Time Travel: A History (2016)
Philosophers and Pulps
“Time travel?! You expect me to believe such nonsense?”
“Yes, it is a difficult concept, isn’t it.”
—Douglas Adams (“The Pirate Planet,” Doctor Who, 1978)
TIME TRAVEL AS DESCRIBED by Wells and his many heirs is everywhere now, but it does not exist. It cannot. In saying so, it occurs to me that I’m Filby.
“But the thing’s a mere paradox,” says the Editor.
“It’s against reason,” says Filby.
Critics of the 1890s took the same view. Wells knew they would. When his book was finally published in the spring of 1895—The Time Machine: An Invention, sold in New York by Henry Holt (75¢) and in London by William Heinemann (2/6)—reviewers admired it for a good tale: a “fantastic story”; “shocker of no ordinary kind”; “tour de force of ghastly imaginings”; “distinctly above the average of such fanciful works”; and “worth reading if you like to read impossible yarns” (that last from the New York Times). They noted the apparent influence of the Dark Romantics, Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. One sniffed, “We have some difficulty in discerning the exact utility of such excursions into futurity.”
Only a few paid Wells the compliment of analyzing his fantastic notion logically. They found it illogical. “There is no getting into the Future, except by waiting,” wrote Israel Zangwill in the Pall Mall Magazine, wagging a stern finger. “You can only sit down and see it come by.” Zangwill, himself an occasional novelist and humorist, soon also to be a famous Zionist, thought he understood time quite well. He admonished the author:
In verity there is no Time Traveller, Mr. Wells, save Old Father Time himself. Instead of being a Fourth Dimension of Space, Time is perpetually travelling through Space, repeating itself in vibrations farther and farther from the original point of incidence; a vocal panorama moving through the universe across the infinities, a succession of sounds and visions that, having once been, can never pass away…
(Zangwill had clearly been reading Poe: vibrations indefinitely extending through the atmosphere—“no thought can perish”—and this sentence, too, sails indefinitely onward.)
…but only on and on from point to point, permanently enregistered in the sum of things, preserved from annihilation by the endlessness of Space, and ever visible and audible to eye or ear that should travel in a parallel movement.
Despite his objections Zangwill couldn’t help but admire Wells’s “brilliant little romance.” He shrewdly noticed that The Arabian Nights had employed a sort of time-machine precursor: a magic carpet that traverses space. Meanwhile, even in 1895, Zangwill seemed to understand certain peculiar implications of time travel—the paradoxes, we will soon say—better than Wells himself.
The Time Machine looks one way: forward. Ostensibly Wells’s time machine could travel to the past with a reverse throw of the lever, but the Time Traveller had no interest in going there. And a good thing too, says Zangwill. Just think what difficulties would be entailed. Our past had no Time Traveller barging through. A past that included a Time Traveller would be a different past, a new past. None of this was easy to put into words:
Had he travelled backwards, he would have reproduced a Past which, in so far as his own appearance in it with his newly invented machine was concerned, would have been ex hypothesi unveracious.
Then there’s the problem of meeting oneself. Zangwill becomes the first to notice this, and he will not be the last:
Had he recurred to his own earlier life, he would have had to exist in two forms simultaneously, of varying ages—a feat which even Sir Boyle Roche would have found difficult.
(His readers would recognize Roche as the Irish politician who said, “Mr. Speaker, it is impossible I could have been in two places at once, unless I were a bird.”)*1
The book reviewers came and went, and before long philosophers got into the game. When they first took notice of time travel it was with a certain embarrassment, like a symphony conductor unable to look away from an organ grinder. “A frivolous example drawn from contemporary fiction,” said Professor Walter Pitkin at Columbia University, writing in the Journal of Philosophy in 1914. Something was stirring in science—the realm in which time was a measurable and absolute quantity known familiarly as t—and philosophers were uneasy. In the first years of the new century, when they turned to the subject of time, they had one thinker above all to contend with: the young Frenchman Henri Bergson. In the United States, William James, who might otherwise have been resting on his laurels as the “father of psychology,” found new vitality in Bergson. “Reading his works is what has made me bold,” James said in 1909. “If I had not read Bergson, I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately, in the hope of making ends meet that were never meant to meet.” (He added, “I have to confess that Bergson’s originality is so profuse that many of his ideas baffle me entirely.”)
