Time Travel: A History (2016)
St. Peter speaks modestly, when he saith, a thousand years to God are but as one day; for, to speak like a Philosopher, those continued instances of time which flow into a thousand years make not to Him one moment: what to us is to come, to His Eternity is present.
—Thomas Browne (1642)
WHAT IF THERE were no such thing as time? What then?
Usually, time travel does not incur physical symptoms—discomfort or illness. In that it differs from air travel, which often causes jet lag. The original time travel of Wells did involve some queasiness:
I’m afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are exceedingly unpleasant. There is a feeling exactly like one has on a switchback—of a helpless headlong motion! I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash.
This is echoed here and there in the literature. Maybe we don’t want a magic so profound and consequential to come free of bodily stress.
Ursula K. Le Guin goes a step further in “Another Story; or, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.” Here the travelers obey the laws of physics as we Newtonians and Einsteinians know them. Their spaceships go Nearly as Fast as Light. A journey of four light-years takes just over four years. Relative to the people left behind, the travelers age scarcely at all. If they make an immediate round-trip, on returning home they will seem to have leapt eight years into the future. And how does that feel?
“Of the journey itself,” writes Hideo after his first experience, “I have no memory whatever. I think I remember entering the ship, yet no details come to mind, visual or kinetic; I cannot recollect being on the ship. My memory of leaving it is only of an overwhelming physical sensation, dizziness. I staggered and felt sick.”
But Hideo’s second trip is different. On his second trip, he has the more “usual” experience. It is as if time stops—as if there is no time. The journey is a moment—a period? an interval?—in which time does not exist:
…an unnerving interlude in which one cannot think consecutively, read a clockface, or follow a story. Speech and movement become difficult or impossible. Other people appear as unreal half presences, inexplicably there or not there. I did not hallucinate, but everything seemed hallucination. It is like a high fever—confusing, miserably boring, seeming endless, yet very difficult to recall once it is over, as if it were an episode outside one’s life, encapsulated.
We’ve left scientific realism by the roadside. According to relativity, for the people moving at near light speed, time would feel normal. (If time has a normal feeling.) Le Guin is reaching for something else, something unimaginable, the absence of time. When Richard Feynman met a group of schoolchildren and one of them asked what time is, he answered with another question: What if there were no such thing as time? What then?
God knows. He is outside of time, supposedly. He is eternal.
A MAN STEPS INTO a time machine, no need for preliminaries anymore. It has rods, controls, and a starting lever. This one is called “the kettle,” and it doesn’t resemble a bicycle so much as an elevator. He senses a shimmering, an “unseeable haze,” “gray blankness which was solid to the touch, though nonetheless immaterial.” He feels a touch of nausea, “the little stir in his stomach, the faint (psychosomatic?) touch of dizziness.” The kettle rides in a vertical shaft. So is he going up? Of course not. “Neither up nor down, left nor right, forth nor back.” He is going upwhen.
By the way—a man, again? Never a woman? Rule: Time travelers are rooted in their authors’ time. When our current hero, a Technician named Andrew Harlan, gets into the kettle, he thinks he’s a native of the ninety-fifth century, but we recognize him as a man of the year 1955, when Isaac Asimov published his twelfth novel (of forty), The End of Eternity. Reading the book now, we can infer some facts of the year 1955:
✵Notwithstanding the legacy of H. G. Wells and three decades of pulp magazines, time travel remains a rare and unfamiliar concept to readers in the mainstream. (The New York Times went awry by titling its book review “In the Realm of the Spaceman.” Spaceman was a better-known concept. The reviewer, Villiers Gerson, raised what he thought was an original question: “If a time traveler were able to go back to 1915 and cause Adolf Hitler to be killed by a bullet in World War I, would our present reality change?” He was neither the first nor the last to wonder.)
✵A “computer” is a person who calculates. A reckoner, an arithmetician. A machine for mathematical calculation is called a “computing machine”—in this story, a “Computaplex,” capable of “a summation of thousands and thousands of variables.” For input and output, a Computaplex uses perforated foil.
