it, because you can’t change history, and we have just witnessed the birth of a time-travel joke that will evolve into higher and higher forms. Thus, a full century after Nesbit, Woody Allen’s time traveler in Midnight in Paris meets the young Luis Buñuel and can’t resist trying to inspire the director with his own future movie.

GIL: Oh, Mr. Buñuel, I had a nice idea for a movie for you.


GIL: Yeah, a group of people attend a very formal dinner party and at the end of dinner when they try to leave the room, they can’t.

BUÑUEL: Why not?

GIL: They just can’t seem to exit the door.

BUÑUEL: But, but why?

GIL: And because they’re forced to stay together the veneer of civilization quickly fades away and what you’re left with is who they really are—animals.

BUÑUEL: But I don’t get it. Why don’t they just walk out of the room?

When the future meets the past, the future has a knowledge advantage. Yet the past is not easily swayed. Mind you, we’re talking about our imaginations—the imaginations of professional imaginers, especially. “Time,” wrote the novelist Ian McEwan early in his career—“not necessarily as it is, for who knows that, but as thought has constituted it—monomaniacally forbids second chances.” The rules of time travel have been written not by scientists but by storytellers.

WHEN THEY DID start trying to change history, so many of them came up with the perfect plan. They tried to kill Hitler. They are still trying, to this day. It’s easy to see why. Others have done great evil and caused great suffering (Stalin, Mao…), but one man looms above the others with his combination of monstrosity and charisma. “Adolf Hitler. Hitler, Hitler, Hitler,” says Stephen Fry, in his time-travel novel, Making History. If only Hitler can be unmade. The entire twentieth century gets a do-over. The idea arose even before the United States entered the war: the July 1941 issue of Weird Tales featured a story called “I Killed Hitler” by Ralph Milne Farley, pseudonym for a Massachusetts politician and pulp writer, Roger Sherman Hoar. An American painter resents the German dictator for several reasons and goes back in time to wring the neck of ten-year-old Adolf. (Surprise: the result, when he returns to the present, is not what he expected.) By the end of the 1940s, Hitler’s death at the hands of time travelers was already a meme. It is taken for granted in “Brooklyn Project,” a 1948 story by Philip Klass, publishing under the name William Tenn. The Brooklyn Project is a secret government experiment in time travel. “As you know,” an official explains, “one of the fears entertained about travel to the past was that the most innocent-seeming acts would cause cataclysmic changes in the present. You are probably familiar with the fantasy in its most currently popular form—if Hitler had been killed in 1930.” Impossible, he explains. Scientists have proven beyond doubt that time is “a rigid affair, past, present, and future, and nothing in it could be altered.” He keeps saying so, even as the project’s time-traveling “chronar” makes its way into prehistory and he and his listeners fail to notice that they are now slimy bloated creatures waving purple pseudopods.

Stephen Dedalus says memorably in Ulysses that history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. Is there no escape? What if Julius Caesar had not been murdered on the Senate steps, or Pyrrhus killed in Argos? “Time has branded them,” thinks Stephen, “and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.”

Can these eager assassins change history or can’t they? For a while, every new story seemed to offer a new theory. Alfred Bester, a New York PR man turned sci-fi writer, invented his own special variation of you can’t change history for his 1958 story, “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed.” The unhappy protagonist, Henry Hassel, angered by discovering his wife “in the arms of” another man, goes on an ever-more-murderous rampage through history, armed with his time machine and a .45-caliber pistol, killing parents and grandparents and historical figures near and far, Columbus, Napoleon, Mohammed (everyone but Hitler), and nothing seems to work. The wife continues in her merry ways. Why? Another sad time traveler finally explains:

“My boy, time is entirely subjective. It’s a private matter….We each travel into our own past, and no other person’s. There is no universal continuum, Henry. There are only billions of individuals, each with his own continuum; and one continuum cannot affect the other. We’re like millions of strands of spaghetti in the same pot….Each of us must travel up and down his strand alone.”

From branching paths to spaghetti strands.