Bergson asks us to remember how artificial is the notion of space as an empty homogenous medium—the absolute space announced by Newton. It is a creation of human intellect, he notes: “We may as well say that men have a special faculty of perceiving or conceiving a space without quality.” Scientists may find this abstract empty space to be useful for calculating, but let’s not make the mistake of confusing it with reality. Even more so with time. When we measure time with mechanical clocks, when we draw diagrams where time is an axis on a graph, we may fall into the trap of imagining time to be merely another version of space. To Bergson, time t, the time of the physicists, sliced into hours, minutes, and seconds, turned philosophy into a prison. He rejected the immutable, the absolute, the eternal. He embraced flux, process, becoming. For Bergson, the philosophical analysis of time could not be divorced from our human experience of it: the overlapping of mental states, the segue from one to the next that we experience as duration—la durée.
He held time apart from space rather than commingling the two: “Time and space begin to interweave only when both become fictional.” He saw time, not space, as the essence of consciousness; duration, the heterogeneous tide of moments, as the key to freedom. Philosophers were about to follow physics down a new path, and Bergson would be left behind, but for now he was hugely popular. Crowds thronged his lectures at the Collège de France, Proust attended his wedding, and James called him a magician. “Dive back into the flux then,” cried James. “Turn your face toward sensation, that flesh-bound thing which rationalism has always loaded with abuse.” Here he parted company with physics.
What really exists is not things made but things in the making. Once made, they are dead….Philosophy should seek this kind of living understanding of the movement of reality, not follow science in vainly patching together fragments of its dead results.
Pitkin seems to have felt that he needed to rescue the poor scientists from Bergson’s onslaught. Described by Time magazine in a brief moment of fame as “a man of many ideas, some of them large,” he was a founding member of a short-lived movement that called itself new realism. In his 1914 essay he declared that he liked some of Bergson’s “conclusions” but despised his “entire method,” particularly the rejection of scientific process in favor of psychological introspection. Pitkin proposed to clear up the space-time conundrum by means of logical proof. He would embrace the physicists’ t and t′ and t′′ and yet he would prove once and for all that time is different from space. To wit: we can move hither and yon in space, but not in time. Or rather, we do move in time, but not freely: “a thing moves in time only by moving with all other things.” And how would he prove this? In a most unexpected way:
To make the proof as simple as possible, I shall present it in the form of a sober criticism of one of the wildest flights of literary fancy which that specialist in wild flights, H. G. Wells, has indulged in. I refer, of course, to his amusing skit, The Time Machine.
It was the first but not the last time that Mr. Wells’s amusing skit would impose itself upon the attention of this august journal.
“You cannot leap back into the thirteenth century, nor can a man of that period hop into our own,” wrote Pitkin. “Mr. Wells would have us imagine a man at rest in the space dimensions, but moving with respect to the time of that space field. Very well! Let us do our noblest to play the game. What do we find? Something very disconcerting indeed. Something which, I fear, will make time-touring very unpopular among sedate people.”
The traveler flies, not through abstract time (like the “pure space” of the geometer). He flies through real time. But real time is history: and history is the course of physical events. It is the sequence of activities, physical, physiological, political, and otherwise.
Do we really want to go down this road? Must we look for errors of logic in a piece of fantastic fiction?
Yes, we must. The practitioners of time travel, even in “pulp” magazines, were soon to work out rules and justifications that would make a Talmudist proud. What is allowed, what is possible, what is plausible—the rules evolved and varied, but logic must be honored. We may as well begin with Professor Pitkin, man of many ideas, some of them large, in the Journal of Philosophy.
His argument would not seem very sophisticated to a typical teenage sci-fi aficionado circa 1970. In fairness, he recognizes that common human intuition about the world often fails to comprehend the strangeness of reality. Science keeps surprising us. Which way is up, for example? “It was held impossible ‘by the very nature of things,’ ” he notes, “that the earth should be a sphere, with people on the other side walking, heads downward.” (He might have added that Aristotle’s common sense revealed three and no more than three spatial dimensions: “the line has magnitude in one way, the plane in two ways, and the solid in three ways, and beyond these there is no other magnitude because the three are all.”) Could it be, he asks, that time travel merely strikes us as impossible “because of certain prejudices we entertain or certain facts and tricks of which we are still hopelessly ignorant?” Let us be open-minded. “[The] answer, whatever that may be, carries immeasurable consequences for metaphysics.”