✵Women are for childbearing. Also for sexual temptation.*1
Asimov was just a few years into his career as a science-fiction writer. His first novel, Pebble in the Sky, appeared in 1950, when he was a junior professor of biochemistry at the Boston University medical school. It begins with a retired Chicago tailor walking innocently along the street, reciting some verse to himself, when, boom, a nuclear accident in a nearby laboratory transports him fifty thousand years into the future, to a time when Earth is an insignificant planet in the Trantorian Galactic Empire. By then—by 1950, that is—Asimov had sold dozens of stories to Astounding Science Fiction. He had been reading the pulps since he discovered them as a child in his father’s candy store in Brooklyn. His own origins were, to himself, murky. He knew that his name had originally been Исаак Юдович Озимов, but he never knew his birthday.
As a graduate student, bored by the dissertation he was supposed to be preparing, he invented a chemistry paper titled “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline,” complete with charts, graphs, and citations of nonexistent journals.*2 The paper describes a made-up substance, thiotimoline, derived from the imaginary bark of a fictitious shrub, which has a mind-bending property dubbed “endochronicity”: when placed in water, it dissolves before its crystals touch the water. The way quantum mechanics was going, this was only mildly preposterous. Asimov explained it by giving the molecule a peculiar geometrical structure in spacetime: while some of its chemical bonds lie in the usual spatial dimensions, one of them projects into the future and another into the past. You can imagine the possibilities for this quirky crystal. Later, Asimov wrote another paper about its micropsychiatric applications.*3
He was soon averaging three to four books a year, but apart from the stage-setting blast to the future in Pebble in the Sky, he had not tried time travel. The idea that led to The End of Eternity came in 1953, when he found a set of bound volumes of Time magazine in the stacks of the Boston University library and started reading them through—systematically, from 1928 onward. In one of those early volumes, he was startled to see an advertisement featuring a line drawing with the unmistakable mushroom cloud of a nuclear blast, an image much in people’s minds in the fifties, but not in the twenties and thirties. When he looked again, he realized he was actually looking at a drawing of the Old Faithful geyser, but by then his mind had already leapt to the only other possibility: time travel. Suppose the anachronistic mushroom cloud was some sort of message, sent by a desperate time traveler.
In devising his first novel of time travel, Asimov took the genre in a new direction. This is not the usual hero going on an adventure, hurling himself forth to the future or back to the past. It’s a whole universe restructured.
The End of Eternity begins as a play on words, because the one thing everyone knows about eternity is that it has no end. Eternity is everlasting. Traditionally, eternity is God. Or God’s bailiwick. (At least in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, where He is not just eternal but also singular, masculine, and uppercase.) “What times existed which were not brought into being by you?” Augustine asked the Lord in his Confessions. “In the sublimity of an eternity which is always in the present, you are before all things past and transcend all things future, because they are still to come.” We mortals live in time, but God is beyond that. Timelessness is one of His best powers.
Time is a feature of creation, and the creator remains apart from it, transcendent over it. Does that mean that all our mortal time and history is, for God, a mere instant—complete and entire? For God outside of time, God in eternity, time does not pass; events do not occur step by step; cause and effect are meaningless. He is not one-thing-after-another, but all-at-once. His “now” encompasses all time. Creation is a tapestry, or an Einsteinian block universe. Either way, one might believe that God sees it entire. For Him, the story does not have a beginning, middle, and end.
But if you believe in an interventionist god, what does that leave for him to do? A changeless being is hard for us mortals to imagine. Does he act? Does he even think? Without sequential time, thought—a process—is hard to imagine. Consciousness requires time, it seems. It requires being in time. When we think, we seem to think consecutively, one thought leading to another, in timely fashion, forming memories all the while. A god outside of time would not have memories. Omniscience doesn’t require them.
Perhaps instead an immortal deity is with us in time, enjoying experience, working his will. He sends plagues upon Pharaoh and great winds into the sea, and when the need arises, he sends angels or hornets. Jews and Christians say, “It came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage….And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham.” Some theologians would say that when Augustine was confessing, God was listening, and now He remembers. They would say that past is past, for us and for God. If God interacts with our world, it could be in a way that respects our memories of the past and expectations for the future. Perhaps when we discovered time travel, He was suitably amused.
