Where Are The Time Travelers?

One of my best known stories "Ten To The Sixteenth To One" asks and answers this question in a disturbing way.  It's been widely republished, most recently in China.  But it's a fascinating question and well worth further interrogating.  Maybe this column will inspire stories the way that James Gleick's book Time Travel inspired this column.  

Meanwhile, my pal Kim Stanley Robinson wrote me an email to take issue with this passage from the column: "And after a couple of disappointing message novels like The Sleeper Awakes and The Food of the Gods (read ’em and weep), this forefather of our genre spent the last four decades of his life on other matters. Are we modern sf readers presumptuous to wish he had stayed with us?"  

Stan writes persuasively:  "I wanted to register a counter-view:  of course HG Wells wrote 5 great SF novellas in a brief burst of glory, and people still read The Time Machine and always will because it is so great (not despite but because of the lack of dialogues, characterization, etc etc).  But you could argue he had already done everything sf can do, hit all the signicant sub-genres (time travel, aliens, genetic engineering, paranormal, space travel) so that really there was nothing left to do but repeat himself, or split hairs.  Instead he shaped what his generation thought had happened in world history (Outline of History) then, starting with A Modern Utopia, stubbornly kept churning out utopian fiction, with all its bad info dumps of course, suggesting how better to run the world right during the 1905-1945 period when everything was going to hell—  definitely stubborn, those books largely unread, and yet when the diplomats had to put the world back together in 1945, they used WELLS’S PLAN.  Scientific meritocracy, social safety net, basically techno-socialism, sure there were precursors to Wells on this stuff, but he was the one who kept putting the vision out there.  So I would argue that he did the right thing, and changed the world more than he could have by banging out variations on his early sf stunners."

What do you think? 

time machine.jpg

Remembering Bertie

by James Patrick Kelly


I can’t imagine any science fiction writer not being fascinated—or at least tempted—by the idea of time travel. However, although I’ve had a couple of time travel stories in these pages, I must admit that it’s been years since I’ve thought seriously about the subject. But recently I’ve been experiencing something of a time travel moment.

A couple of columns ago I was anticipating Arrival www.youtube.com/watch?v=wu8_5TGwr90, based on the novella “The Story of Your Life” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Story_of_Your_Life, by Ted Chiangwww.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/ted-chiangs-soulful-science-fiction. Then the movie came out last November to rave reviews www.rottentomatoes.com/m/arrival_2016. Not only is it wonderfully smart sf that achieves its best special effect not on the screen, but in the mind of the viewer, but as a bonus, it was a huge box office success. Arrival was just the first tick of my time travel moment. I teach creative writing at the Stonecoast MFA program www.usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa in Maine and even as Arrival arrived, I was preparing a lecture on H.G. Wells http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._G._Wells, for which I assigned The Time Machinewww.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35 as required reading. As I was gathering my thoughts for that presentation, the noted science writer James Gleick https://around.com published a book called Time Travelwww.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/books/review/james-gleick-time-travel.html?_r=0, which, in my opinion, is the best survey of popular and scientific literature on the subject ever written. My fellow writers, are you looking for ideas? You could make an entire career writing stories and novels based on mind-bending concepts explored in this book.

The latest tick in my personal time travel moment came yesterday, just days after I’d given my lecture on Wells, when I came across an essay “When They Came from Another World”www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/01/19/when-they-came-from-another-world in the New York Review of Books, by one James Gleick, in which he reviews the ideas about time central to both Arrival and “The Story Of Your Life.” If you loved the movie, you need to read this. And then go buy Gleick’s terrific book.


I called my talk “H.G. Wells, the Man Who Invented Science Fiction.” And yes, I know that Jules Vernewww.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search/?query=l.en+Verne and Mary Shelley www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/84 have legitimate claims to being our founders. However, if not science fiction, Wells is certainly the man who invented time travel, despite all the precursors. As Gleick persuasively argues,

How strange, then, to realize that time travel, the concept, is barely a century old. The term first occurs in English in 1914—a back formation from Well’s “Time Traveler.” Somehow humanity got by for thousands of years without asking, What if I could travel into the future? What would the world be like? What if I could travel into the past—could I change history? The questions didn’t arise.


That Herbert George Wells—Bertie to his friends and many lovers—would become the first to ask this question would have come as no surprise to those who knew him as a young man. Relentlessly ambitious in his twenties despite many failures, Wells returned again and again to speculation about traveling through time. His first attempt to express his ideas came in 1888. “The Chronic Argonauts”www.colemanzone.com/Time_Machine_Project/chronic.htm was published in his college newspaper when he was just twenty-two, seven years before The Time Machine. He dusted off his theories for a longer time travel story in 1894; his untitled serial ran at irregular intervals in the National Observer as a series of dialogues between an anonymous Time Traveler and a gathering of dinner guests. Another extensive revision published in 1895—more or less the one we read today—was also a serial, published as The Time Machine: An Invention in The New Review. Yet another revision came out in book form later that year. This novella caused a sensation and marked the beginning of an astonishing five-year run for Wells, during which he would write the classic sf for which we now remember him. The best of these, in addition to The Time Machine, are The Island of Dr. Moreauhttp://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=159, The Invisible Manhttp://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=5230, and The War of the Worldshttp://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=36, all of which and more you can read free at the indispensable Project Gutenberg www.gutenberg.org. By 1899, the thirty-three-year old Wells had become one of the best known writers in the English-speaking world.