So Pitkin applies the tools of logic. These are his chief points:
✵As the time machine rushes through the years, everything ages rapidly, so the man in the machine should, too. “Nations rise and fall, tempests leap up, destroy, and subside, houses are built with toil and burned in the frenzy of sudden war, and so on.” As for the tourist, his clothes are unruffled and he scarcely ages a day. “How is this possible? If he has passed through a hundred thousand generations, why isn’t he a hundred thousand generations old?” Here is an obvious contradiction: “the first contradiction in the whole proceeding.”
✵Time goes at a certain rate, and this rate must be the same for everyone, everywhere. “Two objects or systems” cannot have “different rates of displacement or change in time”—obviously. Pitkin scarcely knew what devilishness Albert Einstein was conjuring in Berlin.
✵Traveling through time must obey rules of arithmetic, just like traveling through space. Do the math: “To traverse a million years in a few days is exactly like traveling a thousand miles in one inch.” A thousand miles does not equal one inch; ergo, a million years cannot equal a few days. “Now is not this a pure self-contradiction, on a par with the proposition that you or I can go from New York to Pekin without moving farther than our own front door?”
✵The time traveler would surely bump into things. Example: Let’s say he leaves his workshop for a future date, January 1, 1920. While he’s gone, his abandoned wife sells the house. It is torn down. Bricks are heaped where the workshop stood. “But where, oh where, is the traveler? If he remains in the same place, he is surely beneath the ton of bricks and so is his precious machine….This, we aver, is most uncomfortable for the tourist. He is fairly interpenetrated with bricks.”
✵Looked at from an astronomical point of view, celestial motion must be considered as well. “The traveler who moves only in time and not at all in space would suddenly find himself strangling in the empty ether, while the earth went hurtling away from beneath him.”
Impossible, concludes the philosopher. No one can travel into the future or the past on Mr. Wells’s time machine. We must find other ways of dealing with past and future, every day of our lives.
WE NEED NOT DEFEND Mr. Wells, because he never meant to promulgate a new theory of physics. He didn’t believe in time travel. The time machine was the handwaving—the pixie dust that helps the willing reader suspend disbelief and get through the story. (See handwavium, n.) It was sheer coincidence that the Time Traveller’s mumbo-jumbo tracked so well with a revolutionary view of spacetime that emerged in physics a decade later. Except, of course, that it was no coincidence at all.
Wells worked hard to make the handwaving plausible. This first technology of time travel ended up being fairly robust. In fact, he anticipated Pitkin’s semiscientific objections and some others as well. For example, it is the Medical Man who says that space differs from time in that we move freely through one but not the other.
“Are you so sure we can move freely in space?” the Time Traveller retorts. “Right and left we can go, backward and forward freely enough….But how about up and down? Gravitation limits us there.” That was more true, of course, in the nineteenth century than in the twenty-first. Now we’re used to whizzing about in all three of our dimensions, but space travel (as we might call it) used to be more constrained. Railroads and bicycles were new. So were elevators and balloons. “Before the balloon,” says the Time Traveller, “save for spasmodic jumping and the inequalities of the surface, man had no freedom of vertical movement.” What the balloon does for the third dimension, the time machine might do for the fourth.
Our hero presents his miniature prototype time machine as an amalgam of science and magic: “You will notice that it looks singularly askew, and that there is an odd twinkling appearance about this bar, as though it was in some way unreal.” A turn of the tiny lever sends the gizmo into the void with a puff of wind. Now Wells anticipates the next objection from the realists. If the time machine has gone back to the past, why had they not seen it en route (as it were) when they were in the room last Thursday? And if into the future, why is it not still visible, passing through each successive moment? The explanation comes in ersatz psychological jargon. “It’s presentation below the threshold,” says the Time Traveller, nodding to the Psychologist. “You know, diluted presentation.” The same reason you can’t see the spokes of a spinning bicycle wheel or a bullet whizzing through the air. (“Of course,” the Psychologist replies. “I should have thought of it.”)
