Time Travel: A History (2016)
Fin de Siècle
Your body moves always in the present, the dividing line between the past and the future. But your mind is more free. It can think, and is in the present. It can remember, and at once is in the past. It can imagine, and at once is in the future, in its own choice of all the possible futures. Your mind can travel through time!
—Eric Frank Russell (1941)
CAN YOU, citizen of the twenty-first century, recall when you first heard of time travel? I doubt it. Time travel is in the pop songs, the TV commercials, the wallpaper. From morning to night, children’s cartoons and adult fantasies invent and reinvent time machines, gates, doorways, and windows, not to mention time ships and special closets, DeLoreans, and police boxes. Animated cartoons have been time traveling since 1925: in “Felix the Cat Trifles with Time,” Father Time agrees to send the unhappy Felix back to a faraway time inhabited by cavemen and dinosaurs. In a 1944 Looney Tunes episode, Elmer Fudd dreams his way into the future—“when you hear the sound of the gong it will be exactly 2000 AD”—where a newspaper headline reveals, “Smellevision Replaces Television.” By 1960 Rocky and His Friends was sending the dog Mr. Peabody and his adopted boy, Sherman, through the WABAC Machine to straighten out William Tell and Calamity Jane, and the next year Donald Duck made his first trip into prehistory, to invent the wheel. “Wayback Machine” became a thing, so a sitcom character says, “Dave, don’t mess with a man with a Wayback Machine—I can make it so you were never born.”
Children learn about “time whirlwinds” and “time-travel stones.” Homer Simpson accidentally turns a toaster into a time machine. No explanation is necessary. We’ve outgrown the need for professors expounding on the fourth dimension. What’s not to understand?
China’s official State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television issued a warning and denunciation of time travel in 2011, concerned that such stories interfere with history—“casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism, and reincarnation.” Indeed. Global culture has absorbed the tropes of time travel. In The Onion, a photograph of a man with a futuristic-looking e-cigarette occasions an article about a time-traveling “soldier of fortune with off-world military training.” People can work out his whole story just by looking at him. “Judging by his cool, calm demeanor and the fact that he was inhaling what looked like e-fumes from some kind of shiny black mecha-cigarette, I’m just going to assume this guy has journeyed here from hundreds of years in the future to apprehend a dangerous digi-convict of some kind,” says an onlooker. “Imagine his knowledge of future events. He could probably share information about so many astounding secrets if we dared ask.” Others reckon his sunglasses hide advanced ocular cybernetics and that he’s traversing the space-time continuum armed with a pulse rifle or particle cannon. “Further sources speculated, with growing alarm, that the man’s very presence in the bar might somehow cause an irreversible temporal paradox of some kind.”
Nor does time travel belong solely to popular culture. The time-travel meme is pervasive. Neuroscientists investigate “mental time travel,” more solemnly known as “chronesthesia.” Scholars can hardly broach the metaphysics of change and causality without discussing time travel and its paradoxes. Time travel forces its way into philosophy and infects modern physics.
Have we spent the last century developing a lurid pipe dream? Have we lost touch with the simple truth about time? Or is it the other way around: perhaps the blinders have come off and we are finally evolving, as a species, an ability to understand the past and the future for what they are. We have learned a great deal about time, and only some of it from science.
HOW STRANGE, then, to realize that time travel, the concept, is barely a century old. The term first occurs in English in 1914*1—a back-formation from Wells’s “Time Traveller.” Somehow humanity got by for thousands of years without asking, What if I could travel into the future? What would the world be like? What if I could travel into the past—could I change history? The questions didn’t arise.
By now The Time Machine is one of those books you feel you must have read at some point, whether or not you actually did. You may have seen the 1960 movie, starring the matinee-handsome Rod Taylor as the Time Traveller (he needed a name, so they called him George) and featuring a machine that didn’t remind anyone of a bicycle. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called this time machine “an antique version of the flying saucer.” To me it looks like a rococo sort of sledge, with a plush red chair. Apparently I’m not the only one. “Everyone knows what a time machine looks like,” writes the physicist Sean Carroll: “something like a steampunk sled with a red velvet chair, flashing lights, and a giant spinning wheel on the back.” The movie also features the Time Traveller’s erstwhile companion, Weena, played by Yvette Mimieux as a languid peroxide blonde of the year 802701.