In Stephen Fry’s variation, the hero is a student historian named Michael Young. (One wonders—why do our imaginative time-travel writers keep naming their characters Young?) In this variation, he hopes to change history not by assassinating Hitler but by sterilizing his father: “The historian as God. I know so much about you, Mr. So-Called Hitler, that I can stop you from being born.” And then? Will the twentieth century live happily ever after? (“It was insane of course. I knew that. It couldn’t possibly work. You can’t change the past. You can’t redesign the present.”) All you can do is ask, What if? The novelist makes the world. Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel, Life After Life, changes the rules yet again. The shooting of Hitler comes in the opening scene: our heroine, Ursula Todd (surname death this time) fires her father’s old service revolver at the Führer across the table in a Munich café in 1930. Then she dies, and she keeps on dying, again and again, at different ages, in different ways, always starting over and trying to do it right. Her alternative lives are like strands of spaghetti in a pot. “History is all about ‘what ifs,’ ” someone tells her, as if she didn’t know. Someone else urges, “We must bear witness…we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.” Atkinson, the author, said later, “I am in that future now, and I suppose this book is my bearing witness to the past.”

One consequence of Hitler’s being the favorite victim of time-traveling assassins is that he keeps on coming back to life. Here he is, living in the Amazon jungle, ninety years old, in George Steiner’s novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. Or alive and well in Berlin, still führer of the Greater German Reich, having won World War II in Robert Harris’s Fatherland. Or syphilitic and senile, in The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick—Germany has won the war, because in this history it was the young Franklin D. Roosevelt who was assassinated before he could put his strong hand on the tiller of history. The variations on this theme continue to multiply. As a literary genre, these counterfactual narratives are called alternative history in English, or ucronía, uchronie, etc., or allohistory. The labels arose only in the mid to late twentieth century, when the genre began to explode, fed by time travel and branching universes, but in 1930 James Thurber was presciently satirizing it in the New Yorker magazine, in his story “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” (identified as a follow-up to “If Booth Had Missed Lincoln,” “If Lee Had Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” and “If Napoleon Had Escaped to America”). Professionals ask similar questions these days. The humor bleeds into academic historiography. It’s possible to become quite obsessed with historical contingency. In a comprehensive study, The World Hitler Never Made, Gavriel D. Rosenfeld analyzed as many of the Nazi variations as he could find to see how many ended up making history “the same or worse without Hitler as opposed to being better.”*6 There are few happy endings, he found. It is often the writers of science fiction or “speculative fiction” who give us, not only the weirdest, but the most rigorously analyzed approaches to the working of history.

It all might have been different. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. I coulda been a contender. Regret is the time traveler’s energy bar. If only…something. Every writer nowadays knows about the butterfly effect. The slightest flutter might alter the course of great events. A decade before the meteorologist and chaos theorist Edward Lorenz chose the butterfly for illustrative purposes, Ray Bradbury deployed a history-changing butterfly in his 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder.” Here the time machine—the Machine, a vague mess of “silver metal” and “roaring light”—carries paying sightseers on Time Safaris back to the era of the dinosaurs. Apart from the addition of oxygen helmets and intercoms, the time travel itself is pure Wells: “The Machine howled. Time was a film run backward. Suns fled and ten million moons fled after them….The Machine slowed; its scream fell to a murmur.” The Safari operators, though, try to be careful about leaving everything unchanged, because they worry about history.

A little error here would multiply in sixty million years, all out of proportion….A dead mouse here makes an insect imbalance there, a population disproportion later, a bad harvest further on, a depression, mass starvation….Perhaps only a soft break, a whisper, a hair, pollen on the air, such a slight, slight change that unless you looked close you wouldn’t see it. Who knows?

In the event, a feckless time-tourist steps on a butterfly: “an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time.”