Wells likewise foresaw the objection of the Philosopher that the traveler risked crashing through piles of bricks and other unexpected alterations in the landscape. “So long as I travelled at a high velocity through time, this scarcely mattered; I was, so to speak, attenuated—was slipping like a vapour through the interstices of intervening substances!” Simple, when you put it that way. Halting in the wrong place, however, would still be dangerous. And exciting.
To come to a stop involved the jamming of myself, molecule by molecule, into whatever lay in my way; meant bringing my atoms into such intimate contact with those of the obstacle that a profound chemical reaction—possibly a far-reaching explosion—would result, and blow myself and my apparatus out of all possible dimensions—into the Unknown.
Wells laid down the rules, and from then on all the world’s time travelers would have to obey. Or if not obey, at least explain. Jack Finney put it this way in a time-travel story in the Saturday Evening Post, 1962: “There’s a danger a man might appear in a time and place already occupied….He’d be all mixed in with the other molecules, which would be unpleasant and confining.” Explosions are ever popular. Philip K. Dick in 1974: “…the hazard in re-entry of being out of phase spatially and colliding right down to the molecular level with two tangent objects….You know, ‘No two objects can occupy the same space at the same time.’ ” At last, the perfect corollary of “Nobody can be in two places at once.”
Wells never did justify treating the earth as a fixed point of the cosmos. Nor for that matter did he worry about where the Time Machine gets the energy to power its voyages. Here, too, he established a tradition. Even a bicycle needs someone to pedal, but time machines have unlimited free fuel, by the universe’s grace.
WE’VE HAD A CENTURY to think about it, and we still need to remind ourselves every so often that time travel is not real. It’s an impossibility, just as William Gibson suspected—a magic on the order of kissing one’s own elbow. But when I say that to a certain well-known theoretical physicist, he gives me a pitying look. Time travel is no problem, he says. At least if you want to travel to the future.
Oh, well, sure—you mean we’re all traveling forward in time anyway?
No, says the physicist, not just that. Time travel is easy! Einstein showed us how to do it. All we have to do is approach a black hole and accelerate to near the speed of light. Then, welcome to the future.
His point is that acceleration and gravitation both slow the clocks, relativistically, so you could age a year or two on a spaceship and return home a century hence to marry your great-grandniece (as Tom Bartlett does in Robert Heinlein’s 1956 novel Time for the Stars). This is proven. GPS satellites have to compensate for relativistic effects in their very exact calculations. It’s hardly time travel, though. It is time dilation (per Einstein, Zeitdilatation). It’s an antiaging device.*2 And it’s a one-way street. There’s no going back to the past. Unless you can find a wormhole.
“Wormhole” is John Archibald Wheeler’s word for a shortcut through the warped fabric of spacetime—a “handle” of multiply connected space. Every few years someone makes headlines by hailing the possibility of time travel through a wormhole—a traversable wormhole, or maybe even a “macroscopic ultrastatic spherically-symmetric long-throated traversable wormhole.” I believe that these physicists have been unwittingly conditioned by a century of science fiction. They’ve read the same stories, grown up in the same culture as the rest of us. Time travel is in their bones.
We have arrived at a moment of cultural history when the doubters and naysayers are the real practitioners of time travel, the science-fiction writers themselves. “Totally impossible on theoretical grounds,” declared Isaac Asimov in 1986. He didn’t even bother to hedge his bets.
It can’t and won’t be done. (If you’re one of those romantics who thinks nothing is impossible, I won’t argue the case, but I trust you won’t decide to hold your breath until such a machine is built.)
Kingsley Amis, assessing the literary culture of science fiction in 1960, felt he was stating the obvious when he said, “Time travel, for instance, is inconceivable.” Thus practitioners of the genre resort to some version of Wells’s hand-waving explanation—“an apparatus of pseudo-logic”—or, as time goes on, simply trust their readers to suspend disbelief. And so it’s the science-fiction writers who remain willing to treat the future as open, while all around them physicists and philosophers surrender to determinism. “One is grateful that we have a form of writing which is interested in the future,” said Amis, “which is ready to treat as variables what are usually taken to be constants.”
As for Wells himself, he continued to disappoint his believers.*3 “The reader got a fine confused sense of immense and different things,” he said in 1938. “The effect of reality is easily produced. One jerks in one or two little unexpected gadgets or so, and the trick is done. It is a trick.” (He was just back in London after a seven-city American lecture tour titled “Organization of the World Brain,” and he felt a need to deny special futuristic powers. “It is not a bit of good pretending I am a prophet. I have no crystal into which I gaze, and no clairvoyance.”)
