A Brief History of Time Travel
An essay on memory, madeleines and who tells the tale
“Temporality temporalizes as a future which makes present in the process of having been.” Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
Heidegger is not a great writer. His prose has been described as “tortured intensity.” In any case, his writing is tortured, but his philosophy revered. He wrangles with the vaguest deep mineral veins of human experience – metaphysics, time, Being. Language mediates our experience of time, space, and Being. Perhaps turning the tool on itself gets it garbled.
Heidegger argues that Being—authentic human Being, what he calls Dasein—has been distorted by a culture obsessed with clunky clock time and mechanized space. The physics, chemistry, biology we use to describe patterns in our universe derives from a more primary way of being. Dasein has sometimes been approximated to the state of “flow”—Heidegger uses the example of the craftsman at his bench, engrossed in his work. He argues that this experience of absorption is the more authentic experience of time. Science and philosophy, with their unwieldy diagrams and representations of representations, are clumsy tools to grasp this foundation.
14 years before Heidegger’s Being and Time, in 1913, Marcel Proust self-publishes Swann’s Way, the first volume of the opus In Search of Lost Time. Proust is a novelist, not a philosopher. Prone to frequent illness, Proust would excel at both literature and as a social climbing Parisian scenester. His narrator—old, sickly, in bed—famously has a bite of a madeleine dipped in tea, then vividly transports to childhood. He time travels through pastry and memory.
unknown photographer, from
Stories as time machine
Time travel is the business of the storyteller, who moves us through plot. The storyteller takes us to past, present and future, then contorts the timeline entirely: contracting and dilating moments, building tension, suspending us—then slipping through madeleine-laced trap doors, diving through wormholes, tripping into dozens of subjunctive what-if tributaries of parallel universes.
In 1819, Washington Irving publishes “Rip van Winkle.” Asleep for 20 years, he escaped both British Imperial rule and his nag of a wife. Van Winkle bypasses toil, care-work, war endured by others, to retire under the care of his grown children. The dream! There are other stories of men asleep for decades, told by Diogenes in the 3rd century, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Seneca and the Irish have folktales of crossing into mystical lands in which time flows more slowly, like an event horizon. When they return, families are long-dead and villages overgrown with forest.
Time travel in story telling must contend with multiple strands. Proust’s masterful portraitures weave the individuals within a collective history, such as the real-life Dreyfus trial. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, of the French military and Jewish descent, was falsely convicted of treason. Later, evidence emerges that a high-ranking major was the true culprit. Even higher-ranking officials attempted to suppress this evidence. French society became bitterly divided over the guilt vs. innocence of Dreyfus, revealing and amplifying a terrifying antisemitism, like the OJ Simpson trial of the Third Republic.
Émile Zola pens an open letter to the President, accusing the government of antisemitism and wrongfully imprisoning Dreyfus
Despite over a century of clear evidence to the contrary, far-right French politicians in 2021 continue to claim Dreyfus’s guilt, or at least questioned his innocence. Stories, history, sometimes do not move forward—instead they repeat, in recursive time loops, the thread becomes lost, the path re-written. We’ll come back to that.
Proust was a quintessential author of the rising Modernists, who liked to experiment with time travel – non-linear narratives and individuals ungluing from measured time. Virginia Woolf contrasts Big Ben’s reliable chimes with the inner life of the socialite Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa travels deep into her memories, well beyond Big Ben’s purview (Woolf’s previous working title had been The Hours). Likely these authors were influenced by French philosopher of time Henri Bergson (from before Heidegger). Bergson argued, like the ancient Greeks, that there was “objective time” (chronos), of clocks and calendars; and “lived time” (kairos) of our subjective experience.
More precisely, the Greek term kairos originates from archery – the right moment to shoot the arrow. Kairos is about the rightness of time, time that invites a certain action. It is Heidegger’s Dasein – absorption in flow, a skilled body moving in space, rather than the Newtonian rhythm of the spheres. Kairos, personified as the youngest son of Zeus, is the capricious god of opportunity, with winged feet.