George asks Weena whether her people think much about the past. “There is no past,” she informs him, with no discernible conviction. Do they wonder about the future? “There is no future.” She lives in the now, all right. Everyone has forgotten about fire, too, but luckily George brought some matches. “I’m only a tinkering mechanic,” he says modestly, but he’d like to fill her in on a few things.
Motion picture technology, by the way, was just coming over the horizon when Wells wrote his fantasy, and he took note. (The bicycle was not the only modern machine from which he drew inspiration.) In 1879 the photographic stop-motion pioneer Eadweard Muybridge invented what he called a zoopraxiscope for projecting successive images to give the illusion of movement. They made visible an aspect of time never before seen. Thomas Edison followed with his kinetoscope and met in France with Étienne-Jules Marey, who was already creating la chronophotographie, followed soon after by Louis and Auguste Lumière and their cinématographe. By 1894, London was entertaining crowds at its first kinetoscope parlor in Oxford Street; Paris had one, too. So when the Time Traveller begins his voyage it looks like this:
I pressed the lever over to its extreme position. The night came like the turning out of a lamp, and in another moment came to-morrow. The laboratory grew faint and hazy, then fainter and ever fainter. To-morrow night came black, then day again, night again, day again, faster and faster still. An eddying murmur filled my ears, and a strange, dumb confusedness descended on my mind….The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness.
One way or another, the inventions of H. G. Wells color every time-travel story that followed. When you write about time travel, you either pay homage to The Time Machine or dodge its shadow. William Gibson, who would reinvent time travel yet again in the twenty-first century, was a boy when he encountered Wells’s story in a fifteen-cent Classics Illustrated comic book; by the time he saw the movie he felt he already owned it, “part of a personal and growing collection of alternate universes.”
I had imagined this, for my own purposes, as geared in some achingly complex spheres-within-spheres way that I could never envision in operation….I suspected, without admitting it to myself, that time travel might be a magic on the order of being able to kiss one’s own elbow (which had seemed, initially, to be quite theoretically possible).
In his seventy-seventh year Wells tried to recall how it came to him. He couldn’t. He needed a time machine for his own consciousness. He put it almost that way himself. His brain was stuck in its epoch. The instrument doing the recollecting was also the instrument to be recalled. “I have been trying, for a day or so, to reconstruct the state of my brain as it was about 1878 or 9….I find it impossible to disentangle….The old ideas and impressions were made over in accordance with new material, they were used to make up the new equipment.” Yet if ever a story was kicking to be born, it was The Time Machine.
It flowed from his pen in fits and starts over a period of years, beginning in 1888 as a fantasy called “The Chronic Argonauts,” serialized in three installments in the Science Schools Journal, a periodical Wells started himself at the Normal School. He rewrote it and threw it away at least twice. A few dramatic early bits survive: “Conceive me, the Time Traveller, the discoverer of Futurity”—futurity!—“clinging senseless to his Time Machine, choking with sobs & with the tears streaming down his face, full of a terrible fear that he would never see humanity again.”
In 1894 he revived “that old corpse,” as it already seemed, for a series of seven anonymous pieces in the National Observer and then produced a nearly final version, at last called The Time Machine, for serial publication in the New Review. The hero was called Dr. Moses Nebogipfel, Ph.D., F.R.S., N.W.R., PAID—“a small-bodied, sallow-faced little man…aquiline nose, thin lips, high cheek-ridges, and pointed chin…his extreme leanness…large eager-looking grey eyes…phenomenally wide and high forehead.” Nebogipfel turned into the Philosophical Inventor and then into the Time Traveller. But he did not so much evolve as fade. He lost his honorary initials and even his name; he shed all the lively word painting and became nondescript, a gray spectre.
Naturally it seemed to Bertie that he was the one striving: learning his craft, shredding his drafts, rethinking and rewriting late into the night by the light of a paraffin lamp. He struggled, certainly. But let’s say instead that the story was in charge. The time for time travel had come. Donald Barthelme suggests we see the writer as “the work’s way of getting itself written, a sort of lightning rod for an accumulation of atmospheric disturbances, a St. Sebastian absorbing in his tattered breast the arrows of the Zeitgeist.” That may sound like a mystical metaphor or a bit of false modesty, but a lot of writers talk that way and they seem to mean it. Ann Beattie says Barthelme is giving away an inside secret:
Writers don’t talk to nonwriters about being hit by lightning, being conduits, being vulnerable. Sometimes they talk that way to each other, though. The work’s way of getting itself written. I think that’s an amazing concept that not only gives words (the work) a mind and a body but gives them the power to stalk a person (the writer). Stories do that.