The butterfly effect, though, is a matter of potential only. Not every flutter in the air leaves its mark on the ages. Most fade to nothing, damped by viscosity. That was Asimov’s assumption in The End of Eternity: that the effects of tampering with history tend to die out as the centuries pass, perturbations extinguished by friction or dissipation. His Technician confidently explains: “Reality has a tendency to flow back to its original position.” But Bradbury was right and Asimov was wrong. If history is a dynamical system, it’s surely nonlinear, and the butterfly effect must obtain. At some places, some times, a slight divergence can transform history. There are critical moments—nodal points. These are where you want to place your lever. History—our real history, that is—must be full of such moments or people, if only we could identify them. We imagine that we can. Births and assassinations, military victories and defeats. We focus on individuals, heroes and villains with an outsize influence. Hence the fascination with Hitler. If you could kill just one person…By and large, though, the creators of these fantasies have been wise enough to mock the hubris they imply. “Can anyone alter fate?” asks Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle. “All of us combined…or one great figure…or someone strategically placed, who happens to be in the right spot. Chance. Accident. And our lives, our world, hanging on it.” Surely some people, some events, some decisions matter more than others. Nodal points must exist, just not necessarily where we think.

Stuck as we are in our own time, most of us aren’t trying to make history, much less change it. We take the days one at a time, and history happens. Clive James has said that the greatest poets aspire not to change literary history but only to enrich it. One more reason for the special fascination with Hitler is his playing God. “The Führer was different,” thinks Kate Atkinson’s Ursula Todd, “he was consciously making history for the future. Only a true narcissist could do that.” Beware the politician who aspires to make history. Ursula herself lives in her many moments, one timeline after another: “the future as much a mystery as the past.”

We cannot escape the alternative realities, the limitless variations. The OED carefully tells us that the word multiverse was “orig. Science Fiction” but now, alas, “Physics”: “the large collection of universes in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics…in which each in turn of the different possible outcomes occurs.” At the same time, entirely apart from quantum theory, we have discovered the pleasure and pain of virtual worlds, inside the computer or the matrix, forcing us to contemplate the possibility that we ourselves are characters in someone else’s simulated reality. Or our own. Nowadays, when one speaks of “the real world,” it is difficult to refrain from using ironic quotation marks. We inhabit virtual worlds as familiarly and as avidly as the real one. In virtual worlds time travel could not be easier.

Follow me down the rabbit hole into the looping tunnels. William Gibson will be our Virgil. He is reading The Alteration, a 1976 novel of alternative history by Kingsley Amis, better known for his comic satires of contemporary Britain. In this world Europe has succumbed to authoritarianism, but never mind Hitler—the papacy is in charge. The Reformation never happened, and the Catholic Church holds much of the world in a theocratic grip. Amis is, of course, investigating in a sidelong way his own, all-too-real world, just as Philip Roth is in The Plot Against America and Fry in Making History. Amis’s story opens in the Cathedral Basilica of St. George at Coverley, “the mother church of all England and of the English Empire overseas.” In passing we observe bits of perverted art history: Turner has evidently painted the ceiling “in commemoration of the Holy Victory,” Blake has decorated one wall with some holy frescoes, and the choir sings Mozart’s Second Requiem, “the crown of his middle age.” Science has been suppressed. Although it is 1976, there are wagons and oil lamps, but “matters electrical were held in general disesteem.” And there are wheels within wheels.

Lacking science, literature in the world of The Alteration has failed to generate science fiction, but the novel’s young hero enjoys reading in a disreputable genre known as Time Romance, or TR, for short. TR “appealed to a type of mind.” It was illegal but impossible to suppress fully. Inside this genre has evolved a subgenre known as Counterfeit World, CW. In this subgenre, books imagine histories that never happened—alternative histories. Now Gibson will explain:

Amis accomplishes, as it were in the attic of his novel, a sublime hall-of-mirrors effect. In our world, Philip K. Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis triumphed in World War II. Within Dick’s book there is another, imaginary book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, envisioning a world in which the Allies won, though that world clearly isn’t ours. In Amis’s counterfeit world, someone called Philip K. Dick has written a novel, The Man in the High Castle, imagining a non-Catholic world. Which isn’t ours.

And isn’t theirs. It’s hard to keep track. Amis’s boy hero, in his world without science, is amazed to read of a counterfactual world where “they use electricity…they send messages all over the Earth with it” and Mozart died in 1799 and Beethoven wrote twenty symphonies, and another famous book explains that humans evolved from a thing like an ape. “This business of TR and CW strikes me,” says Gibson, “as it plays so artfully through the book, as likely the best Jorge Luis Borges story Jorge Luis Borges never wrote.”

