“It took two years to make,” retorted the Time Traveler. “Now I want you clearly to understand that this lever, being pressed over, sends the machine gliding into the future, and this other reverses the motion. The saddle represents the seat of the time traveler. Presently I am going to press the lever, and off the machine will go. It will vanish, pass into future time, and disappear. Have a good look at the thing. Look at the table, too, and satisfy yourself that there is no trickery. I don’t want to waste this model and then be told I am a quack!” –The Time Machine
That’s the description of the first time machine to be called a time machine — little more than a Victorian mechanical bull, although a pretty one, built of brass, quartz and ivory. H.G. Wells’ landmark 1895 novella was a major leap forward for time-travel yarns — so much so, that we think of it as the first true time-travel story. It deserves to be. In our previous lecture, we examined the literary roots of time-travel pop, and while we saw how those stories established many essential themes (political allegory; regret and carpe diem living), we also saw that they weren’t really what you would call science fiction; the likes of A Christmas Carol and Rip Van Winkle were moralistic fables, written for audiences hooked on ghost stories and whose worldviews were still colored by folklore, superstition, and apocalyptic religion.
But by the time you get to Wells — who was writing at the same as fellow futurists Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea; Around the World in Eighty Days) and Edward Page Mitchell (The Clock That Went Backward; see my previous essay for more) — you begin to see the modern world as we recognize it — mechanistic and scientific and God-subtracted — displacing the old. In many ways, the time-travel genre has been a mirror to many of the ideas that have gassed this transformation — and it has also been a conscience, worrying about what we may be losing in the transition.
The Time Machine allowed Wells to explore new theoretical notions of time as a dimension unto itself, one as dynamic as spatial dimensions. At the time, this was fairly radical stuff, several years ahead of the more sophisticated, formalized quantum physics that would reinvent classical physics. Wells’ story was also a cautionary tale about the Industrial Revolution and the grossly dehumanizing, symbiotic relationship between a rich, well-fed leisure class and an impoverished, undernourished working class. Fast-forwarding millions of years, Wells’ adventurer saw a future Earth absent of human beings. Returning to 1900 London profoundly rattled, the time traveler’s claims of a fantastic voyage to doomsday and back are greeted with derision by his friends — and so he permanently decamps for another temporal locale, choosing, presumably, to be lost in time forever. The reader is left with the challenge to live a better, more enlightened life and change the world (or else) — sermonizing that’s soon to be a sci-fi standard.
Wells’ book set the stage for the 20th century. It began with the big bang of Relativity. Among the many big ideas concocted by Einstein and crew was the time-travel/time bending potential of faster-than-light travel. Such discoveries fed the emerging category of sci-fi literature and time-travel tales in particular. So, too, I think, did the transportation revolution. Planes, trains, and automobiles (and rocket ships, too!) liberated us from the local and made speed something magical. Flip through any number of time-travel stories, and you will see this same idea: Go reallyreallyreally fast, and BOOM!/PRESTO! you’ll crack a barrier in the fabric of reality like some quantum-leaping Chuck Yeager and materialize into some exotic time, some far-out space. DC Comics’ crimson-suited super-speeder The Flash even built his own time-travel device, the “Cosmic Treadmill,” that could harness his energy and transport him elsewhere/anywhere. (Similarly, Superman, being so very super, could turn similar tricks, most memorably — and ridiculously — in Christopher Reeve’s first Superman movie, when the Man of Steel reversed the course of time by using his super-speed to reverse the Earth’s rotational spin.) The mainstreaming of cutting-edge science and the romance of speed — not to mention the post-Star Wars popularization of sci-fi wonder and visceral, motion-simulating cinema — collided to create the century’s most endearing and popular time machine: Doc Brown’s DeLorean. By the time director Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future hit in 1986, the focus of time-travel fiction had expanded; while the likes of Planet of the Apes continued to zip us into scary futures in order to spook us into being better human beings in the present, the likes of Back To The Future took us to the past to inspire/scold us in the here-and-now. But the concerns had evolved in the 100 Go! Go! Go! years since H.G. Wells: Back To The Future, a product of cutting-edge cinema tech, created for a fast-paced though increasingly nostalgia-crazed culture (and medium), was, ironically, a call to slow the hell down, and address our moment by re-embracing timeless values that had been passed up in pursuit of cool and new.
And yet, just as Back To The Future’s quantum-leaping hot rod was capturing our imagination, other corners of sci-fi were experimenting with a new kind of time machine — the kind that actually might exist in real life, according to the egghead calculus of quantum physics. These would be “traversable wormholes,” corridors connecting one point in space-time to another. The term was coined by American scientist John Archibald Wheeler in the 1950s, and the concept (if not the name) began popping up in time-travel stories from the ’60s, including Star Trek, Doctor Who, Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comic book mythology (see: “Boom Tubes”), Frank Herbert’s Dune, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, and James Cameron’s Terminator films. Wormholes should not be confused with black holes, which are collapsed stars and can’t support successful time travel, though many time-travel stories have made that mistake. But the story that really brought wormholes into the mainstream was Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact, which Back To The Future’s Zemeckis adapted into a movie starring Jodie Foster in 1997. Fun Fact! Sagan’s first drafts of Contact made the same black hole mistake that other storytellers have made. In an example of the dynamic relationship that can exist between science fiction and real science, Sagan asked theoretical physicist Kip J. Thorne for advice on how to make his book more scientifically sound. Thorne casually suggested that Sagan use wormholes instead of black holes based on what he knew of both — and then, inspired by Sagan’s book and his own suggestion, began to aggressively investigate the math and science of wormholes, in the process becoming one of the world’s foremost wormhole experts. You are fascinated, aren’t you?
The problem with these “organic” time machines is the same one that makes manufactured time machines like Doc Brown’s DeLorean so improbable: energy. You need extraordinary amounts of it to keep a wormhole mouth open long enough to slide to the other side. And unless you happen to crash on a mysterious island in the South Pacific that happens to be sitting on a pocket of possibly extraterrestrial “exotic matter” (see: Lost), you’re probably not going to be able to find it on this planet. (Check out this time travel article in Wired — referenced in the season 5 episode of Lost called “The Variable” — for more insight on the impracticality of practical time travel.) For this reason, I’ve always found time travel more interesting as fantasy than serious sci-fi; the more “real” storytellers try to make it, the more I’m aware of how unlikely — and boring — it really is. Which is why my favorite time machine is a giant naked guy with a bald head and blue skin and pools of white light for eyes. He is Dr. Manhattan, the god-like hero of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic book (and director Zack Snyder’s recent adaptation of said comic) Watchmen. The reason I dig Dr. Manhattan is because he embodies everything that I think is most interesting about time travel: the experience of time, the problem of free will, and the conundrums of paradox that are created by time travelers who try to change history. We’ll cramp our brains around all that fun stuff next time.
EXTRA CREDIT READING AND VIEWING: Beyond The Time Barrier, a hard-to-find 1960 sci-fi flick about a time-traveling test pilot; “The City On The Edge of Forever,” the classic 1967 Star Trek episode (original series) in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy jump back into 1930s New York via a wormhole-like portal; and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969), whose tragic time-traveling protagonist was a precursor to Dr. Manhattan.
FOR DISCUSSION: What’s your favorite pop-culture time machine? Favorite time-travel story? Favorite time traveler?
Gallery: 17 favorite time travelers