Stories are like parasites finding a host. In other words, memes. Arrows of the Zeitgeist.
“Literature is revelation,” said Wells. “Modern literature is indecorous revelation.”
THE OBJECT OF Wells’s interest, bordering on obsession, was the future—that shadowy, inaccessible place. “So with a kind of madness growing upon me, I flung myself into futurity,” says the Time Traveller. Most people, Wells wrote—“the predominant type, the type of the majority of living people”—never think about the future. Or, if they do, they regard it “as a sort of blank non-existence upon which the advancing present will presently write events.” (The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on.) The more modern sort of person—“the creative, organizing, or masterful type”—sees the future as our very reason for being: “Things have been, says the legal mind, and so we are here. The creative mind says we are here because things have yet to be.” Wells, of course, hoped to personify that creative, forward-looking type. He had more and more company.
In bygone times, people had no more than the barest glimmerings of visiting either the future or the past. It seldom occurred to anyone. It wasn’t in the repertoire. Even travel through space was rare, by modern standards, and slow, before the railroads came.
If we stretch, we can find arguable cases of precocious time travel. Time travel avant la lettre. In the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic, Kakudmi ascends to the heavens to meet Brahma and finds upon his return that epochs have passed and everyone he knew is dead. A similar fate befalls an ancient Japanese fisherman, Urashima Tarō—an inadvertent leap into the future by journeying far from home. Likewise Rip Van Winkle could be said to have accomplished time travel by sleeping. There was also time travel by dreaming, time travel by hallucinogen, or time travel by mesmerism. The nineteenth-century literature includes one instance of time travel by message in a bottle: by none other than Poe, who described “an odd-looking MS.” that he found “corked up in a jug” floating in an imaginary sea and bearing the dateline “ON BOARD BALLOON ‘SKYLARK’ April 1, 2848.”
Aficionados have scoured the attics and basements of literary history for other examples—time-travelish precursors. In 1733, an Irish clergyman, Samuel Madden, published a book called Memoirs of the Twentieth Century: an anti-Catholic diatribe in the form of letters from British officials living two hundred years hence. The twentieth century as imagined by Madden resembles his own time in every respect except that Jesuits have taken over the world. The book was unreadable even in 1733. Madden destroyed almost all of the thousand copies himself. A handful remain. By contrast, a utopian vision titled L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante: rêve s’il en fût jamais (The Year 2440: A Dream If There Ever Was One) became a sensational bestseller in prerevolutionary France. It was a utopian fantasy published in 1771 by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, heavily influenced by the philosopher of the hour, Rousseau. (The historian Robert Darnton puts Mercier in the category of Rousseaus du ruisseau, or “gutter Rousseaus.”) His narrator dreams that he has awakened from a long sleep to find he has acquired wrinkles and a large nose. He is seven hundred years old and about to discover the Paris of the future. What’s new? Fashion has changed—people wear loose clothes, comfortable shoes, and odd caps. Societal mores have changed, too. Prisons and taxes have been abolished. Society abhors prostitutes and monks. Equality and reason prevail. Above all, as Darnton points out, a “community of citizens” has eradicated despotism. “In imagining the future,” he says, “the reader could also see what the present would look like when it had become the past.” But Mercier, who believed that the earth was a flat plain under an orbiting sun, was not looking toward the year 2440 so much as the year 1789. When the Revolution came, he declared himself to have been its prophet.
Another vision of the future, also utopian in its way, appeared in 1892: a book titled Golf in the Year 2000; or, What Are We Coming To, by a Scottish golfer named J. McCullough (given name lost in the mists). When the story begins, its narrator, having endured a day of bad golf and hot whiskies, falls into a trance. He awakens wearing a heavy beard. A man solemnly tells him the date. “ ‘It is’ (and he referred to a pocket almanac as he spoke) ‘the twenty-fifth of March, 2000.’ ” Yes, the year 2000 has advanced to pocket almanacs. Also electric lights. In some respects, though, the golfer from 1892 discovers that the world evolved while he slept. In the year 2000 women dress like men and do all the work, while men are freed to play golf every day.