The shelves continue to fill with counterfeit worlds. The future becomes the present, and so every futuristic fantasy is slated to become alternative history. When the year 1984 arrived, Orwell’s particular surveillance state made the transition from TR to CW. Then 2001 came and went without any noticeable space odysseys. The careful futurist learns to avoid specifying dates. Still our literature and our filmmaking keep breeding new pasts, along with all the putative futures. And so do we all, every day, every night, waking and dreaming in the subjunctive, weighing the options, regretting the might-have-beens.

“DUAL TIME-TRACKS, alternate universes,” scoffs a skeptical lawyer in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven. “Do you see a lot of old late-night TV shows?”

Her troubled client is a man named George Orr. (A tip of the hat to George Orwell, whose special year, 1984, had nearly arrived when Le Guin, in her forties, departed from her previous form to write this strange book.*7) When aliens appear, they pronounce his name Jor Jor.

He is an ordinary man—an office worker, apparently placid, milquetoast, conventional. But George is a dreamer. When he was sixteen, he dreamed that his aunt Ethel had been killed in a car crash, and when he awoke he realized that his aunt Ethel had been killed in a car crash, weeks earlier. His dream changed reality retroactively. He has “effective dreams”—a sci-fi trope invented here. You might say he carries alternate universes within. Who else does that? The author, for one.

This is a lot of responsibility, and George doesn’t want it. He has no more control over his dreams than you or I—not conscious control, anyway. (He fears he had resented Ethel’s sexual advances.) Increasingly desperate, he doses himself with barbiturates and dextroamphetamine in hopes of suppressing his dreams altogether and ends up in the hands of a psychologist—a dreaming specialist—named William Haber. Haber believes in striving and control; he believes in the power of reason and science. He is plasticoated, like his office furniture. He hypnotizes poor George in an effort to guide his effective dreams and remake reality, step by step. The doctor’s office decor seems to have improved. Somehow he has become Director of the Institute.

For the rest of the universe, pulled in the wake of George’s dreams, progress is not so simple. Just as quantum theorists may have trouble finding sensible pathways through an unconstrained cornucopia of universes, so might the conscientious novelist. Le Guin does not make matters easy for the reader. She draws us no diagrams.*8 We must drift in her currents and listen carefully. The music changes. The weather changes. Portland is a city of ceaseless rain, “a downpour of warm soup, forever.” Portland enjoys clear air and level sunlight. Was there a dream about President John F. Kennedy and an umbrella? Dr. Haber encourages George to focus on his dread of overpopulation—Portland is a crowded metropolis of three million souls. Or Portland’s population has fallen to a hundred thousand, since the Plague Years and the Crash. Everyone remembers those: pollutants in the atmosphere “combining to form virulent carcinogens,” the first epidemic, “the riots, and the fuck-ins, and the Doomsday Band, and the Vigilantes.” Only George and now Dr. Haber remember multiple realities. “They took care of the overpopulation problem, didn’t they?” George says sarcastically. “We really did it.” When are we less the masters of our thoughts than when we dream?

He is not a time traveler. He does not travel through time. He changes it: the past and the future, at once. Much later, sci-fi developed terminology for these conventions, or borrowed them from physics: alternative histories may be called “timelines” or, per William Gibson, “stubs.” In any one stub, people are bound to think that their history is the only one that happened. It’s not so much that Orr’s dream brings a new plague; it’s that once he has dreamed, the plague had always happened. He begins to appreciate the paradox. “He thought: In that life, yesterday, I dreamed an effective dream, which obliterated six billion lives and changed the entire history of humankind for the past quarter century. But in this life, which I then created, I did not dream an effective dream.” There was always a plague. If this sounds like George Orwell’s “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia,” that’s no accident. Totalitarian governments also purvey alternate histories.*9

The Lathe of Heaven is a critique of a certain kind of hubris—one that every willful creature shares in some degree. It is the hubris of politicians and social engineers: champions of progress who believe we can remake the world. “Isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth—to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?” says Haber, the scientist, when Orr expresses doubts. Change is good: “Nothing remains the same from one moment to the next, you can’t step into the same river twice.”