It would be impossible to overstate the influence The Time Machine has had, not only on popular culture, but on philosophy and science as well. Gleick quotes our own Isaac Asimov www.asimovonline.com on the cultural shift that Wells helped bring about.

Before we can have futurism, we must first recognize the existence of the future in a state that is significantly different from the present and the past. It may seem to us that the potential existence of such a future is self-evident, but that was most definitely not so until comparatively recent times.

The Time Machine has never been out of print since 1895, and the many millions who haven’t read it have some notion of the Morlocks and the Eloi, thanks to numerous movie, television, comic book, and other adaptations. In my biased opinion, the best of these is the 1960 film version of The Time Machinehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Time_Machine_(1960_film), directed by the Hungarian director George Palwww.awn.com/heaven_and_hell/PAL/GP12.htm. Pal also produced a fine The War of the Worldshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_of_the_Worlds_(1953_film) in 1953.


But if you know The Time Machine primarily from movies, television, and word of mouth, then you may not be aware of Wells’s profoundly pessimistic vision of our future. This untidy novel begins with a frame story retrospectively narrated by one of the Time Traveler’s dinner guests, who listens patiently as the Traveler spins his theories about time. In writer parlance, this section would be called a narrative lump. Note however that when the Traveler grandly announces that “There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it,” and that “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and Duration” he is anticipating a famous lecture delivered thirteen years later by the physicist Hermann Minkowski www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Minkowski.html. After doing the math, Minkowski realized that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity www.einstein-online.info/elementary/specialRT could best be understood in a four-dimensional manifold, which we now call Minkowski space or, more commonly, spacetime www.einstein-online.info/elementary/specialRT/spacetimeMinkowski’s talkwww.spacetimesociety.org/conferences/2004/minkowski.html began “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”

Way to go, Bertie!

Wait, where was I? Oh right, The Time Machine! Once we get past the frame, the Traveler himself takes up his tale. Riding what amounts to a steampunk bicycle into futurity (Wells was an avid cyclist), the Traveler recounts his adventures with the Eloi and Morlocks in the year 802,701. What catches this writer’s attention from a craft point of view is that Wells uses no dialogue for most of the book. The Eloi don’t speak English—of course!—nor are they particularly bright.

“Either I missed some subtle point or their language was excessively simple—almost exclusively composed of concrete substantives and verbs. There seemed to be few, if any, abstract terms, or little use of figurative language. Their sentences were usually simple and of two words, and I failed to convey or understand any but the simplest propositions.”

After recovering his stolen Machine from the cannibal Morlocks, the Traveler makes two long hops into the distant future, the last to a cold, dead earth some thirty million years hence, before finally returning to his own time. The novel ends back at dinner in the frame story; our narrator guest returns to marvel at the Traveler’s adventure and wonder what became of him after he disappears on yet another time adventure. Alas, the Traveler’s amazing invention has no impact whatsoever on history.

If H.G. Wells was, in fact, the man who invented SF, or at least had a hand in creating it, examining his life and work might help us understand some of today’s genre concerns. Sadly, despite his early achievements, Wells turned his back on the scientific romance www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/scientific_romance, as sf was called back in the day, to write comic novels of lower middle-class life, optimistic socialist tracts, didactic futurological essays, journalism, and histories. He became one of the great explainers of his age, not unlike Isaac Asimov, although his explanations seemed more and more beside the point through the two World Wars. And after a couple of disappointing message novels like The Sleeper Awakes www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12163 and The Food of the Gods www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11696 (read ’em and weep), this forefather of our genre spent the last four decades of his life on other matters. Are we modern sf readers presumptuous to wish he had stayed with us?


We are at a moment in the history of science fiction and our country when many are asking for a change in literary direction. For instance, there are calls for a more optimistic science fiction from the good folks involved with the Hieroglyph Project http://hieroglyph.asu.edu, and more politically engaged writing from those aghast at recent election results. I’m all for messages in their place, but I’m also mindful of Wells’s checkered reputation. While his optimistic and politically engaged writing is largely forgotten, we continue to turn to the dark vision of his scientific romances. His apocalyptic future in The Time Machine is peopled by a bifurcated humanity, simpleton Eloi and bestial Morlocks, who have forgotten Aristotle, Newton, Shakespeare, and Einstein. The British and American Empires are dust and all that remains at the end of time are giant crabs and a twilit beach. Nor are the other great sf novels any less grim. The Invisible Man is a sociopath and humanity survives the Martian slaughter not because of its courage or idealism but because of viruses and bacteria. The bloody-minded and blasphemous Island of Dr. Moreau caused such a scandal that a reviewer in the Times wrote, “The book should be kept out of the way of young people.” Another complained that it never should have been written and suggested that Wells pull it from circulation. . . .

Uh oh, look at the time! I got carried away thinking about Bertie. I’m not ready for the last tick of my time travel moment, so we’ll have to continue this in the next column.