Time travel by hibernation—the long sleep—worked for Washington Irving in “Rip Van Winkle,” and for Woody Allen in his 1973 remake, Sleeper. Woody Allen’s hero is Rip Van Winkle with a modern set of neuroses: “I haven’t seen my analyst in two hundred years. He was a strict Freudian. If I’d been going all this time, I’d probably almost be cured by now.” Is it a dream or a nightmare, if you open your eyes to find your contemporaries all dead?
Wells himself dispensed with the machinery in a 1910 novel, The Sleeper Awakes, which was also the first time-travel fantasy to discover the benefits of compound interest. Anyway, sleeping into the future is what we do every night. For Marcel Proust, five years younger than Wells and two hundred miles away, no place heightened the awareness of time more than the bedchamber. The sleeper frees himself from time, floats outside of time, and drifts between insight and perplexity:
A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken….In the first minute of his waking, he will no longer know what time it is, he will think he has only just gone to bed….Then the confusion among the disordered worlds will be complete, the magic armchair will send him traveling at top speed through time and space.
Traveling, that is, metaphorically. In the end, the sleeper rubs his eyes and returns to the present.
Machines improved upon magic armchairs. By the last years of the nineteenth century, novel technology was impressing itself upon the culture. New industries stirred curiosity about the past as well as the future. So Mark Twain created his own version of time travel in 1889, when he transported a Connecticut Yankee into the medieval past. Twain didn’t worry about scientific rationalization, but he did frame the story with some highfalutin verbiage: “You know about transmigration of souls; do you know about transposition of epochs—and bodies?” For A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court the means of time travel is a bang on the head: Hank Morgan, the Yankee, gets beaned with a crowbar and awakens in a verdant field. Before him sits an armor-clad fellow on a horse, wearing (the horse, that is) festive red and green silk trappings like a bed quilt. Just how far the Connecticut Yankee has traveled he discovers in this classic exchange:
“Bridgeport?” said I, pointing.
“Camelot,” said he.
Hank is a factory engineer. This is important. He is a can-do guy and a technophile, up-to-date on the latest inventions: blasting powder and speaking-tubes, the telegraph and the telephone. So was the author. Samuel Clemens installed Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in his home in 1876, the year it was patented, and two years before that he acquired an extraordinary writing machine, the Remington typewriter. “I was the first person in the world to apply the typemachine to literature,” he boasted. The nineteenth century saw wonders.
The steam age and the machine age were in full swing, the railroad was shrinking the globe, the electric light turning night into never-ending day, the electric telegraph annihilating time and space (so the newspapers said). This was the true subject of Twain’s Yankee: the contrast of modern technology with the agrarian life that came before. The mismatch is both comic and tragic. Foreknowledge of astronomy makes the Yankee a wizard. (The nominal wizard, Merlin, is exposed as a humbug.) Mirrors, soap, and matches inspire awe. “Unsuspected by this dark land,” Hank says, “I had the civilization of the nineteenth century booming under its very nose!” The invention that seals his triumph is gunpowder.
What magic might the twentieth century bring? How medieval might we seem to the proud citizens of that future? A century earlier, the year 1800 had passed with no special fanfare; no one imagined how different the year 1900 might be.*2 Time awareness in general was dim, by our sophisticated standards. There is no record of a “centennial” celebration of anything until 1876. (The Daily News, London, reported, “America has been of late very much centennialised—that is the word in use now since the great celebration of this year. Centennials have been got up all over the States.”) The expression “turn of the century” didn’t exist until the twentieth. Now, finally, the Future was becoming an object of interest.
The New York industrialist John Jacob Astor IV published a “romance of the future” six years before the turn of the century, titled A Journey in Other Worlds. In it he forecast myriad technological developments for the year 2000. Electricity, he predicted, would replace animal power for the movement of all vehicles. Bicycles would be fitted with powerful batteries. Enormous high-speed electric “phaetons” would roam the globe, attaining speeds as great as thirty-five to forty miles an hour on country roads and “over forty” on city streets. To support these carriages, pavement would be made of half-inch sheets of steel laid over asphalt (“though this might be slippery for horses’ feet, it never seriously affects our wheels”). Photography would be wonderfully advanced, no longer limited to black and white: “There is now no difficulty in reproducing exactly the colours of the object taken.”
