Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative

Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative

by David Wittenberg


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This book argues that time travel fiction is a narrative "laboratory," a setting for thought experiments in which essential theoretical questions about storytelling--and, by extension, about the philosophy of temporality, history, and subjectivity--are represented in the form of literal devices and plots.

Drawing on physics, philosophy, narrative theory, psychoanalysis, and film theory, the book links innovations in time travel fiction to specific shifts in the popularization of science, from evolutionary biology in the late 1800s, through relativity and quantum physics in the mid-20th century, to more recent "multiverse" cosmologies. Wittenberg shows how increasing awareness of new scientific models leads to surprising innovations in the literary "time machine," which evolves from a "vehicle" used chiefly for sociopolitical commentary into a psychological and narratological device capable of exploring with great sophistication the temporal structure and significance of subjects, viewpoints, and historical events.

The book covers work by well-known time travel writers such as H. G. Wells, Edward Bellamy, Robert Heinlein, Samuel Delany, and Harlan Ellison, as well as pulp fiction writers of the 1920s through the 1940s, popular and avant-garde postwar science fiction, television shows such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek," and current cinema. Literature, film, and TV are read alongside theoretical work ranging from Einstein, Schrodinger, and Stephen Hawking to Gerard Genette, David Lewis, and Gilles Deleuze. Wittenberg argues that even the most mainstream audiences of popular time travel fiction and cinema are vigorously engaged with many of the same questions about temporality, identity, and history that concern literary theorists, media and film scholars, and philosophers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823249978
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 12/31/2012
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 981,279
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David Wittenberg is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Philosophy, Revision, Critique: Rereading Practices in Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Emerson.

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Macrological Fictions: Evolutionary Utopia and Time Travel (1887–1905)

In the mid-1880s, when Edward Bellamy was writing Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887, the available repertoire of literary devices did not yet include anything so convenient as a time machine for transporting characters into the far future. Lacking such a convenience, and yet plainly anxious to avoid the more fantastic types of "travel" that utopian writers sometimes used, such as supernatural visions or fortuitously discovered underground cities, Bellamy goes to considerable lengths to construct realistic and scientifically plausible means to convey his protagonist, Julian West, to the utopian Boston of the year 2000. These means include such scientific-sounding equipment as a "hermetically sealed" sleeping chamber with foundations "laid in hydraulic cement," an "outer door ... of iron with a thick coating of asbestos," and a venting apparatus that "insured the renewal of air." And although Julian's century-long sleep is eventually induced by a mesmerist, Dr. Pillsbury, a practitioner whom most 1880s readers would have immediately identified as a quack even if Bellamy did not go to the trouble of calling him a "doctor by courtesy only," the resulting effect of the mesmerist's labor is nevertheless recounted in precise medical lingo as a "trance state" in which "the vital functions are absolutely suspended and there is no waste of the tissues." Indeed, Bellamy's characters continually modify their descriptions of Julian's 112-year coma with quasi-scientific terms designed to play down its miraculous qualities — a "mesmerizing process," "the subject of animal magnetism," "a state of suspended animation," "a systematic attempt at resuscitation" — a jargon consistent with the rationalist philosophy of Julian's future rescuer, Dr. Leete, who avows that "nothing in this world can be truly said to be more wonderful than anything else. The causes of all phenomena are equally adequate, and the results equally matters of course." In the end, even the quackery of Dr. Pillsbury helps to render Julian's sleep less outré, since naturally a mere mesmerist cannot be expected to control or comprehend the physiological processes he might unwittingly set in motion.

Dr. Leete, who is a far more respectable physician than Dr. Pillsbury, eventually elucidates these physiological processes for both Julian and the reader, admixing several scientific terminologies under the rubric of a rationalistic, if rather flamboyant, cosmology:

"No limit can be set to the possible duration of a trance when the external conditions protect the body from physical injury. This trance of yours is indeed the longest of which there is any positive record, but there is no known reason wherefore, had you not been discovered and had the chamber in which we found you continued intact, you might not have remained in a state of suspended animation till, at the end of indefinite ages, the gradual refrigeration of the earth had destroyed the bodily tissues and set the spirit free."