LET’S LOOK one more time at how the trick was done:
…the dance of the shadows, how we all followed him, puzzled but incredulous, and how there in the laboratory we beheld a larger edition of the little mechanism which we had seen vanish from before our eyes. Parts were of nickel, parts of ivory, parts had certainly been filed or sawn out of rock crystal. The thing was generally complete, but the twisted crystalline bars lay unfinished upon the bench beside some sheets of drawings, and I took one up for a better look at it. Quartz it seemed to be.
“Look here,” said the Medical Man, “are you perfectly serious? Or is this a trick…?”
For Wells’s first readers, technology had a special persuasive power. This vague machine put a claim on the readers’ belief in a way that magic never could. Magic might include clouts on the head, as in Connecticut Yankee, as well as the talismanic act of turning back the hands on a clock. The cartoon “Felix the Cat Trifles with Time” employs both devices: Old Father Time unwinds his clock past “Year of 1” and “Stone Age” and whacks poor Felix with a club.
Before that, in 1881, a newspaperman, Edward Page Mitchell, published “The Clock That Went Backward” anonymously in the New York Sun. Old Aunt Gertrude, spectral in her white nightgown and white nightcap, has a mysterious bond with her eight-foot-tall Dutch clock. It seems defunct—until one night, when she winds it up in the flickering light of a candle, the hands begin to turn backward, and she falls dead. This becomes the occasion for a philosophical disquisition by one Professor Van Stopp:
Well, and why should not a clock go backward? Why should not Time itself turn and retrace its course?…Viewed from the Absolute, the sequence by which future follows present and present follows past is purely arbitrary. Yesterday, today, tomorrow; there is no reason in the nature of things why the order should not be tomorrow, today, yesterday.
If the future is different from the past, what if we reverse the mirror or rewind the clock? Can destiny carry us toward our beginnings? Can effect influence cause?
The device of the backward-running clock reappeared in a 1919 story, “The Runaway Skyscraper,” by the pseudonymous Murray Leinster. “The whole thing started when the clock on the Metropolitan Tower began to run backward” is its opening sentence. The tower trembles, the office workers hear ominous creaking and groaning, the sky darkens, night falls, the telephones produce only static, and all too soon the sun rises again, at high speed, and in the west.
“Great bombs and little cannon-balls,” shouts Arthur, a young engineer who has been worrying about his debts. “It looks awfully queer,” agrees Estelle, his twenty-one-year-old secretary, who has been worrying that she will become “an old maid.” The landscape transforms at a rapid pace, wristwatches are seen spinning backward, and finally Arthur puts two and two together. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he explains. “Have you ever read anything by Wells? The Time Machine, for instance?”
Estelle shakes her head no. “I don’t know how I’m going to say it so you’ll understand,” explains Arthur manfully, “but time is just as much a dimension as length and breadth.” The building has “settled back in the Fourth Dimension,” he decides. “We’re going back in time.”
These stories were multiplying. Another way to do the trick: bring in the devil. “A tall, flashy, rather Mephistophelean man whom I had seen from time to time in the domino-room” makes his appearance in Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames,” published in the Century illustrated magazine in 1916. Enoch Soames is a “dim” man, stooping and shambling, an unsuccessful striver in 1890s literary London. He is, like some other writers, concerned about how posterity will remember him. “A hundred years hence!” he cries. “Think of it! If I could come back to life then—just for a few hours…”
That is the devil’s cue, of course. He offers a bargain—the Faustian kind, updated.
“Parfaitement,” he says Frenchily. “Time—an illusion. Past and future—they are as ever present as the present, or at any rate only what you call ‘just round the corner.’ I switch you on to any date. I project you—pouf!”
The devil is au courant: like everyone else, he has been reading The Time Machine. “But it is one thing to write about an impossible machine,” he says. “It is a quite other thing to be a supernatural power.” The devil says pouf and poor Enoch gets his wish. Transported to 1997, he materializes in the Reading Room of the British Museum and heads straight for the S volumes of the card catalogue. (How better to gauge one’s literary reputation?) There he learns his fate: “Enoch Soames,” he reads, was an imaginary character in a 1916 story by a mordant writer and caricaturist named Max Beerbohm.