In Astor’s year 2000, telephone wires girdle the earth, kept underground to avoid interference, and telephones can show the face of the speaker. Rainmaking has become “an absolute science”: clouds are manufactured by means of explosions in the upper atmosphere. People can soar through space to visit the planets Jupiter and Saturn, thanks to a newly discovered antigravitational force called “apergy”—“whose existence the ancients suspected, but of which they knew so little.” Does that sound exciting? It all seemed “terribly monotonous” to the reviewer for the New York Times: “It is a romance of the future, and it is as dull as a romance of the Middle Ages.” It was Astor’s fate, too, to go down with the Titanic.
As a vision of an idealized world, a sort of utopia, Astor’s book owed a debt to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the American bestseller of 1887, likewise set in the year 2000. (Time travel by sleep again: our hero enters a trance of 113 years.) Bellamy expressed the frustration of not being able to know the future. In his story “The Blindman’s World” he imagined that we earthlings are alone among the universe’s intelligent creatures in lacking “the faculty of foresight,” as if we had eyes only at the backs of our heads. “Your ignorance of the time of your death impresses us as one of the saddest features of your condition,” says a mysterious visitor. Looking Backward inspired a wave of utopias, to be followed by dystopias, and these are so invariably futuristic that we sometimes forget that the original Utopia, by Thomas More, was not set in the future at all. Utopia was just a faraway island.
No one bothered with the future in 1516. It was indistinguishable from the present. However, sailors were discovering remote places and strange peoples, so remote places served well for speculative authors spinning fantasies. Lemuel Gulliver does not voyage in time. It is enough for him to visit “Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan.” William Shakespeare, whose imagination seemed limitless, who traveled freely to magical isles and enchanted forests, did not—could not—imagine different times. The past and present are all the same to Shakespeare: mechanical clocks strike the hour in Caesar’s Rome, and Cleopatra plays billiards. He would have been amazed by the theatrical time travel that Tom Stoppard creates in Arcadia and Indian Ink: placing together on stage stories that unfold in different eras, decades apart.
“Something needs to be said about this,” Stoppard writes in a stage direction in Arcadia. “The action of the play shuttles back and forth between the early nineteenth century and the present day, always in this same room.” Props move about—books, flowers, a tea mug, an oil lamp—as if crossing the centuries through an invisible portal. By the end of the play they have gathered on a table: the geometrical solids, the computer, decanter, glasses, tea mug, Hannah’s research books, Septimus’s books, the two portfolios, Thomasina’s candlestick, the oil lamp, the dahlia, the Sunday papers…On Stoppard’s stage these objects are the time travelers.
We have achieved a temporal sentience that our ancestors lacked. It was long in coming. The year 1900 brought a blaze of self-consciousness about times and dates. The twentieth century was rising like a new sun. “No century has ever issued from the womb of time whose advent has aroused the high expectation, the universal hope, as that which the midnight litanies and the secular festivals but eight days hence will usher in,” wrote the editorialist of the Philadelphia Press. The Hearst-owned New York Morning Journal declared itself “The Twentieth Century Newspaper” and organized an electrical publicity stunt: “The Journal Asks All Citizens of New York to Illuminate Their Homes Monday Midnight as a Welcome to the Twentieth Century.” New York festooned City Hall with two thousand lightbulbs in red, white, and blue, and the president of the city council addressed a throng: “Tonight when the clock strikes twelve the present century will have come to an end. We look back upon it as a cycle of time within which the achievements in science and in civilization are not less than marvelous.” In London the Fortnightly Review invited its now famous futurist, the thirty-three-year-old H. G. Wells, to write a series of prophetic essays: “Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought.” In Paris they were already calling it fin de siècle, emphasis on fin: decadence and ennui were all the rage. But when the time came, the French, too, looked forward.
An English writer could not hope to have an international literary reputation until he had been published in France, and Wells did not have to wait long. The Time Machine was translated by Henry Davray, who recognized an heir to the visionary Jules Verne, and the venerable Mercure de France printed it in 1898 with a title that lost something in translation: La machine à explorer le temps.*3 Naturally the avant-garde loved the idea of time travel: Avant! Alfred Jarry, a symbolist playwright and prankster—also an enthusiastic bicyclist—using the pseudonym “Dr. Faustroll,” immediately produced a mock-serious construction manual, “Commentaire pour servir à la construction pratique de la machine à explorer le temps.” Jarry’s time machine is a bicycle with an ebony frame and three “gyrostats” with rapidly rotating flywheels, chain drives, and ratchet boxes. A lever with an ivory handle controls the speed. Mumbo-jumbo ensues. “It is worth noting that the Machine has two Pasts: the past anterior to our own present, what we might call the real past; and the past created by the Machine when it returns to our Present and which is in effect the reversibility of the Future.” Time is the fourth dimension, of course.*4 Jarry later said he admired Wells’s “admirable sang-froid” in managing to make his mumbo-jumbo so scientific.