It is no coincidence that the embellishments of Dr. Leete's language — "the end of indefinite ages," "refrigeration of the earth," "set the spirit free" — sound like the super-science of later pulp fiction, particularly time travel in its more melodramatic modes. As I argue in this chapter, time travel fiction first arises directly out of this kind of excessive explanatory rhetoric in utopian romance, especially where writers feel compelled to account scientifically for the astonishing narrative voyages their protagonists undertake, and where the convolutions of their vocabularies reflect the difficulties of providing such accounts persuasively within a realistic fiction. In this sense, time travel literature is the inheritance of what may seem, at first, to be a merely secondary feature of utopian romance, an explanatory overflow or longwindedness, or what rhetorical theorists call "macrologia," within the frames or travel subplots that utopian writers compose. This overflow survives and persists even after the genre's more central sociopolitical motivations have begun to die away around the turn of the twentieth century. In essence, time travel fiction, in its early instantiations, is utopian travel narrative stripped of its destination, a storytelling form that has outlived its original content.

Therefore, to understand time travel, its origins and its rationale — but, more crucially, to understand the sources of its most interesting theoretical and philosophical dilemmas, and the crucial ambivalence and complexity of its relationship with other narrative types — it is essential to retrace the prehistory of the assemblage of generic fragments out of which time travel fiction eventually came to be composed after the turn of the twentieth century. In essence, I am asking two distinct but closely connected questions about late utopian romance: first, why does the problem of realistic travel garner such excessive or macrological attention from the writers of utopias; second, why does this same problem of travel, within utopian romance, come to be conceived predominantly in terms of time? The answer to both these questions, it turns out, is Darwin.

Evolutionary Macrologia

Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, and The Descent of Man in 1871. During the intervening decade, "people became evolutionists at a remarkable speed," as Michael Ruse observes, and so by the 1870s the general notion of evolution had become as exemplary of natural science as the notion of relativity was to become after the 1920s. Nonetheless, despite the meteoric celebrity of Darwin himself in both America and Europe, the enthusiasm for evolutionary theory during the latter half of the nineteenth century rarely entails any strict sense of "Darwinism," a doctrine that is usually adopted only in the form of a convenient rubric or catchword. For one thing, a variety of alternative evolutionary theories continue to circulate among both scientific and popular readers, often in vigorous competition with the more orthodox Darwinian versions championed by figures such as Joseph Dalton Hooker and Thomas Huxley in England, and Asa Gray in the United States. More important, even by the 1880s, when at least a nominally "Darwinistic" version of evolutionary theory has become de rigueur, the disquieting, antiteleological model of "natural selection" discernible in Darwin's actual writing still tends to get filtered through other systems of thought, such as Herbert Spencer's "synthetic philosophy," that are more compatible with longer-standing assumptions about social progressivism, anthropocentrism, and religious arguments by design.

Of course, vague theories are not necessarily less likely to succeed than precise ones. By the mid-1880s, the "general idea of evolution," either regardless of or because of its distance from strictly construed "natural selection," is virtually an axiomatic groundwork for the discourse of social development spanning the political gamut from the Marxist socialism of Edward Aveling to the laissez-faire capitalism of William Graham Sumner. Like "relativity" or "uncertainty" in the mid-twentieth century, "evolution," for the late nineteenth, is an elemental component of the semantics of social and cultural description, a virtually obligatory rubric even for thinkers who explicitly oppose it as a theory.