These are deep waters. Even within the Abrahamic religions, theologians have found many divergent ways to speak of God’s time or timelessness. All religions, one way and another, conceive of entities whose relation to time transcends our own. “There are two forms of Brahman, time and the timeless,” says one Upanishad, though Buddhism is more comfortable than most with the idea that permanence is an illusion:
Time consumes all beings
the being who consumes time,
cooks the cooker of beings.
The word eternity goes back to the beginning, as far as anyone can tell, of our species memory, the beginning of written language. Aeternus, in Latin; the Greeks wrote αἰών, which also became eon. People needed a word for permanence, or endlessness. Sometimes these words seem to have denoted a duration without beginning or end, or perhaps just without a known beginning or end.
No wonder modern philosophers, adapting to a scientific world, continue to torment themselves with such questions. The intricacies multiply. Maybe eternity is like a different reference frame, in the sense made popular by relativity. We have our present moment, and God has a timescale distinct from ours and, indeed, beyond our imagining. Boethius seemed to say something of the kind in the sixth century: “Our ‘now,’ as though running time, produces a sempiternity, but the divine ‘now,’ being quite fixed, not moving itself and enduring, produces eternity.” Sempiternity is mere endlessness—duration without end. To get outside of time altogether, you need the real thing. “Eternity isn’t a long time,” the mythologist Joseph Campbell explained. “Eternity has nothing to do with time….The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.” Or as it is said in Revelations, “There shall be time no longer.”
We might decide that the words outside of time are a trick of language. Is time a thing to get “outside of,” like a box, or a room, or a country—a place invisible to us mortals? In Corinthians it is written: For thinges which are sene, are temporall: but thynges whiche are not sene, are eternall.
This last is roughly the premise of Asimov’s End of Eternity. On the one hand is all humankind, living in time. On the other hand is a place unseen, called Eternity. With a capital E. Only instead of God, this version of Eternity belongs to a self-selecting group of men. (Again, no women may join the clubhouse. Women are for childbearing, and this isn’t that sort of place.) These men call themselves Eternals, although they are not eternal at all. Nor, as we learn, are they very wise. They engage in backbiting and office politics. They smoke cigarettes. They die. But they act as gods in one way. They have the power to change the course of history, and they use it, again and again. They are compulsive remodelers.
The Eternals form a closed hierarchical society, meritocratic but authoritarian. They are stratified in castes: Computers, Technicians, Sociologists, Statisticians, et al. New arrivals to Eternity, plucked from ordinary Time when young, are Cubs. If they fail in their training, they end up in Maintenance, wearing dun gray uniforms and handling the importation of food and water from Time (even an Eternal has to eat, apparently) and the disposal of waste. Maintenance men are the untouchables, in other words. And how are we to visualize this place, this domain, this realm existing outside of Time? Drearily, it seems rather like an office building: corridors, floors and ceilings, ramps and anterooms. Offices, decorated to suit the taste of the current occupant. An antiquarian might have a bookshelf. (“ ‘Actual books!’ He laughed. ‘Pages of cellulose, too?’ ”) Most centuries prefer more innovative technology for information storage: “book-films” or “micro-films,” which can be spooled through a handy pocket viewer.
Eternity is divided into sections, each associated with a particular century of human history. To go from one section to another, an Eternal rides the kettle: the arrangement feels like stacked floors in a tall skyscraper. Best not to look too closely at the workings. “The laws of the ordinary universe just don’t apply to the kettle shafts!” Between Time and Eternity is a boundary or barrier—an “immaterial” divider—likewise best not examined too closely: “He paused again at the infinitely thin curtain of non-Space and non-Time which separated him from Eternity in one way and from ordinary Time in another.” Eternity seems to adjoin the “real” universe anywhere and everywhere. Anyway, transportation from place to place never seems to be a problem. Is Eternity in the fourth dimension? Asimov doesn’t bother with the fourth dimension. That’s old news. He does tip his hat to the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics:
The barrier that separated Eternity from Time was dark with the darkness of primeval chaos, and its velvety non-light was characteristically specked with the flitting points of light that mirrored sub-microscopic imperfections of the fabric that could not be eradicated while the Uncertainty Principle existed.