The fin de siècle was at hand. Preparing for Year 1900 festivities in Lyon, Armand Gervais, a toy manufacturer who liked novelties and automata, commissioned a set of fifty color engravings from a freelance artist named Jean-Marc Côté. These images conjure a world of marvels that might exist en l’an 2000: people sporting in their tiny personal aircraft, warring in dirigibles, playing underwater croquet at the bottom of the sea. Perhaps the best is the schoolroom, where children in knee breeches sit with hands clasped at wooden desks while their teacher feeds books into a grinding machine, powered by a hand crank. Evidently the books are pulverized into a residue of pure information, which is then conveyed by wires up the wall and across the ceiling and down into headsets that cover the pupils’ ears.
These prescient images have a story of their own. They never saw the light of their own time. A few sets were run off on the press in the basement of the Gervais factory in 1899, when Gervais died. The factory was shuttered, and the contents of that basement remained hidden for the next twenty-five years. A Parisian antiques dealer stumbled upon the Gervais inventory in the twenties and bought the lot, including a single proof set of Côté’s cards in pristine condition. He had them for fifty years, finally selling them in 1978 to Christopher Hyde, a Canadian writer who came across his shop on rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie. Hyde, in turn, showed them to Isaac Asimov, a Russian-born scientist and science-fiction writer, the author or editor of, by then, 343 books. Asimov made the En l’an 2000 cards into his 344th: Futuredays. He saw something remarkable in them—something genuinely new in the annals of prophecy.
Prophecy is old. The business of “telling” the future has existed through all recorded history. Foretelling and soothsaying, augury and divination, are among the most venerable of professions, if not always the most trusted. Ancient China had 易經, I Ching, the Book of Changes; sibyls and oracles plied their trade in Greece; aeromancers and palmists and scryers saw the future in clouds, hands, and crystals, respectively. “That grim old Roman Cato the Censor said it well: ‘I wonder how one augur can keep from laughing when he passes another,’ ” wrote Asimov.
But the future, as divined by the diviners, remained a personal matter. Fortune-tellers cast their hexagrams and turned their tarot cards to see the futures of individuals: sickness and health, happiness and misery, tall dark strangers. As for the world at large—that did not change. Through most of history, the world people imagined their children living in was the world they inherited from their parents. One generation was like the next. No one asked the oracle to forecast the character of daily life in years to come.
“Suppose we dismiss fortune-telling,” says Asimov. “Suppose we also dismiss divinely inspired apocalyptic forecasts. What, then, is left?”
Futurism. As redefined by Asimov himself. H. G. Wells talked about “futurity” at the turn of the century, and then the word futurism was hijacked by a group of Italian artists and protofascists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his “Futurist Manifesto” in the winter of 1909 in La Gazzetta dell’Emilia and Le Figaro, declaring himself and his friends to be free at last—free of the past.
An immense pride was buoying us up, because we felt ourselves alone at that hour, alone, awake, and on our feet, like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars….“Andiamo,” I said. “Andiamo, amici!”…And like young lions we ran after death, [etc.]
The manifesto included eleven numbered items. Number one: “We intend to sing the love of danger…” Number four was about fast cars: “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath.” The futuristi created just one of the many twentieth-century movements that proudly defined themselves as avant-garde—eyes fixed forward, escaping the past, striding into the future.
When Asimov used the word, he meant something more basic: a sense of the future as a notional place, different, and perhaps profoundly different, from what has come before. Through most of history, people could not see the future that way. Religions had no particular thought for the future; they looked toward rebirth, or eternity—a new life after death, an existence outside of time. Then, finally, humanity crossed a threshold of awareness. People began to sense that there was something new under the sun. Asimov explains:
Before we can have futurism, we must first recognize the existence of the future in a state that is significantly different from the present and the past. It may seem to us that the potential existence of such a future is self-evident, but that was most definitely not so until comparatively recent times.