Time-keeping devices are ancient, sundials dating to at least 3000 BC. The technology for precision time-keeping (clocks), however, arose with the 18th century necessity of maritime navigation –the need to calculate longitude on a moving ship at sea. Coordinating time gave rise to Greenwich Mean Time and time zones, to set the clocks in ports across the globe. This was necessary to keep the sun in perpetual rise across the British Empire. Clocks coordinated from Vancouver to Singapore, with trains running on time, financial markets in synchrony, and indigenous rebellions suppressed with extraordinary and brutal violence.
Relativity and the Golden Age
Seven years after H.G. Wells publishes The Time Machine, mechanical clock time of the Industrial Revolution is upended by Einstein’s 1916 Theory of Relativity . Time was not a fixed property of empire nor universe, but a relative property of things in motion – kairos, Dasein, sitting on a hot stove versus with a “nice girl.”
The British Empire became the Commonwealth. Heidegger joins the Nazi party in 1933, the year Einstein leaves Berlin for New York. There was the attempted elimination of an entire people with the nauseating precision of an engineered bureaucracy. WWII rendered ancient cities into rubble, some with air raids, another with devastating atomic technology.
In this shadow rises the American Empire. Grappling with both the optimism of scientific prowess vs. the threat of nuclear annihilation, John W. Campbell, daddy of the Golden Age, leads sci fi from the pulp magazines to Asimov, Hubbard, Sturgeon et al, to establish the tropes and conventions: the space opera, simultaneous faith and estrangement from technology, robots, interplanetary visitors. They also continued Victorian conventions: the sense of wonder in exploring space, time, and the alien, which was also a thin veneer for the expansion of empire (who gets to be the explorer, who gets to be explored?).
Gene Roddenberry imagined his 1966 Star Trek based on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but he pitched it to TV studios as a Western in space—the Western being the consummate revisionist history of a brutal genocidal and colonial campaign by a young United States. Protagonists in the Golden Age were handsome young white men, with martial and technologic strength, surrounded by rosy cheeked buxom space babes and the sturdy bromances of military camaraderie. Roddenberry’s vision was slightly more progressive, imagining a post-racism and post-scarcity future, Russian and Japanese helmsman on an American-led ship. Captain Kirk broke rules, but the Federation was always a force for good.
Unknown artist, via imgur
Underlying American optimism is the 18th century Enlightenment concept of progress: the conditions of human have improved and will continue to improve. This conception remains in vogue among the technolibertarian demogogues and the Big Dumb Books of History (Pinker, Harari, Diamond). The Hobbesian premise appears to imply human life prior to enlightened European colonization was “nasty, brutish and short.” In contrast, the ancient Greeks [Chinese, Babylonians, Hindus, indigenous Americans, medieval Europeans] held/hold that the human condition unfolds in a cyclical way.
The Enlightenment is propelled by the scientific revolution. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton up-ended humans in the cosmos. I mean, that’s dope, right? Clocks are made precise, Kant makes up 5 races of humans, and Adam Smith identifies a new deity in the Wealth of Nations– the invisible hand. He also badgers the mercantile class to stop depending on Big Government and argues the poorest members of European countries are richer than the richest members of the rest of the world. Of note, the social sciences have not been invented yet, so Adam Smith has no empirical evidence on which to base this. The imperial nations of Europe were doing so fine, they spent the 18th century in an aggressive mass colonization effort to pillage, murder and enslave large swaths of the world bring civilization to the savages.
The 20th century—with its fascism, genocide, pissed-off colonies in revolt and atomic bombs—brings the doctrine of Progress in for some re-evaluations. Arendt, Adorno and the rest of the Frankfurt school, Foucalt, Fukuyama, Said and the post-colonial scholars had some THOUGHTS. Rawls, bless his heart, undertakes the project to defend political liberalism. Also the environmentalists were like, bro, shit is breaking, literal acid is falling from the sky and the drinking water is poisoned. What were we progressing towards?