IN THE TWENTIES the future seemed to be arriving daily. News had never traveled so fast, and there had never been so much of it, with the advent of wireless transmission, and by 1927 Wells himself had already had enough. The technology of communications had reached maturity, he felt, with wireless telegraphy, the wireless telephone, “and all the broadcasting business.” Radio had begun as a glorious dream—the finest fruits of the culture, the wisest thoughts and best music, transmitted into homes across the land. “Chaliapin and Melba would sing to us, President Coolidge and Mr. Baldwin would talk to us simply, earnestly, directly; the most august in the world would wish us good evening and pass a friendly word; should a fire or shipwreck happen, we were to get the roar of the flames and the cries for help.” A. A. Milne would tell stories to children and Albert Einstein would bring science to the masses. “All sporting results before we went to bed would be included, the weather forecast, advice about our gardens, the treatment of influenza, and the exact time.”
Yet for Wells the dream had turned sour. Asked by the New York Times to assess the state of radio for its readers, he ranted bitterly, disillusioned as a child finding lumps of coal in the Christmas stocking. “Instead of first-rate came tenth-rate music, played by the Little Winkle-Beach Pier Band,” he wrote. Instead of the wisest voices, “Uncle Bray and Aunt Twaddle.” Even the static irritated him. “Across it all dear old Mother Nature cast her net of ‘atmospherics’ with a humor all her own.” He did enjoy hearing a bit of dance music after a long day—“but dance music only goes on for a small part of the evening, and at any moment it may give way to Doctor Flatulent being thoughtful and kindly in a non-sectarian way.”
His assessment was so harsh that the Times editors were clearly taken aback. They emphasized that Wells could speak of radio broadcasting only “as He Encounters It Abroad.” Wells was not only disappointed in the present state of radio. His crystal ball showed him that the whole enterprise was doomed to fade away. “The future of broadcasting is like the future of crossword puzzles and Oxford trousers, a very trivial future indeed.” Why would anyone listen to music by radio when they could have gramophone records? Radio news vanishes like smoke: “Broadcasting shouts out its information once and cannot be recalled.” For serious thought, he said, nothing can replace books.
His Majesty’s Government had created a “salaried official body to preside over broadcasting programs,” Wells noted—the new British Broadcasting Company. “In the end that admirable committee may find itself arranging schemes of entertainment for a phantom army of expiring listeners.” If any audience remained at all, it would comprise “the blind, lonely and suffering people”—or “probably very sedentary persons living in badly lighted houses or otherwise unable to read, who have never realized the possibilities of the gramophone and the pianola and who have no capacity for thought or conversation.” The BBC’s first experimental television broadcasts were just five years away.
Others could play the futurism game, though. David Sarnoff of RCA retorted by calling Wells a snob; the inventor Lee de Forest told him he needed a better radio—and perhaps the most unusual rebuttal came from the publisher of Radio News and manager of station WRNY, an émigré from Luxembourg named Hugo Gernsback. After arriving in New York at the age of nineteen, Gernsback had started the Electro Importing Company, a mail-order business selling radio parts to eager hobbyists in 1905, with tantalizing advertisements in Scientific American and elsewhere. Within three years he was printing his own magazine, Modern Electrics. By the twenties he was well known to legions of radio amateurs. “I refuse to believe in such a drab and dreary demise of radio,” he wrote in a letter to the Times. “What surprises me most is that the prophetic Mr. Wells has not looked into the near future when every radio set will be equipped with its television attachment—a device, by the way, now being perfected by one of his own countrymen.” (This was not the only thing that surprised him most. “What surprises me most in Mr. Wells’s remarks,” he said in the same letter, “is that he evidently hankers to listen constantly to the great, when a simple mathematical calculation would show that this would not be possible. There are not enough great people in the world.”)