And when did that happen? It began in earnest with the Gutenberg printing press, saving our cultural memory in something visible, tangible, and shareable. It reached critical velocity with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the machine—looms and mills and furnaces, coal and iron and steam—creating, along with so much else, a sudden nostalgia for the apparently vanishing agrarian way of life. Poets led the way. “Hear the voice of the Bard!” William Blake implored, “Who Present, Past, and Future sees.” Some people liked progress more than did Mr. Dark Satanic Mills, but either way, before futurism could be born, people had to believe in progress. Technological change had not always seemed like a one-way street. Now it did. The children of the Industrial Revolution witnessed vast transformations within their lifetimes. To the past there was no return.
Surrounded by advancing machinery, Blake blamed, more than anyone else, Isaac Newton—the blinkered rationalist imposing his new order*5—but Newton himself had not believed in progress. He studied a great deal of history, mostly biblical, and if anything he supposed that his own era represented a fall from grace, a tattered remnant of past glories. When he invented vast swaths of new mathematics, he thought he was rediscovering secrets known to the ancients and later forgotten. His idea of absolute time did not subvert his belief in eternal Christian time. Historians studying our modern notion of progress have observed that it began to develop in the eighteenth century, along with our modern notion of history itself. We take our sense of history for granted—our sense of “historical time.” The historian Dorothy Ross defines it as “the doctrine that all historical phenomena can be understood historically, that all events in historical time can be explained by prior events in historical time.” (She calls this “a late and complex achievement of the modern West.”) It seems so obvious now: we build upon the past.
So, as the Renaissance receded, a few writers began trying to imagine the future. Besides Madden with his Memoirs of the Twentieth Century and Mercier with his dream of the year 2440, others attempted imaginative fiction about societies to come, which can, in hindsight, be called “futuristic,” though that word did not register in English until 1915. They were all defying Aristotle, who wrote, “Nobody can narrate what has not yet happened. If there is narration at all, it will be of past events, the recollection of which is to help the hearers to make better plans for the future.”
The first true futurist in Asimov’s sense of the word was Jules Verne. In the 1860s, as railroad trains chugged across the countryside and sailing ships gave way to steam, he imagined vessels traveling under the sea, across the skies, to the center of the earth, and to the moon. We would say he was a man ahead of his time—he had an awareness, a sensibility, suited to a later era. Edgar Allan Poe was ahead of his time. The Victorian mathematician Charles Babbage and his protégé Ada Lovelace, forerunners of modern computing, were ahead of their time. Jules Verne was so far ahead of his time that he could never even find a publisher for his most futuristic book, Paris au XXe siècle, a dystopia featuring gas-powered cars, “boulevards lit as brightly as by the sun,” and machine warfare. The manuscript, handwritten in a yellow notebook, turned up in 1989, when a locksmith cracked open a long-sealed family safe.
The next great futurist was Wells himself.
We are all futurists now.
*1 Per the Oxford English Dictionary. One precursor, though: in 1866, an English travel writer concluding a railway journey through Transylvania mused in the Cornhill Magazine, “This charm of traveling would become perfect if we could travel in time as well as in space—…take a fortnight in the fifteenth century, or, still more pleasant, a leap into the twenty-first. It is possible to accomplish this object more or less in imagination.”
*2 Of course the century was turning only per the Christian calendar, and even so, in 1800, the consensus was barely firm. France, still in the throes of its revolution, was running on a new calendar of its own, le calendrier républicain français, so it was the year 9. Or 10. This Republican year had a neat 360 days, organized into months with new names, from vendémiaire to fructidor. Napoleon dispensed with that shortly after being crowned emperor on 11 frimaire, year 13.
*3 Evidently it was not easy to translate. Current Literature magazine in New York reported in 1899, “The ‘Mercure de France’ is about to begin publishing a translation of Mr. Wells’ Time Machine. The translator finds the title difficult to put into French. ‘Le Chronomoteur,’ ‘Le Chrono Mobile,’ ‘Quarante Siècles à l’heure,’ and ‘La Machine à Explorer le Temps’ are some of the suggestions….”
*4 Jarry explains: “The Present is non-existent, a tiny fraction of a phenomenon, smaller than an atom. The physical size of an atom is known to be 1.5 x 10-8 centimeters in diameter. No one has yet measured the fraction of a solar second that is equal to the Present.”
*5 “May God us keep / From Single vision & Newton’s sleep!”