Spy vs Spy: and then the CIA
Elsewhere IRL, the Soviets and the US played a violent global chess. The city of Berlin was cleaved. Korea, after brutal Japanese imperialism, was also split. The Hungarian Revolution, Suez, Taiwan, Cuba, Vietnam. The people across Asia, Africa and Americas had been throwing off centuries of British, French and other colonizing forces, also had to navigate this larger clusterfuck. It was called a Cold War because neither the US nor the Soviets fought directly—they just used the heat and blood of everyone else.
The CIA engaged in a soft power cultural war against Soviet propaganda, funding modernist painting and symphony tours. In literature, the CIA, GI Bill and conservative business donations flowed to programs like the Iowa Writers Workshop—whose director Paule Engle explicitly fundraised on the premise that his Midwestern bastion of American values defended against Communism.
From Irwin Allen’s television show Time Tunnel, via imgur
In deep contrast to the societal critique emerging from Europe and post-colonial nations, serious midcentury American writers focused their stories on the nuclear family, suburban malaise and middle-class jobs. Stories centered individual experience and sensations to the exclusion of all else. Form was preferred over content, in isolation from social and moral context. Steinbeck was out, Flannery O’ Conner was in. The CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom funded literary magazines at home and abroad, like The Kenyon Review, a strong proponent of New Criticism. This demanded work be completely stripped of its historical and social context. Instead, text was to be analyzed as an atomic unit, with a formalist technical “science” of literature. The Paris Review, still one of the most prestigious literary magazines in the world, was a literal front for the CIA, and its founder Peter Mathiessen, a literal CIA agent.
It is hard to say what effect the funding had on midcentury story telling. Annie Levin compares “serious” American literature from before versus after WWII: “It seemed like the books from the before times were good at doing lots of things. They could world build and philosophize. They could be love story, adventure novel, and satire all in one. Books written after the war, however, could only do one thing at a time. Mostly that one thing was soul-searching or introspection. Serious postwar fiction, whether it was what I was being fed in school or read in the pages of The New Yorker, was about sad white people with relationship problems.”
The New Wave and Kindred British and American New Wave Science Fiction in the 60s-70s, experimenting in form and content into Postmodernism, covering psychedelics, sexuality, postcolonialism, feminism and environmentalism. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five questioned linear time while the Vietnam War raged (Question: were we not the good guys?). The Marxist British authors criticized individualism, scientific optimism and happy endings. The Silent Spring invited meditations on entropic decay and Earth’s eco-catastrophe. William S. Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick created a generational shake-up. The science fiction community was deeply divided, the New Wav vs. the “hard science fiction,” inviting back wonder, and the space opera, revived by Star Trek.
In 1979, a young writer named Octavia Butler publishes Kindred. She publishes many successful novels and wins a long roser of Hugos, the Locus, Science Fiction Chronicle Reader, and Nebula Awards, then becoming the first science-fiction writer to win a Macarthur Genius fellowship. Kindred remains her best-selling novel among many, a story about time travel.
Image by Patti Perret
In 1976 Los Angeles, Dana, a young Black writer, is transported back and forth in time-space to antebellum Maryland plantation and faces her ancestors: a Black freewoman and a white plantar who re-enslaves the free woman. A Black woman time traveling challenges the story telling conventions. She cannot travel freely. She is casually called the N-word, and experiences countless acts of terrorizing violence against herself and those who protect her. The novel is structured, not within scifi conventions, but with the literary form of the slave narrative.
Is Kindred optimistic? The Enlightenment concept of Progress has been a shoddy veneer over a history of colonization, genocide and chattel slavery. Is it good enough to overlook all that if we can imagine Lieutenant Uhura some day on the bridge of the Enterprise? Is Dana as good as Rip Van Winkle—war, slavery and toiling sucks, good thing I slept through it/lived later? Dana returns to Los Angeles, but loses her arm. She does not come back unscathed. The past did not stay in the past.