Like Wells not-quite-describing his time machine, Asimov is using his literary wiles to help readers think they are visualizing something that can’t be visualized because, after all, it’s nonsensical. “Velvety non-light.” An artful dodge.*4 And nice touch, the uncertainty principle decorating the primeval darkness with specks of light.
Now comes a problem of narrative. People live in Eternity, and they do things, one after another, in order to give the story a plot, and before long the fact of narrative makes it impossible to avoid noticing that they (the Eternals), too, operate in time. They remember the past and they worry about the future, just like everyone else. They don’t know what’s going to happen next. Whatever it would be like to be truly outside time, this magical state does not appear conducive to storytelling. Time passes here, too. “Men’s bodies grew older and that was the unavoidable measure of time.” They call the years “physioyears” and the hours “physiohours.” They tell one another, “See you tomorrow.” Even in Eternity, they wear wristwatches. It can’t be helped.
Since this Eternity is created not by theologians but by technocrats, it does have a beginning and an end. It begins in the twenty-seventh century, after the development of the necessary machinery (“temporal fields” and whatnot), and ends in the “unplumbable entropy death ahead.” In the meantime, what fun they have, playing god! The Sociologists profile societies and suggest “reality changes” to fork their history. The Life Plotters diagram the affected lives. The Computers work out the “psycho-mathematics.” The Observers go into Time to get data, and the Technicians do the dirty work—e.g., jam the clutch on a vehicle and start a chain of events that prevents a war. When a Technician goes into action, a new branch of possibility becomes real. Then the old branch never happened. It becomes an alternative remembered only in the archives of Eternity.
They believe they are do-gooders.
We work to plot out all the details of everywhen [explains Technician Harlan] from the beginning of Eternity to where Earth is empty, and we try to plot out all the infinite possibilities of all the might-have-beens and pick out a might-have-been that is better than what is and decide where in Time we can make a tiny little change to twist the is to the might-be and we have a new is and look for a new might-be, forever, and forever.
So, for example, Harlan gets out of his kettle, enters Time, and shifts a container from one shelf to another. (He has found the office supplies, apparently.) As a result, a man overlooks something he needs, gets angry, makes a bad decision, a meeting is canceled, a death is postponed—change ripples outward, and some years later what would have been a busy spaceport has vanished from existence. Mission accomplished. If some people must die so that others might live, so be it. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, the Eternals have learned. It isn’t easy, being responsible for “the happiness of all the human beings who were or ever would be.”
What do they value, these masters of the universe? How do they weigh one possible reality against another? It’s not always clear. Nuclear war: bad. Drug addiction: bad. Happiness: good, but how to assess it? The Eternals seem to dislike extremes. One century has an excess of hedonism, and Harlan contemplates an improvement: “a different branch of possibility would become real, a branch in which millions of pleasure-seeking women would find themselves transformed into true, pure-hearted mothers.” (Lest we forget: these are men of 1950s America.) Mainly, they find themselves continually tinkering with reality in order to eliminate “nuclear technology”—an antiwar measure that has the side effect of keeping humanity from developing interstellar space travel. The reader might guess that the real master of this universe—Isaac Asimov—will vote for space travel.
Without having read Borges, Asimov created a garden of forking paths operated by paper shufflers and bean counters. A branch erased may mean Shakespeare or Bach retroactively unborn, but the Technicians don’t care. They pull the plays or the music from Time and store them in the archives.
Now Harlan stood at the shelves devoted to the novels of Eric Linkollew, usually described as the outstanding writer of the 575th [century], and wondered. He counted fifteen different “Complete Works” collections, each, undoubtedly, taken out of a different Reality. Each was somewhat different, he was sure.
All so futile somehow. The apparatchiks have their own version of Borges’s Library of Babel, and it’s a storage closet.