Amidst this prevailing but highly diffuse "evolutionary setting" of the late 1870s and 1880s, the genre of the utopian romance achieves its greatest popular success, culminating in a flurry of publications following Bellamy's Looking Backward, itself one of the bestselling books in the history of American letters. Evolution, as a default scaffold for theories of historical change, provides a vocabulary for explaining the social and technological advances or regressions that protagonists typically witness in the future societies they visit, and that authors often depict as the direct result of "natural selection." For instance, as Julian West tours Boston of the year 2000, his host, Dr. Leete, makes it clear that the social progress they observe results from a process that is analogous to evolution in the natural world or, more exactly, a subspecies of it. Social progress is therefore constrained by the same inexorable mechanisms presumed to govern change within all nature:

"As no such thing as the labor question is known nowadays," replied Dr. Leete, "and there is no way in which it could arise, I suppose we may claim to have solved it. ... In fact, to speak by the book, it was not necessary for society to solve the riddle at all. It may be said to have solved itself. The solution came as the result of a process of industrial evolution which could not have terminated otherwise. All that society had to do was to recognize and cooperate with that evolution, when its tendency had become unmistakable."

Such a rhetoric of inexorable tendency and influence is entirely common within the social theorizing of Bellamy-era utopian fiction. It entails a double preconception that most utopian writers in the period seem to have shared: first, that the field of politics is seamlessly joined to a larger, cohesive evolutionary universe; and, second, that evolutionary theory itself harmonizes with the underlying paradigm of Newtonian mechanics, and operates with a corresponding degree of empirical inevitability. This double harmony in turn bestows upon the entire continuum of "evolutionary" processes, from biology through psychology, sociology, and economics, the same degree of transparency and immutability that Newton's laws furnish to the interactions of physical objects: "'Man,'" as the utopian author Albert Chavannes writes in 1895, through the voice of his host/narrator, "'like everything else in the universe, moves in the direction of least resistance.'" Like simple masses in motion, social tendencies just continue unless diverted by some external influence, and their rational explication therefore entails only a simple diagnostic or quantitative analysis of the relevant energies and "resistance[s]" involved. In The Crystal Button, Chauncey Thomas offers this account of why beggars have become obsolete in the fortyninth century: "[Beggary] was merely a result of certain unhealthy conditions, including waste, extravagance, avariciousness, crime, and disease, which flourished in your time, and fruited and dropped their natural seed." When Thomas's time-traveling protagonist asks his future host whether crime has been "abolished ... by legal enactments," the reply is similar: "No; but we have so reduced, where we have not entirely removed, the chief inducements to crime, including poverty, excess of wealth, injustice, and ambition for undeserved power, inevitably leading to tyranny, that it is now infrequent." Just as in Looking Backward, society is continuous with biology, so that when Thomas's nineteenth-century time traveler naïvely conjectures that social history might have proceeded by qualitative "aboli[tions]" and "enactments" — a capricious, top-down imposition of political power — the forty-ninth-century rejoinders instead offer only incremental and developmental terms: a "natural seed" that has "flourished" and "fruited." In essence, "future" social theory no longer recognizes political conflict at all ("war [and] rebellion ... are conditions quite impossible under the present regime"), but rather only a unitary, incrementally evolving, and therefore scientifically rational, chain of "conditions" and "energies" that explicitly unfolds according to the "gospel" of "the 'survival of the fittest.'"

Given the fuzziness of their application in utopian romance, these same evolutionary principles, or, more precisely, these metaphors largely standing in for principles, can be invoked to support diametrically opposed social ideologies, at times with ironic results. For instance, in William Dean Howells's A Traveler from Altruria (1894), the Altrurian guest to nineteenth-century Boston, a city that exemplifies, to this visitor, a "waking dream" of competitive conditions "that we outlived so long ago," is shocked to discover that social ranks are still determined by "a process of natural selection." Nevertheless, despite the Altrurian's disdain for Darwinism, he proceeds to describe the turning point in Altrurian political history as "The Evolution," a sea change by which men and women were finally "freed from the necessity of preying upon one another." Here, Howells invokes Darwinism as the very mechanism by which a Darwinistic society is eventually abolished, as though no discourse except evolution were available to underlie even directly competing social theories. And this is Howells, a very subtle thinker and writer; in the hands of less ingenious authors, the pressure of evolution is great enough to gainsay even straightforward logic, as when W. W. Satterlee invokes Darwinism so reflexively that it can authorize, virtually simultaneously, both free market rapacity and quasi-Christian altruism:

Among these thronging masses I saw here and there men and women who kept sturdily on their way. The opposition which they met was their strength, the antagonism brought the possibility of victory. All they asked was the freedom to do their best, the only absolute law they knew was the survival of the fittest. These were noble souls and as they passed upward they stooped to the right and to the left to help a struggling brother.