Gernsback was an extraordinary person: a self-made inventor, an entrepreneur, and what people of a later time would term a bullshit artist. Around town he wore expensively tailored suits, used a monocle to examine the wine lists of expensive restaurants, and ran nimbly from creditors. When one of his magazines failed, two more would rise up. Radio News was not destined to be the most influential of his magazines, nor was Sexology, the “Illustrated Magazine of Sex Science.” The Gernsback creation that mattered most to future history was a so-called pulp magazine—named for its cheap wood-pulp paper—sold for twenty-five cents an issue, called Amazing Stories. Its rough pages made room for a variety of advertisements: “450 Miles on a Gallon of Gas,” free sample from Whirlwind Mfg. Co. of Milwaukee; “Correct Your Nose, shapes flesh and cartilage while you sleep, 30 Day Trial Offer, Free Booklet”; and “New Scientific Wonder: X-Ray Curio, Boys, Big Fun, You apparently see thru Clothes, Wood, Stone, any object. See Bones in Flesh, price 10¢.” He found a ready market for what he was selling. He lectured to New York audiences about the marvels of the future and broadcast his lectures live on WRNY, and the New York Times reported them breathlessly. “Science will find ways to transmit tons of coal by radio, facilitate foot traffic by electrically propelled roller skates, save electric current by cold light and grow and harvest crops electrically, according to a forecast of the next fifty years made by Hugo Gernsback,” the paper declared in 1926. Weather control would be complete, and city skyscrapers would all have flat tops for landing airplanes.
Huge high frequency electric current structures, placed on top of our largest buildings, will either dispel threatening rain, or, if necessary, produce rain as needed, during the hot spells or during the night….We may soon expect fantastic towers piercing the sky and giving off weird purple glows at night when energized….Fifty years hence you will be able to see what is going on in your favorite broadcast station, and you will meet your favorite singer face to face. You will watch the Dempsey of fifty years hence battle with his Tunney, whether you are on board an airship or away in the wilds of Africa, or such wilds as still exist.
By the end of his life he had eighty patents to his name. He anticipated radar as early as 1911.
Then again, he arranged what he claimed was the first-ever “entirely successful” test of hypnotism by radio: the hypnotist, Joseph Dunninger, who also served as head of the department of magic for Gernsback’s Science and Invention magazine, put a subject named Leslie B. Duncan into a trance from a distance of ten miles. The Times reported that, too: “Duncan’s body was then placed over two chairs, forming a human bridge, and Joseph H. Kraus, field editor of Science and Invention, was able to sit on the improvised bridge.”
All this came under the rubric of fact. For fiction, he had Amazing Stories.
Beginning in April 1926, Amazing Stories was the first periodical solely devoted to a genre that did not, until this moment, have a name. In Paris in 1902, Alfred Jarry wrote an admiring essay about the “scientific novel” or “hypothetical novel”—the novel that asks, “What if…?” The hypothetical novel might later prove futuristic, he suggested, depending on the future. Maurice Renard, a practitioner himself, declared this a whole new genre, which he called “the scientific-marvelous novel” (le roman merveilleux scientifique). “I say a new genre,” he wrote in Le Spectateur; after all, genre was a French word. “Until Wells,” he added, “one might well have doubted it.”
Gernsback dubbed it “scientifiction.” “By ‘scientifiction,’ ” he wrote in the first issue, “I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” He had published quite a few of these before, even in Radio News, and had written a serial novel of his own, Ralph 124C*4 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (self-published in his Modern Electrics magazine and described by Martin Gardner much later as “surely the worst SF novel ever written”).*5 It took just a few more years for “scientifiction” to become “science fiction.” Gernsback lost control of Amazing Stories in one of his bankruptcies, but the magazine continued for almost eighty years and helped define the genre. “Extravagant Fiction Today—Cold Fact Tomorrow” was the magazine’s motto.
“Let it be understood,” Gernsback wrote in a short treatise for would-be writers, “that a science fiction story must be an exposition of a scientific theme and it must be also a story….It must be reasonable and logical and must be based upon known scientific principles.”*6 In the first issues of Amazing Stories he reprinted Verne, Wells, and Poe, along with Murray Leinster’s “Runaway Skyscraper.” In the second year he reprinted the entire Time Machine. He didn’t bother paying for these reprints. He offered writers twenty-five dollars for original stories, but they often had trouble collecting. As part of his tireless promotion of the genre, Gernsback founded a fan organization, the Science Fiction League, with chapters in three countries.