With the panorama of history spread out before them, these Eternals have little reason to think about the past. All is future—or is it present? What does it even mean to talk about “the present” in this place? We never really find out. The tinkering with reality just goes on. It is a work in progress.
A few oddballs, though—and our hero, Harlan, is one of them—do take a hobbyist’s interest in the centuries before the invention of “temporal fields” and the establishment of Eternity. They call these ancient centuries the Primitive era. No century fascinates them more than the twentieth. Harlan collects Primitive books,
almost all in print-on-paper. There was a volume by a man called H. G. Wells, another by a man named W. Shakespeare, some tattered histories. Best of all there was a complete set of bound volumes of a Primitive news weekly that took up inordinate space but that he could not, out of sentiment, bear to reduce to micro-film.
Primitive history is locked in place: the Eternals cannot make changes there. “It’s like watching history standing still, frozen!” Harlan treasures a verse fragment about a “moving finger,” which writes once and then moves on. The Battle of Waterloo has only the one outcome, never to be changed. “That’s the beauty of it. No matter what any of us does, it exists precisely as it has always existed.” It’s so quaint. The technology, too: “In the Primitive era natural petroleum fractions were the source of power and natural rubber cushioned the wheels.” Most intriguing—most risible—were the ancients’ views of time itself. How could their philosophers be expected to understand? A senior Computer discusses philosophy with Harlan:
“Now we in Eternity are influenced in our consideration of such things by knowing the facts of Time-travel. Your creatures of the Primitive era, however, knew nothing of Time-travel.”
“The Primitives gave virtually no thought to Time-travel, Computer.”
“Did not consider it possible, eh?”
Just imagine—people with no concept of time travel! Primitives indeed. The rare exceptions came in the form of “speculations,” not by serious thinkers or artists, but only “in some types of escape literature,” Harlan explains. “I am not well acquainted with these, but I believe a recurrent theme was that of the man who returned in Time to kill his own grandfather as a child.” Yes, that again.
The Eternals know all about the paradoxes. They have a saying: “There are no paradoxes in Time, but only because Time deliberately avoids paradoxes.” That grandfather problem arises when you are naïve enough to assume “an indeviant reality” and try to add time travel as an afterthought. “Now your primitives,” says the Computer, “never assumed anything but an indeviant Reality. Am I right?”
Harlan is not so sure. The escapist literature again. “I don’t know enough to answer you with certainty, sir. I believe there may have been speculations as to alternate paths of time or planes of existence.”
Bah, says the Computer. That’s impossible. “No, without actual experience of Time-travel, the philosophic intricacies of Reality would be quite beyond the human mind.”
He has a point. But he underestimates us primitives. We have acquired a rich experience of time travel—a century’s worth. Time travel opens our eyes.
MAYBE ASIMOV BEGAN writing this tale optimistically, imagining that a fraternity of wise overseers could nudge humanity onto a better path here and there and steer us away from the nuclear peril that was on everyone’s mind in the 1950s. Like Wells, he was a rationalist, a reader of history and believer in social progress. He seems to share the satisfaction his hero, the Technician Harlan, feels in “a universe where Reality was something flexible and evanescent, something men such as himself could hold in the palms of their hands and shake into better shape.” If so, Asimov couldn’t sustain his optimism. The story takes a dark turn. We begin to see these Eternals not just as philistines but as monsters.
There is a woman after all. Much as Wells’s Time Traveller had his girl-of-the-future Weena, Harlan finds Noÿs, “the girl of the 482nd.” (“It was not that Harlan had never seen a girl in Eternity before. Never was too strong a word. Rarely, yes…But a girl such as this!”) She has glossy hair, “gluteal curves,” milky white skin, and some tinkling jewels that draw attention to her “graceful breasts.” She has been assigned to Eternity as a sort of temp for secretarial work. Apparently she is not too bright. Harlan finds he has to explain to her some of the simplest concepts of time. She, in turn, manages to educate him about sex, about which he is naïve, being a stereotype himself.