Thus "survival of the fittest" must apply despite all incongruity: "noble souls ... help a struggling brother" at the very moment they trample him in fidelity to the "absolute law" of competition.

Reading such conceptual hodgepodges, one may surmise that during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, perhaps for nearly the last time, a variety of explanatory models based on the interplay of forces — Darwinism, Marxist (or other) socialisms, industrial management, macroeconomics, the various burgeoning fields of professional engineering — could still appear potentially to belong to a single unified science, simultaneously natural, psychological, and sociological, yet wholly in accord with the postulates of evolution, which would itself be graspable as a direct extension of Newtonian mechanics. "[I]n society," the well-known author Benjamin Kidd confidently states in 1894, "we are merely regarding the highest phenomena in the history of life, and ... consequently all the departments of knowledge which deal with social phenomena have their true foundation in the biological sciences." As such, Kidd writes, they are governed by "inexorable natural law."

The Macrologue and The Crystal Button

The examples cited above show how profound and productive, if not always fully constructive, the effects of evolutionary discourse are upon utopian writers during the Bellamy era. "Darwinistic" thinking compels unprecedented realism in the prognostications of utopian romances, which glean from evolutionary theory both protocols and prerequisites for depicting sociopolitical possibilities. Indeed, because late-nineteenth-century utopianists are dealing directly with models of social development, the evolutionary thinking that undergirds the incipient fields of sociology and political science is embraced with greater urgency in this literature than perhaps in any other. To ignore Darwinism, for a utopian writer toward the end of the nineteenth century, is to risk creating the impression of ineptitude or obsolescence in one's narration, and therefore to hazard discrediting one's own political theory in advance, a hazard that must have attached to more general anxieties about appearing scientifically naïve. Nonetheless, once this evolutionary will-to-realism begins also to inflect the framing plots of utopian romances, it generates delicate, possibly insurmountable challenges to realistic narrative structuring. If a strictly evolutionary utopia is to be visited within a compelling fictional world, as opposed to a mere treatise or broadside, then only plausibly scientific means of travel to such a utopia will suffice.

But this also means that by the time of Looking Backward, almost as a stipulation, up-to-date utopias must be set in the future. Any creditable utopian (or dystopian) society informed by Darwinistic sociopolitics must extrapolate its conjectured polis from actual present social conditions, since that polis will necessarily have evolved precisely from them. A utopia can no longer be situated in a fantastical setting or alternative locale such as a lost island, distant planet, or subterranean crevasse, all milieux that by the late 1880s have become significant hindrances to plausibility. Indeed, utopias very likely can no longer be "spatial" at all. Instead, scientifically realistic utopian romance, consistent with the paradigm of evolution and its continuity with physics and mechanics, is set in our future. In turn, the conventional utopian protagonist's travel, within the frame of the narrative, must be strictly temporal, not spatial, because no matter how historically distant or evolved a utopian society is, nevertheless it must still be located "here."


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Time Travel and the Mechanics of Narrative 1

1 Macrological Fictions: Evolutionary Utopia and Time Travel (1887-1905) 33

Historical Interval I The First Time Travel Story 47

2 Relativity, Psychology, Paradox: Wertenbaker to Heinlein (1923-1941) 52

Historical Interval II Three Phases of Time Travel/The Time Machine 79

3 "The Big Time": Multiple Worlds, Narrative Viewpoint, and Superspace 91

4 Paradox and Paratext: Picturing Narrative Theory 116

Theoretical Interval: The Primacy of the Visual in Time Travel Narrative 143

5 Viewpoint-Over-Histories: Narrative Conservation in Star Trek 148

6 Oedipus Multiplex, or, The Subject as a Time Travel Film: Back to the Future 178

Conclusion: The Last Time Travel Story 205

Notes 237

Works Cited 277

Index 297

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