Butler writes she formulated Kindred after hearing a young radical Black man speak contemptuously of elders who were not revolutionary enough. She aimed to portray what it means to do what you need to do, to live to tell the tale. Survival is no small thing.
The 1980s cyberbunk continued to question Progress with its dirtbag high-tech dystopias. Hard scifi still reigns as Carl Sagan worked with Kip Thorn at Cal Tech to figure out how to hold open an Einstein-Rosen Bridge (wormholes) enough to let a traveler through, then publishes Contact. With the death of Roddenberry, Star Trek’s The Next Generation, Voyager, and especially Deep Space Nine question the presumption that the Federation is benign, let alone good.
In 1998, Deep Space Nine broadcasts “Far Beyond the Stars,” in which Captain Benjamin Sisko travels to 1953, finding himself embodied in a Black science fiction writer of the time, Benny Russell. Russell writes a story (“Deep Space Nine”) that everyone at the magazine loves, but is hesitant to publish, given its Black protagonist. The agree as long as Russel rewrites to says it’s all a dream. A young Black man (embodied by future Sisko’s son) is shot by the police, Russel is beaten when he protests. Weeks later, Russel finds the issue has been pulped. The magazine owner preferred destruction over allowing a Black hero. Russel is fired. This story is based on the IRL experience of the award-winning science fiction author Samula R. Delany with the Daddy of the Golden Age himself, John Campbell. It is one of the few episodes to portray racism so directly and asks: who gets to tell the story? Who gets to be the protagonist. Sisko wakes up in the 24th century on his station. It was all a dream…
Sea of Tranquility
This month, September 2022 AD, I read Emily St. John Mandel new speculative time-travel novel, Sea of Tranquiilty. Mandel came to literary fame with her 2014 postapocalyptic book Station Eleven, about the aftermath of a devastating flu pandemic, which is now an HBO series. One of the plots in the new novel is a meta-fiction about an author promoting a best-selling pandemic novel as an actual pandemic breaks out. It follows four distinct time settings: an English dandy on the western Canadian coast in 1912; a woman in 2020 investigating her estranged friend, who was lost at sea; Olive, the aforementioned author in 2203; and Gaspery-Jacques in 2401, our time traveler. It is a finely crafted novel with intricate gears of a plot, vivid characters, distinct narrative voices, and evocative language shaping intoxicatingly immersive scenes. The tight mechanics, propulsion and recursion of the time travel plot are pleasurable. The book is popular and critically acclaimed. It irritates me.
How could Mandel’s book on time travel in 2022 feel so dreadfully narrow? Gaspberry-Jacques must be a white man, because who else can seamlessly travel to a colonial outpost in 1912? People of color, when they do rarely show up, are background characters. The plot uses the cruelty of early 21st century policing, without ever diving into anything about its role in violently enforcing social caste systems. A book that mentions the 2020 pandemic but not the uprising following the death of George Floyd. In the future, there are colonies on the moon but there are still jobs, money, book tours and an erasure of the history that does not impact the author.
Mandel and many time travel narratives treats time travel as chronos, a mapped terrain of timelines. And this approach can make for delicious storytelling, evoking logical paradoxes that invert our sense of causality. The only characters that can move freely in these mechanical plots are those characters who are prima facie stripped of their social context. And the only way to do that is to send back apparent middle class white men, for whom history has been perpetually (re)-written. Like the CIA funded stories of the mid-twentieth century, we dwell on Gaspbery-Jacques’ loneliness and the various enclosed domestic dramas of white middle class writers who work at home.