For a while Noÿs serves as a minor plot device, the motive for some jostling and maneuvering among the Eternals. Harlan, besotted, goes rogue and hustles her into the kettle. They zoom off together. “We’re going upwhen, Noÿs.” “That means the future, doesn’t it?” He stashes her in one of the literature’s odder love nests, a spare room in an empty corridor of the year 111,394, where he passes the time with a great deal more explaining. He has to explain Reality Changes, he has to explain Computers, he has to explain “physiotime” as opposed to real time. She listens eagerly. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand it all,” sighs Noÿs, her eyes sparkling with “frank admiration.”
Eventually he explains his intention to take her with him back in time to before the creation of Eternity—to the Primitive era, where they will find themselves in a sparsely populated southwestern territory of the United States of America. “A craggy, lonely world brightened by the splendor of an afternoon sun. There was a soft wind with a chilly edge to it and, most of all, silence…bare rocks…colored into dull rainbows…manless and all but lifeless surroundings.”
Harlan thinks he is on a mission to protect Eternity: to close a circle, to ensure its creation. He has a surprise coming: Noÿs is on a mission of her own. She is no Weena. She is an operative sent from a future beyond the imagining even of the Eternals—from a time they have not managed to penetrate, the so-called Hidden Centuries.
It’s Noÿs’s turn to explain. Her people, the people of the Hidden Centuries, see human history whole, and more than that, as a tapestry of combined possibilities. They see alternative realities as if they were real: “A kind of ghostly never-never land where the might-have-beens play with the ifs.” As for Harlan’s revered Eternals, she points out that these meddlers are nothing more than a bunch of psychopaths.
“Psychopaths!” exploded Harlan.
“Aren’t they? You know them. Think!”
Their incessant petty tinkering has ruined everything, according to the wise future people of the Hidden Centuries. They have “bred out the unusual.” In forestalling disasters, they have left no room for triumphs that come only from danger and insecurity. In particular, the Eternals have adamantly prevented the development of nuclear weaponry, at the cost of forestalling any possibility of interstellar travel.
So Noÿs is the time traveler on a mission to change history and Harlan her unwitting pawn. She has brought them on a one-way trip to Primitive times in order to effect the reality change to end all reality changes. She will allow humanity to create its first nuclear explosion at the “19.45th” century, and she will forestall the establishment of Eternity.
Happy ending for Technician Harlan, though: although Noÿs is not the ingenue she has pretended to be, she truly loves him. They will live happily ever after, and “have children and grandchildren, and mankind will remain to reach the stars.” We are left with just the one puzzle, then: why the superwoman from the Hidden Centuries, having accomplished her mission of placing humanity on a path to interstellar greatness, wants to settle down with the hapless Andrew Harlan.
So much for eternity. It was a sacred concept: a state of grace, outside of time. For a few hundred pages Asimov turns it into a mere place—outside of “Time,” but equipped with elevator shafts and storerooms, a uniformed support staff, new men arriving by invitation only. That is quite a comedown. For the godless, though, what else is there? Who has this power over time? The devil.
With us acts are exempt from time, and we
Can crowd eternity into an hour,
Or stretch an hour into eternity.
That’s Lucifer, per Lord Byron, on good authority. Luke 4:5: “And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, showed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” Kurt Vonnegut must have remembered this when he created his Tralfamadorians, adorable green aliens who experience reality in four dimensions: “All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance.” Eternity is not for us. We may aspire to it, we may imagine it, but we cannot have it.
If we’re going to speak literally, nothing is outside of time. Asimov ends his story by nullifying it. Who has the privilege of changing history? Not the Technicians, only the author. On the last page the entire previous narrative—the people we have met, the stories we have watched unfold—is erased with the stroke of a pen. The rewriters of history are written out.
*1 “Harlan had seen many women in his passages through Time, but in Time they were only objects to him, like walls and balls, barrows and harrows, kittens and mittens.”
*2 The OED cites Asimov as the coiner of several words, including robotics, but endochronic is not one of them. It has not yet caught on.
*3 Silly? Yet in the distant future—2015—Panasonic marketed a camera that it said recorded images “one second prior to and one second after pressing the shutter button.”
*4 This passage appeared in the first published version of The End of Eternity and disappeared from the book version.