So the idea of science fiction as a genre, distinct from literary fiction and presumably inferior, was born here, in trashy magazines barely distinguishable from the funnies or pornography. Yet so was a cultural form, a way of thinking, that soon could not be dismissed as trash. “I can just suggest,” wrote Kingsley Amis when not much time had passed, “that while in 1930 you were quite likely to be a crank or a hack if you wrote science fiction, by 1940 you could be a normal young man with a career to start, you were a member of the first generation who had grown up with the medium already in existence.” In the pages of the pulps, the theory and praxis of time travel began to take shape. Besides the stories themselves, there were letters from probing readers and notes from the editors. Paradoxes were discovered and, with some difficulty, put into words.
“How about this Time Machine?” wrote “T.J.D.” in July 1927. Consider some other possibilities. What if our inventor journeys back to his schoolboy days? “His watch ticks forward although the clock on the laboratory wall goes backward.” What if he encounters his younger self? “Should he go up and shake hands with this ‘alter ego’? Will there be two physically distinct but characteristically identical persons?…Boy! Page Einstein!”
Two years later Gernsback had a new scientifiction magazine, this time called Science Wonder Stories, sister publication to Air Wonder Stories, and the December 1929 issue featured on its cover a story of time travel called “The Time Oscillator.”*7 It involved, yet again, some odd machinery with crystals and dials and some professorial discourse on the fourth dimension. (“As I have before explained, time is only a relative term. It means literally nothing.”) This time the travelers head off into the distant past—which prompted a special editor’s note from Gernsback. “Can a time traveler,” he asked, “going back in time—whether ten years or ten million years—partake in the life of that time and mingle in with its people; or must he remain suspended in his own time-dimension, a spectator who merely looks on but is powerless to do more?” A paradox loomed; Gernsback could see it plainly, and he put it into words:
Suppose I can travel back into time, let me say 200 years; and I visit the homestead of my great great great grandfather….I am thus enabled to shoot him, while he is still a young man and as yet unmarried. From this it will be noted that I could have prevented my own birth; because the line of propagation would have ceased right there.
Henceforth this would be known as the grandfather paradox. It turns out that one person’s objection is another’s story idea. Gernsback invited comments from readers by mail and received quite a few, over a period of years. A boy in San Francisco suggested yet another paradox, “the last knock on time traveling”: What if a man were to travel into the past and marry his mother? Could he be his own father?
Page Einstein indeed.
*1 Sir Boyle is also remembered for this: “Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?”—a joke that reads differently now that we have time travel. Posterity does plenty for us: sends us assassins and bounty hunters on covert missions to change the course of history, for example.
*2 When the American astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth in March 2016 after nearly a year of high-speed orbit, he was reckoned to be 8.6 milliseconds younger, relative to his groundling twin brother, Mark. (Then again, Mark had lived through only 340 days while Scott experienced 10,944 sunrises and sunsets.)
*3 J. B. Priestley, who loved Wells and credited him with inspiring his Time Plays, said, “Although he was never rude about it he deplored the way in which I was bothering my head about Time in the thirties. He was like a man who, having wrongly given up playing an instrument for which he had a flair, then refused to listen to anybody else playing it.” Another disappointed admirer, W. M. S. Russell, echoed Priestley’s complaint at a centennial symposium in 1995: “More than a century after his wonderful achievement, let us be remembering, not the disillusioned elder, but the young creator of The Time Machine.”
*4 Spoken aloud: “One to foresee…”
*5 Kingsley Amis also took the time to read this book. “Ralph 124C 41+ concerns the technological marvels invented or demonstrated by the ridiculously resourceful eponymous hero….After some trouble with a pair of rival suitors, one human, the other Martian, Ralph restores a dead girl to life by a complicated deep-freeze and blood-transfusion technique. Other wonders include the hypnobioscope…and three-dimensional color television, a term which Gernsback is credited, if that is the word, with having invented.”
*6 He also proposed a few “don’ts,” including, “Don’t make your professor, if you have one, talk like a military policeman or an Eighth Avenue ‘cop.’ Don’t put cheap jokes in his mouth. Read semi-technical magazines and reports of speeches to get the flavor of academic phraseology.”
*7 An editor’s note explained: “Stories of traveling in time are always exceedingly interesting reading, mainly for the reason that the feat has not yet been accomplished; though no one can say that it cannot be done in the future, when we have reached a much higher plane of scientific achievement. Traveling in time, either forward or backward, may well become a possibility.”