The fictional author is fashioned as an expert in the history of pandemics without acknowledging the massive social unrest that explode from existing class tensions. The devastating Black Plague set the stage for the Peasants Revolt. The 1832 cholera pandemic ignited the Paris Uprising of 1832, captured in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Mandel has nothing to say about the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the global reverberations against white supremacy and its violent enforcement through policing and resulting health inequities. No mention of the essential workers and who gets to stay home, or any large discourse of inequality. We do not hear the stories of the medical workers on the moon transportation. The colonized people of the dandy’s family’s time in the British Raj and the Pacific Northwest are set pieces as are the essential workers. The ones who survive The ones with a room of their own—write the story.
Is this a fair critique? Mandel gets to write about her experience and particular concerns. Sally Rooney’s narrator asks: “Maybe we're just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing?”
I want to argue: THIS IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH.
So I wrote this essay.
See You Yesterday
The Netflix film See You Yesterday, produced by Spike Lee in 2019, opens with homage, in which a teacher (played by Michael J. Fox, the once and future Marty McFly) reading Butler’s Kindred. Two Black teen geniuses work on time travel technology in their garage, pragmatically aiming to get college scholarships. Instead the teens must use the technology to undo the police murder of the central character’s brother. They try over and over, each attempt foiled: reworking the past but still repeating tragedy.
In a review, critic May Phillips writes: “From Marty McFly to James Cole and even Wolverine, time travellers are almost always white and frequently male. It’s a practical choice on the part of writers. Post-Reconstruction? Not a problem. Colonial times? Let’s make it a three-day weekend. Time-travel shows and movies tend to fall into one of two categories: quaint personal journeys and heroic quests. In stories like ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife,’ and ‘The Butterfly Effect,’ the scale is that of a personal narrative, with a white protagonist comfortably insulated from a larger racial history. On the other hand, in stories like ‘12 Monkeys,’ ‘The Terminator,’ and ‘Timecop,’ the central conflict is so large—apocalypse, dystopias, national or global disasters—that the narrative can easily sweep past issues of race. (As for forward time-travelling, the future tends to be surprisingly post-racial, as evinced in ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Doctor Who.’)”
She continues, “This cyclical sorrow, the movie seems to say, is the state and cost of institutional racism in America. Though time-travel narratives so often allow white protagonists to freely jump the timeline, there’s an open field of possibilities for the genre to look at history through the eyes of the oppressed, forgotten, and marginalized. What ‘See You Yesterday’ asserts is that, for a people hindered by prejudice and police brutality, the future is a privilege. ‘See you yesterday,’ C.J.’s brother tells her solemnly, near the end of the film. For these black travellers, there are only yesterdays to contend with; tomorrow is just out of reach.”
Paper Girls, a truly delicious transcendent tv series, released July 2022 on Amazon Prime, takes us back to the territory of the Modernists and Mrs. Dalloway—examining 12 year olds traveling to their adult futures. Also there is a time war. The season ends with the two characters of color stranded in the 1950s, with looks of terror. Amazon did not renew the second season.
Time Loops: Past is present
When the past is always present, is this a time loop or a ghost story?
In the gorgeous short story collection Afterparties, Anthony Veasna So writes about the lives of the Cambodian community in the dusty Central California suburbs. He writes hilariously and mournfully about the precarity of small businesses, the nosy neighbors, the backdrop of racism, teen love, lost mothers, lost youth, and hookups with startup bros. Survivors joke that fleeing the genocide was the optimal training for the reality show Survivor.
A mother is frustrated by her son’s curiosity about the camps during the genocide. “How silly of me to see our pain as situated in time, confined to the past, contained within it…I’ve always considered the genocide to be the source of all our problems, and none of them…When you think about my history, I don’t need you to see everything at once, I don’t need you to recall the details of those tragedies, that were dropped into my world. Honestly, you don’t even have to try…in the face of all that we have experienced… just remember that, for better or for worse, we can be described as survivors, ok? Know that we always kept on living. What else could we have done?”
Another great writer, Ursula Le Guin: “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”