George sees it differently. “We’re in the world, not against it,” he says. “It doesn’t work to try to stand outside things and run them that way. It just doesn’t work, it goes against life.” Evidently he is a natural Taoist. “There is a way but you have to follow it. The world is, no matter how we think it ought to be.”

Having solved overpopulation, Haber tries to use George to bring about peace on Earth. What could go wrong? The Alien Invasion. Sirens, crashes, silvery spaceships. The eruption of Mount Hood. Orr dreams an end to racial strife, to “color problems.” Now everyone is gray.

A word from Zhuang Zhou: “Those who dream of feasting wake to lamentation.”

It seems there is no way out of this mess—no way based on intention or control—but an unexpected source of wisdom appears: the Aliens. They look like big green turtles. They sense a kindred spirit in Jor Jor, as well they might, since he has presumably dreamed them into existence. They speak in riddles:

We also have been variously disturbed. Concepts cross in mist. Perception is difficult. Volcanoes emit fire. Help is offered: refusably. Snakebite serum is not prescribed for all. Before following directions leading in wrong directions, auxiliary forces may be summoned.

They sound vaguely Taoist themselves. “Self is universe. Please forgive interruption, crossing in mist.”

Reality vies with irreality. George doubts his sanity. He doubts his free will. He dreams of deep seas and crossing currents. Is he the dreamer or the dream?

“II descend, réveillé, l’autre côté du rêve. (Le Guin is quoting Victor Hugo now.) He descends, awakened, the other side of the dream.

The Alien says: “There is time. There are returns. To go is to return.”

“THIS ABOUT TIME being only a thingummy of thought is very confusing,” said one of E. Nesbit’s wise children, having been initiated into time’s new mysteries. “If everything happens at the same time—”

“It CAN’T!” said Anthea stoutly, “The present’s the present and the past’s the past.”

“Not always,” said Cyril. “When we were in the Past the present was the future. Now then!” he added triumphantly.

And Anthea could not deny it.

We have to ask these questions, don’t we? Is the world we have the only world possible? Could everything have turned out differently? What if you could not only kill Hitler and see what happens, but you could go back again and again, making improvements, tweaking the timeline, like the weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) in one of the greatest of all time-travel movies, reliving Groundhog Day until finally he gets it right.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? If you had a time machine, would you kill Hitler?

*1 Opinions vary. James E. Gunn (1958): “You are naked, because you can take nothing with you, just as you can leave nothing behind. Those are the two natural rules of time travel.”

*2 “…that the friend and companion who ran the household was the mother of one of these young people, that young Miss so and so, who played Badminton with a preoccupied air was the last capture of Hubert’s accomplished sex appeal. All this E. Nesbit not only detested and mitigated and tolerated, but…I think found exceedingly interesting.” Then again, Wells himself fathered children with various women besides his wife, and may have had an affair with one of Bland’s illegitimate daughters. Free love, after all.

*3 The book is dedicated to the British Museum’s leading Egyptologist, Wallis Budge.

*4 For example, Mr. Peabody solemnly explains that Isaac Newton had a brother, Figby, who invented a cookie.

*5 The reader may recall an entirely different Time and Again. There have been at least three. As the time-travel express got going, in the second half of the twentieth century, publishers must have had a panicky realization that they were using up all the possible titles. They run together in the mind: Time and Again — Time After Time — From Time to Time — Out of Time — A Rebel in Time — Prisoner of Time — The Depths of Time — The Map of Time — The Corridors of Time — The Masks of Time — There Will Be Time — Time’s Eye. At least four novels have been titled Time After Time.

*6 Rosenfeld then started a blog, The Counterfactual History Review, and embarked on a collection to be titled If Only We Had Died in Egypt!: What Ifs of Jewish History.

*7 In an odd coincidence, Le Guin had gone to high school with Philip K. Dick, as she realized later. “Nobody knew Phil Dick,” she told The Paris Review. “He was the invisible classmate.”

*8 She said to an interviewer, Bill Moyers, “The book is full of dreams and visions, and you are never sure which is which.”

*9 Indeed, it is the essence of doublethink. “This demands a continuous alteration of the past.” The literal rewriting of history was Winston Smith’s day job, remember, in the Minitrue RecDep (Ministry of Truth Records Department).